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Water Leadership

Jim Isgar, 2013 President's Award Winner

Honor Jim Isgar by attending CFWE's President's Award Reception.

By Justice Greg Hobbs

Jim_Isgar_webLooking at Jim Isgar, a bit grizzled from recent chemotherapy treatments to battle cancer, I see a generous man who stands as tall as Mt. Hesperus. Due north of Isgar’s family farm and ranch, Mt. Hesperus in southwestern Colorado’s La Plata Mountains is one of four mountains considered sacred to the Navajo. Isgar irrigates off the La Plata River outside of Breen, southwest of Durango. Like his father, Art, he has served on the H.H. Ditch Company board of directors, including 25 years as its president.

Under the 1922 La Plata River Compact between Colorado and New Mexico, the scanty flow of this stream, a tributary to the San Juan, is divided between the two states based on the flow at Hesperus, a town 23 miles north of the state line. When the flow falls below 100 cubic feet per second, the water is divided equally, but when the river drops too low, it can take the entire flow at Hesperus for New Mexico’s share to reach the state line. It’s an aggravating arrangement for both man and the environment. Now the Long Hollow Reservoir is being built, with help from Colorado Water and Power Authority funds, to stabilize flows for both states.

Also in preparation is a rural-domestic pipeline to deliver water from the Ridges Basin Reservoir of the Animas-La Plata Project to the “dry side” of western La Plata County for drinking water and sanitation use. Listen to Isgar talk about the “dry side” and you’ll hear a family story of disappointed expectations. From the 1940s on, the people living on this water-scarce mesa worked hard for construction of the Animas-La Plata Project. “We have good soil but not enough water,” Isgar says in his characteristic matter-of-fact manner.

Authorized by Congress in 1968 as a participating feature of the Colorado River Storage Project Act, the Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP) contemplated many uses, including delivery of irrigation water from the Animas River to the Hesperus area. “I was 16 years old when the A-LP was authorized,” Isgar observes, “and spent much of my life helping to get it built.”

Isgar knows first-hand what tough negotiation is about. He was a member of the La Plata Water Conservancy District’s board of directors during the 1980s and 90s, including a stint as its president. In 1986, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes agreed with the state of Colorado to settle their 1868 federal reserved water rights in return for the A-LP. Environmental concerns, lawsuits, and escalating project costs resulted in the non-Indian irrigation uses being stripped from the project.

Despite his great disappointment, Isgar urged continued support for the tribes in their effort to build the project. He became a member of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District board in 1994, after his father left that board. Isgar recalls that his friend Sam Maynes, counsel to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, “started calling me ‘Jimmy Boy’ when we went to lobby Congress on behalf of the project.”

The Democrat in Jim Isgar came alive at a young age when he traveled with his father to Washington, D.C., in 1962 and met President John F. Kennedy at the White House.  He attended rural elementary schools in Hesperus, followed by junior high and high school in Durango while his mother, Anne, ran a family-owned motel there. Graduating in 1969 and setting off for the University of Colorado to study engineering, he soon returned to the farm and ranch to help as his father was recovering from his own bout with cancer. He completed his bachelor’s degree in accounting at Fort Lewis in 1973, became a Certified Public Accountant, studied taxation at Colorado State University for four quarters, and worked for an accounting firm in Longmont.  He had been accepted to law school at the University of Denver in 1976, but his parents said "they would sell the farm if I didn’t come back and take it over,” he recalls.

After returning home and marrying Chris Roberts, who he had met at CSU, he became the father of four children, Sarah, Matt, Andy and Kate. Through participation in many local and statewide organizations, he earned recognition as a steady and trusted voice and decision-maker. Recognizing his abilities, Governor Roy Romer appointed him in 1988 to the State Board of Agriculture, the governing board for Fort Lewis College, the University of Southern Colorado and Colorado State University.

When state Senator Jim Dyer resigned to become a member of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 2001, Isgar was appointed in his place by the vacancy committee, stood for election, and served in the Colorado General Assembly as a senator until July 2009.  President Obama then appointed him to be state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

Senator Isgar co-sponsored with Representative Diane Hoppe the 2002 legislation establishing the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. As the chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, he became a member of CFWE’s first board of directors, stepped off the board from January 2003 to January 2005 when Senator Lew Entz chaired the committee, and resumed as a board member from 2005 to 2009 when he again chaired the Senate committee. Isgar was instrumental in persuading legislators to attend the summer CFWE tours of Colorado’s river basins. “The drought really heighted their interest in getting good water knowledge,” he says.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a period of significant innovation in water legislation, Isgar sponsored, co-sponsored, or worked on virtually every successful water bill.  These included the 2003 agricultural water rights leasing statute for instream flows during drought periods, as well as the 2001 recreational in-channel diversion statute permitting water rights for kayak courses. He credits the 2005 Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, particularly its roundtable process, with accomplishing “better understanding of complicated legal and technical matters in all the river basins.”

With the USDA, Isgar helped make hundreds of millions of dollars of loans and grants of vital importance to farmers, ranchers, rural communities and homeowners in need of housing assistance. After resigning from his position on December 15, 2012, he’s happily back home on the family farm and ranch with three of his children and his second wife, Brenda. He’s fighting the cancer and looking forward to the time when he can continue assisting his neighbors in getting some water for the “dry side.”

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