The Denver Post editorial board opposes H.R. 3189 (NSAA vs. USFS)

Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia
Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia

From The Denver Post Editorial Board:

A battle over ski-area water rights that has been simmering in Colorado — and across the country — for several years has gotten the attention of the White House, and we’re glad to see it.

President Obama on Wednesday issued a statement opposing the Water Rights Protection Act, which passed Thursday in the U.S. House but must still go to the Senate.

The White House is right to send a strong signal about the unwise nature of this measure, which could pre-empt a compromise in the public interest.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., would put up road blocks to stop the federal government from re- asserting greater control over ski-area water rights.

Initially, it might sound like a no-brainer. Of course the government should allow the ski areas to keep water rights so they can keep producing the snow that is such an economic and recreational boon, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to re-establish stewardship of rights for water that originates on federal land. The goal is to ensure water stays with the public land used by resorts, even if ownership of the resort changes.

Beginning about 30 years ago in the region that includes Colorado, federal authorities started requiring ski-area permit holders to put water rights from public lands in the government’s name.

In 2004, the Bush administration changed policy, allowing ski areas to jointly hold water rights. When the Forest Service, under Obama, tried to change permit conditions to more closely follow historic practice in the Colorado region, the ski industry sued.

A federal judge ruled in 2012 that the process used to make permit changes was deficient.

Fortunately, there is room for compromise without another legal battle.

The Forest Service is creating, but has not yet released, a new ski-area water rights clause that could provide a solution. A solid compromise would be to allow resorts to keep water rights ownership, but require that the water remain with the land, regardless of whether ski resorts changed hands or business plans.

When released this spring, the draft will go through a full public vetting process, as it should.

Entire Colorado mountain towns and economies depend upon recreation on federal land, and it’s vital to ensure the people, through their government, retain control of the water that is the lifeblood of those communities.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

A measure that would prevent federal agencies from requiring ski areas, ranches, municipalities and others to sign over water rights passed the U.S. House on Thursday in the shadow of a threatened veto. The Water Rights Protection Act by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., lost the support of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who had co-sponsored the measure, but did garner a dozen Democrat votes in passing 238-174.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced a companion measure in the Democrat-dominated Senate and Tipton said after the vote that he hoped to win the support of Colorado’s senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats. Senate President Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, also ought to be supportive, Tipton said.

“We’re pleased to know it passed the House,” said Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen. “Hopefully it will pass in the Senate. This is critical to everybody in the West.”

The White House, in a statement of administration policy, said the bill “is overly broad and could have numerous unintended consequences,” including damaging the ability of the Agriculture and Interior departments’ ability to manage resources for the benefit of public land and the environment, as well as maximum beneficial use of federal water facilities ensuring that adequate water is available for fisheries or threatened or endangered species.

In arguing against the measure, Polis also said the bill was overly broad and that he intended it only to apply to ski areas…

The breadth of the bill was intended from the beginning, when Polis originally signed on, Tipton said, noting that it still is supported by the National Ski Areas Association, which sued the U.S. Forest Service when it required ski areas, including Powderhorn Mountain Resort, to sign over water rights in order to obtain a permit to operate on the Grand Mesa National Forest.

The veto threat was pre-emptive, Tipton said, calling on the Senate to take a vote on the bill and let the legislative process go forward.

A federal judge ruled in the suit brought by the ski areas that the Forest Service had failed to comply with federal law in invoking the rule under which it demanded the water rights.

More water law coverage here.

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