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Water Rights Protection Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. HASTINGS of Washington. Madam Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

President Obama has made no secret of the fact that he is willing to act unilaterally to impose new laws and regulations on the American people, declaring that he has ``a pen and a phone.''

Over the last 5 years, there have been numerous examples of what has become an Imperial Presidency. Under the administration, the reach of the Federal Government has extended into nearly every sector of our economy and ensnarled it in new red tape and regulations.

An egregious example of this is the Federal Government's concerted effort to take water away from individuals and businesses. Water is the lifeblood of communities and essential for a strong economy. Cities, ranchers, farmers, businesses, along with the jobs they support, all depend on a stable supply of water to survive.

For over a century, there have been established laws upholding a State's right to manage its water and its water laws, but now, this administration is threatening to undermine those laws and seeks to take away private property rights--or private water rights governed under State laws.

Madam Chairman, that is why we are here today, to consider H.R. 3189, the Water Rights Protection Act. This bipartisan bill would protect private property rights from Federal overreach that threatens to take water supplies away from water users, such as ski areas, ranchers, cities, towns, and local conservation efforts.

This bill is responding to a very real threat as the Obama administration has sought to extort water from individuals and businesses through the permitting process.

Now, how is this done, Madam Chairman? Federal agencies are threatening to withhold permits needed to operate on Federal lands, unless private water rights are turned over to the Federal Government.

Put more simply, the Federal Government is holding necessary permits hostage unless water rights are relinquished; and they are demanding that water rights be signed over without payment, which of course is a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of just compensation.

Unfortunately, these businesses that are affected need both the permits and the water in order to operate, so what the Federal Government is doing is forcing them into an impossible situation where either choice puts them in danger of losing their livelihood or their businesses.

During today's debate, we will hear specific examples of businesses and families, including ski resorts and ranchers, who have experienced this heavy-handed tactic of the Federal Government's.

It is important to be clear about the risk posed by the Federal Government's action. This is not simply a threat to ski resorts and to ski areas located on Federal land as, I am sure, some will argue on the floor here today. The known problem is much greater. We have heard testimony in our committee to that fact, and the threat is not limited to one part of the country.

If a Federal agency can demand that a ski resort in Vail or that a rancher in Utah has to hand over his water to get a Federal permit, then a Federal agency can certainly do the same thing in other States--Ohio, Florida, West Virginia. Water may be more plentiful in these regions of the country than in the arid West, but the Federal Government's appetite has no geographical limits when it comes to expanding its regulatory control and its disrespect for private property and the livelihoods of American citizens. This is a threat being felt first by the West, but the risk is real, and it exists for the entire country.

Madam Chairman, regardless of where the Federal Government seeks to take water and from whom it is trying to take it, it is simply wrong, and it must be stopped. That is why H.R. 3189 is necessary, and it is why the bill is endorsed by numerous national and regional groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Ski Areas Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Association, the Natural Water Resources Association, and others.

Now, in the course of the debate, there will be claims and assertions made today that this bill is overly broad and that it will have a whole range of unintended consequences. Madam Chairman, I certainly don't blame those who support the Federal takings of private water rights from wanting to change the subject, but this bill is very focused. It has only one consequence, and that consequence is absolutely intended. It stops the Federal Government from taking the water of American citizens without paying for it. It does nothing else.

In fact, this bill carefully states that this prohibition will not affect irrigation water contracts, FERC licensing, endangered species recovery, national parks, or any other legal authorities. Important environmental restoration, wildlife protection and conservation work that has been occurring for years in a positive, cooperative manner--and that is whether it is in Puget Sound, which is in my State, in the Chesapeake Bay, nearby here, or in the Florida Everglades--will all continue, and all are protected. Such efforts will not be changed by this legislation.

Madam Chairman, I want to thank and recognize the sponsor of this legislation, our colleague from Colorado (Mr. Tipton), for all of his hard work in advancing this important, commonsense, bipartisan legislation.

It is time for the legislative branch to exert itself on behalf of the American people and rein in the imperial overreach of the executive branch and this administration. No law gives Federal agencies the authority to take private property rights as the administration is seeking to do. In fact, the Constitution prohibits such takings. It is time to put an end to such tactics, so I urge my colleagues to support this legislation and send a strong signal to this administration--to leave private property rights alone.

I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. HASTINGS of Washington. I yield myself the balance of the time.

Madam Chairman, let me just comment on a few points here that were made by my friends on the other side of the aisle. There was some concern about the timing of the hearing and the people who were invited.

I just want to make this point: when the hearing was held, we have to have advance notice. We had witnesses coming in from across the country, so we are going to have the hearing on the day we said because of the expense incurred by those private citizens who wanted to come here and testify to help protect private water rights.

The second point is this was a bipartisan bill, as my colleague from Colorado (Mr. Polis) admitted. He was an original cosponsor of the bill. Maybe that was a reason why my friends on the other side of the aisle did not call a witness for or against the original legislation.

I just wanted to make that point. The hearing was scheduled, and it had to go through because of the expense of the private citizens coming in to testify.

I want to make another point, too, that some of my colleagues have made. Several of them have said that this legislation redefines Federal water rights.

Madam Chairman, that is simply not true. If they read the bill, they would see that the definition is for the purpose of this act only, meaning that the definition is only for this act, so that doesn't hold up either.

Just about all of my colleagues on the other side that talked about the Federal lands and so forth--I will acknowledge that this is about Federal activity on Federal lands, but nowhere--nowhere did my colleagues suggest or say that the Federal Government had the water rights.

Why? Because that is states' rights; and as my colleague from Wyoming said: Yes, it is Federal land; but it is State water, and you have to mesh those together.

And finally--I think this is probably more important than anything else, and frankly, a debate like this has been going on for some time.

We agree--we agree, both sides--that ski resorts have been potentially compromised by the threat of the Federal Government saying ``no permit unless you give up water.'' Both sides agree on that. The question is, What is the remedy?

The big difference I think between the two sides is this. Their remedy is, well, the rulemaking isn't over. Let's find out what the rulemaking is, and then we will respond to it. Our side takes a different approach. Our side says wait a minute. We are the House of Representatives. We are part of the Congress. We make the law.

That is what this legislation does. It makes the law saying the Federal Government cannot extort, through the permitting process, State water rights. It is as simple as that. And so if we are going to continue to have the debate in this House on divisions between the two parties and what their philosophy is, frankly, I welcome this, because it appears every time we have a debate similar to this, their side says let the bureaucracy write the laws. We say wait a minute. That is not the way it is supposed to be. We are the Congress. We write the laws. That is what this debate is about here today, and I look forward to the amendment process.

In the meantime, I urge my colleagues to support this legislation. It has been characterized as a Western piece of legislation, but as Mr. Woodall says, indeed, it is not. It affects all water rights which are the province of the States.

It is good legislation, and I yield back the balance of my time.

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Mr. HASTINGS of Washington. Madam Chair, I thank the gentleman for yielding, and I want to commend the gentleman from Oklahoma for his hard work on behalf of Native Americans.

American Indian tribes rely on their water rights to provide critical supplies to their people and to promote and expand their local economies. These rights must be protected from Federal regulations that are designed to take water without paying for that water, and this amendment does just that.

This forward-looking amendment simply allows tribes to have the same protections that are afforded to others in the bill by prohibiting the Federal Government from using routine permits to extort private water rights. It also preserves the water rights guaranteed to tribes by treaty and by Federal reservation. Although this bill already does the latter, we believe it is important to clarify this important protection, so I urge my colleagues to support this commonsense amendment. I commend the gentleman for offering it.

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Mr. HASTINGS of Washington. I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Chair, I want to thank the gentleman from Colorado for recognizing that the Federal Government's taking of water rights and economic collateral of ski areas is wrong. His amendment also acknowledges that Congress must act to provide long-term certainty rather than rely on vague assurances from bureaucrats that are subject to change at any time.

I also appreciate the gentleman's initial support for the bill as introduced. His attention to this matter and willingness to fight for the ski areas in his district is commendable and has certainly been noted by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

However, the amendment he offers today completely undermines the bill he originally added his name to in support. The bill, as introduced and in its current improved form, protects private property rights for all--Madam Chairman, all--water users across the country, not just ski areas. By limiting the bill's scope to ski area permits by the Forest Service, the Polis amendment transforms the bill so that it favors one special group at the expense of all others. Ski areas under his amendment would be protected, but any other water owner or user anywhere in the country would be subject to Federal extortion. It frees the Federal Government to continue targeting the water rights of family farms and ranches and municipalities.

Madam Chair, it is not just wrong for the Federal Government to take water away from ski areas, it is wrong to do it to anyone. There should be no discrimination in this manner. The Polis amendment would eliminate protections for farms and ranches, our Nation's food suppliers. That is why the American Farm Bureau opposes this amendment and supports the underlying bill. The Farm Bureau's members have already been victimized by this Federal overreach, and this amendment would allow that to continue.

Because the Polis amendment is a complete substitute text for the underlying bill, it would strike out all of the protections currently in the bill. The Polis amendment would even eliminate the protections for the Indian treaty rights and Indian water rights that the House just adopted a moment ago with the Mullin amendment.

It is true that the ski areas have suffered greatly at the hands of this Federal overreach. For this reason, the underlying bill does fully protect ski areas, along with every other water user. How many times do we have to say that? It protects ski areas and all water users, and that is why, as has been mentioned several times, the National Ski Areas Association wrote in February after the committee markup that it strongly supports the bill.

When it comes to protecting the water and private property of American citizens, the Congress shouldn't be picking winners and losers; and Congress should be making the law for that protection, not the bureaucrats. The legislative branch should act to protect all citizens of the executive branch.

It is for these reasons I urge my colleagues to vote ``no'' on the Polis amendment.

I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. HASTINGS of Washington. Madam Chairman, I yield myself the balance of the time.

I have to say, the debate on the underlying bill in this amendment I find rather interesting--no, maybe bizarre is better than that.

The issue here is whether we should protect the State's responsibility to write water law or allow the Federal Government to extort from private individuals that water. That is what the issue is all about here.

He had bipartisan support when the bill was heard in committee, but then it changed for some reason. Now, we have in front of us the Polis amendment, which would very narrowly put this protection only to ski areas and not to everybody else that has private property rights.

The consequences if this were to become law--which it is not going to, I am convinced, with this amendment--but the effect of this would be this: okay. Ski areas are protected this year. Next year, it will be a rancher that is abused, so we will come back, and we will write a law to protect the rancher.

Next, it will be a water conservation district someplace that will be affected because of the directive, so we will come back and fix that. Then it will be some municipality someplace that will be affected because they don't have water rights because it was extorted by the Federal Government, so we will have a fix for that.

Madam Chairman, there is a better way to do that. Let's just simply respect states' rights to regulate water law and to codify that with this language.

Finally, just let me make this observation. The effect of adopting this, as I mentioned in my opening statement, as it relates to tribal rights, what this amendment really does more than anything else is it puts ski resorts' water rights above tribal rights. That is really what the adoption of this amendment does.

So I would say that the underlying bill is a bill that is the responsibility of us as the legislative branch in this Congress. It deserves our support. This amendment does nothing to advance that at all and should be defeated.

I urge my colleagues to vote ``no,'' and I yield back the balance of my time.

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