Aspen Skiing Co. standing behind water rights bill opposed by river groups

A section of the Gunnison River below Blue Mesa Reservoir. American Rivers is concerned that HR 3189 could mean less water in this stretch of river.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A section of the Gunnison River below Blue Mesa Reservoir. American Rivers is concerned that HR 3189 could mean less water in this stretch of river.

Aspen Skiing Co. continues to support House Resolution 3189, the Water Rights Protection Act, despite opposition from environmental groups that are concerned it would weaken the ability of federal agencies to protect river ecosystems.

The bill was amended Thursday morning in a House Natural Resources committee meeting by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, the bill’s sponsor, and then voted out of committee on a largely party-line basis. All 18 Republican members of the committee present supported the bill, while 14 of 15 Democrats voted against moving it to the House floor.

Skico said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon that it “supports the (National Ski Area Association’s) position” on the bill, which is designed — at least in part — to protect ski areas from Forest Service policies that would require ski areas to turn over their private water rights to the federal government as a condition of their ski area special-use permits.

The National Ski Area Association said after Thursday’s committee hearing that it still wants to see HR 3189 passed, despite a softening of the Forest Service’s stance Wednesday on ski area water rights, which sparked the introduction of the bill in October.

“Despite this announced change in policy, we still need Congress to pass the Water Rights Protection Act,” NSAA President Michael Berry said in a letter to committee members. “The policy change announced by the agency this week is the fourth change in Forest Service water policy for ski areas in ten years. These changes are disruptive, create uncertainty and adversely impact our operations, planning and future growth.”

A rule on water rights issued in 2011 by the Forest Service was successfully challenged by NSAA in court. Now the federal agency is working on a revision to that rule, which would not require the transfer of privately owned water rights to the government.

“Our interest is not in taking the water right, but in assuring that a necessary amount of water is available so that skiing can contribute to be an important recreation opportunity in the National Forests,” the Forest Service said in testimony released Wednesday. “We believe that these objectives can be met without requiring the transfer of privately owned water rights to the government.”

And while both NSAA and Rep. Tipton welcomed the Forest Service’s new position, Tipton said in a statement that the agency’s new rule “has yet to be seen, they have aggressively pursued such takings for over two years, and their comments indicate that we will likely only see a temporary fix that is ski resort specific.”

Snowmaking is key to Aspen Skiing Co.'s early season operations. Photo is of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain on Dec. 22, 2012.

Snowmaking is key to Aspen Skiing Co.'s early season operations. Photo is of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain on Dec. 22, 2012.

David Corbin, Skico’s vice present of planning and development, testified on Oct. 10 in favor of HR 3189, called the Water Rights Protection Act, before a subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee.

In its comments on the matter on Thursday afternoon, Skico said, “There is extensive agreement that the Forest Service rule was misguided — it would have changed 150 years of water law in the west to no clear benefit.”

But Skico’s statement did not address the growing opposition to the bill from American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council and about 35 other environmental groups who are on the record against it.

The potential harm in the bill, according to the environmental community, is that by constraining the Forest Service on ski area water rights — with overly broad language — the bill would also prevent an array of federal agencies from requiring that water be left in rivers below dams and diversions for environmental reasons.

Matt Rice, the director of conservation in Colorado for American Rivers, wants to see the ski industry, and Skico, drop its support for HR 3189.

“We want the ski industry to get off this bill,” Rice said. “Skico is absolutely a leader in the industry and we would like to see them pull their support from this bill, which is going to hurt rivers.”

He added, “By the ski industry’s own admission, the Forest Service fixed the issue it was concerned about. We have to, at a minimum, wait until the Forest Service finishes its process. We don’t need to legislate.”

But Geraldine Link, the director of public policy for the NSAA, said it is appropriate for Congress to set some boundaries for Interior and Agriculture departments on policies concerning private water rights, no matter what the pending Forest Service rule says.

“I do think you should have the federal government step in, through Congress, and say ‘this is what is OK, and this is what is not OK when it comes to water rights,’” Link said.

Link also feels that the amendment to HR 3189 that was approved by the Natural Resource Committee on Thursday addressed the concerns voiced by environmental groups, who say the bill is too broad and would, as Trout Unlimited put it in a letter to the committee, “harm the ability of federal land mangers … to protect streams, rivers and vital fisheries.”

Rice disagrees with Link, however. He feels the amendment to the bill made it potentially more damaging.

“The bill is worse now on paper,” Rice said.

On the other hand, the stern opposition to the bill expressed by many Democratic committee members on Thursday heartened Rice, who now expects the bill would meet a cold reception if it makes it to the Senate for review.

“We’re greatly encouraged by the strong opposition of the democrat leaders on the committee and the growing list of opposition,” Rice said. “As people learn about this bill and its implications, we expect the opposition to continue to grow.”

Editor's note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with The Aspen Times on this story. The Times posted a version of the story on its website on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2013.

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