WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and two witnesses at a water-rights hearing Thursday bashed the U.S. Forest Service for what they characterized as the agency’s attempts to take away private water rights.
Tipton questioned Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association, and Randy Parker, Utah Farm Bureau Federation’s chief executive officer, about ski-area water rights in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power hearing.
The hearing, “Federal Impediments to Water Rights, Job Creation and Recreation: A Local Perspective,” did not include any witnesses from the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service is again trying to tie water rights to the land despite a previous loss in court. Last December, a judge ruled that the agency did not properly seek public input in issuing a directive in 2011. The directive would have forbidden ski areas from selling their water rights to anyone other than the next operator of the ski area.
“The (U.S. Forest Service) justifies this policy as necessary in order to ensure that these water rights are not improperly sold off and used for other purposes, and to ensure that water is available for snowmaking and grazing,” Tipton’s office said in a news release.
“Have ski-area operators been selling water downstream for more profitable uses?” Tipton asked the witnesses.
No, Link said, calling the situation a “made-up problem.”
Gary Derck, Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort’s CEO, submitted written testimony for the hearing.
“We believe the (U.S. Forest Service) is using their federal position to try to usurp state water law and take private water rights/supplies,” Derck wrote. “In the case of (Durango Mountain Resort), the agency’s actions have placed our resort/community in extreme jeopardy and are sequentially eliminating the critical water resources necessary to operate our resort.”
In Colorado, state law says water rights are a property right. Owners can use or sell the rights as they please, provided a water court approves of the water’s uses.
Tipton, R-Cortez, grilled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a March hearing about the topic, saying the struck-down directive was an attempt to circumvent state law.
“The focus here is making sure that we use our forests ... in the most appropriate way,” Vilsack said then. “We need to balance that with the interests of those who need the water for economic purposes,” he said, citing the ski industry.
State legislators rebelled against the practice this year and passed a resolution condemning the Forest Service for its policy.
But the Forest Service managed to scuttle a much more substantive bill, which would have changed Colorado water law to prohibit the federal government from demanding water rights in return for issuing land-use permits.
Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, personally called several state lawmakers and asked them to kill the bill. It has been sitting idle on the House calendar for two weeks, and its sponsor, Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he expects it to die when the yearly session ends in two weeks.
Sonnenberg has argued that the Forest Service policy takes direct aim at Colorado’s long-standing principle that water rights allow the owner to use or sell the water for any purpose anywhere in the state, as long as a court approves.
Herald Denver correspondent Joe Hanel contributed to this report. Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.