WASHINGTON — A U.S. Representative from Colorado applauded the suspension of a controversial federal water conservation program that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled little more than a year ago.
“Obviously, it [reflects] a fundamental flaw,” Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) said of the National Blueways program at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
Tipton volunteered that he wished the Obama administration would abolish the program altogether, but suggested the announcement was a step in the right direction.
At another House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing earlier Wednesday, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel announced a “pause” for the National Blueways system “until we figure out the future of the program.”
Under the program, the Secretary of the Interior can designate a local watershed a “blueway” without congressional approval, while representatives from at least five federal agencies consider applicants for the designation. The designation seeks to promote environmental conservation, but critics worry that it opens the door to expanded federal control over water resources.
House Republicans from rural and agriculture districts have said the program could empower unelected federal bureaucrats to restrict the land and water rights of farmers and ranchers.
Jewell’s predecessor, Salazar, announced the Blueways program at a public ceremony in Connecticut in May 2012. Salazar is a former Attorney General and U.S. Senator from Colorado who served as Interior Secretary from January 2009 to this April.
Jewell’s announcement is the latest setback for the Blueways program. Earlier this month, she announced that a six-month old Blueways designation for the White River in Missouri and Arkansas has been rescinded. The Connecticut River in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont is the lone designee of the program.
Leading House Democrats reacted to Jewell’s announcement with bemused support. “It’s important the department is taking a hard look at the program,” Rep.Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
Both supporters and opponents of the Blueways program described its effects as more theoretical than real.
Andrew Fisk, the executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, said publicity from the Blueways designation may encourage citizens to clean up their local water streams. “I live in a small town in western Massachusetts and was trying to get a slice of pizza at 10 p.m. The guy behind the counter said, ‘What’s all this talk about this Blueways program? There’s all this trash in the river.’ I thought, hey, if I can get a pizza guy to help clean out the river, that’s great,” Fisk said in a telephone interview.
Eddy Justice, the owner of an insurance agency in southeastern Missouri, testified Wednesday that if the Blueways designation for the White River had continued, ranchers would have had to move their cattle 180 feet away from the river. Justice indicated the buffer zone would have hurt ranchers and local communities economically.
Tipton said a 180-foot buffer zone would amount to a federal “taking” of local land and water rights. “That’s a genuine threat,” he said.