WASHINGTON — The controversial National Blueways Systems created by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been dissolved by his successor due to opposition from western lawmakers who said the federal initiative amounted to a massive water rights grab.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cancelled the program with little fanfare on Friday, just days before Congress returned from their holiday recess.
“Nothing in this order is intended to authorize or affect the use of private property,” Jewell wrote in her three-page declaration.
“Nothing in this order is intended to be the basis for the exercise of any new regulatory authority” or control of water rights, the order said.
Salazar, the former Colorado Senator and Interior Department secretary, created the blueways system in May 2012 as part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to establish vague new conservation rules along national waterways.
The program has been the focus of congressional hearings, where local officials also expressed concerns that federal bureaucrats would create new regulations to seize private property and water rights.
Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, a leading critic of the program, welcomed its dissolution but warned that federal officials are finding other ways to meddle in the management of privately owned water rights.
“Blueways would have disregarded long-held state water law and private property rights to establish a new federal bureaucracy that would have upended more than a century of local conservation efforts that responsibly protect and manage our precious water supply,” Tipton said.
“Western water rights are still at risk of federal takings, and we continue to see federal land management agencies overreaching and abusing the rights of private water users,” Tipton said.
Tipton is pursuing legislation he introduced in September called the Water Rights Protection Act, which he says would protect western water rights from the control of Washington bureaucrats.
The bill blocks federal agencies from requiring that privately-held water rights be transferred to the government as a condition for renewing land permits and would continue to hold state water laws above federal reach.
The measure has bipartisan support including Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, and has already been approved by the House Resources Committee.
Numerous members of that committee protested the blueways program in several letters to the Interior Department last year, complaining that it threatened to undermine state laws.
Lawmakers also questioned Secretary Jewell about the lack of transparency in creating the edict, and expressed concern about the involvement of Rebecca Wodder, a former American Rivers official who now works for the Interior Department.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on water on power, said the idea of restricting waterways was the brainchild of Wodder, who wanted to place a 44 million acre watershed off limits to productive use “by redefining the legal definition of ‘coordination’ in a manner that is truly Orwellian.”
“Any designation by a federal agency that directly or indirectly attempts to manage the non-navigable headwaters of many of our nation’s rivers would be a usurpation of state authority,” 22 lawmakers said in a February letter to Salazar.
Although Jewell’s order disbands the national system, it keeps in place the designation of the Connecticut River as the nation’s sole “national blueways.”
An Interior Department spokeswoman also told the Associated Press that although the Blueways program is being dismantled, the agency would continue to encourage conservation methods to protect national watersheds.