From The Denver Post (Jason Blevins):
The Forest Service on this week launched the first of several public meetings and forums as it outlines a contentious push to secure water rights used by ski areas on public land. “There is a fundamental difference of opinion that will be hard to overcome,” said Jim Pena, the Forest Service’s acting deputy chief, acknowledging ski area opposition to the agency plan to revamp permits with new regulations addressing the ownership of water rights.
The public meeting on Tuesday was sparsely attended at the Forest Service headquarters in Lakewood. Ski area officials huddled together while leading agency officials — the landlords of 122 U.S. ski areas, including 22 in Colorado — stood ready to answer questions that didn’t come.
It’s a complex issue, as is any that deals with Colorado’s byzantine water right laws. And probably not something that stirs the public. But for ski areas, the Forest Service push to secure water rights owned by resorts operating on public land is a critical issue.
The National Ski Areas Association, which successfully sued to overturn early versions of the water clause, met with the agency before the public hearing and offered two options that would deflect the Forest Service need to take ownership of water rights used on public land. (That invite-only forum is one of several the agency is holding with resort communities, ranchers, conservation groups and other stakeholders as it scripts the new ski area permit water clause.)
The association’s options would require ski areas to prove sufficient water is available for every new project and any ski area sale would include options to sell ski-operation water rights to the buyer, the local community or the Forest Service. “We are excited about having ideas and offering something new,” said the association’s public policy director Geraldine Link, who led the industry’s lawsuit to overturn the water clause. “We are staying let’s start over. We think there is a way to address Forest Service concerns without the seizure of assets.”[…]
Pena said federal ownership may not be the only answer, hence the public meetings. The agency owns roughly 21 percent of the country’s ski area water rights, shares ownership of 4 percent and the remaining 75 percent is owned by ski area operators. Regulations that require water rights remain connected to public lands would prevent ski area operators from selling water rights as a commodity that eventually may be worth more than skiing.
“Without long-term assurances for water, we feel we could be the public’s interest at risk,” he said. “The whole idea of sustainability is about preserving resources for future generations. We are seeing more of the ski industry being managed by corporate interests. They are no longer mom-and-pop operations. We have to be prepared for people making different business decisions than what is best for the public.”[…]
Davey Pitcher, the owner of southern Colorado’s Wolf Creek ski area, allowed the Forest Service to share ownership of his water rights when he renewed his permit in 2000.
“We don’t see a problem with,” Pitcher said, noting how the agency allows intensive ski infrastructure on public land, like trails and chairlifts, so it makes sense for the Forest Service to want to protect the water needed for skiing. “We see it as a reasonable request.”
More water law coverage here.