WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said Wednesday that he welcomed the U.S. Forest Service’s stated intention to not pursue the transfer of water rights from ski areas in exchange for permits to use public lands.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell issued the statement to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee as a result of a compromise that Udall helped to broker.
The move came in response to the “Water Rights Protection Act” being sponsored by Colorado 3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton, which was scheduled for mark up in the House Natural Resources Committee today.
That bill, which has bipartisan support including co-sponsorship by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, would prohibit the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management from conditioning use permits on the transfer of relinquishment of privately held water rights.
The Udall compromise would remove that practice for ski area permitting.
“We believe that these changes will provide assurances to the public and communities that depend on economic activities from ski areas that they will continue to provide recreation opportunities,” Tidwell said in the Forest Service statement. “We believe that these objectives can be met without requiring the transfer of privately owned water rights to the government.”
Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the agreement “ensures Colorado’s job-creating ski industry and outdoor recreation businesses can continue to thrive, while protecting the long term availability of activities such as skiing on public land.”
“The Forest Service’s statement on these water rights is a victory for our state and our resort communities that depend on outdoor recreation,” he said.
The bill has been opposed by water conservation groups, including the Save The Colorado River Campaign and American Rivers.
Gary Wockner, representing the Save the Colorado group, said Wednesday after learning of the Forest Service statement that he also welcomed the compromise language.
“At this point, we are very pleased that it appears there may be a compromise solution here that works for the ski industry, the forest service and water interests,” Wockner said. “We will continue to follow [the bill] closely.”
The two groups said in a joint press release issued Wednesday prior to Udall’s statement announcing the compromise Forest Service position that the bill could have “devastating results.”
As written, “This bill would gut the federal government’s ability to protect and restore rivers across the Colorado River basin, including those from which water is diverted to support skiing,” Wockner said.
The Garfield County Board of Commissioners and Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado have both lent their support to the Tipton bill, not only because of the potential impacts on ski areas but on agriculture and energy development in the region.