WASHINGTON — Colorado Democrats voted against a popular measure Thursday that would prohibit the federal government from demanding privately held water rights in exchange for permits to operate on federal lands.
Despite the opposition the bill widely passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 238 to 174. Voting in favor of the water law were Colorado Republican Reps. Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and the bill’s sponsor Scott Tipton. Voting no were Colorado Democrats Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis.
The legislation was prompted after demands from the Forest Service that ski resorts relinquish their water rights in exchange for permits to operate on public lands. Tipton authored the bill to reaffirm what has been existing law for generations in Colorado and throughout the West.
“Thank goodness for legislation like this, that will make sure that the state water law remains supreme,” said Gardner during an impassioned floor speech.
“How dare this body think that the federal government has a right to control our water, or condition permits based on the blackmail of a permit issuance from a ski resort, from a farmer, from a city?” Gardner asked.
Democrats led by Polis argued that the bill was too broad and went beyond the protection of ski resorts against the Forest Service, to include water rights held by ranchers, farmers, and cities against other land management agencies including the Interior Department.
Polis, DeGette and Perlmutter sponsored an amendment that would have restricted the protections to ski resort water rights that are critical to the businesses and worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, that amendment failed on a 236 to 175 vote with opposition from Colorado Republicans.
Polis repeatedly called Tipton’s bill a “job-killing Republican water grab” that used ski companies “as a pretense for making wholesale job-killing changes” and would damage the fishing and whitewater rafting industry.
Polis acknowledged “ski areas have been a punching bag for the U.S. Forest Service’s misguided policies for the last decade,” but said Tipton’s bill did not send a clear enough signal to the Forest Service that Congress was dissatisfied with the agency’s 2011 directive.
“Instead, I think they will just shrug their shoulders and say ‘that’s that crazy House of Representatives,’” Polis said. “That bill is not going to become law, this bill will not have any impact, and the message is lost.”
President Barack Obama pledged to veto the bill before it reached the House for debate.
Interestingly, a vote on a similar bill moving through the Colorado legislature and sponsored by Republican state Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango was delayed this week because of concerns from opponents that it wrongly singled out the Forest Service.
The Tipton water bill would protect private property rights from federal land agencies that threatens to take water supplies from recreation businesses, ranchers, cities and local conservation efforts as well as ski areas in order to qualify for a federal permit or lease.
During a spirited House floor debate, Tipton said Polis was playing “political theater” with western water rights.
“The job-killing part is being conducted by the federal government,” Polis said. “They’re killing jobs with a federal government water grab.”
“Unfortunately, through their own words, they’re willing to throw farmers and ranchers and hard-working Americans under the bus for an ideological cause — something in the West we simply cannot accept,” Tipton said.
“The water grab that is taking place is not by this legislature, but by the very federal government that our opponents seem to want to protect and put in a position of authority over state rights and the 5th Amendment of the Constitution,” Tipton said.
“Why are they so willing to disregard farmers, ranchers, municipalities, aren’t they worthy of some concern?” Tipton asked.