Ski areas gain ground over water rights
November 15, 2013
WASHINGTON, DC — Ski areas like Winter Park are steps closer to securing their ownership of water rights after a federal grab.
The U.S. Forest Service issued a statement on Nov. 13 indicating their intent to no longer pursue water rights transferrers when issuing ski permits. Four different permit policy changes, issued in 2014, 2011, 2012 and 2013, meant ski areas were forced to turn over their water rights to the U.S. Forest Service if they wanted to continue operating. In some cases, ski areas have spent millions obtaining those water assets both for operations and to potentially later sell for profit. The U.S. Forest Service's decision means more protection for local ski area's water investments.
"Winter Park owns water rights, like any other ski area," said Winter Park Resort planner Dough Laraby. "Water rights cost money, and you need them to operate a ski area."
The National Ski Areas Association, or NSAA, had sued the U.S. Forest Service over the permit changes, winning a victory in 2012 when a U.S. District judge found they violated federal procedural law. The NSAA applauded the federal agency's recent decision, but said ski areas still need more legislative protections against future policy changes.
“The Forest Service’s statement on these water rights is a victory for our state and our resort communities that depend on outdoor recreation.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall
"This is the fourth change in 10 years, we can't afford to be subject to changes with every administration that comes along," said Geraldine Link, public policy director with the NSAA. "We're looking to Congress to put protections in place. At a minimum, you can't take water rights without compensation."
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced a bill in late October, called the "Water RIghts Protection Act," that would prohibit the U.S. Forest Service from adding water rights conditions to permits, including those issued to ski areas that operate on federal forestland, like Winter Park Resort. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Eldorado Springs), who serves on the Natural Resources Committee but didn't sponsor the bill, issued a press release welcoming the U.S. Forest Service's decision to cease water rights takeovers. Udall said it will ensure Colorado's ski industry can continue to thrive. He helped broker the negotiation after working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which houses the Forest Service.
"The Forest Service's statement on these water rights is a victory for our state and our resort communities that depend on outdoor recreation, and it's a victory I'm proud to have found for," Udall said in the release.
But conservation groups worry ski areas' retention of water rights will have negative consequences for streams and rivers. They said the proposed legislation puts private interests above the federal government's responsibility to protect the environment.
"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," Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado River Campaign said in a statement.
The Water Rights Protection Act bill went to the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, Nov. 14 for markup.
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.