Ski areas win water fight with feds | AspenTimes.com

Ski areas win water fight with feds

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily

Ski areas, ranchers and others who do business on Forest Service and BLM land will not be required to give the feds their water rights in exchange for a permit. A Forest Service directive Wednesday made it official.

WASHINGTON — The latest potential federal water grab may have dried up Wednesday morning when the Forest Service threw in the towel.

Ski-area operators and ranchers say the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had been trying to force them to turn over their private water rights — without compensation — before the agencies would renew their permits to do business.

The Forest Service insisted that water rights established on national forest land should be tied to the land and that the federal government should own those water rights. The Forest Service says the policy is designed to keep ski areas from selling water rights for other purposes.

"By the Forest Service chief's own admission, there has not been an instance of ski-area water rights being sold off for other uses," said Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., who represents western Eagle County and the rest of western Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ski areas should use water for skiing, the Forest Service said in publishing its directive Wednesday.

"Because water for snowmaking and other uses is critical to the continuation of ski areas on Forest Service lands, the Forest Service has a strong interest in addressing the long-term availability of water to operate permitted ski areas," the Forest Service statement said.

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The Forest Service was trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist, Tipton said, adding that ski areas use most of their water for snowmaking, Tipton said.

Tipton called it one of the Obama administration's "most onerous attempts to hijack private water rights."

Tipton led the fight in Congress against the Forest Service plan.

Defeating the feds

The National Ski Areas Association took the Forest Service to federal court, saying the Forest Service's policy was an illegal taking, that no federal law gives the Forest Service the authority to take water rights and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that water is regulated by the states, said Geraldine Link, public policy director with the National Ski Areas Association.

Because it's a federal issue, they landed in federal court where the ski-area association got an injunction against the Forest Service. The federal judge told the Forest Service to go back to the drawing board.

The Forest Service entered its Ski Area Water Clause into the federal record Wednesday morning. The directive was expected by the end of the year, and the Forest Service made it with a day and a half to go in 2015.

"We're happy about this approach. It protects the ski areas in water rights. At the same time it protects the Forest Service's commitment for winter recreation in the long term," Link said.

Now, instead of giving water rights to the federal government, ski areas remain at the helm of their water rights for the future, Link said.

"We're partners with the Forest Service, and together we deliver a recreation package that's unparalleled in the world," Link said. "It's not only good for the Forest Service and ski areas, it's good for the public."

How all this started

Oregon rancher Tim Lowry started it all when the BLM tried to curtail his family's grazing rights. He spent 10 years and $800,000 in legal fees, finally winning a verdict from his state's Supreme Court. Lowry testified that he had purchased those water rights, and the feds refused to compensate him for them.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet called the Forest Service's directive "balanced."

"Water is a precious resource on which Colorado's ski areas rely for economic sustainability and growth. We are lucky to live in a state with world-class skiing right in our back yard and we want to keep it that way," Bennet said.

According to Colorado Ski Country USA, Colorado's ski industry generates $4.8 billion each year for the economy and supports more than 46,000 year-round equivalent jobs.

Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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