The U.S. House of Representatives passed Rep. Scott Tipton’s bill on ski area water rights Thursday, although bipartisan agreement on the Cortez Republican’s proposal largely collapsed.
Tipton’s bill is aimed at the U.S. Forest Service, which has tried to gain control of ski areas’ private water rights in exchange for renewing their operating permits. The Forest Service is revising its policy and promises that it has taken the public outcry to heart.
“Water is our most precious resource in the West, a long-held private property right that must be protected from uncompensated federal takings,” Tipton said.
It passed 238-174, with 12 Democratic votes in favor and no Republican votes in opposition.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, had been a co-sponsor, but he spent Thursday afternoon leading opposition to Tipton on the House floor.
“I was hoping we could have gotten the bill to the point where it could have passed unanimously or near-unanimously. Instead, this bill has become a job-killing Republican water grab,” Polis said.
River-protection groups have been warning the bill could block federal efforts to save endangered fish and keep minimum flows in rivers. Polis said the bill could harm fishing streams and river rafting companies.
The White House went public with its opposition to Tipton on Wednesday.
Republicans defeated an amendment by Polis that would have limited the bill’s scope to ski areas.
But Tipton and allies said the whole point of the effort is to protect all water rights owners, not just ski areas. He, too, called it a water grab, but by the federal government.
“This water grab has brought implications that have begun to extend beyond the recreation and farming and ranching communities, and are now threatening municipalities and businesses,” Tipton said.
Polis, however, accused Tipton of hiding behind ski areas in order to pass a bill that could harm river protection efforts all over the country.
While some opponents decried the bill’s possible negative effects, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said late amendments by Tipton would render the bill powerless.
“We’re here about a headline – that will be meaningless – by some gullible reporter somewhere who actually believes what they’re saying on that side of the aisle,” DeFazio said.
An identical bill has been introduced in the Democratic-controlled Senate. However, with the Obama Administration opposed, the bill is not likely to get a vote.
The Forest Service plans to reveal its new policy on ski area water rights soon, although agency officials have not said exactly when. The public will get a chance to comment before the policy is adopted.