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Ski industry offers some guarantees on water rights issue

Forest Service looking to ensure long-term viability of ski areas

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With water a premium in the West, the Forest Service and ski resorts are discussing how they will administer water that originates on national forest lands. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — In comments submitted to the U.S. Forest Service, the National Ski Areas Association is suggesting a fresh start in developing a policy to determine ownership and future use of water that originates on national forest lands.

“Our new approach assumes that all previous water clauses are no longer in effect, null and void, and unenforceable. It would result in a consistent water policy across the board going forward,” said NSAA policy director Geraldine Link.

The ski industry comments came as the Forest Service held a series of hearings around the West in the early stages of developing a new water rights clause that eventually will become part of agency permits for businesses operating on public lands.

The ski industry and the Forest Service have been at odds over water rights for years, and most recently faced each other in federal court over a 2011 version of the permit language. The court said that the Forest Service failed to follow required procedures in rewriting the clause, and also noted that the agency has adopted a series of clauses that aren’t being applied consistently.

Subsequently, agency decided to start anew by gathering input from stakeholders.

“We approach this public process with renewed enthusiasm and hope that the Forest Service will develop a new water policy and clause that respect state water laws and private property rights,” the NSAA wrote in its comments.

Although some other permit-holders would be affected, the main issue is water used by ski areas for snowmaking and other activities associated with resort operations. Resorts claim the ownership of those water rights is based on state water law, while the Forest Service wants to ensure that the resorts don’t sell off water rights that could be crucial to ski area operations in the future.

The NSAA said in its comments that it supports the Forest Service goal of ensuring the sustainability of ski area operations for the long-term and suggested two specific ways to meet those objectives:

  • Ski areas will demonstrate for future projects which require water for implementation that sufficient water is available to support the projects;
  • Upon sale of a ski area, resorts will provide an option to purchase sufficient water to reasonably run the ski area to a successor ski area owner. If the successor ski area declines to exercise such option, the ski area shall offer it to the local government, and then in turn to the Forest Service.

For the ski industry, its partially a financial issue. Resorts have spent millions of dollars developing and perfecting water rights under state law, and to the NSAA, any permit language requiring a transfer of those rights is unacceptable and illegal.

A required transfer would impair the value of the resorts’ investments and could hinder their ability to finance capital improvements, the NSAA wrote.

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One Response

  1. Seems like the water rights in question ought to be attached to the USFS ski area permits allowing private entities to operate on public lands. The water rights for ski areas must stay with the permission to operate the ski area. Granting any public water right directly to a private company is just bad policy. The USFS is rightly concerned that if they give away water rights to private corporations, those rights may be sold off by the corporation at a private profit for purposes other than originally intended (ie snowmaking).

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