Controversy over water rights in ski areas comes to the Western Slope during Saturday’s Club 20 spring meeting.
The U.S. Forest Service recently revised the permits ski resorts need to operate on public lands and added clauses that would require the ski areas to sign over their water rights to the federal government.
The new clause now applies to ski resorts that are getting new public land permits or are renewing their older ones.
"The intent of the new water clause in the ski area permits is to maintain all of the assets that ski areas need to remain viable," said Jim Bedwell, the director of recreation for the Forest Service.
He explained that the service wants water on national forest land to be sustained for recreational use, like snowmaking for ski resorts.
"There are state laws that deal with this as well, and those could be utilized, but we think it's important to have that understanding up front," said Bedwell. That understanding is that the water technically belongs to the federal government..
But Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Colo., calls the clauses a gross overreach of federal power.
"We have state water rights. We have private property rights that need to be backed up. We have a priority system here in Colorado that needs to be protected. We can't allow the federal government to step in the middle of that, and they should not," said Tipton.
Locally, Powderhorn is one of just three ski resorts in the country that have received permits since the rule was introduced.
The resort's actual water rights were negotiated before this clause was put into action, so Powderhorn will retain ownership of all its water.
"Because the conditions of this clause calls out that we will respect previous water rights clauses and previous permits," said Bedwell.
That would change if Powderhorn was sold again.
According to Bedwell, the clause guarantees that water in ski areas will stay there.
"The water rights won't be separated from the land. It will keep it on land rather than go down stream to adjacent states," said Bedwell.
However, Tipton says the rule never guarantees the water will be used for snowmaking.
"You can say it stays with the land but water does flow downhill, so what are the other uses and why wouldn't they commit to that if that is the actual purpose for it?" said Tipton.
The National Ski Association is in the process of suing the Forest Service so that ski areas can retain their rights.
Tipton said that if the suit does not give rights back to ski areas, he is ready to introduce legislation that will.