Impacts of Proposed Water Rights Bill for Anglers and Public Lands

The so called “Water Rights Protection Act” is misleading, says American Rivers, and over 60 conservation and sporting groups concur. If passed, this legislation could have serious impacts for anglers and access to public land and water.

Read more in the press release below. 

Water Rights bill snowballs into disaster for anglers and public lands.

From American Rivers:

As winter sets in across the country and our outdoor pursuits turn to thoughts of cutting some turns on the slopes along with wetting a line on our local beat, an avalanche is careening downhill and the nation’s rivers and public lands are directly in its path.

H.R. 3189, the so called “Water Rights Protection Act” , introduced by Representatives Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Jared Polis (D-CO) in the House and Senator John Barasso (R- WY) , in the Senate (S. 1630) represents one of the most anti –environmental attacks in the 113th Congress. The legislation could mean serious impacts for anglers and boaters and the rivers and forests where they spend their hard earned free time.

The bill’s authors said it was intended to address a narrow water rights conflict between Colorado’s ski industry and the U.S. Forest Service. But somewhere along the way, the ski industry invited other big moneyed interests to join the party. The National Ski Areas Association worked with Big Ag and their lobbyists in DC to draft a much more expansive bill that would handcuff Federal agencies and prevent them from protecting rivers and public lands.

The ski industry’s bill would allow private water users to dry up rivers on public lands with impunity. It would tie the hands of Federal agencies tasked with providing flexible water management options on our public lands. If passed, the bill would prevent federal agencies from implementing reasonable safeguards to protect fish, wildlife, and recreational benefits in the nation’s rivers. It would gut any federal law, such as the Endangered Species Act, that permits agencies to place conditions on permits or licenses to keep water in rivers to support fish, wildlife, or in-stream recreation. For instance, the bill could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water diverters to leave water in streams flowing through National Forests to protect native trout, or stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that attract shad, salmon, and other migratory to fish ladders so that they can safely pass over dams.

Anti-environmental forces orchestrated a hearing on the bill in the House of Representatives during the government shutdown, precluding Federal agencies and water managers from weighing in on the bill. And now, amendments to the bill have expanded its damaging scope even further. For example, the bill now prevents federal agencies from protecting recreation and instream flows on public lands. Additions to the Bill go so far as to create an unprecedented federal definition of water rights, which have traditionally been a matter of state law.

It’s clear that the “Water Rights Protection Act” was never really about solving a water rights issue for the ski industry. You see, despite the fact that the U.S. Forest Service pledged to quickly resolve the dispute over water rights on national forest land in Colorado, protecting rivers on public lands and upholding important principles of water law, the ski industry has doubled down on behalf of their Ag industry friends in support of a bill aimed at preventing federal agencies from protecting our rivers and public lands.

With access to private waters shrinking as some anglers are willing to pay big buck rod fees to landowners or exclusive fishing clubs, the health of rivers and streams on public lands is of vital interest to the citizen angler.

If this bill were to become law, federal agencies would have no authority to keep water in rivers and streams in national forests, national parks, or wildlife refuges. Efforts to restore shad, striped bass, salmon, and steelhead runs that have been decimated by dams could be set back decades. Whether you fish 200 days a year or get out on the occasional weekend, you would have fewer viable streams and rivers to fish. Ask yourself what percentage of time you spend fishing on public lands?

Opposition to the so called “Water Rights Protection Act” is broad; over 60 conservation, sportsman, and recreation groups oppose the bill. Yet the “Green” ski industry continues to give it cover.

This fight may be an indication of things to come. The West and other parts of the country are grappling with drought and potential future water shortages. Anglers and other recreation constituencies could easily be cast aside. Citizen anglers who depend on healthy, functioning streams and rivers on our public lands will be pitted against large municipal, development, and corporate interests as a fight to secure future water supplies looms on the horizon.

Who do you think will win? Is this what sportsmen across the political spectrum really want? Tell your elected officials, local ski resort, and water managers that you have a stake in this too.

Matt Niemerski is the Director of Western Water Policy for American Rivers in D.C. When not at his desk, he is continuously frustrated by the overeducated trout on the Gun powder River in Maryland.

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