The Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) hailed the passage of the Water Rights Protection Act (WRPA), H.R. 3189, by the U.S. House of Representatives by a 238 to 174 vote earlier this week. Other organizations have indicated support, too. Introduced by Congressman Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), the legislation reiterates the limits to federal agency jurisdiction of water.

H.R. 3189 comes as a means to combat the federal government by way of the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from seizing water rights in exchange for land use permits, without just compensation, announced the cattlemen’s association.

An issue that arose in a USFS directive applicable to ski areas has been seen by some in the ag industry as an issue that could threaten all water users, including ranchers, as they depend on water rights on public and private land to keep their businesses viable. It was noted that 40 percent of the western cow herd spends some time on public lands.

But the real concern about water rights expressed by many in the irrigation and ag industry is that the federal government could be headed toward trampling on states’ rights of water management.

"This legislation is a common sense bill that provides certainty to ranchers and leaves water management to the states where it belongs. The federal agencies must be accountable to citizens and the states and cannot, at will, circumvent state water laws at the expense of landowners," said NCBA President Bob McCan, a rancher from Victoria, Texas.

The cattlemen contention in support of the legislation is that it will prohibit the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture from requiring the transfer of water rights without adequate and just compensation. Additionally, the bill will support long-established state water laws, clarifying that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over state water rights.

John Farner, government and public affairs director of the Irrigation Association, said, “Policies need to continue to recognize that we need to be getting more out of agricultural production, not less. Requiring, or even incentivizing, farmers and ranchers to give up water rights to the U.S. government to use for other purposes is not the best way forward to ensure a safe and reliable food supply. We need to be looking more at how the water is stored, delivered and used in ag production. This bill moves us in the direction of allowing states to properly manage water resources, while working with farmers, ranchers and conservation groups all at the table.”

PLC President Brice Lee, a rancher from Hesperus, Colo., said "Our members face the same threats as ski companies do—perhaps with more at stake as they are individuals and families depending on these water rights for their livelihood. It is important to include all industries that may be impacted, to keep our rural communities thriving. Rep. Tipton's bill accomplishes the purpose of protecting all water right holders, including ranchers."

Farner added, “Water is very much a contentious issue, especially in agriculture. We very much support conservation efforts of the American farmer that leads to sustainable farming practices and may lead to additional water available for ag and non-ag purposes. To that end, we pride ourselves on partnering with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and Environmental Defense Fund on supporting incentives and policies that both value agriculture production and environmental sustainability.”