THE House has passed the Water Rights Protection Act by a 238-174 vote.
Introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton (R., Colo.), the legislation recognizes states' long-standing authority to confer water rights and retains the position that the federal government will respect those lawfully acquired rights.
"The Water Rights Protection Act does not expand rights for individuals at the expense of any federal agency, nor does it, in any way, limit or constrain existing rights held by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) or the Bureau of Land Management," noted Ryan Yates, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) water rights specialist.
In protecting privately held water rights, prohibiting federal takings and upholding state water laws, the bill would prohibit agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of the Interior from imposing conditions through the permit process that would require the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government in order to receive or renew the federal permit for use of the land.
It also would prohibit the interior secretary and agriculture secretary from requiring water users to acquire rights for the U.S. rather than for the water users themselves.
The bill protects water users by prohibiting federal agencies from extorting water rights through the use of permits, leases and other land management arrangements, for which the federal government would otherwise have to pay just compensation.
During debate on the bill, lawmakers rejected an amendment by Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.) that would have severely limited the legislation to become applicable only to ski operations, eliminating the efficacy of the bill for ranchers.
According to AFBF, the Polis proposal would have treated owners of state water rights in an unequal, unprecedented fashion and was opposed by the agriculture industry.
The Water Rights Protection Act was drafted in response to USFS's attempt to implement a water clause for ski area permit holders requiring ski areas to turn over privately held water rights without compensation in order to receive a renewed USFS land permit. USFS first tried to enact the water clause in 2011, but in December 2012, a federal district court in Colorado struck it down.
Now, according to Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Ida.), a sponsor of the Senate's companion bill, USFS is again trying to push this policy through a revised water clause.
Farmers and ranchers are worried that if the USFS is allowed to move forward, it will open the door for other federal agencies to implement a similar policy for grazing permits and other multiple-use activities that require a federal land use permit and involve the use of water.
"With 40% of the western cow herd spending some time on public lands, the ability to have secure water rights is imperative not only to producers but to the economy," National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. president Bob McCan said. "This legislation is a commonsense bill that provides certainty to ranchers and leaves water management to the states, where it belongs. The federal agencies must be accountable to citizens and the states and cannot, at will, circumvent state water laws at the expense of landowners."