Colorado Republicans cheer while environmentalists fear repeal of water rule

Author: Peter Marcus - June 28, 2017 - Updated: June 29, 2017

In this April 14, 2013 file photo, hikers make their way along the banks of the Colorado River near Willow Beach, Ariz. A survey of decision-makers by the group at the University of Colorado concludes that the president who takes office in 2017 could see cuts in Colorado River water supplies to Arizona and Nevada as soon as January 2018. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation and the Trump administration are taking steps to roll back the federal government’s reach over bodies of water across the country.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said this week that the administration will repeal the so-called Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS. The rule, enacted under the Obama administration, clarifies regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act to protect streams and wetlands.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, successfully pushed a measure through the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday to prohibit the departments of Agriculture and the Interior from requiring the transfer of water rights as a condition of any land-use permit. The bill also requires that future directives from the departments be consistent with state water law.

Tipton said he became concerned over federal attempts to manipulate federal permit, lease and land management processes to circumvent state water law and “hijack” privately held water rights. He pointed to a U.S. Forest Service attempt to require a transfer of privately-held water rights to the federal government as a condition for granting permits on National Forest System lands.

“There was no compensation for the transfer of these privately-held rights, despite the fact that many stakeholders had invested their own capital, many times to the tune of millions of dollars,” Tipton said. “This Forest Service permit condition had already hurt a number of stakeholders in my home state of Colorado.”

Tipton highlighted incidents at Powerdhorn Ski Area in Grand Junction and Breckenridge Ski Resort. The congressman from southwest Colorado also outlined instances when the Bureau of Land Management has conditioned grazing permits on the transfer of privately held water rights to the federal government.

Concerns raised over repealing WOTUS 

The WOTUS announcement by the Trump administration on Tuesday left environmental groups on edge. They say repeal of the rule “turns the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency on its head.”

“Instead of safeguarding our drinking water, the Trump administration is proposing to stop protecting drinking water sources for 3.7 million Coloradans,” said Garrett Garner-Wells, state director for Environment Colorado. “It defies common sense, sound science, and the will of the people of Colorado.”

The group said the 2015 rule restored federal protections to 73,000 miles of Colorado’s streams, which feed waterways such as the Colorado River and, in some cases, provide drinking water.

The Obama administration took action on small bodies of water after confusing and complex guidelines resulted from Supreme Court decisions. Polluters escaped fines for violations because of uncertain jurisdiction. But ranchers and farmers worry that even small ditches and ponds on private property could be subject to federal regulation, raising costs and overall compliance burdens.

The Trump administration’s reversal on the rule was expected after Trump in February signed an executive order directing the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to review the regulation, a move the president described as “paving the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

“The previous administration used the vague language in the WOTUS Rule to harm local communities – including ranchers, farmers, and small business owners,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. “I look forward to a revision of this rule that will empower local landowners instead of giving power solely to the federal government.”

“Farmers and ranchers across Colorado will now be free from Washington bureaucrats who want to regulate every small body of water on their private property,” added U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Greeley.

Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner also applauded the action, saying, “The harmful impacts of the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule on Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, and small business owners cannot be overstated. Colorado’s agriculture community is already facing hardship and it is welcome news that this over burdensome regulation will never go into effect.”

But Kristin Green, water advocate for Conservation Colorado, said repealing the rule will put Colorado at greater risk of pollution and development on precious lands.

“Coloradans support protecting our clean water and don’t want to see politicians playing politics with it,” Green said. “This is yet another example of the Trump administration joining with corporate polluters to undermine the progress that our nation has made in cleaning up our environment.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.