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The Yampa's First Lady

By Jerd Smith

Erin Light oversees the remote, lush Yampa River Basin, one of the last places in the American West where almost anyone can take water without a water right. Because of increasing use, however, the river is slowly being integrated into the state's regulatory system, and Light, the first and only female division engineer in the state, is charged with bringing the wild-charging Yampa in line.

Erin LightUnlike her colleagues in the heavily-regulated Colorado River and South Platte River basins, Light doesn't have to keep tabs on hundreds of stream gauges and measuring devices because until recently there haven't been any, at least not on the Yampa's mainstem.

‘When people from the Front Range come over here, they're just shocked,’ Light says. ‘The concept of being able to divert without a water right is baffling to them.’

But not to Light. The Yampa Basin is a place of liquid plenty, and those ranchers whose families helped settle this stunning region have fought long and hard to keep state water commissioners from regulating how much water they divert.

Light's job is to convince them to join the regulated water world. It hasn't, however, been easy. In the past two years she's ordered 90 new measuring devices to be installed. At least 10 water users have failed to comply, forcing her to issue cease-and-desist orders.

‘I really hope they don't try to divert this spring because we'll just have to shut them off,’ Light says. And that's almost unheard of on the Yampa.

So are female division engineers. Light, however, grew up listening to stories of Elwood Mead, for whom Lake Mead is named, and of Howard Bunger, co-inventor of the Howell-Bunger valve. Both are her distant uncles, and both worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. She followed in their footsteps, earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from Colorado State University, focusing on hydraulics and hydrology. After college, she worked first in consulting, but then landed a job with the USBR in Denver before eventually finding her way to the Steamboat office of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. After working for five years as a hydrographer, she was named division engineer.

After her appointment two years ago, she anguished for days over how to tell her boss, then-State Engineer Hal Simpson, that she was pregnant with her first child, though he had hired her and served as a mentor. He proved her fears groundless, taking the news well.

Now Light's staff of 11 includes seven women, five of whom are water commissioners, another oddity in the water world. Light hired one of those commissioners last fall, a 25-year-old who had been working in the Yampa as a ditch rider. Now she is overseeing a particularly contentious region of the basin. ‘She'll have a lot to learn this summer,’ Light says. ‘But I think I helped pave the way for her.’ Light also paved the way for another soon-to-be mother, the water commissioner of the Piceance Creek basin of the White River. ‘I bet it was easier for her to come tell me she was pregnant than it was for me to tell Hal Simpson.’

That so few women work in water administration beyond Light's small universe is puzzling to her. ‘Sometimes I think it may be that they lack confidence,’ Light says. ‘I really hope that's not it, but it may be. To be a water commissioner you have to be a really tough person.

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