Congress votes against a federal water rights grab
EAGLE COUNTY — A bill snuffing a potential federal water grab took a big step this past week toward becoming law.
Ski area operators and ranchers say the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have been trying to force them to turn over their private water rights — without compensation — before the agencies would renew their permits to do business.
The Water Rights Protection Act prohibits that. It also prohibits the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture from imposing other conditions that do the same thing.
The bill was co-sponsored by Eagle County’s two representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, Western Slope Republican Scott Tipton and Boulder Democrat Jared Polis. It passed the full House on Thursday afternoon.
“This bill protects what has been existing practices in the West for 200 years, and therefore also protects farmers, ranchers, ski areas and communities. We felt it was important to codify this, and not leave it to the whims of bureaucrats,” Tipton said.
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The Forest Service counters that water rights established on national forest land should be tied to the land, and that the federal government should own those water rights. The Forest Service says the policy is designed to keep ski areas from selling water rights for other purposes.
Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association, says the legislation is necessary. The NSAA sued the Forest Service in federal court.
“We need legislation to address the problem of the federal government changing its water policy with each administration. Legislation is the way to keep that pendulum from swinging,” Link said. “We want it to address the problem at hand, federal encroachment and the taking of water rights.”
No federal law statute gave the Forest Service the authority to take water rights, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that water is regulated by the states, Link said.
Oregon rancher Tim Lowry started it all when the BLM tried to curtail his family’s grazing rights. He spent 10 years and $800,000 in legal fees, finally winning a verdict from his state’s Supreme Court. Lowry testified that he had purchased those water rights, and the feds refused to compensate him for them.
Polis Votes ‘No’
Several amendments narrowed the bill after it was criticized for being too broad, but it didn’t narrow it enough for Polis, and he voted ‘no.’ He was one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it has support from Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, and Republicans from other Western states.
“This is not a Republican/Democratic issue. This is a Western and a Colorado issue to protect our farmers, ranchers and ski area operators,” Tipton said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com.