Guest column: Protecting the rivers that sustain us all
As a national organization dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers, American Rivers welcomes open debate and dialogue about critical water issues. In his April 6 column, Aspen Skiin Co.’s Auden Schendler suggests that American Rivers opposed the Castle Creek hydropower proposal and is currently fighting the so-called Water Rights Protection Act simply for our own financial benefit. His assertion could not be further from the truth.
We opposed the Castle Creek project because it would have harmed both Castle and Maroon creeks while setting a damaging precedent for future hydropower development around the country. American Rivers has been a leader in reforming hydropower for more than 40 years. We fight bad hydropower proposals and we support good ones on rivers from South Carolina to Oregon and everywhere between, including Aspen.
We are opposed to the Water Rights Protection Act because of its implications for rivers and streams on public lands across the country, not just in Aspen. We highlighted Aspen Skico’s support for the legislation because it was the only individual ski company to testify in support of the legislation. American Rivers did not single out Skico; Skico singled out itself by being in the forefront of advocacy on this issue.
For more than a year, Skico and the National Ski Areas Association pushed for legislation that would prevent federal agencies from implementing reasonable safeguards to protect fish, wildlife and recreational flows in the nation’s rivers. In Colorado, this legislation could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water users to leave some water in streams in national forests for the survival of native cutthroat trout. On the East and West coasts, it could stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that attract migratory fish to ladders so that they can safely pass over dams. It could destroy ongoing multiyear and multimillion-dollar collaborative efforts to restore American shad, salmon, and steelhead fisheries at hydropower facilities. At the very least, it would create torrents of new litigation.
Schendler disagrees with our interpretation of the bill. But this interpretation is not just American Rivers’ view. Dozens of conservation and recreation groups share our concerns. The League of Conservation Voters noted that the legislation “would jeopardize some of our most iconic waterways and could even worsen water shortages in the drought-stricken West.” Rep. Jared Polis referred to it last year as a “job-killing water grab.” And in debate on an amendment by Sen. Cory Gardner, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell said, “The Gardner amendment would radically change the way water is handled on public lands. … This amendment is so broad that it … will have numerous unintended consequences. … (It) would call into question the status of water contracts actually signed by the Bureau of Reclamation throughout the West. Uncertainty is the last thing we need.”
Even Gardner shares our interpretation. He declared on the Senate floor that his amendment was about protecting private interests “from intrusion by the U.S. Forest Service or the ski-area water rule” as well as “preventing bypass flows.” Preventing bypass flows such as those that keep water in Hunter Creek and in other streams in the Upper Roaring Fork Basin impacted by the Fry-Ark diversion project represents a significant change in how land-management agencies manage water resources and would be a disaster for the rivers where we fish, swim, hike and paddle.
Despite Schendler’s assertions, we have always maintained that the ski industry has legitimate concerns with the way that the Forest Service has approached ski-area permits in the past. We are pleased that the Forest Service has recently taken steps to address these concerns. But this legislation goes too far and poses an existential threat to rivers nationwide. We will not apologize for our strenuous defense of our nation’s rivers and the communities that depend upon them. We pride ourselves on working collaboratively with a wide range of interests, and we welcome the opportunity to craft a solution that addresses the ski industry’s needs while protecting the rivers that benefit us all. We hope that Skico and the ski industry will reconsider their support for the Water Rights Protection Act when it is reintroduced and will work with us and other like-minded groups to resolve their legitimate concerns without harming the rivers that are the lifeblood of Colorado and our nation.
Bob Irvin is president of American Rivers.
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