DENVER – A dispute between Colorado ski areas and the Forest Service has caught the attention of the White House, which threatens to veto a water rights bill that U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, plans to present on the House floor Thursday.
Meanwhile in Denver, state senators delayed a vote on a related bill by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, out of concerns that it improperly singles out the Forest Service.
The bills in Washington and Denver address an effort by the Forest Service to gain title to water rights used by ski resorts that lease federal land.
“This is important to the West. We hope the president won’t politicize this, because this isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” Tipton said in a phone interview.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, is a co-sponsor of Tipton’s bill, and a few other Western Democrats also support it.
The Forest Service has sought greater control of ski water rights since the 1980s. A federal judge in Denver overturned a previous agency policy that required ski areas to assign their water rights to the government in return for lease extensions. The agency plans to release a new policy for public review soon.
But lawmakers aren’t waiting, because they see a broader threat to federal control of Colorado’s water.
“Basically, it comes down to, does Colorado decide its water rights system, or does the federal government?” Roberts said at a meeting of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Forest Service officials say their only interest is in protecting water that Colorado’s ski economy needs to stay healthy, and their new policy will be more palatable.
“I want you to know we’ve listened. We’ve heard your concerns loud and clear. Our intent remains to make sure the forest service can continue to provide sustainable recreational activities,” said Maribeth Gustafson, deputy forester for the Rocky Mountain region, at the Denver hearing.
But critics of the Forest Service were not satisfied. Kristin Moseley, a lawyer for Vail Resorts and several mountain water districts, said ski water rights might originate on public land, but they were developed by private companies at considerable expense. She compared the Forest Service’s claiming of water rights to confiscating ski lifts and hotels belonging to resorts.
“It’s not their water. It was private water all the time,” Moseley said.
Cities that have reservoirs on federal land worry that if the Forest Service can take ski water rights, nothing would stop them from claiming reservoirs, too, Moseley said.
However, Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, defended the Forest Service and said most Coloradans would support the principle of keeping ski water rights reserved for skiing.
“This isn’t the mean old federal government telling people what to do. This is the steward of our lands,” Jones said.
Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the committee’s chairman, delayed a vote on Roberts’ bill, saying he thinks it’s an important topic but that the bill might illegally single out one entity, the Forest Service.
As the hearing was happening in Denver, the Obama Administration lowered the boom on Tipton’s bill in Washington by releasing a “statement of administration policy” – essentially, a veto threat.
The U.S. House is scheduled to vote on Tipton’s bill Thursday. It would forbid federal land management agencies from claiming water rights as a condition of a land use permit.
“The bill threatens the Federal government’s longstanding authority to manage property and claim proprietary rights for the benefit of Indian tribes and reserved Federal lands, and the broader public that depends on the proper management of public lands and resources,” the unsigned statement said.
Tipton said the statement was based on “fallacious concerns,” and he plans to continue efforts to pass the bill because it protects property rights.
“We see a pattern out of this president. Before process is allowed to work, he issues a veto threat,” Tipton said.
Tipton has allies, as well. The influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of his bill, and it is expected to pass the House on Thursday afternoon.
However, the version of Tipton’s bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate has stalled and has not received a hearing, and Obama’s veto threat could seal its fate.