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Water Battle Between Ski Areas, Forest Service May End Soon

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DENVER (CBS4) – A long fight over water rights between ski areas and the federal government appears to be settling down.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Forest Service has tried to change the rules on water rights four different times, but many say the most over-reaching measure happened nearly two years ago.

“They said, all water must be held in the name of the United States. Essentially it was: ‘Ski areas, give us your water,’ ” Colorado Ski Country USA President Melanie Mills said.

The government didn’t offer to buy the water rights, it just asked that they be handed over.

A total of 24 ski resorts in Colorado operate on land owned by the government which the Forest Service manages. Many of those resorts have spent thousands or even million of dollars to buy water that’s essential for operations. Ski areas use water primarily for snowmaking, and industry officials say 80 percent of the man-made snow returns to rivers and streams.

“(The Forest Service) said ‘Ski areas could sell off their water to the highest bidder.’ No ski area has ever done that, and it certainly wouldn’t be in their best interests to do so. So we’re making up a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Mills said.

“We don’t want to see water politicized. We think we’re pretty good at managing our water to put the best product on the ground at the ski area,” Mills said.

The ski areas got together and won a court case last year, but it took until Wednesday for the Forest Service to back off its plan.

Legislation introduced by Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton moved forward in the House of Representatives in Washington on Thursday. It would protect all privately held water, including at ski resorts, from government intervention.

The Forest Service chief said such a law isn’t necessary, but nearly everyone else CBS4 talked to on Thursday disagreed.

“If we could get something written in law by Congress it would give us some stability and some insurance for the long term,” Mills said.

Tipton told CBS4 he’s hoping the bill will head to the House floor as soon as possible. The law could be passed before the end of the year or in January.

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