ALAMOSA — Water rights protection in Colorado and the West is not about party lines, U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton said on Tuesday as his Water Rights Protection Act prepared to move to the U.S. House of Representatives floor.
“As westerners this isn’t partisan. It’s about property rights. It’s about state law. It’s about our priority system,” Tipton said in a phone interview from the nation’s capitol on Tuesday.
U.S. Representative Tipton, a Republican, represents Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which includes the San Luis Valley.
The Water Rights Protection Act has received bipartisan support among western congressmen, Tipton added, because they understand how important it is to protect this valuable resource. The act would prohibit the federal government from taking water rights, which are protected as property rights under the Constitution.
Tipton said although federal water grabs have posed a threat for some time, the federal government had traditionally respected state water law and deferred to the states on water issues. However, there is a rule on the books permitting federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to require water rights in exchange for permits on public lands, such as grazing permits.
In the past whenever the issue arose, congressmen like former U.S. Senator Wayne Allard would put pressure on the agencies and they would back off, Tipton explained.
“It keeps bubbling back up over the course of time. They have backed off implementing the rule but it’s still on the books and as long as that’s on the books there’s a potential for it to be implemented,” he said.
The rule was recently expanded to include groundwater in addition to surface water, Tipton said.
The only way to permanently solve the problem, Tipton said, was to pass legislation at the federal level, which he is hoping to do yet this year.
The recent impetus for introducing legislation, Tipton explained, was the requirement by the federal government for new owners of the Powderhorn Ski Area to sign over water rights in exchange for a lease permit to operate the ski area.
Visiting with a colleague in Nevada Tipton learned that the BLM required the same thing for grazing permits there.
“In my view it literally begged to have legislation to be able to say you can’t … this is a private property right, and we are going to defend it,” Tipton said.
Tipton introduced the Water Rights Protection Act previously, and it successfully passed out of the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in both the 113th and 114th Congresses. However, it did not at that time have the same kind of support in the U.S. Senate.
Tipton said a companion bill has been introduced in the senate, with support from fellow Colorado congressman, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, and a growing number of senators, particularly from the western U.S.
“We are in a lot of conversations with senate colleagues to move this legislation this year,” Tipton said. “We are hopeful it will get through House and Senate.”
He said although issues such as health care and tax reform are taking quite a bit of attention right now, there are still opportunities for legislation such as the Water Rights Protection Act to go through, and he hoped it would pass this summer. He said although the act will not receive unanimous support in the House — “we do have some folks that will vote against it” — he expected it would pass.
“It does take a vote of the entire congress. We will do our best to try to educate in terms of the issues important to us,” Tipton said. “The challenge really is on the Senate side.”
As far as pushback from the BLM, Tipton last week questioned Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke when he appeared before the House Natural Resources Committee, and regarding this issue “I am optimistic he will support it.” Tipton said Zinke was one of the co-sponsors of Tipton’s bill when he served as a U.S. representative from Montana before being appointed to the cabinet post.
In addition to being optimistic about the passage of the Water Rights Protection Act, Tipton was also optimistic about the demise of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.
“That is again critical not only for the west but I view it for the entire country,” Tipton said.
In the past the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had jurisdiction over navigable waters but expanded that under WOTUS to anywhere water ran, ranging from irrigation ditches to building sites where rainwater might pool after a storm. The impacts of regulating such “pollutants” as dirt caused by agricultural operations or housing construction would be monumental and affect a wide range of folks from farmers to general taxpayers, Tipton explained.
Similar to the rule that the Water Rights Protection Act would overrule, the WOTUS rule would be a constant threat as long as it was on the books, even it was not implemented.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this year requiring the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revisit WOTUS. On Tuesday the EPA and Corps of Engineers announced plans to rescind the WOTUS rule.
Caption: Congressman Scott Tipton