Water Rights Bill Snowballs Into Disaster For Rivers And Public Lands
Every flood begins with one drop of water. It can also be said that every avalanche begins with a snowflake. As winter sets in across the country and our outdoor pursuits turn to thoughts of snow, an avalanche is careening downhill and the nation’s rivers and public lands are directly in its path.
H.R. 3189 [PDF], the so called “Water Rights Protection Act” was introduced by Representatives Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Jared Polis (D-CO) in the House. Senator John Barasso (R- WY) introduced the companion S. 1630, in the Senate. The bill’s authors said it was intended to address a narrow water rights conflict between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service. But somewhere along the way, the ski industry invited other interests to join the party. The National Ski Areas Association worked with Big Ag and their lobbyists in DC to draft a much more expansive bill that would handcuff Federal agencies and prevent them from protecting rivers and public lands.
The ski industry’s bill would allow private water users to dry up rivers on public lands with impunity. It would tie the hands of Federal agencies tasked with providing flexible water management options on our public lands. If passed, the bill would prevent federal agencies from implementing reasonable safeguards to protect fish, wildlife, and recreational benefits in the nation’s rivers. It would gut any federal law, such as the Endangered Species Act, that permits agencies to place conditions on permits or licenses to keep water in rivers to support fish, wildlife, or in-stream recreation. For instance, the bill could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water diverters to leave water in streams flowing through National Forests, or stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that attract fish to fish ladders so that they can safely pass over dams. Since the House Natural Resources Committee scheduled its hearing on the bill during the government shutdown, affected Federal agencies never had a chance to weigh in on the bill.
Amendments to the bill in Committee have expanded the damaging scope of the bill even further, preventing federal agencies from protecting recreation and instream flows on public lands. Additions to the Bill would also create an unprecedented federal definition of water rights, which are by definition a matter of state law. This change was made without the benefit of a single hearing! Members of the public had NO opportunity to comment on the Committee’s breathtaking expansion of federal authority over state water rights.
The “Water Rights Protection Act” is no longer about solving a water rights issue for the ski industry. Earlier this week, the U.S. Forest Service pledged to quickly resolve the dispute over water rights on national forest land in Colorado, protecting rivers on public lands and upholding important principles of water law. Yet inexplicably, the ski industry has doubled down [PDF] in support of a bill aimed at preventing federal agencies from protecting our rivers and public lands.
So before you hit the slopes this winter, take a minute to ask your local ski resort just how green [PDF] they really are. Do they support destroying rivers to protect their bottom line?