The Forest Service has backed away from a controversial plan that would have required ski areas to transfer water rights to the federal government in exchange for a permit to operate on public lands.
The agency on Wednesday unveiled an anticipated revision of a 2011 permit clause that a U.S. district judge overturned in 2012 after ski areas sued their landlord over the plan to take control of water rights used for snowmaking and ski area operations on federal land.
The proposed new rule allows ski areas to own and control water rights on the condition that they commit to keeping water connected to the federal land. Ski areas are lauding the proposed change.
The agency in 2013 hosted a series of public meetings to vet its water clause.
Forest Service officials had long argued that transferring water rights to the federal government assured the water would never be separated from the land. The agency feared a moment when water rights would be more valuable than ski operations.
"Chair lifts 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 issued Wednesday. "The economic effects of the loss of water may be far-reaching. This issue has implications far beyond the boundaries of ski areas."
The National Ski Areas Association successfully sued the Forest Service in 2012 to stop the water clause, arguing it was a federal taking of private property rights. The new rule allows ski area operators to control the water rights, but any permit to use federal land would require a commitment that water stay dedicated to the land.
After almost three years of wrangling between ski areas and the Forest Service, which manages the public land beneath 122 U.S. ski areas that host 23 million visits every season, the proposed new rule signals a win for operators. Ski areas proposed alternatives during the 2013 public meetings that included requiring ski areas to show they own enough water to support any proposed projects.
"The ski industry has not seen the new policy yet. But based on the agency's released statement, we welcome what looks to be a significant change in Forest Service policy on ski area water rights," National Ski Areas Association public policy director Geraldine Link said.
The Forest Service's proposed rule triggered proposed state and federal legislation that would have prevented the agency from demanding private water rights as a condition of an operating permit.
"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 released Wednesday. "Moving forward, we will work with Coloradans, the Forest Service, and other 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."
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.
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins