WASHINGTON – Colorado ski industry officials told House lawmakers on Thursday that congressional intervention is needed to block a water extortion scheme by the Forest Service to withhold government permits unless the companies relinquish their valuable water rights.
“Without the water, we’re not in business,” David Corbin, vice president of the Aspen Skiing Company told the House Natural Resources subcommittee on water and power.
The hearing focused on the Water Rights Protection Act authored by Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, which would uphold state water laws and block what he described as a nefarious federal water grab of privately held water rights.
“This legislation provides critical protection for water rights’ holders from federal takings by ensuring that federal government agencies cannot extort private property rights through uneven-handed negotiations,” Tipton said.
“To this end, the brief two page bill prohibits federal agencies from pilfering water rights through the use of permits, leases, and other land management arrangements, for which it would otherwise have to pay just compensation under the 5th Amendment of the Constitution,” Tipton said.
Corbin told the panel that the Aspen ski company spends $2 million to use 250 million gallons of water every season to make snow, and that it is essential to operations during the lucrative season opening around the winter holidays, as well as in early spring.
“We very much think this is a taking,” Corbin said.
Despite a court ruling in favor of the ski companies last year that seizing the privately held water rights usurped state water law, the Forest Service is pursing a new regulation to demand that water rights be transferred to the federal government as a condition for obtaining permits needed to operate 121 ski resorts that cross over federal lands.
Republican lawmakers said the Forest Service has essentially declared a war on western water rights.
“This action illustrates an increasingly hostile attitude by this agency toward those who make productive use of our vast national forests, in this case by enhancing and attracting the tourism upon which our mountain communities depend,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican and the panel’s chairman.
McClintock said he has also received reports that the federal government is using similar tactics to seize water rights from ranching operations in exchange for grazing permits.
Glenn Porzak, a lawyer representing ski areas in Colorado and California, as well as the water district and authority that serves 60,000 customers from Vail to Wolcott, said hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to develop water rights and enhance operations.
“If the federal government is just going to take it away, you take away the incentive for investment,” Porzak said.
Asked by Tipton why the Obama administration is so anxious to control water rights, which are rarely sold to downstream users, Porzak said “It’s (for) control over a resource that’s indispensible and enormously valuable.”
“They want to have control to decide how that water is allocated and used,” Porzak said.
Democrats complained that Republicans held the hearing without representatives from the Forest Service, an absence they further blamed on the government shutdown.
However, McClintock said Forest Service officials informed the committee prior to the shutdown they would not attend the hearing or comment on Tipton’s bill until the agency made a final decision as to whether it will demand water ownership in exchange for use permits.
Rep. Jarod Huffman, California Democrat, said the panel and lawmakers had “unfairly vilified” the Forest Service and that the ski companies should cooperate with the federal officials.
“Why does everything have to be so adversarial,” Huffman said. “Why not just negotiate?”
Corbin said the ski industry has offered compromises, but the Forest Service rejected the proposals.