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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Advancing the Conversation: Jennifer Gimbel

by George Sibley
Jennifer Gimbel, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, speaks of the “many hallways” in her part of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources—all intersecting at her office. Each hallway contains from two to seven people working on distinct, important programs involving Colorado’s most precious resource, and those programs don’t all automatically move harmoniously in the same direction.

In trying to get a real overview of her job, it helps to think of Justice Greg Hobbs’ depiction of “the two chambers of the western heart: beneficial use and conservation.” The CWCB is as close as one could come to Colorado’s locus for that western heart. The seven program areas of the CWCB run the full gamut of water challenges today, from the Water Supply Planning and Finance Section that supports water development projects to the Stream and Lake Protection offices where water is protected from development. Like William Faulkner’s evocation of the human heart, this western heart is often in conflict with itself, and the conflicts eventually come home to those several hallways intersecting at Gimbel’s office.

Gimbel is no stranger to such conflicts. She has two decades of experience working in water and resource law, mostly with the attorneys general of both Wyoming and Colorado, but her real baptism through fire might have been with the U.S. Department of the Interior, another organization at the crux of that western heart. She was employed there by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but in the mid-2000s Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton borrowed Gimbel to negotiate Indian water right settlements in the West. Norton also sent her into the maelstrom of the Middle Rio Grande to work out a swirl of conflicts involving the silvery minnow, several federal agencies, Indian tribes, farmers, environmentalists and growing cities. Those experiences made Gimbel as ready as one can be for Colorado, its Water Conservation Board and the 21st century.

The cusp of the 21st century may be a fitting time for a water attorney to be moving into the leadership of the organization that has been most associated, at least in the public mind, with “concrete” water development projects through its revolving Construction Fund and traditional support for USBR projects. There is general agreement that the western water resource has mostly been developed, for both non-consumptive environmental and recreational needs as well as the traditional consumptive agricultural, domestic and industrial uses. More water projects will be built, but they will not all be developing “new” water. Instead, they will be redirecting, reusing and reallocating already developed water, and the legal and political challenges will equal or surpass the engineering challenges.

“I understand the law,” Gimbel said in an interview, then went on to explain that what she means is that she understands where there is “black and white law” and where there are “gray zones” requiring testing, clarification and expansion of existing law. She notes that “there is a lot of gray out there.”

As one talks to Gimbel—and watches her at work in the state—it becomes clear that one of her strategies for moving Colorado into the 21st century is to build more open, informed and responsive communications among a multitude of factions that grew up contentious and competitive in the 20th century. This starts within the CWCB itself, where she is proud of the degree to which the staff as well as the Board members work with an awareness—nurtured in weekly senior staff meetings—of what everyone else is doing.

Making sure that the discourse in the state is “informed” is important, which requires good information. She accordingly believes that continuing to compile and use the information collected through the Statewide Water Supply Initiative is essential to the future. “SWSI is the study everyone hated, but now refers to,” she says.

She is even more enthusiastic about informational models for each basin that make up Colorado’s Decision Support Systems, or DSS, which the CWCB’s Water Information Group has been collaborating on for close to two decades with the Division of Water Resources. The DSS enables users to model water development scenarios on GIS maps with overlays for everything from basic hydrology to water rights, diversion records and calls. “SWSI gives us snapshots,” Gimbel says. “The Decision Support Systems are fully developed models for the basins.”

Information alone, however, will not generate solutions to water problems. It just illuminates the gray zones. Thus Gimbel is working hard to get the state’s water factions talking to each other.

At the 2009 Colorado Water Congress summer conference, recent DNR director Harris Sherman observed that the water debate now occurs in a “bigger tent” with more groups than when he first ran the department in the 1970s. In 2005, the Colorado General Assembly attempted to erect that larger tent with HB05-1177, creating nine basin roundtables and an Interbasin Compact Committee, all of which include local governments, environmentalists, recreationalists and other entities besides the traditional “water buffaloes.” The roundtables and IBCC have to interact with the CWCB, but figuring out what exactly the interplay between the two bodies should be is part of Gimbel’s challenge now and into the near future.

There is general agreement around the state that the basin roundtables have been a helpful forum for developing intrabasin awareness and communication. But the Interbasin Compact Committee concept of solution-building across basins has proven more challenging, and Gimbel finds herself in a difficult place with it. She believes the IBCC is where the big conversation about the state’s water future should happen, but she also has a charge to make sure that the state’s water needs are met in a timely way and is getting a little nervous about the extent to which that conversation isn’t happening.

“I see the IBCC as a think tank for the state’s water future,” Gimbel says. She also sees it as a forum where people should bring ideas to put on the table for discussion, with the most accepted—or least challenged—ideas and visions channeled to the CWCB for further development. But Gimbel is concerned about what she perceives as reluctance by IBCC participants to really put things on the table—probably the consequence of many decades of competition and contention over water. “I hear echoes from the past,” she says.

The source of much pressure today on the emerging relationship between the IBCC and the CWCB is the result of a dangerous set of gray zones aswirl around the Colorado River. A large portion of the water for Colorado’s growing Front Range metropolis comes through the Continental Divide from the Upper Colorado River. It is presumed even by most West Slopers—with reluctant resignation—that more will come from there in the future. That’s if there is in fact more unappropriated water to move.

One of the big questions is how much water Colorado has left to develop from its Colorado River Compact entitlement of 51.75 percent of—well, of what? Is it the 7.5 million acre feet almost explicit in the 1922 compact, or the 6 million acre feet revealed by the USBR’s 2007 hydrologic determination, or an even smaller figure emerging from sophisticated scientific analysis of river hydrology over the past 500 years?

The CWCB is spearheading a Colorado River Water Availability Study to answer that question, partly at the request of West Slope roundtables. The study is so fraught with complexity that it took a year just to scope it. Completion of the study’s first phase, which is expected late this year, will likely reveal the most thorough compilation of historical and hydrologic data that has ever been assembled on a river. With input from the IBCC, the CWCB is now scoping the study’s second phase, which will examine developmental scenarios for the river, incorporating risk analyses associated with various climate-change models.

The CWCB is also in the process of launching a second Colorado River study to assess the probable impacts and alternatives available in the event of a Colorado River Compact curtailment. This is the biggest gray fog of all on the Colorado River: Given predictions of a return to long-term hydrologic conditions with annual flows up to 1 million acre feet lower than the 20th century average, compounded by climate change predictions for the Southwest resulting in 10 to 30 percent less water in the Colorado River system by 2050, what happens if the amount of water flowing to the lower basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) and Mexico falls below the 8.23 million acre-foot average annual release the USBR makes from Lake Powell to comply with the Colorado River Compact and the Mexican treaty? The fact that there is no clear answer to that question in the compact means that worst-case scenarios and fear-talk proliferate. The compact compliance study by the CWCB’s Water Supply Protection Section may help turn that into a more informed discussion.

Not everyone is convinced that more informed and open discussion among the many water-related groups in Colorado will happen fast enough to conclude with definitive projects that will meet the needs of a population predicted to double by 2050. A state legislator fired a shot at the CWCB during August’s Colorado Water Congress conference, charging that the agency is doing more study projects than construction projects.

On the spot, Gimbel responded with the fact that the CWCB loaned out $45 million for on-the-ground projects last year. In retrospect, she says she should have pointed out that the agency has lent $300 million over the past three years. Still, the pressure is on from the Front Range’s metropolitan utilities, which are pushing the CWCB to begin studying potential diversions from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range despite the fact that the Colorado River Water Availability Study is not yet completed. The utilities argued in a July letter to the CWCB that the IBCC process is too “laborious and largely unproductive,” and they need to begin planning now for projects that would require at least a decade to become operational.

But even if the CWCB Board were to succumb to such pressure and charge ahead, 20th-century style, on a water project or two, the organization has been seriously hamstrung by Colorado’s deteriorated financial situation. The CWCB’s numerous programs operate almost entirely on repayment and interest on loans made from two revolving funds—the Construction Fund, supported by federal mineral lease money, and the Severance Tax Trust Fund Perpetual Base Account, derived mostly from the state’s severance tax on resources “severed” from the state. Revenues from that tax have crashed along with all other revenues, and last year, the governor and the legislature took $107 million from the agency’s funds to help meet the budget deficit. With little money to lend, repayments and interest will decline, and Gimbel will have to begin thinking about which hallways to start closing down.

In short, absolutely nothing about the future of the CWCB seems predictable and certain. That said, Gimbel is not the kind of person to be deterred by complexity or difficulties. She finds the financial situation frustrating: “I did not realize I was going to spend so much time thinking about money.” But she also has long known that, where water in the West is concerned, “you’re always dealing with fluctuations,” an observation as true for the cultural environment with its economic droughts as it is for the natural environment.

Her biggest hope for the future remains that, through well-developed partnerships in the “bigger tent,” a proactive and creative Board, and continuity of a well-coordinated set of CWCB programs, Coloradans will learn to really talk and work together constructively on the biggest nexus of water challenges westerners have ever faced.

“We need to keep pushing the conversation forward,” she says. Keep that western heart beating.

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