Water
 rights 
bill hits snag

A measure that would prevent federal agencies from requiring ski areas, ranches, municipalities and others to sign over water rights passed the U.S. House on Thursday in the shadow of a threatened veto.

The Water Rights Protection Act by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., lost the support of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who had co-sponsored the measure, but did garner a dozen Democrat votes in passing 238-174.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced a companion measure in the Democrat-dominated Senate and Tipton said after the vote that he hoped to win the support of Colorado’s senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats.

Senate President Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, also ought to be supportive, Tipton said.

“We’re pleased to know it passed the House,” said Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen. “Hopefully it will pass in the Senate. This is critical to everybody in the West.”

The White House, in a statement of administration policy, said the bill “is overly broad and could have numerous unintended consequences,” including damaging the ability of the Agriculture and Interior departments’ ability to manage resources for the benefit of public land and the environment, as well as maximum beneficial use of federal water facilities ensuring that adequate water is available for fisheries or threatened or endangered species.

In arguing against the measure, Polis also said the bill was overly broad and that he intended it only to apply to ski areas.

Polis called the measure a “job-killing Republican water grab” that shows “Republicans care more about endangered species than they care about jobs.”

The breadth of the bill was intended from the beginning, when Polis originally signed on, Tipton said, noting that it still is supported by the National Ski Areas Association, which sued the U.S. Forest Service when it required ski areas, including Powderhorn Mountain Resort, to sign over water rights in order to obtain a permit to operate on the Grand Mesa National Forest.

The veto threat was pre-emptive, Tipton said, calling on the Senate to take a vote on the bill and let the legislative process go forward.

A federal judge ruled in the suit brought by the ski areas that the Forest Service had failed to comply with federal law in invoking the rule under which it demanded the water rights.


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Gary Harmon’s seemingly garbled report – “Water rights bill hits snag” – affords timely opportunity to review why President Obama threatened to veto Congressman Scott Tipton’s bill for being “overly broad” – after it passed the House by a vote of 238-174.

What’s missing from Harmon’s report and ignored by anti-government panderers is the underlying fact that the Forest Service has long been pursuing a sensible policy requiring “that ski areas surrender water rights to the U.S. Forest Service as a condition of obtaining their permits to operate on lands administered by the Forest Service” – so that legally acquired private rights to “beneficially use” public water obtained from National Forests under Colorado law remain dedicated to that purpose.

Since 1983 (under Republican President Ronald Reagan), Forest Service permits required ski areas to title water rights used for snow-making in the name of the “United States” –  ensuring that such water rights “run with the land” and cannot be readily transferred for other purportedly “beneficial” (commercial) uses – to the potential detriment of successor ski operators, local communities, graziers, and/or the national forests themselves.

For some twenty years, that common sense policy was inconsistently enforced (but not “waived”)—and some Colorado ski areas obtained water rights without so titling them. 

In 2004, Republican President George Bush’s Forest Service began requiring joint ownership of those water rights with the “U.S”., but “grandfathered” older non-compliant permits.  In 2011, President Obama’s Forest Service sought to restore consistency to the policy by requiring compliance as a permit renewal condition.

In December 2012, a federal court – without ruling on the policy – ordered the Forest Service to withdraw its directive, pending completion of the public process required by the Administrative Procedures Act.  That process is still on-going, and should properly result in re-ratification of the Forest Service’s prudent 30+ year-old policy.

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