HR3189 Sucks Rivers Dry – Here’s Why You Should Care

Dry river bed in California | wikipediaDry river beds like this could be even more common if HR 3189 gets passed

In Colorado and the arid West states, water rights are like property rights. They can be bought, sold or even leased. When someone holds the right to water, they know they are permitted a specific amount of water to use for things such as agriculture, developing energy or even making snow. When water rights change ownership like this, it’s a practice called Agricultural Water Transfer, but it is also been given a less attractive name: “buy and dry.”

Buy and dry happens when an owner transfers water rights to, for example, thirsty cities or to oil and gas companies for hydrofracking. The seller essentially abandons the land after the water rights are transferred without any consideration of what happens to the land or any other users of the rivers that the water comes from, and the buyer has the right to take as much of that water as they’re allotted.  Often, the water is piped out of the river basin altogether, to wherever the municipality or fracking operation is located.  Hence the “dry” part of buy and dry.  Once the water is shipped out of the river basin, it never returns to the river.

To stop this buy and dry, public agencies, such as the US Forest Service or US Department of the Interior, put contingencies on water use when they issue leases on public lands. Their goal is to juggle the needs of many users. They need to ensure that businesses like agriculture and the ski industry have sufficient water to operate their businesses, but also ensure that other users, such as paddlers on public park lands or even wildlife, have enough water in the river.

And HR 3189, the so-called “Water Rights Protection Act,” could completely undermine this balance.

The bill was introduced by Representatives Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Jared Polis (D-CO) ostensibly to address a conflict between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service. On the surface, HR 3189 appears to be protecting the water rights owners, ensuring they maintain control over their water. However, the bill is overly broad.

Right now, the bill blocks federal agencies from putting contingencies on a lease that could prohibit “any impairment of title.” This would take away federal agencies’ ability to condition water use to protect water resources for fish, wildlife and recreation and would prevent federal agencies from implementing reasonable safeguards to protect fish, wildlife, and recreational benefits in our nation’s rivers.

If HR 3189 were to become law, it would block the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the dam re-licensing process from requiring that hydropower dam owners to operate in a more environmentally sensitive manner. It would prohibit the installation  of fish ladders that help salmon safely pass over hydropower dams. It could also prohibit federal fisheries agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that help salmon find those ladders. It would gut any federal law, such as the Endangered Species Act, that requires agencies to protect fish and wildlife by requiring water developers to keep some of that water in rivers.

This is more than just a problem for the West. This cities, towns, and states all across the United States. If you love to fish, ski, raft, hike, camp or otherwise recreate near our rivers, this hits you where you live.

In the northeast, this could affect efforts to restore historic Atlantic salmon and shad runs. In the mid-Atlantic, it would undermine attempts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, one of America’s iconic bodies of water. In the northwest, it could affect landmark multiparty stakeholder agreements that aim to restore fisheries while helping farmers and ranchers secure more sustainable water supplies.

The list of the bill’s supporters makes it clear that this effort is being driven heavily by Big Ag and western cattle groups. It is, however, unfortunate that the ski industry, which has typically been a great supporter of environmental sustainability, continues to support a bill that would do so much damage to our nation’s rivers, particularly when the problem the bill purports to address has already been solved.  We just can’t understand why ski resorts are signing on to this effort to drain our nation’s rivers.

This needs to stop. If you love to have water in your river, whether paddling, fishing or even hiking along it, take a moment to  tell Congress to oppose this bill.

One Response to “HR3189 Sucks Rivers Dry – Here’s Why You Should Care”

Jessica Cartwright

As a lifelong and avid river runner, skier, angler, and desert dweller, I understand the fine balance between water use, rights, distribution, and conservation. The redistribution of water in the Western United States is a long saga, and the first welfare in this country came in the form of agricultural water subsidies. The trenches, canals, and aqueducts are dug deep on all sides with the heart of the issue lying in the fact that water is, in fact, a finite resource.

I oppose this action because it allows users of publicly leased land to overtax the available water resources. While my endeavors make me a consumer of some of its proponents, such as the ski industry, I disagree wholeheartedly with their position. It is time to ask ourselves, if it is not snowing, should we really be skiing? I understand the urge to pump and make snow in order to generate revenue, but I think that is enabling ski resorts/villages/small cities, to develop an unsustainable over dependency upon an industry that, let’s face it, is weather-related.

And I will be damned if the CEOs of Vail and other ski giants in the US elect to use more water, providing mediocre man-made snow to the masses while stuffing their coffers, as our precious rivers dry up. I have had the blessed and unique opportunity to raft and kayak down many rivers in the US, including the Colorado, the Green, the Snake, the Salmon, the Deschutes, the Chena, the Delta, the Cheat, and the Youghiogheny. These river corridors and their natural inhabitants are already heavily impacted by decades of irrigation, dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that affect their natural course. It is of the utmost importance to their endurance that we protect their remaining vitality and ensure steady flows. Furthermore, we should be aggressively revitalizing and repairing where we can in hopes that future generations will experience them as they once were, and hold them in great reverence. So that we can pass along to them, and they can understand the meaning and importance of this blessing: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.” -Ed Abbey