Changing Planet

Aspen and Other Ski Areas Support a Bill That Could Dry Up Rivers

Could Western water be in trouble with a proposed bill? Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

It’s ski season, and ski areas like Aspen (currently home to the Winter X Games) are good at getting PR touting their commitment to environmental sustainability – like this recent Men’s Journal story. But what many people don’t know is that Aspen Skiing Company and the National Ski Areas Association are currently supporting a bill that could dry up rivers, damage fish and wildlife habitat, and hurt fishing and boating.

The so-called “Water Rights Protection Act” (HR 3189) would allow private water users to dry up rivers on public lands with no regard for other uses or needs. With their support of this anti-environment bill, the ski areas association is in bed with Big Ag and western cattle groups.

The bill would prevent federal agencies within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior from ensuring enough water flows in our rivers – which is essential for healthy streams, local economies, and endangered species. The bill would put private uses of water, like snow-making and irrigation, ahead of other beneficial public uses such as fish and wildlife and recreation.

Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin program at American Rivers, spells out the bill’s implications in Steamboat Today:

For instance, in Colorado, this could prohibit the Forest Service from requiring water diverters to leave some water in streams on National Forests to keep native cutthroat trout alive. It could also stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from requiring flows that help salmon find fish ladders so that they can safely pass over dams. It would potentially destroy broadly supported multi-year and multi-million dollar settlement agreements to restore American shad, salmon and steelhead fisheries at hydropower facilities. It even undermines fundamental principles of states’ rights by creating a new federal definition of a water right. At the very least, it would create mountains and mountains of litigation.

The bill originated from a narrow conflict between a ski area and the Forest Service, but the bill is written so broadly it could have major impacts on river management nationwide. Thanks to the leadership of Senator Mark Udall, the Forest Service is working to resolve the conflict – protecting rivers and providing certainty around water rights. This bill is simply not necessary.

So why are many in the ski industry still behind this awful bill? Why is Aspen, which claims to be a strong environmental steward, actively supporting legislation that could cause such harm to rivers across Colorado and the nation?

You can help stop this over-reaching, misguided bill by contacting your Congressional representatives.

You can also contact Aspen Skiing Company to ask them to withdraw support for the bill:


Twitter: @aspensnowmass

Amy Kober is the senior communications director for American Rivers, a national non-profit river conservation organization. She lives in Portland, OR.
  • Auden Schendler

    In keeping with the lack of nuance present in all of American Rivers’ work, this article omits half the story. The author asks: “Why is the ski industry behind this bill?” but doesn’t speak to anyone in the industry to ask why. Here’s the answer: last year, the Forest Service proposed a rule that would require ski resorts to give up their water rights any time they modified their operating permit. This requirement would not just take hard-earned and long-held water rights away from the resorts, but would also trigger wholesale changes to over a hundred years of water law in the West. The rule is insane–and environmentally minded elected officials like Mark Udall and Jared Polis recognize that. The bill in question is pushing back on the forest service rule. It will result in a compromise that will eliminate or fix that misguided rule. Rarely are complex environmental issues black and white. Creating villains may help American Rivers raise money, but their poorly researched attacks ultimately hurt their cause and hinder progress.

  • Matthew Niemerski

    This comment demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the breadth and scope of “the Water Rights Protection Act.” In an instance where a scalpel is required to address the issue, Aspen Ski Co. has decided to use a sledgehammer. The legislation as written, could impact delicately crafted water settlements in the Klamath Basin, water delivery exchange contracts in the San Joaquin basin, and numerous dam relicensing efforts to help dam operators operate in a more environmentally sensitive manner; a view shared by federal agencies as well. While American Rivers is sympathetic to the issues the ski industry faces with respect to disposition of their water rights, when our organization reached out to Aspen’s representatives, the National Ski Area Association, we were told they were unwilling to negotiate. Now that the Forest Service has committed to correcting this issue it would seem that legislation is not needed. For an industry purported to be concerned about the impacts of climate change through efforts like “Protect Our Winters”, they should extend this concern to the rivers which are already stressed by persistent drought and work to protect them, not drain them.

  • Gary Wockner

    This bill is an anti-environmental, anti-government snake pit that would gut the federal government’s ability to protect and restore America’s rivers on behalf of the American people. Despite what may have been the original intent of the bill and its original supporters, the current language is extremely broad reaching and is a dangerous threat to health of America’s rivers. We strongly encourage the parties involved to find an alternative path forward.

    Gary Wockner
    Save The Colorado River Campaign

  • Rebecca MIdcap

    Very well said!

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media