Tipton guest opinion: An important week for western water users
The beneficial use of water in Colorado has a long history. It can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when people started settling the land that would become Colorado and the Western United States. As the need for water grew, so did disputes over water rights.
Colorado began applying the same “first in time, first in right” approach that had governed land rights to water rights, as well. The “first in time, first in right” principle is a critical element of the priority-based, beneficial use water rights system we have in Colorado today.
Despite the fact that the federal government has a long history of deferring to state water law, in recent years we have seen repeated attempts by federal agencies to circumvent state water law by requiring someone who wishes to renew their permit to use U.S. Forest Service (USFS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to hand over their water rights without any compensation as a condition of their permit.
Ski areas often hold special use permits from the USFS to operate on federal land. The ski area operates on and maintains the land, and the federal government generates revenue. It’s a win-win. The arrangement is similar for farmers and ranchers. A rancher may have a permit that allows their livestock to graze on BLM land. The arrangement helps the rancher stay in business, the grazing keeps public lands healthy, and the federal government receives revenue from the permit.
Many times the ski area, farmer, or rancher will own rights to the water on or surrounding the federal land, and will have invested their own capital to make improvements to the water infrastructure by digging wells or diverting streams to make snow or fill stock ponds.
In recent years, we have seen federal agencies ignore the concept of private property rights and the tradition of deferring to state water law in an attempt to federalize water resources and pave the way for unilateral mandates.
Western water users agree that we can’t let this happen, so I have introduced the Water Rights Protection Act (H.R. 2939) to prevent federal water grabs.
The Water Rights Protect Act would prohibit the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior from requiring the transfer of water rights as a condition of any land-use permit. The bill would also ensure that any future water directives issued by federal agencies are consistent with state water law.
How we manage and protect the Western water supply has implications on everything from growing crops to managing wildlife habitats. The Water Rights Protection Act would preserve the water rights of all water users and provide certainty that the federal government cannot take their rights in the future.
In addition to protecting water rights, it is also important that the federal government support state efforts to store water for future use. Right now, the regulations that are required to construct new surface water storage involve multiple agencies at multiple levels of government.
The permitting process wastes time, money, and ultimately hurts the communities that would benefit from the storage projects. For example, the High Savery Dam in Wyoming took 14 years to permit, but only two years to build. How ridiculous is that?
The House recently passed a bill, the Water Supply Permitting Coordination Act, to streamline water storage projects. The bill would make the Bureau of Reclamation a “one-stop-shop,” so that when a water storage facility is proposed, the developer can go through the entire permitting process with one federal entity. This change to the process would be extremely valuable to the communities in the arid West.
If you have ever visited the Colorado State Capitol building, you’ll know that an etching in the rotunda says, “Here is the land where life is written in water.” As we’ve seen the federal government attempt to assert control over western water in recent years, this phrase remains extremely relevant, and I remain committed to ensuring federal water policies support the way of life we all cherish in the West.
Scott R. Tipton is a Republican who represents Colorado’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.