Forest Service forced to look at ski area water rules
April 22, 2013
Who should have control of the water rights at ski resorts on U.S. Forest Service land across the country was the subject of a meeting in South Lake Tahoe this week.
The U.S. Forest Service-led meeting was one of three held by the agency in various locations across the west this to help develop water rights rules for ski resorts in response to a federal judge's December decision.
U.S. District Judge William Martinez found the Forest Service failed to undertake the necessary public process on recent changes it made that exerted greater control over water rights at ski resorts operated on federal land.
The National Ski Areas Association challenged the changes, calling them a "stunning and unprecedented" effort to seize privately held water rights in a January 2012 complaint.
The changes significantly reduced the value of water rights ski resorts acquired under state law, prohibited ski areas from transferring the rights obtained from private land to anyone except a successor ski area and violated property rights, according to lawyers for the NSAA. The judge did not rule on the merits of the changes, but found the Forest Service did not receive the necessary public input before making the changes.
At Thursday's meeting, Jim Peña, associate deputy chief for the Forest Service, said the changes were guided by the agency looking at the long-term sustainability of its land and trying to develop a way to keep water rights with the associated activity of ski area permits — skiing. Forest Service officials have contended the water rights should stay with the U.S. so that, if a ski resort closes, the water rights don't go with it.
The Forest Service permits ski areas in 58 national forests in 12 states, including many in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin. Forest system lands are the largest single source of water in the continental U.S., providing more than 14 percent of the available supply, according to information from the Forest Service.
Jean Thomas, Water Rights Program Leader for the Forest Service, noted the agency is concerned with climate change and increasing dependence on snowmaking by resorts.
Peña said he didn't expect the new rules to ultimately effect how much resorts could use to make snow.
Thomas said the Forest Service is "cleaning slate" regarding its ski area water rights rules following the judge's decision.
"We're looking for ideas on how we can frame it differently," Thomas said.
A new proposal for ski area water rights is expected to be published in August, with a public comment period to follow. The new rules would start being used in February 2014 under the current schedule.