Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ski areas and Forest Service fight over water rights

Ski-area operators and their federal landlord faced off in federal court Thursday, arguing over ownership of the resorts' rights to water they use for snowmaking and other purposes. Last year the Forest Service introduced a new rule in its ski-area permitting process that required ski areas to transfer some water rights to the federal government, arguing the water should stay connected to the publicly owned land. The Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association — or NSAA — sued, calling the new permitting condition a federal takeover of private property that ski areas acquired legally through state water courts. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Martinez entertained oral arguments from both sides in a case that could decide the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ski-area water rights. Citing 140 years of federal laws and court decisions, NSAA lawyer Zeke Williams argued the agency overstepped its authority with the new directive, which he called a "sea change in agency law." "The agency can point to no statute that authorizes it to condition use and occupancy permits on the permit holder assigning to the Forest Service property that is not federal property," Williams said. The Forest Service says it changed the law to prevent ski areas from selling water rights connected to federal land. "The worry here is that a permittee could cease using the area for permitted purposes and move the water somewhere else," said Department of Justice attorney Clay Samford...more

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