Story Heather Hamilton-Maude
Caputa, S.D.

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December 10, 2013
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Water Rights Fight: American Farm Bureau Federation official reports on issues impacting the West

Riders and ski resorts top the list of major issues under the focus of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In his report during the Wyoming Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in Laramie last month, the AFBF’s Environmental and Energy Policy Director Paul Schlegel explained why.

“Chairman of the Interior Appropriations Committee Mike Simpson, from Idaho, attached 31 riders to the Interior Appropriations bill, which drove the activist’s nuts, and which is one reason it hasn’t gone further. Those riders would reduce funding for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) among other things, and they have been controversial,” began Schlegel, speaking of a major potential victory for the West being worked on in D.C.

A rider is a piece of language within a bill stating how spending can, or cannot, occur. It is designed as a policy directive to an agency, and is one key reason the Interior Appropriations bill is still stalled out in committee.

The bill also deals with federal lands grazing, “essentially stating they do not have to go through NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) review as long as there is a backlog in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). It would increase trailing of livestock flexibility, prohibit the listing of the Sage Grouse, and reprogram water conservation funding so they cannot acquire more land,” continued Schlegel of a sampling of things the proposed bill and its attached riders would do for Western producers.

He explained that the bill will ultimately be wrapped up in whatever happens with the federal budget in the next 30 to 90 days, and that AFBF is watching to see how it turns out while also closely tracking the attached riders they support.

“In talking water rights, back in the spring AFBF was invited to sit down with the U.S. Forest Service to have a dialog about permits for ski operations on Forest Service land, and, as you can imagine, this got bucked around and wound up with me. I don’t even remember why I went,” began Schlegel of the uncommon means through which he learned of a potentially major issue for all private property owners.

At the meeting, Schlegel realized the ski industry people have been fighting with the Forest Service for the last decade over the issue of the Forest Service attempting to make them put water right permits under the name of the United States rather than their own name in order to renew their operating permits.

“The Forest Service has tried to bully them, and the ski folks finally sued about two years ago, and won about a year ago on procedural grounds, causing the Forest Service to rewrite this directive. I’m sitting in this meeting listening to this and thinking what a disaster this could become for our grazers of federal land if the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) tries to do the same thing,” explained Schlegel.

In response to the meeting, AFBF filed comments on the issue and Schlegel made it known to additional staff and to Mike Simpson, resulting in another rider on the Interior Appropriations bill.

The Natural Resources Committee, who has jurisdiction over the Forest Service, was also aware of the situation and consequently came up with a separate, freestanding bill. Backed by U.S. Representatives Scott Tipton and Jared Polis, the bill is called the Water Right Protection Act. It has already passed the House Natural Resource Committee, and is backed by AFBF.

“All this bill does and says is that if you are the Forest Service, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) or the Department of Interior (DOI), you cannot condition a permit, its issuance, its continuance, its extension or whatever based on impinging on the lawfully acquired water right of a water holder in a state,” stated Schlegel.

At present, Democrats want to restrict the bill to just ski operations, and do not want it to cover grazing permits, a point AFBF and its affiliates are strongly opposed to.

“It is wrong to start distinguishing between classes of people who hold this right. We are not asking for the federal government to relinquish any rights, we are simply stating that they cannot extort our water rights from us,” noted Schlegel, adding that AFBF is hoping for a decision on this bill within the calendar year, and will continue to press that it includes grazers as well as those involved in the ski industry.

Schlegel also mentioned AFBF’s work regarding the impending proposed changes to the Clean Water Act, wild horse and burro issue and regulatory reform, stating they are actively participating in all arenas and watching for changes as the year winds down.

“The Clean Water Act will probably be officially proposed in early 2014, and when that happens it will be a Donny Brook of a fight. We are going to be energizing everyone at the grassroots level to weigh in, and will need everybody everywhere to help,” concluded Schlegel of one impending battle folks from across the country need to prepare and watch for. ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Dec 6, 2013 01:40PM Published Dec 18, 2013 02:28PM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.