WASHINGTON – Legislation to block the federal government from extorting water rights from ski companies and agriculture interests passed the House Resources Committee Thursday despite objections from Democrats the protections were not necessary.
The measure authored by Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton passed 19-14 and clears it for a House floor vote where it is expected to pass with some bipartisan support.
Tipton said the Forest Service has been trying for years to “extort” water rights from private businesses like ski resorts in exchange for needed federal permits to operate on public lands.
The Water Rights Protection Act would uphold state law and protect against the federal water grab of privately held property, Tipton told the committee.
In addition to affecting 121 ski resorts, the measure protects ranch and farm water rights for grazing and irrigation, but keeps in place a voluntary system for private property owners who wish to sell water rights to the federal government.
“We cannot limit this simply to the ski areas,” Tipton said. “For those of us that live in the West we understand the importance of water to our community, to our farms, to our ranches, to our municipalities, and the ability to be able to control our water.”
“Only in Washington, D.C., can they find it confusing and simply unable to comprehend why in the world we would extend private property rights,” Tipton said. “Why in the world would we allow a voluntary system for the free markets to be able to work?”
“That’s what this bill is going to be able to protect,” Tipton said. “It’s not going to be able to protect big government, it’s overreach, it’s grasp for something that is incredibly vital to the West. This is a bill that is designed to protect what every westerner holds dear, our private property rights, our state laws, and our priority based systems,” Tipton said.
Colorado ski industry officials testified before the committee last month that congressional intervention was needed to block the Forest Service proposal.
“Without the water, we’re not in business,” said David Corbin, vice president of the Aspen Skiing Company.
Democrats objected to the hearing because it was held during the two-week government shutdown, and the Forest Service did not testify, nor did it provide a response to Tipton’s bill until the day before the measure was scheduled for a committee vote.
Rep. Grace Napolitano, California Democrat, said the federal government is concerned about the management of public lands if ski resorts ever decide to sell their water rights, but that the Forest Service has changed its mind and now believes it can meet its objectives without the transfer.
She and other Democrats argued that the legislation should not proceed until the Forest Service makes its final determination.
However, Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said the bill would ensure federal accountability and responsibility and blocks the Forest Service from interfering with state laws.
“This threatens thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in commerce,” McClintock said of the Forest Service’s actions.
The Forest Service is expected to publish a new rule in a month outlining new federal permit requirements, and while Tipton says he is encouraged the agency has acknowledged their demands are flawed, he is still concerned the government has not given up on it’s two-year aggressive battle to seize the water rights.
Numerous ski resorts have endorsed Tipton’s bill, noting that while it blocks a government taking, it still gives them the option to sell water rights to the agency at a later date.
“It’s not contradictory to have a voluntary agreement, that’s the way America is supposed to work,” Tipton said.
“It is not a mandate coming out of a bureaucracy through a rule to the people that the government is supposed to serve, let’s make a law that is actually protecting private property rights,” Tipton said.