DENVER - Durango Mountain Resort is getting ready to sue the U.S. Forest Service over access to its water rights - rights it needs for future development on the mountain.
The dispute comes at the same time the Forest Service is under fire nationally for its attempts to force ski resorts to turn over their water rights as a condition for getting their permits renewed.
Meanwhile at the Legislature, a bill by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, to curb the Forest Service's water rights policy appears to be dead as Democratic leaders defer to the federal agency for the second year in a row.
Roberts' bill would not help Durango Mountain Resort, which has a slightly different dispute with the Forest Service. But the resort's CEO, Gary Derck, sees a pattern of the Forest Service trying to get control of ski resorts' water rights.
The ski resort owns conditional water rights to six wells on the back side of the mountain, on land its previous owners traded to the Forest Service in the 1990s. The trade did not include water rights, but the agency now says it will not allow Durango Mountain Resort to access the wells.
Lawyers for the Forest Service have asked a local water judge to deny Durango Mountain Resort's rights to the wells. The resort's rights are conditional, and it needs to prove to a water judge every six years that it is working toward making the rights absolute and putting the water to use.
But starting in 2010, the Forest Service began opposing the ski area in water court.
The ski area's owners say they have legal rights to access their water rights, and after several years of wrangling with the Forest Service, they are getting ready to sue.
The Forest Service has had high-profile battles with other ski resorts in recent years over its attempts to force them to turn over their water rights to the government.
The agency's leaders say they are merely trying to make sure ski water rights will not be sold off to real estate developers or others who could take water away from snowmaking.
Republican lawmakers in Denver and Washington, D.C., have tried to pass bills to forbid the practice. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, passed a bill through the House of Representatives this year, but President Barack Obama has said he would veto it, and it's unlikely the Senate will ever vote on it.
In Denver, legislators have tried for two years to declare that water rights - which are granted under state law - cannot be forcibly obtained in return for a land-use permit. Last year, former U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman personally lobbied key Democrats to kill the bill, and they kept it bottled up in the House until the session ended.
This year's bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote in February, but now it's in limbo in a Senate committee.
Roberts, the sponsor, said she's been told it won't pass.
Governor weighs in
Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration sent legislators a letter urging passage of the bill - a step it usually does not take.
"The State of Colorado should send a strong message to Washington that we intend to protect our control and authority over our water," wrote James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
But the letter has not helped budge Roberts' legislation.