House committee passes water rights bill; another win for agriculture

Nov 15, 2013

Last week a House bill written to protect Western water rights from federal takings moved another step closer to completion.

The bill, H.R. 3189, introduced in early October by Scott Tipton (R-CO), gained bipartisan support early on and received strong support from a broad coalition of local, state and national stakeholders concerned with recent federal attempts to hijack privately held water rights.

Last Thursday the Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) hailed the House Committee on Natural Resources for passage of The Water Rights Protection Act (WRPA). The bill passed with a recorded vote of 19-14. The bill was co-sponsored by Mark Amodei (R-NV), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Tom Mc- Clintock (R-CA), and Jared Polis (D-CO).

WRPA was developed to protect water rights from a recent directive and actions by the U.S. Forest Service (US- FS) which allow the agency to usurp water rights from private entities—despite private water development and property rights. The USFS is attempting to obtain these water rights for the federal government as a condition of issuing standard land use permits. However, USFS has repeatedly failed to provide just compensation—a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

“This bill is common sense legislation, which will allow Western producers to stay in business,” said Brice Lee, PLC President and Colorado rancher. “The directive and actions by the Forest Service and their attempt to unjustly acquire these rights amounts to a total negligence of states’ water law, private property rights and the Constitution. The full committee taking up H.R. 3189 is promising—we are urging the House to take the bill to the floor and stop the USFS directive in its infancy.”

Last month, the subcommittee on water and power held a hearing on the bill, inviting a panel of witnesses who testified to the importance of water rights to private business. Witnesses explained the necessity of sovereign state water laws, which are long-established in the West. Witnesses told the subcommittee how devastating the impacts of this directive are to industries, including ski companies and federal land ranching, stressing the importance of these water rights and their significance in keeping businesses viable in western communities.

NCBA President and Wyoming rancher, Scott George, applauded the committee for taking up and passing the bill.

“This legislation is urgent and the committee’s hearing sends an important message to the USFS—holding them accountable and ensuring they cannot abuse water-right holders any further,” George said.

“Ultimately, the USFS directive and similar actions could put a lot of folks out of business. Committee passage of this legislation is a step in the right direction for Congress and serves as an opportunity for them to protect private property rights for the livestock industry.”

The bill has gained extra attention in states with ski areas.

“The proposed law would protect ski area water rights and provide certainty to ski areas and other water-rights holders that the federal government is not going to seize these valuable property rights without compensation,” said David Corbin, Vice President of Planning & Development for Aspen Skiing Co.

“This will benefit ski areas and the rural economies dependent on them. Finally, it upholds state water law. For all of these reasons, the ski industry wholeheartedly supports H.R. 3189.”

Tipton introduced the bill, citing government attempts to “hijack” water rights.

“Recent federal attempts to manipulate the federal permit, lease and land management process to circumvent long-established state water law and hijack privately-held water rights have sounded the alarm for all non-federal water users that rely on these water rights for their livelihood, and have already hurt stakeholders in Colorado and in other Western states,” said Tipton.

“The bipartisan Water Rights Protection Act seeks to protect local water rights from federal government overreach and takings by prohibiting federal agencies from pilfering water rights through the use of permits, leases and other land management arrangements, as well as by upholding longstanding federal deference to state water law on which countless water users rely.”

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department testified against the bill, along with a number of environmental groups including American Whitewater, the Sierra Club, the Natural Re sources Defense Council, Earthjustice and Defenders of Wildlife.

A letter signed by 39 groups opposed to the bill claimed it could “prevent federal agencies from requiring protections for fish and other instream resources” and that, if passed, “agencies could be unable to implement reasonable requirements intended to keep water in rivers.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor