‘Water Rights Protection Act’ puts rivers at risk
December 20, 2013
Last week Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) wrote a column for this newspaper touting his so-called “Water Rights Protection Act” (H.R. 3189) and its supporters. His claim that the bill is supported by conservation groups just isn’t true. To our knowledge, no conservation group has supported Rep. Tipton’s bill
In fact, more than 60 conservation, sportsman, and recreation organizations, including national groups like American Rivers, American Whitewater, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and regional groups like the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, continue to strongly oppose the legislation because of its impacts on rivers and public lands. Opposition to the bill continues to grow among organizations that work tirelessly to protect our water, land, forests and the public’s right to fish and boat on them. We oppose Rep. Tipton’s bill because it would tie the hands of federal agencies tasked with protecting fish, wildlife, and recreation on our nation’s rivers.
How does the bill harm rivers and river recreation? In Colorado, the commercial rafting industry benefits from late summer flows through Glenwood Canyon that are delivered to fish recovery programs in the Grand Valley. These releases likely would not be possible if this bill is allowed to go forward, and our local economy would suffer. The bill could also prohibit the Forest Service from requiring transbasin water diverters from leaving some water in streams on National Forests to keep native cutthroat trout alive.
In California, flow agreements at hydropower facilities on the Feather and Mokelumne rivers have substantially improved recreational opportunities. These improved flows have brought in thousands of whitewater paddlers, anglers, and other recreationists to spend money in the rural economies where these rivers are located. These opportunities would not have been possible if this bill was law.
Rep. Tipton’s bill could also block federal fisheries agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that help salmon find fish ladders and safely pass over dams. It could undo a number of broadly supported multi-stakeholder settlement agreements that are essential to restoring American shad, salmon, and steelhead fisheries on rivers affected by hydropower dams. The bill is so broad that it even undermines attempts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, one of America’s iconic bodies of water. This is why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation opposes it.
In his column, Rep. Tipton repeatedly says his bill would prohibit the federal government from “taking” privately held water rights. We have no problem with that stated purpose, and support the time-honored legal principle of states managing their own water rights. But that’s not all that the bill does. It goes much further by prohibiting “any impairment of title,” taking away federal agencies’ ability to condition water use, as in the examples above, to protect water resources for fish, wildlife and recreation. To suggest otherwise is misleading. The bill even undermines a fundamental principle of states’ rights and centuries of water law by creating a brand-new federal definition of a water right.
Members of Congress from western states like Oregon, California, and Arizona oppose HR 3189 because it creates this sweeping new federal definition of a water right while hamstringing federal agencies’ efforts to protect western rivers and the people who fish, boat and otherwise enjoy them. Members of Congress from across the east, representing Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania also oppose the bill because it would cripple important efforts to conserve and protect rivers in their home states.
Rep. Tipton may have found one of the few things that can unite east and west with respect to water and public lands: opposition to H.R. 3189. It’s simply a bad deal for taxpayers because it’s a bad deal for people who love to fish and boat on their public lands.
— Nathan Fey is director of the Colorado River Stewardship Program for American Whitewater. Matt Rice is the Colorado Conservation director for American Rivers.