Colorado Ski Area Water Rights and USFS

Copper Mountain, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Colorado ski areas got some “fresh powder” in late June in the form of a proposed US Forest Service water rights rule that backs away from an earlier and much criticized approach that would have required ski areas to transfer water rights to the agency.

The new rule, proposed June 23 and open for comment through August 22, would amend internal USFS directives for some 122 ski area concessions across the country by instead conditioning their 40-year special use permits on a commitment that sufficient water stay dedicated to ski area operations even if the area is sold. Under the proposal, permits would be updated as they are renewed to include the water rights commitment language. Currently, USFS policy requires the public hold the rights to such water, but the proposed change would allow water rights to be in the name of the permit holder.

“This proposal balances the interests of the public, the ski areas and our natural resources by ensuring the necessary water is provided for winter recreation through our special-use permit process,” said USFS Chief Tom Tidwell. “This proposed change will provide assurances to the public that they will continue to enjoy winter recreation at ski areas on national forests.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., welcomed the action and is encouraging Colorado stakeholders to submit feedback on the rule. He also said he plans to introduce legislation to provide a “permanent solution” for ski area water rights.

“Water is the lifeblood of Colorado’s economy and environment – whether it be for our world class ski areas, our $40 billion dollar agriculture industry or our cold-water trout fisheries,” Bennet said. “We’re glad the Forest Service reconsidered their 2011 water rights clause, and we look forward to reviewing today’s proposal. Moving forward, we will work with Coloradans, the Forest Service, and other Members of Congress to introduce a consensus bill based on today’s proposal that provides certainty and clarity on this issue for Colorado’s water community.”

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., took issue with the rule, however.

Tipton called the permit condition for ski area water rights “insufficient to protect water users from agency abuses” and urged enactment of his Water Rights Protection Act (H.R. 3189), which passed the House in March. He said the measure would “provide long-term certainty that private water users need, and protect them from federal attempts to infringe on their private property.”

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