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Forest Service Backs Off; Resorts Can Own Water Rights, But Must Stay Connected Forever

Loveland snowmaking

The U.S. Forest Service has backed off its rigid stance on assuming control of water rights from ski and snowboard resorts as a condition of a permit to operate.


Released in June, the proposed rule now allows permit-holders to own the water rights that supply snowmaking and other operations at the resort but requires a commitment to keeping the water connected with the land in perpetuity.


“Chairlifts 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 public statement. “The economic effects of the loss of water may be far-reaching. This issue has implications far beyond the boundaries of ski areas.”


The new rule essentially keeps things status quo – firmly attaching water rights to the land on which they apply – but quiets USFS fears that resort owners might sell the rights off that land and restrict use on the watershed from which it originates. The National Ski Area Association, which successfully sued in 2012 to have the new rule overturned, characterized the issue as a “taking” of private property.


"This proposal balances the interests of the public, the ski areas and our natural resources by ensuring the necessary water is provided for winter recreation through our special-use permit process," said Tidwell. "This proposed change will provide assurances to the public that they will continue to enjoy winter recreation at ski areas on national forests."


Some 122 U.S. ski and snowboard resorts hold permits to 180,000 acres of national forest lands for winter recreation, averaging 23 million visits annually, according to the Forest Service. The public lands the agency manages provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year, the agency said.


“We’ve been waiting for the new water clause for quite some time and are very happy to have it in hand,” Melanie Mills, president and CEO for Colorado Ski Country USA, told “We look forward to reviewing its many provisions carefully and to assessing the impact they will have on the variety of water rights ownership scenarios at our member resorts. This is a draft water clause and we expect to develop and provide comments to the agency during the 60 day comment period." 


Opposition still exists to any loosening on the policy, especially in times of climate change that has altered water resource scenarios.


“The reason they want to exercise absolute power over rights is simple,” wrote Bob Berwyn in an op-ed for the Summit County Citizens Voice that he publishes. “Resort companies claim the water rights as assets on their balance sheets to secure financing and bolster the paper value of their holdings. Meanwhile, the public once again gets shafted by the ski industry, which continuously exploits forests, land and water for shareholder profits.


“Many streams exploited for snowmaking by the ski industry are nearly dried up by diversions in the fall and early winter, one of the most critical times for fish when flows are already at their lowest natural levels,” Berwyn said.


A 60-day comment period on the revised ruling runs to Aug. 20. Click here to read the ruling.


Photo: Snowmaking, like this photo at Loveland, highlights the issue of water rights (Loveland)

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