Rivers Work Best When They’re Wet
The water supply system in the Colorado River Basin is near its breaking point. Despite an above normal snowpack in the Rockies, climate change and prolonged drought have sapped the once-vigorous Colorado River, threatening the water supply for 36 million people, 15% of the nation’s agriculture, and a $26 billion recreation economy. This isn’t a problem that a few good rain or snow storms will fix. Ongoing drought, combined with outdated water management, has created a crisis. Communities need to come together now to promote smarter ways of managing water.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Aspen join the Ski Industry’s lobbying group (the National Ski Areas Association, or NSAA) in supporting legislation that could dry up rivers, damage fish and wildlife habitat, and hurt fishing and boating, particularly when those resources are already so stressed by drought and climate change. The so-called “Water Rights Protection Act” (HR 3189) was introduced by Representatives Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Jared Polis (D-CO), ostensibly to address a disagreement between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service that the Forest Service has already pledged to resolve. But the bill goes far beyond that narrow conflict, allowing private water users to dry up rivers on public lands with no regard for other uses or needs.
Thanks to Senator Mark Udall’s leadership, the Forest Service has already gotten out its scalpel to fix the Ski Industry’s issue. But the National Ski Areas Association – Aspen is a board member – has decided to use a sledgehammer instead. The so-called “Water Rights Protection Act” would allow private and public water users to continue drying up rivers on public lands with no regard for other needs. It would tie the hands of federal agencies responsible for managing water on our public lands. If passed, the bill would prevent agencies like the Forest Service from ensuring sufficient water flows in the nation’s rivers for fish, wildlife, and recreation. All over the State of Colorado, rivers without in-stream flow requirements dry up completely just about every year. This legislation could eventually make it easier for water that is so important to Colorado communities and their economies to be bought, sold, or leased through “buy and dry” schemes or diverted to thirsty Front Range communities.
That’s why more than sixty conservation and recreation organizations across the country have joined us in expressing strong opposition to this bill. We understand the Ski Industry’s concern about the disposition of their water rights. We are grateful that the U.S. Forest Service has committed to resolving this problem. What we don’t understand is why the National Ski Areas Association and Representatives Polis and Tipton continue to push a bill which will further strain Colorado’s fragile water resources. The NSAA and its member companies tout their “Sustainable Slopes” initiative and “Climate Challenge” on the front page of their website. They should extend this concern about the environment to Colorado’s rivers. We hope the ski industry can agree with us that rivers work better when they’re wet.