The Forest Service has proposed a new rule that will affect ski area water rights.
The agency on Wednesday announced a revision of a 2011 permit clause that would allow ski areas on national forest land to own and control water rights as long as they commit to keeping water connected to the federal land.
The proposal is a step away from the agency’s controversial plan that would have required ski areas on public lands to transfer water rights to the federal government in exchange for their special-use permits.
According to the Forest Service, the public lands the agency manages provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year.
“Chairlifts can be replaced and lodges can be rebuilt, but once the water necessary for ski area operations is no longer available, the public loses opportunities for winter recreation,” U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement Wednesday. “The economic effects of the loss of water may be far-reaching. This issue has implications far beyond the boundaries of ski areas.”
Ski areas are supporting the proposed change, but representatives from Summit County resorts would not comment Thursday until after the rule is posted Friday.
“We’re glad the Forest Service reconsidered their 2011 water rights clause, and we look forward to reviewing today’s proposal,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday. “Moving forward, we will work with Coloradans, the Forest Service and ... members of Congress to introduce a consensus bill based on today’s proposal that provides certainty and clarity on this issue for Colorado’s water community.”
Since the 1980s, the Forest Service has sought greater control of water rights from the ski areas on national forest lands that operate under 40-year special-use permits.
In 2012, a Forest Service policy that required ski areas to assign their water rights to the government in return for lease extensions was overturned after the National Ski Areas Association successfully sued, arguing the water clause was a federal taking of private property rights.
The Forest Service’s original proposed rule triggered state and federal legislative action aimed at preventing the agency from demanding private water rights as a condition of an operating permit.
In 2013, the Forest Service hosted a series of public meetings on the water clause.
The proposed change, based on comments and discussion from those meetings, would allow water rights to be in the name of the permit holder (the ski area), with the commitment that adequate water stay dedicated to the ski area operation.
Chris Strebig, media officer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, said that the Forest Service recognizes that the 22 ski areas on national forest land in Colorado bring more than $1 billion to the state.
“The ski resorts are our partners,” he added. “They bring many people, visitors, to the National Forest that may not normally go there.”
The Forest Service will publish the proposed new water clause in the Federal Register on Friday and will accept public comment on the proposal for 60 days.