Legislative action needed to protect private water rights

Scott Tipton, US Congressman
Scott Tipton, US Congressman

With great foresight, the founders of this nation endeavored to protect private property from the federal government. In the West, we know this protection extends to privately held water rights. Unfortunately, recent history has shown the federal government is more than willing to overreach its authority to try and acquire private water rights, through coercion if necessary.

I was somewhat encouraged the U.S. Forest Service recently acknowledged its flawed and unnecessary policy and indicated its future water rights clause might no longer require the transfer of privately owned water rights. However, it needs to be noted this clause has yet to be seen and the agency’s comments indicate we will only see a temporary fix for one group of water users in a single region. 

The Forest Service’s latest policy shift doesn’t provide the same level of protection as the bipartisan Water Rights Protection Act — which is supported by more than 30 state, local and national stakeholder groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Association and numerous Colorado counties, river districts and conservation groups.

The policy shift also falls far short of giving private water users much certainty, and is the fourth change in Forest Service water policy for ski areas in the last 10 years. 

According to the National Ski Areas Association, “These changes are disruptive, create uncertainty and adversely impact our operations, planning and future growth. The ski industry can’t afford to be subjected to a different water policy with each administration. Only federal legislation can give us the long-term protection we need of an outright statutory prohibition on the taking of our water rights by the federal government.”

Federal attempts to seize private water rights aren’t limited to ski areas.

The same tactics have been used by both the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management in attempts to take or interfere with private water rights associated with agricultural production in the heart of rural America, where farmers and ranchers rely on their rights to secure loans and irrigate crops and livestock.

In an October Natural Resources Committee hearing, Tim Lowry, an Oregon rancher, testified that from almost the moment his family purchased its ranch, the BLM began attempts to inhibit its ability to use its water rights. After a decade-long legal battle that has racked up more than $800,000 in legal fees for Lowry, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in his favor and against federal attempts to hijack his privately held livestock water rights.

We’ve heard similar stories out of Utah, where the Forest Service denied ranchers access to rangelands for grazing until they transferred their private water rights. In Nevada, Forest Service and BLM employees attempted to violate state law by eliminating livestock watering rights.

It’s unforgivable the federal government would put people in a position of choosing between their lawfully acquired property and financial ruin. I know for certain many of the ranchers I represent can’t afford drawn out and costly legal battles with the Forest Service and BLM to protect what’s rightfully theirs under state law. Nor should they have to.

That’s why I joined with my colleagues U.S. Reps. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., to introduce the Water Rights Protection Act.

This common sense bill would protect communities, businesses, recreation opportunities, farmers and ranchers as well as other individuals that rely on privately held water rights for their livelihood from federal takings.

It would do so by prohibiting federal agencies from confiscating water rights through the use of permits, leases and other land management arrangements.

The measure would provide these vital protections for private property owners without affecting water allocations for non-federal parties or allocations that protect the environment. 

To permanently protect private water rights from federal takings and provide certainty for all water users, Congress must act and pass this bipartisan legislation. Water is the lifeblood of the West and vital for Colorado’s economic health. I will continue to work to advance this needed legislation to protect all water users and ensure our most precious resource is not subject to the control of Washington bureaucrats.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, represents Colorado’s 3rd District. Reach him through the website at www.tipton.house.gov.