Tipton Grills Ag Secretary on Federal Water Grab

WASHINGTON, D.C.Today, Congressman Scott Tipton (CO-03) grilled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on his agency’s motive behind a controversial Forest Service plan to implement a directive that would require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a permit condition on National Forest System lands. The permit condition circumvents state water law and jeopardizes the economic well-being of communities and businesses, including many farmers and ranchers that rely on privately developed water rights for their livelihoods.

Secretary Vilsack was testifying before the Agriculture Committee for a hearing on the state of the rural economy.

Watch video of Rep. Scott Tipton questioning Secretary Vilsack here.

Transcript of their Q&A:

TIPTON: … given the subversive nature this has to state law in Colorado, and what this directive will really represent and the potential negative impacts to our local communities, I guess I would like to have a better understanding of why your agency feels that this is an appropriate use of agency resources and a course of action?

VILSACK: …I think the Forest Service learned a lesson in terms of approaching this issue. We obviously did not provide enough notice and enough clarification and understanding.

TIPTON: But you're still going to pursue federal preemption of Colorado water rights?

VILSACK: …I think we’re in the process of reviewing precisely what we were thinking about and seeing whether or not we could respond in some way, shape or form to the concerns that have been expressed. I will tell you that the focus here is making sure we use our U.S. forest lands in the most appropriate way to conserve and preserve water. One of our driving principles of forest management is water management, because we recognize how precious the water is. I think that the impetuous for this was starting with that concern, but recognizing that we need to balance that with the interest of those who need the water for economic purposes, the ski industry specifically.

TIPTON: Has there ever been any sale of water other than for those purposes?

VILSACK: I can't tell you that, Congressman. I don't know.

TIPTON: I happen to know the answer to that question: it's no. I guess the question actually, Mr. Secretary, is why is the federal government continuing to pursue a water grab in western states when we already have water law which works?

VILSACK: It may very well be that policy is going to be different than what we initially proposed because we learned from that lesson of not providing adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard. So folks are looking at this now and trying to rethink this.

As acknowledged by the Secretary’s staff in a meeting with Congressman Tipton in 2011, the directive the Forest Service issued included no provision ensuring that the federal government would not divert water away from the ski area. This glaring inconsistency, coupled with testimony from U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, in a hearing on November 15, 2011, that he was unaware of any ski resort ever selling its water rights downstream, begs the question, why is this onerous directive required? Furthermore, it was shown in that hearing that the language of the water directive offers no guarantee that the Forest Service could not divert water to other locations or direct water for another purpose altogether.

Congressman Tipton will continue to lead on this issue and do everything possible to ensure that state water rights remain fully intact.

Background

In October of 2011, Tipton sent a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reconsider implementing a permit condition to require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a permit condition on National Forest System lands.  Tipton expressed concern over the impact the requirement would have on water rights held by ski areas and ranchers in particular.  See the letter here.

Tipton led a Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands oversight hearing on Forest Service Regulatory Roadblocks to Productive Land Use and Recreation: Proposed Planning Rule, Special-use Permits, and Travel Management.  This hearing further examined the Forest Service’s proposal which could threaten deference to state water law and infringe upon private property rights.

It was brought to light during the hearing that the USDA is already enforcing the permit requirement despite the fact that it has yet to be officially implemented. Glenn Porzak spoke on behalf of the National Ski Areas Association, and told the committee that the Forest Service required the developers of the Powderhorn ski area (just outside of Grand Junction) to agree to the terms of the permit requirement regardless of future Congressional or court action on it.

The National Ski Areas Association filed suit against the Forest Service to block implementation of the permit directive.  In December 2012, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado vacated the 2012 Forest Service directive.

In January 2013, the Forest Service announced that it intends to initiate a public comment process as it once again ramps up efforts to implement a directive that would require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a permit condition on National Forest System lands.  See Tipton’s statement on the announcement here.

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