WASHINGTON — A Colorado House Republican accused the federal government of using a little-known directive to wrest water rights away from Western states and private-property owners.
Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez said U.S. Interior Department officials have seized on a 2012 order called the National Blueways Initiative to usurp private water rights.
“I’m concerned about federal overreach of the Blueways program,” Tipton said at a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources Thursday.
His comment came during an exchange with a municipal water district official from a Western state who testified before the Water subcommittee. “Could a New Jersey resident who has used a raft on a Colorado river be considered a stakeholder under the law? It’s a little vague,” Tipton said.
“As I read it, yes,” said Russell Boardman, supervisor of the Shoshone Conservation District in Frannie, Wyoming.
The National Blueways System gives federal, state, local, business, civic, and private officials the power to designate an entire river and its watershed as deserving of conservation, recreation, and restoration. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the order last May, and while environmentalist and recreation groups support the policy, it has raised the ire of ranchers, ski resort executives, and local water district officials for restricting their access to local watersheds.
Rep. Grace Napolitano, an influential California Democrat on the Natural Resources panel, said she did not know the specifics of the Blueways program and expressed sympathy for critics, but trusts Salazar’s intentions for the initiative. “He’s a farmer, so he knows a lot about agriculture. He protects the land,” she said in an interview after the hearing.
An Interior Department spokeswoman did not return a call for comment by press time.
The hearing examined alleged federal encroachment on private water rights in Western states. Witnesses at the hearing included Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colorado, and David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, based in Buena Vista, Colorado.
Reed D. Benson, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, provided testimony to rebut Tipton’s assumption that private-property rights are “sacred” in Western states. “That conventional wisdom is largely myth, because there are many areas where federal law does not simply defer to state law, but instead establishes federal rules that protect important national interests. These areas include navigation, interstate allocation, and federal and tribal reserved rights, as mentioned above,” he said.
Tipton said he spoke with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, about the Blueways order, but did not get a commitment from them to support legislation on the issue. A Udall spokesman did not return comment.