2015 Colorado legislation: Amended SB15-064 (Application Of State Water Law To Federal Agencies) passes out of committee

From The Yuma Pioneer (Marianne Goodland):

Don Brown of Yuma is just one vote away from becoming Colorado’s newest Commissioner of Agriculture.

Brown won unanimous confirmation from the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resource and Energy Committee on February 12. He was joined by his mother, wife, three children and two grandchildren.

Former Commissioner Don Ament of Iliff also stood with Brown during the hearing, as did outgoing Commissioner John Salazar.

With Sonnenberg as its chair, shenanigans in the ag committee were to be expected, and the committee did not disappoint. They played a practical joke on Brown and the governor’s staff by voting 5-4 to turn down the nomination. Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said she couldn’t vote for a member of the United Methodist Church (Guzman is a United Methodist minister), and other committee members came up silly reasons to reject the nomination. Said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, “I grew up in Yuma. I’m sorry, no.” And Sonnenberg wrapped it up. “I guess I don’t have the control and power I thought I had,” which led the committee to then solicit nominations for ag commissioner from the audience.

After a good laugh by all, the committee voted unanimously to send Brown’s nomination to the full Senate for confirmation, with hearty congratulations and warm welcomes to Brown and his family…

Sonnenberg had a pretty good day on February 12 with his committee. In addition to marshaling Brown’s nomination, he got approval for two bills that have been on his radar for several years.

Senate Bill 15-064 would prohibit the US Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management from attempting to supersede Colorado water law by putting conditions on special permits that include water rights.

The issue dates back to late 2011, when the US Forest Service issued a directive to require water rights from those who lease federal lands for ski operations or grazing. The Forest Service claimed they wanted the rights to protect them should a ski area decide to sell them, although that has never happened in Colorado. In 2012, a federal judge ruled against the Forest Service, not on the merits of the case, but because the agency failed to follow its own rules. The Forest Service withdrew the directive.

Last year, the Forest Service issued three directives on water rights, including a new one on the ski area water rights that bears little difference from the 2011 directive. Kristen Moseley, a water rights attorney representing the Colorado Water Congress and several Colorado water authorities, told the ag committee Thursday that the Forest Service directives imply that the Forest Service owns water rights by virtue of owning the land. These water rights have already been adjudicated, Moseley said. SB 64 will protect Colorado water rights, she said.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), also testified in support of SB 64. The CWCB is an agency of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Several environmental groups testified in opposition to SB 64, including the Audubon Society and Western Resource Advocates (WRA). Jen Bolton of the Audubon Society said the bill conflicts with federal law, and attorney Rob Harris of WRA testified that the bill was overly broad and that the proper place for resolving the issue is through a negotiated settlement rather than state law.

The bill passed on an 8-1 vote and goes to the full Senate for further consideration.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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