Bill to nix fed water-rights grab moves ahead

A bill that would negate any federal ownership of private water rights in exchange for a special-use permit won preliminary approval in the Colorado House on Monday.

The measure, HB1028, is aimed at the federal government’s recent attempts to grab water rights as a condition for renewing permits, such as those ski resorts use to operate on federal land.

Under it, any successful attempt would declare those water rights “speculative,” which already is against Colorado law.

“This bill tells the federal government that you cannot basically require as a condition of a permit on a lease to sign over your water rights,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.

The issue began in 2011 when various agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior began demanding that private water rights be turned over to the federal government in exchange for renewing permits.

But after much backlash from ranchers, ski resorts and the general public, the government last fall backed off those demands.

In a statement before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that was hearing a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colorado, to ban the practice, the Forest Service said it was reconsidering its directive that required those rights.

Tipton’s measure cleared that committee and awaits debate by the full House.

Regardless, some state lawmakers used the Forest Service’s reconsideration of the directive as reason enough to oppose Sonnenberg’s bill, saying it isn’t needed.

“I actually don’t believe that there’s a problem that this bill is trying to fix because the federal land management agency that was the subject of this, the United States Forest Service, has been working for well over a year to revise and reform its directive for issuing special-use permits,” said Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.

Other lawmakers said the measure was necessary in case the federal government changes its mind.

The bill would send a message to the federal government that any new directive that similarly tries to take private water rights is in violation of state law and court precedent, they said.

“There was a (Nevada) lawsuit because the BLM required the water rights from a rancher in order to renew his (grazing) permits,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. “The rancher sued and he won in federal court. It was a spanking of the federal government. The judge actually accused the BLM of a RICO (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act) violation in their strong-arm tactics.”

The bill requires a final House vote, which could come as early as today, before it heads to the Senate.

Lawmakers don’t know what the content of the Forest Service directive is, said Fischer, “so I think it’s premature to run a bill trying to preempt the ability of the Forest Service to implement this directive.”

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