Tipton debates ski area water rights

WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on water rights during a committee hearing Tuesday, saying he was frustrated with the federal government's 2011 attempt to circumvent state law.

Two years ago, the U.S. Forest Service issued a directive forbidding ski areas from selling their water rights to anyone other than the next operator of the ski area.

A federal judge struck down that policy last December, saying the agency did not properly seek public input.

After the courtroom loss, the Forest Service moved to institute a public process - which would begin this spring - for a new water-rights rule for the ski industry.

On Capitol Hill, Tipton wanted to know why - even after the Forest Service's 2011 directive was struck down - the agency continues to go after water in the Western part of the country and in the Centennial State, "given the subversive nature that this has to state law in Colorado."

Vilsack joked that he was once advised never to get involved in water issues because the matter is so complicated.

"I think the Forest Service learned a lesson in terms of approaching this issue," Vilsack said.

Tipton asked the secretary if the Forest Service would continue to pursue federal pre-emption of water rights.

"The focus here is making sure that we use our forests ... in the most appropriate way," Vilsack said.

"We need to balance that with the interests of those who need the water for economic purposes," he added, citing the ski industry.

The new federal water-rights policy will be different from the 2011 directive, Vilsack said, but the need to preserve and conserve water is the same.

In the Colorado statehouse, legislators are hoping to pass a bill that would forbid the federal government from forcing people to cede their water rights in order to get a special use permit.

State law and property rights should be important, Tipton countered, before changing the subject to exporting potatoes from San Luis Valley.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working with the Mexican government to export products there, Vilsack said, including potatoes.

Journal Denver correspondent Joe Hanel contributed to this report.