GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Garfield County commissioners on Monday reiterated their support for a water rights protection bill that was introduced by Congressman Scott Tipton last fall.
Known as the Water Rights Protection Act, H.R. 3189 would prevent the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from requesting private water rights in exchange for permits to use federal lands.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, in November, indicated that the agency would suspend the practice of asking for water rights when it considers permits for ski areas.
But Tipton’s bill aims to end the practice altogether for all forest land users, not just ski areas.
“Many private businesses in Garfield County, including ranching activities, agriculture, oil and gas, guiding and outfitting, and the ski industry … rely on the use of these federal lands to operate and thrive,” the county states in its letter of support sent to Tipton.
“Land management decisions made on these lands can have a significant socio-economic impact on the county and, more importantly, to the private businesses and activities that have operated here even prior to statehood.”
In October, the commissioners agreed to sign on to an Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado resolution supporting the Tipton bill, and said they would send their own letter of support as well.
Many businesses, not just ski areas, have lawfully obtained and paid for water rights necessary to conduct their operations, the commissioners point out.
However, “they are also dependent on permit approvals from federal agencies to continue to operate.
“It is unconscionable that the federal government shall attempt to hold these businesses hostage in order to ‘take’ their water rights without legal authority,” the commissioners maintain.
Tipton, R-Cortez, has earned bipartisan as well and industry support for the bill. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, is a co-sponsor of the bill, while the Aspen Skiing Co., the National Ski Areas Association and Colorado Ski Country USA have all lent their support.
However, numerous state and national conservation, sportsman and recreation groups are opposing the measure, saying it will significantly change existing water law and hamper efforts to protect fish, wildlife and river flows.
The House Natural Resources Committee in November of last year forwarded the bill for a vote in the full House of Representatives. That vote is expected to come in the next few weeks.