The House on Thursday passed the Water Rights Protection Act by a 238 to 174 vote, reinforcing limits to federal agency jurisdiction of water.
Introduced by Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Colo., the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the legislation comes as a means to combat United States Forest Service's and Bureau of Land Management's seizure of water rights in exchange for land use permits without just compensation.
Groups saw an issue that arose in a USFS directive applicable to ski areas as a threat to all water users, including ranchers.
"With 40% 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."
The legislation will prohibit the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture from requiring the transfer of water rights without adequate and just compensation, NCBA and the Public Lands Council said in a statement. Additionally, the bill supports state water laws, clarifying that the federal government does not have jurisdiction.
"Our members face the same threats as ski companies do—perhaps with more at stake as they are individuals and families depending on these water rights for their livelihood," said PLC President Brice Lee. "It is important to include all industries that may be impacted, to keep our rural communities thriving. Rep. Tipton's bill accomplished the purpose of protecting all water right holders, including ranchers."
PLC and NCBA supported an amendment by Rep. Tipton that made revisions to the legislation which clarified the intent of the bill. The groups opposed an amendment by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., that they say would have severely limited the legislation to become applicable only to ski operations, eliminating the efficacy of the bill for ranchers.