Last month, Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Jared Polis, D-Boulder, introduced HR 3189, the Water Rights Protection Act. While the bill was disguised as minor fix for a narrow water rights conflict between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service, it is in fact a sweeping attempt to stop federal agencies from managing water flexibly on our public lands. If passed, the bill would prevent federal agencies within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior from protecting fish, wildlife and river recreation.
For instance, in Colorado, this could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water diverters to leave some water in streams on national forests to keep native cutthroat trout alive. It would potentially destroy ongoing multi-year and multi-million-dollar broadly supported settlement agreements to restore fisheries at hydropower facilities. It even undermines fundamental principles of states’ rights by creating a new federal definition of a water right.
The House Natural Resources Committee held the only hearing on this bill during the government shutdown, preventing input on effects to public lands. The departments of Interior and Agriculture have weighed in, opposed the bill. They are joined by leading Democrats on the House Natural Resource Committee and more than 60 conservation and recreation groups including American Whitewater, American Rivers and more.
We understand that the ski industry has a legitimate need for certainty about water rights for snowmaking. But they no longer need this bill. Thanks to the leadership of Sen. Mark Udall, the Forest Service pledged to quickly resolve the dispute over water rights on national forest land in Colorado. This bill is no longer necessary. The ski industry has conceded as much. Yet this “green” industry has inexplicably doubled down and reaffirmed its support for preventing federal agencies from protecting our rivers and public lands. We should all be puzzled why the ski industry – which goes to such great lengths to tout its environmental sustainability – would give cover to big ag and support a bill that would damage our nation’s rivers, particularly when the problem the bill purports to address has already been solved.