Ski resorts maintain their water rights on forest land

The U.S. Forest Service is considering how to respond to a federal judge’s order striking down a water-rights policy that critics contended violated the Constitution and state law.

The National Ski Areas Association claimed victory when a federal judge enjoined the Forest Service on Wednesday from enforcing a requirement that ski resorts would have to surrender new water rights as part of their leases of land from the Forest Service.

The association said the provision amounted to an uncompensated taking from the ski resorts. The provision would have affected 121 ski areas that operate on lands leased from the Forest Service. It was first used when the new owners of Powderhorn Mountain Resort last year negotiated their lease.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez removes the provision from leases negotiated in 2011 and 2012 and prohibits the Forest Service from including it in future leases.

Forest Service officials said only that officials were considering their response.

Martinez’s ruling was “a victory for western Colorado and Colorado water law,” said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy organization.

Had the provision been allowed to stand, it would have threatened other organizations and individuals with federal leases, Petersen said.

“It could apply to grazing, municipal water development and across the board to just about any other area in our life in western Colorado,” Petersen said.

National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said the judge’s ruling respects private water rights and state law.

“Given how critical water is to ski-area operations, we are pleased that the court has stopped this unreasonable and unlawful policy in its tracks,” Berry said in a statement.

The Forest Service had sought the water rights to prevent a ski area from selling them to other users.

Martinez said an injunction was appropriate while the Forest Service considered how to address procedural flaws he found in the decision.


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