The USFS plans public hearings this spring over ownership of ski area water rights

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From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

After being rebuffed in federal court, the U.S. Forest Service will start anew at developing new water-rights language for ski area permits. The agency plans to start taking public input this spring on the new directive, which would clarify ownership of water rights on national forest lands…

The ski industry interpreted at least parts of the new directive as a direct grab of water rights that are properly administered under state water law. A year-long lawsuit ended in Dec. 2012 with a court telling the Forest Service it must use a public process to develop a new directive.

The court also said the Forest Service should consider economic impacts as part of the process. It didn’t rule on the substance of the Forest Service directive, but noted that the water-rights ownership issue seems to be unclear and based on several different versions of Forest Service directives and clauses.

Here’s my Colorado Central column from last April. I try to explain the issues around the permit requirements.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

The U.S. Forest Service will seek out public comment on plans to tie water rights and ski-area permits together. The process to gain public comment was the first since a federal judge rebuffed the Forest Service for failing to conduct a public process when it required ski areas to surrender water rights in exchange for the permits under which they operate on lands managed by the Forest Service.

Powderhorn Mountain Resort’s current ownership was the first to be required to sign over water rights when it purchased the ski area in 2011.

The National Ski Area Association sued the Forest Service last year and the resulting order called on the Forest Service to pursue greater public involvement in drafting a directive. “Establishing an inclusive process on this important issue will help meet long-term goals,” Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Daniel Jirón said on Monday as he testified to the Colorado Legislature. “Maintaining the water with the land will ensure a vibrant ski industry, and resilient and healthy national forests and mountain communities into the future.”

Critics of the requirement maintain, however, that it hampers ski resorts. “The reality is that anytime we look at the federal government taking over water rights, it diminishes the value of the ski area, it diminishes the ability of the ski area to operate fully because it’s at the mercy of the U.S. Forest Service,” said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, the West Slope advocacy organization.

Club 20 also has voiced concern that federal agencies could require water rights in exchange for other uses of federal lands by ranchers, municipalities and others.

More water law coverage here.

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