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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.

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Water Education Colorado

At Water's Helm: A Legacy of Leadership

by Jayla Poppleton

With the 72-year-old Colorado Water Conservation Board, there is no shortage of characters who have worn the temporary hat of director-in-chief or carried a powerful Board of Directors vote that could uphold or stymie any given water project seeking state support. Each had his or her own leadership style and strengths, but the quality that the most effective among them shared was a statewide vision.

“They had this idea that what they were doing was whatever needed to be done to the best interest of water in Colorado,” says Fred Anderson, who had worked with several CWCB directors from his Senate seat in the Colorado General Assembly, a position he held from 1966 to 1982. “The majority of those that served on the Board,” Anderson continues, “had that same type of interest. They wanted to make sure that things went right.”

Felix Sparks, the agency’s third and longest-serving director, was hired in the midst of a heated West Slope versus East Slope battle over the massive transmountain diversion known as the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. At the time, the governor served as chairman of the water planning- and policy-focused CWCB’s Board of Directors, and he refused to call meetings because things were such a mess.

“There were maybe one and a half years there that there were no Board meetings,” recalls Bill McDonald, a former CWCB director and now director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region. “Things were not always copacetic on the Board.”

Gov. Stephen McNichols looked to Sparks, who had recently left the Colorado Supreme Court to return to his law practice in Delta, Colo., for help. “The governor asked Felix to be his personal emissary as the attorney for the Board to try to put things back together,” says McDonald. Sparks took a hard look at the Board, suggested changes such as a larger budget and supporting staff, and was quickly appointed the agency’s director in 1958. After that, the Board starting meeting again.

For the next 20 years, Sparks would lead the CWCB, becoming, as McDonald puts it, “an institution unto himself.” A decorated veteran of World War II, Sparks was a born leader. Helping get the authorizing legislation for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project passed in 1962 was only one of many battles he fought for Colorado’s water.

His strength was his political prowess and his willingness to take on people he didn’t agree with. “He was certainly willing to take on the Feds,” says Anderson. But he also recognized his responsibility to do the work delegated to him despite his personal opinion, a character trait his military background may have had something to do with.

When McDonald, a fifth-generation Coloradan, took over the position in 1979, he made no attempt to fill the shoes of the man he considered “a legend.” Rather, he elected to approach the job his own way.

The CWCB’s citizen board, of which there were several long-tenured members when McDonald donned the director’s hat, proved invaluable to the young Greeley native, who felt he was “drinking from a fire hose for the first couple years on the job.” McDonald was also quickly supported in his role on the Upper Colorado River Commission when the governor appointed Sparks a commissioner. “I couldn’t ask for a better piece of institutional knowledge and political savvy when it came to Colorado River issues,” says McDonald.

McDonald’s contributions to Colorado included the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement, which he spent four years and 3,000 hours working on as the state’s lead negotiator. The agreement was key in bringing closure to the tribes’ claims for water and providing the ultimate impetus for the Animas-La Plata Project. He also worked closely with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources director at the time, David Getches, in negotiating the first plan for recovery of the four native Colorado River fish species that are listed as threatened and endangered. The program matured into what is now the Upper Colorado Recovery Implementation Program.

McDonald was known to draft lengthy memos to the Board in preparation for strenuous two-day meetings involving dozens of important decisions. He would lay out the pros and cons on each issue and provide recommendations. At that time, the director still had a vote on the Board—it was removed during McDonald’s tenure—but he found it awkward and insisted on voting only when a tie-breaker was needed. He established, however, respect among the Board members as “he was able to understand all the nuances of the job from a legal perspective,” says Jim Lochhead, attorney and former DNR director.

McDonald was, and is, also considered “really smart,” to the point that David Harrison, a prominent water lawyer who served on the Board from 1989 to 1997, says the Board could not always keep up. “One of the things about having such high brainpower in the directorship was that we would tend to defer to him a little. It hearkened back to the older tradition of Felix Sparks. [Felix] was so smart and had a totally dominant personality. The Board would tend to rubber stamp him.”

Two years after McDonald left, director Daries (Chuck) Lile, whose time in office was cut short by illness, stepped in, lending his own flavor to the job. As a leader, “he was more in this concept of being a coordinator, a facilitator, and bringing everybody together,” recalls Harrison.

Lile was hired in 1992 by Ken Salazar, then director of DNR, on the heels of a controversial double-resignation by the former State Engineer, Jeris Danielson, and CWCB director, David Walker. When Salazar hired Lile and then, as State Engineer, Hal Simpson, part of the deal was that there was going to be a new era of working together, says Harrison. And there was. “That was a key thing that Chuck Lile brought to it,” says Harrison. “A new degree of collaboration and communication between the two water agencies in the state.”  

Following the 1985 lawsuit that Kansas brought against Colorado for overusing its apportionment of the Arkansas River, Simpson and Lile began to convene working groups in the Arkansas Basin to discuss what could be done.

“The water users in the basin didn’t like the proposed rules [from the State Engineer’s Office] and didn’t trust the state,” recalls Lochhead, who succeeded Salazar as DNR director in 1994. “Lile and Simpson went on the road. They sat in coffee shops and on front porches and got complete buy-in from the water users.” Lile, whose strengths were his personality and his ability to sit down and talk one-on-one with people, says Lochhead, was critical to achieving that success.

Like Harrison, Lochhead was a water lawyer who, prior to becoming DNR director, served on the CWCB Board beginning in 1983. When McDonald left in 1990, Lochhead took over as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Upper Colorado River Commission, a role usually reserved for the head of the CWCB. “Jim was a very capable attorney, and he became a very adept negotiator,” says Sara Duncan, Denver Water’s manager of intergovernmental affairs who served as an interim CWCB director for less than one year in 1992, prior to Lile’s appointment.

Lochhead spent a decade negotiating a surplus agreement on the Colorado River where the downstream state of California agreed to reduce its surplus uses of water by 800,000 acre feet. “It was a very significant event on the river,” says Lochhead, who was extremely satisfied with the outcome.

Immediately after signing the surplus agreement, Colorado was hit by the record drought of the early 2000s, and Lochhead found himself engaged in a new set of negotiations leading to shortage guidelines in the Colorado River’s lower basin. At that point, he had left DNR and instead represented some of the state’s bigger districts and cities in the negotiations. Rod Kuharich had become the CWCB director and had the lead in the new negotiations, a plausibly awkward situation since Kuharich was hired under Republican Gov. Bill Owens, while Lochhead had been appointed by a Democratic administration. “It had the potential to be partisan,” says Lochhead, “but [Kuharich] put that aside and embraced me as a member of the team. That was critical to the successes we achieved in those negotiations.”

Avoiding the pursuit of narrow interests and partisanship was certainly necessary to be effective, says Harrison. “Anybody with a real local viewpoint, a single issue viewpoint, didn’t get much done.” Harrison understood that from the start. With a reputation as a traditional water lawyer who had done some work for The Nature Conservancy, he says he was appointed to represent the South Platte Basin in 1991 because Gov. Roy Romer wanted a little green on the Board, but not someone radical. Harrison was exactly that. He worked alongside the more traditional Board members who had ranching, farming or water utility backgrounds, and he looked for common ground. The Board operated on a consensus basis during his tenure, a method he hopes he contributed to.

Many challenges, including the Instream Flow Program, spanned from one directorship to the next. It was Fred Anderson who first sponsored the bill in 1973 that created the program and handed it to the CWCB to oversee. Sparks, then director, was not overly enthusiastic about the newly created task at the time, recalls Anderson. “But whether he agreed totally or not, the fact that it was there and it was to be done, he did it. And I think he got it off to a strong start.”

Years later Kuharich, a personality many conservationists might not have considered a friend in office given his municipal water supply background at Colorado Springs Utilities, was the first CWCB director to place a call on the river based upon instream flow filings. “It caused quite a stir among the water users,” recalls Kuharich, who is now executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. “But the statutes clearly directed me to protect the instream flows and that’s what I was bound and determined to do.”

Kuharich, as director from 2000 to 2008, led the CWCB through the drought period, including the massive undertaking to assess statewide water supply into the future. The Statewide Water Supply Initiative commenced in 2003 on his watch. “You had water users that were planning projects and you had growth control and environmental advocates that didn’t want to see any water projects built. Both had their own story as to needs or lack of needs, and I felt the state needed to provide an unbiased look at this.”

Kuharich’s leadership philosophy was to hire good people and let them do their job. He encouraged the Board to take its statutory role of establishing state policy seriously without letting that direction be determined by parochial interests. He says he was criticized for his own attempt to operate with what he felt was a balance of interest.

Like McDonald before him, Kuharich called on Felix Sparks for counsel. “The first time I called Felix, I said, ‘This is Rod Kuharich. Help.’”

Sparks, who died two years ago, is no longer available to offer advice, whether Jennifer Gimbel, hired as director in 2008, would choose to seek it or not. Gimbel stepped to the plate at a time when the state has recognized a great and growing demand for water in its not-too-distant future. Now, as she presides over the agency that is most involved in the Interbasin Compact Process, an attempt to bring the state’s eight major river basins together for statewide solutions, she is wedged between a rock and a hard place. But Denver Water’s Duncan believes Gimbel can be a peacemaker. “She will listen,” says Duncan.

And Anderson, from his farm in Loveland, Colo., thinks Gimbel was “a darn good pick to be director.” How come? “She has the background and the interest and the historic knowledge of everything that’s gone on. I’m confident she’ll do the right thing.”

The true meaning of the “right thing” will mean different things to different people, but one thing it seems her predecessors’ legacy would tell is that she has to look to the best interests of the state as a whole. Pursuing purely localized interests, says Anderson, could have always torn everything apart

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