Sorry Ski Industry, “Water Rights Protection Act” Needs More Than a Little Work

ski industry's words

Ski Industry should follow up with more than just words and oppose the so-called Water Rights Protection Act

American Rivers feels compelled to respond to an op-ed in the Denver Post authored by Mr. Michael Berry, President of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).  While we appreciate Mr. Berry’s statement that H.R. 3189, the so-called Water Rights Protection Act, “needs work,” in our view the bill is still an unprecedented assault on our nation’s rivers.

As the Denver Post editorialized when it called for H.R. 3189 to be rejected, the issue at stake in this legislation is not protecting the ski industry, it is protecting the taxpayers.  As the Post noted, the Forest Service’s goal is to “ensure water stays with the public land used by resorts, even if ownership of the resort changes.”  The Post goes on to say that it is “vital to ensure [that] the people, through their government, retain control of the water that is the lifeblood of [Colorado mountain] communities.”

We could not agree more.

Nonetheless, as the legislative process unfolded, American Rivers offered to work with the sponsor of the bill, Representative Tipton, and interested parties like the NSAA to address legitimate concerns.  We were told that there could be no deal that would narrowly solve the ski industry’s concerns, like the substitute bill offered by Rep. Jared Polis, because it would not meet the needs of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Farm Bureau, and oil and gas interests.  It was made clear to us that NSAA was far more concerned about maintaining its partnership with its polluter allies than with working with the conservation and recreation community on compromise legislation.

In his op-ed, Mr. Berry seems to imply that his organization supported Mr. Polis’ amendment narrowing the scope of this bill.  However, as Rep. Tipton declared on the floor of the U.S. House during debate on H.R. 3189, he received an email from NSAA “supporting the bill with the Tipton manager’s amendment.”  The Polis Amendment would have supplanted Mr. Tipton’s bill and substituted in its place a narrow version.  It is not possible to support both.  But Mr. Berry tries to have it both ways, implying that NSAA did support the Polis Amendment, although there is no evidence in the Congressional Record indicating that NSAA ever supported it.

Mr. Berry also claims that H.R. 3189 “does not impact bypass flows.”  That is factually incorrect.  Moreover, he claims that NSAA supports legislation, like H.R. 3189 that “will not alter the minimum stream flow protections that are set and enforced by the state on virtually every river, stream and tributary.”  He makes no mention of federal law, which protects federal reservations like National Forests, which belong to all Americans, not just the corporations who happen to lease the use of them.

NSAA members get a thirty year permit to operate resorts in your National Forests.  American Rivers, and more than 90 conservation and recreation groups from across the country, believe that the government has a responsibility to protect the taxpayers’ interests by ensuring that in exchange for thirty years of business certainty, ski resorts are required to make sure that the water remains with the land if the resort is sold.

The mechanism by which the taxpayers’ interests are protected is something that we can and should have a meaningful discussion about.  Thanks to the leadership of Senator Mark Udall and Congressman Polis, the Forest Service has committed to revising the process by which the public’s interest is protected, and American Rivers is grateful that this process is underway.

If enacted into law, H.R. 3189 would place the interests of ski resorts, frackers, and ranchers above the public interest.  We agree with Congressman Polis, President Obama, and the editorial board of the Denver Post that H.R. 3189 should be rejected.