House approves bill dealing with water rights

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, March 13, 2014 - The House approved legislation (H.R. 3189) today, on a mostly party-line vote of 238-174, which would prevent federal agencies from requiring privately held water rights to be turned over to the federal government.

Supporters said the U.S. Forest Service has attempted to require multiple use permit holders to turn over their privately owned water rights to the federal government as a condition of their permit renewal. The Water Rights Protection Act, offered by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., would prohibit the interior secretary and the agriculture secretary from requiring the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government as a condition of a special use permit, lease or other land use arrangement. The Senate has companion legislation.

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“Over the past decade, there have been numerous cases when the federal government has attempted to circumvent long-established state water law in order to take privately-held water rights without paying for them,” Tipton said. “By using the federal permit, lease, and land management process to extort water rights from those who hold rights under state law, the federal government is overreaching, violating private property rights, and the United States Constitution.”

Twelve Democrats joined 226 Republicans in supporting the bill, while 174 Democrats and no Republicans voted against the legislation.

House Democrats argued the bill would strip federal land management agencies of their ability to condition water use in their permitting processes, essentially prohibiting them from enforcing protections of rivers and other water resources for fish, wildlife and recreation. The Democrats said the bill was brought to the floor under the guise of resolving a conflict between the National Ski Resorts Association and the U.S. Forest Service regarding water rights. However, they said, the legislation is drafted broadly and would cause federal land managers to lose the ability to restrict the use of water on federal lands, meaning water users could leave rivers and streams dry.

In a statement of administration policy, the White House said the legislation would threaten the federal government's longstanding authority to manage property and claim proprietary rights for the benefit of Indian tribes and reserved federal lands, and the broader public that depends on the proper management of public lands and resources. “H.R. 3189 is overly broad and could have numerous unintended consequences,” the statement said. “For example, the bill could impede private water rights holders from entering into voluntary agreements with federal agencies, which benefit state, federal, and private water rights holders' interests and improve water resource management.”

The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) applauded passage of the bill, saying the legislation will help “combat the federal government by way of the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management from seizing water rights in exchange for land use permits, without just compensation.”

“With 40 percent 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,” said NCBA President Bob McCan. “The federal agencies must be accountable to citizens and the states and cannot, at will, circumvent state water laws at the expense of landowners.”

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