Farmers, ranchers call for action on water rights bill
Dec. 4, 2013—Farmers and ranchers are
urging House members to act soon on a bill that recognizes states’ long-standing
authority to confer water rights and retains the position that the federal
government will respect those lawfully acquired rights. The legislation, the Water Rights Protection
Act (H.R. 3189), was recently approved by the House Natural Resources Committee
and is ready to be taken up on the House floor.
The legislation “does not expand rights
for individuals at the expense of any federal agency, nor does it in any way
limit or constrain existing rights held by the U.S. Forest Service or the
Bureau of Land Management,” American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob
Stallman noted in a letter to House Resources Committee members.
In protecting privately held water
rights, prohibiting federal takings and upholding state water law, the bill
would prohibit agencies within USDA and the Department of the Interior from imposing
conditions through the permit process that would require the transfer of
privately held water rights to the federal government in order to receive or
renew the federal permit for the use of land. It also would prohibit the Secretary of the
Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture from requiring water users to acquire
rights for the United States rather than for the water user themselves.
The bill was drafted in response to the
USFS’ attempt to implement a water clause for ski area permit holders that
required ski areas to turn over privately-held water rights without
compensation in order to receive a renewed USFS land permit. USFS first
tried to put the water clause in place in 2011, but in December 2012 a federal
district court in Colorado struck it down.
Now, according to Sen. Mike Crapo
(R-Idaho), one of the bill’s sponsors, the USFS is again trying to push this
policy through a revised water clause. Farmers and ranchers are worried
that if the USFS is allowed to move forward, it will open the door for other
federal agencies like the BLM to implement a similar policy for grazing permits
and other multiple-use activities that require a federal land use permit and
involves the use of water.
At an October hearing before the
House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power,
Utah Farm Bureau CEO Randy Parker testified on AFBF’s behalf in favor of the
bill, saying continued state control of water rights is critically important to
farmers and ranchers.
“Farm Bureau supports H.R. 3189, the Water Rights Protection
Act, because it is designed to dispel uncertainty and recognizes state
sovereignty and historic water law,” said Parker. Further, he explained, H.R.
3189 recognizes states’ sovereign water rights and protects livestock water
rights from illegal federal claims and takings.