Last month, representatives Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) introduced HR 3189, the so called “Water Rights Protection Act.” While the bill was disguised as a minor “fix” for a narrow water rights conflict between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service, it is in fact a sweeping attempt to stop federal agencies from protecting fish, wildlife and recreation on our public lands.
If passed, the bill would allow private water users across the country to dry up rivers on public lands with impunity. It would prevent federal agencies within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior from protecting fish, wildlife and river recreation. For instance, in Colorado, this could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water diverters to leave some water in streams on National Forests to keep native cutthroat trout alive. It could also stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that help salmon find fish ladders so that they can safely pass over dams. It would potentially destroy broadly supported multi-year and multi-million dollar settlement agreements to restore American shad, salmon and steelhead fisheries at hydropower facilities. It even undermines fundamental principles of states’ rights by creating a new federal definition of a water right. At the very least, it would create mountains and mountains of litigation.
The House Natural Resources Committee held the only hearing on this bill during the government shutdown, preventing agencies from providing input on how it would affect public lands. When the Departments of Interior and Agriculture did weigh in, they strongly opposed the bill. They were joined by leading Democrats on the House Natural Resource Committee and more than 60 conservation and recreation groups, including American Rivers, American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association.
We understand that the ski industry has a legitimate need for certainty about its water rights for snowmaking. But they don’t need this bill to provide that certainty. Last week, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Mark Udall, the U.S. Forest Service pledged to quickly resolve the dispute over water rights on national forest land in Colorado, protecting rivers on public lands and upholding important principles of water law. This bill is not necessary, and the ski industry has conceded as much. Yet this supposedly “green” industry has inexplicably doubled down and reaffirmed their support for an agenda of preventing federal agencies from protecting our rivers and public lands.
As the list of the bill’s supporters makes clear, this effort is being driven primarily by the farm lobby. We are puzzled why the ski industry — which goes to such great lengths to tout its environmental sustainability bona fides — would continue to give cover to Big Ag by supporting a bill that would do so much damage to our nation’s rivers, particularly when the problem the bill purports to address has already been solved. Vail Resorts has not individually endorsed the bill like Aspen Ski Co. and other resorts. But Vail Resorts does serve on the board of directors of the National Ski Areas Association, the industry association teaming up with the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and other powerful Big Ag lobbyists to push for this legislation. We encourage your readers to call Vail Resorts and ask them if and why they support this attack on fish, wildlife and river recreation, and if they are willing to use their position on NSAA’s board of directors to force the ski industry to stand up for rivers.
Endorsers of HR 3189:
• National Ski Areas Association
• American Farm Bureau
• National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
• Family Farm Alliance
• Public Lands Council
• National Association of Conservation Districts
• Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association
• California Ski Industry Association
• Colorado Water Congress
• Colorado Ski Country USA
• Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado
• Colorado River Water Conservation District
• Southwestern Water Conservation District
• Rio Grande Water Conservation District
• Rio Grande Watershed Association of Conservation Districts
• Montrose County commissioners
• Mesa County commissioners
• Montezuma County commissioners
• Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.
• Garfield County commissioners
• Aspen Ski Co.
• Durango Mountain Resort
• Crested Butte Mountain Resort
• San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District
• Center Conservation District and Club 20
Matt Rice is the director of Colorado Conservation for American Rivers.
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