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Originally published March 13, 2014 at 9:31 PM | Page modified March 13, 2014 at 9:40 PM

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Water-rights bill backed by ski areas OK’d by the House

The U.S. House on Thursday passed legislation triggered by the U.S. Forest Service’s move to assert federal ownership over water rights held by ski areas to tap public streams for snowmaking.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Thursday passed a controversial bill triggered by the U.S. Forest Service’s equally controversial move to assert federal ownership over water rights held by ski areas to tap public streams for snow-making.

The 238-174 vote — with every Republican in favor and all but 12 Democrats opposed — capped a twisted legislative journey that began with a 2012 court fight in Colorado and ended with a bill that critics fear would handcuff federal oversight of water use by ranchers, farmers, oil companies, municipalities and other parties.

The Water Rights Protection Act had the backing of virtually all ski resorts in the United States. Among them are 13 ski areas in Washington, including Crystal Mountain, The Summit at Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass.

But the National Ski Areas Association in recent weeks had been pushing lawmakers to narrow the legislation’s scope out of fear the Democrat-controlled Senate would otherwise reject it. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and one of the bill’s 15 co-sponsors, withdrew his support and pushed for an amendment to restrict the bill only to ski-area permits.

Instead, House Republicans approved a broader bill that would apply to the Interior Department and the Department of Agriculture, agencies that encompass the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service as well as the Forest Service.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, managed the bill on the House floor as Democrats denounced it as sloppy legislation that would bring far-reaching consequences.

Democrats also repeatedly pointed out that Hastings’ committee held the only hearing on the bill on Oct. 10, in the middle of the 16-day federal- government shutdown and with no witnesses testifying in opposition.

Hastings rejected the criticisms and said the bill simply would protect private property from confiscation under President Obama’s “imperial presidency.”

The legislation bars the federal government from taking ownership of water rights as a condition for issuing land-use permits required to operate ski resorts or other businesses on federal lands.

Many ski areas are located within national forests, including Mount Baker and White Pass.

That was what the Forest Service attempted to do in 2011 with revised regulations.

The agency said it was trying to prevent water rights from being sold off separately from the land.

Water rights are valuable intangible property for ski areas, worth millions of dollars in some cases.

Climate change is making resorts more dependent on artificial snow to make up for diminishing snowfalls, allowing them to keep consistent opening dates and to cover high-traffic slopes.

Ski areas in Washington use limited man-made snow, said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, but they’re far less dependent than such resorts as Sun Valley in Idaho or Snow King in Wyoming.

Ski areas also pay to tap streams that flow through public lands to operate kitchens, clean bathroom and other purposes.

In 2012, the National Ski Areas Association sued the Forest Service, alleging the new permit clause was an illegal property grab without compensation. A U.S. District judge in Denver ruled in its favor.

The Forest Service since has been working to amend the water-rights clause. The House bill was an attempt to codify the change.

Such legislation is needed because the Forest Service has changed its water policy four times in 10 years, said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association.

The House bill was endorsed by the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Association and dozens of other groups. But scores of environmental and sportsmen’s organizations, as well as Colorado’s Summit County — home to four major ski areas, including Breckenridge and Copper Mountain — warned it would jeopardize the federal government’s ability to limit water diversions to protect fish or for kayaking and other recreational uses.

Tom O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, a conservation group, said it was disappointing to see ski resorts, many of which have embraced environmental sustainability, back legislation that would upend the balance among competing demands for public water.

“In the West, water is money,” O’Keefe said. “If the agencies can’t defend vital flows that rivers need to support fish and recreation, then our rivers will be sold, siphoned, and greatly diminished.”

O’Keefe and other opponents now are counting on the Senate Democrats to block the bill.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or Twitter: @KyungMSong

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