Idaho Senator Jim Risch, along with a bipartisan group of western Senators, is urging the U.S. Forest Service to delay implementation of a policy that potentially changes the way water rights are determined for ski areas and other special use permit holders.
In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Risch, Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said the significant changes between the previous water clause and the new version is raising concerns for ski areas. Of particular note is the complexity of the new clause and the uncertainty as to how it will be applied on the ground. Some ski operators have said the changes go so far as to require them to transfer their water rights to the federal government.
"The West has a long and established history of balancing water rights. Any new policy or directive impacting those rights needs to be carefully studied and understood before going on the books or it threatens that system," said Risch. "Any potential for a state to lose their rights to any water within their borders is something we all take very seriously."
"All water rights owners, not just ski areas, should be concerned about this unsettling precedent. Because of the significant percentage of water that originates on National Forest System lands, this change in water policy poses a threat to the current system of state allocation and administration of water rights," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Area Association. "This issue is larger than just ski areas -- it would impact all entities that have water rights associated with any National Forest System lands including cities and counties, owners of recreation residences, marinas and summer resorts and other businesses such as ranching, mining or utilities."
In the letter the senators also point out the importance of the ski industry in their respective states and the value the public places on recreational activities in the National Forests.
Dear Chief Tidwell:
We write to urge you to place a moratorium on the implementation of the water clause released November 8, 2011.
Collectively, we have heard concerns from ski area constituents in our three states regarding the Forest Service's new water clause for ski area permittees released on November 8, 2011. The concerns raised have focused on the immediate and practical implications of the 2011 clause on ski area operations and the significant differences between the previous 2004 water clause and the new 2011 clause. Additionally, the ski areas have raised concerns about the complexity of the 2011 clause and how it will be applied in the field. Without going into the merits of the water clause itself, it is apparent to us that a careful review of the practical implications of the clause to ski area operations and the changes that would occur under this new clause would prove beneficial to all parties involved.
We would recommend that the agency consider issuing a moratorium on the implementation of this water clause in the field until further review and analysis can be completed. Such a moratorium would provide the agency the opportunity to asses the practical impacts of this clause, allow ski areas to avoid immediate impacts to water rights until the review is completed, and undoubtedly benefit your longstanding and model public-private partnership with the ski industry.
We hope that you will give serious consideration to our suggestion of a moratorium and further review. The health and success of the ski industry is important to our respective states, as are the natural resources that support the public's continued recreational use of the National Forests. Thank you for your consideration.