Forest Service reverses policy on water rights
EAGLE — Eagle County’s two U.S. congressmen successfully snuffed a Forest Service move to take water rights without paying for them.
Jared Polis and Scott Tipton have been battling a U.S. Forest Service policy that would force ski areas and other stakeholders to turn over the private water rights before the Forest Service would renew their permit to do business.
Polis is a Boulder Democrat, and Tipton is a Western Slope Republican. Their congressional districts split the valley: Polis in the east and Tipton in the west. Between them, almost all of Colorado’s ski areas are in their two congressional districts.
“These ski resorts are essential economic drivers, and we all have an interest in ensuring that winter recreation thrives in Colorado’s mountain communities,” Polis said. “At the same time, it is important that ski areas retain the private water rights that they have purchased.”
Polis represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, home to Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, Eldora and Loveland. Every other Colorado ski resort is in Tipton’s 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses almost all of Colorado’s Western Slope.
“While I welcome the indication of the Forest Service that there may be a change of direction from the previous ski area water clause, we need to ensure that all water users are protected from uncompensated federal takings in the long term, not just for one group of water users, in one region, for a limited time,” Tipton said.
Lawmakers are going ahead with a bipartisan bill to protect water rights, Tipton said. HR 3189 is before the House Natural Resources committee this morning.
The feds have already done it to the owners of the Powderhorn ski area on Western Colorado’s Grand Mesa.
Vail local Andy Daly is part of the group that bought Powderhorn.
Vail Resorts would have had to deal with the Forest Service policy as it renews its operating permit for Breckenridge .
The feds have already done it to California’s Alpine Meadows and Washington’s Stevens Pass ski areas.
Forest Service’s argument
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 reversal came in a statement Wednesday delivered to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“We will be proposing changes to the ski area water clause that address the concerns associated with the previous ski area water rights clause,” Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said in the statement. “We believe that these changes will provide assurances to the public and communities that depend on economic activities from ski areas that they will continue to provide recreation opportunities. Further, we believe that these objectives can be met without requiring the transfer of privately owned water rights to the government.”
Importance of ski areas
Sen. Mark Udall, who serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was happy to hear it.
“I would like to thank the U.S. Forest Service for listening to the concerns of Coloradans and other stakeholders in the West about ski area water rights,” Udall said. “Colorado’s ski areas support thousands of jobs and sustain local economies throughout our great state.”