State House to Feds: Hands Off Our Water

February 27, 2014
Water rights held by ski areas and ranchers would be protected under House Bill 1028.

Water rights held by ski areas and ranchers would be protected under House Bill 1028.

DENVER – A bill preventing the federal government from seizing water rights from ski resorts, ranchers, farmers and municipalities in exchange for permits to use federal land has landed in the Senate “killing committee” despite bipartisan House support.

House Bill 1028 sponsored by Republican Reps. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango passed the House Tuesday on a 39 to 24 vote, but was assigned Wednesday to the Senate State, Veteran and Military Affairs Committee.

“It tells the federal government, you cannot basically require as a condition of a permit on a lease, to sign over your water rights,” said Sonnenberg.

For several years, Interior Department agencies and the Forest Service have attempted to extort water rights in exchange for permits to lease federal land in Colorado and other states.

The threat of taking water rights from ski resorts raised awareness in Colorado, but lower profile cases included ranchers and farmers. Now, municipalities such as Greeley and Steamboat Springs are concerned about losing their water rights, or access through federal land to their reservoirs.

Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose) cited one case in which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) coerced a rancher in Nevada to relinquish his water rights in exchange for the agency renewing his permit to use federal land.

“The rancher sued and he won in a federal court,” said Coram. “And frankly it was a spanking of the federal government.”

“The judge actually accused the BLM of a RICO (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act) violation in their strong arm tactics,” said Coram.

Colorado legislators rejected a similar bill last year, but passed a resolution telling federal officials to keep their hands out of the state’s water.

Rep. Randy Fischer (D-Fort Collins) said the resolution was “actually a better solution to the problem, or the perception that there’s a problem.”

“I don’t believe there is a problem,” Fisher said.

Fischer argued that HB 1028 is not necessary because it mirrors the Water Rights Protection Act, a measure co-authored by Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. Although that bill passed the Natural Resources Committee in November, it has not been voted on by the full House.

Fischer urged state lawmakers to reject the Colorado House bill and instead wait and see what happens to the Tipton-Polis measure, as well as revised leasing permit language that has been under review by the Forest Service for the past two years.

Opponents of the bill include the Forest Service, BLM and the liberal-leaning group Conservation Colorado. Proponents include the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and City of Greeley.

“We have Colorado water rights,” declared Coram. “We must stand, we must protect Colorado.”

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