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Water Leadership

Alan Hamel, 2014 President's Award Recipient

Caring for People and Watersheds,

Alan Hamel, President’s Award 2014

by Justice Greg Hobbs

Alan CUGrowing up in Pueblo in the 1950s, Alan Hamel liked to swim in the Arkansas River. His father, Bob, owned an automobile repair business. His mother, Jean, worked as a psychiatric technician at the state hospital. In those days, Pueblo was a gritty industrial town largely dependent on Colorado Fuel and Iron, its steel and iron mill the principal employer.  Ethnically diverse, a town of working men and women located at the confluence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek, Pueblo had a long history of manufacturing rails for the narrow gauges that opened up the Colorado Rockies for mining, timbering, settlement and recreation.

Alan is a son of Pueblo’s native watershed. His grandfather, Albin Hamel, served as supervisor for the San Isabel National Forest, stretching west of the city to the summit of the Sangre de Cristo range. Lacking any federal funds to build a recreational facility in the forest, Albin Hamel combined with the Commerce Club of Pueblo in 1918 to construct a use site in Squirrel Canyon, 30 miles west of the city. This became a West-wide model for introducing city-dwelling families to the joys of fishing, hiking, picnicking and camping in their local watersheds.

Working his way through college as a relief shift pump station operator for the Pueblo Board of Water Works beginning in 1960, Alan has become a model water worker and community builder. He’s a life-long water educator, serving as well on the board of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education from 2006-2012 as its treasurer. Today he chairs the Colorado Water Conservation Board, charged by Colorado’s General Assembly and the governor with collaborating in the development of a state water plan.

Consulting with the nine river basin roundtables and the Interbasin Compact Committee is the process by which this plan will come to fruition. Alan is a fortuitous fit for this complex volunteer job. He has devoted a lifetime to supplying water for people who love Colorado’s recreational grandeur and benefit from a paying job. 

In the course of managing Pueblo’s water department for 30 years, Alan shouldered up one great civic project after another. The city went on hard times when the steel mill’s work force was greatly reduced. But this didn’t stop this union town from diversifying its employment base. For the first part of his 52-year career with the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Alan was a member of the union that represented the water workers.

When he moved to management, his candor, energy, and person-to-person relationship skills bridged many difficult negotiations and forged ongoing alliances. Alan relates, “I learned to deal in issues and avoid stirring up people against each other. We reached agreement on a process for identifying problems and coming up with recommendations. You need working partnerships, good people.”

Not just in the workplace, but also in the marketplace and in the recreational places of our hearts, Alan has contributed remarkably. Some will remember, as recently as the 1970s, coming over the rise into Pueblo from the north and seeing little but an inversion of smoke and dust one had to drive through to get to Santa Fe. Today, you see a welcoming place standing clearly on the plains in sight of the shining Sangre de Cristos. 

You can walk and shop along the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk. Alan chaired that commission. You can fish the Arkansas a long ways back up to its source on the Divide. You can raft a long way back down the river from its headwaters.  As a member of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board, Alan helped put in place the voluntary water release regimen from Twin Lakes down to Pueblo Reservoir that makes possible a vibrant Arkansas River recreational corridor.  As a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, along with his fellow board members, Alan regularly votes for new and enhanced instream flow water rights to protect Colorado’s riverine environment.    

Drive slowly from Buena Vista to Salida on a summer day, go up to the revived Mt. Princeton hot springs and take a soak, hike into the Collegiate Peaks, take a look out on those lovely high mountain hay ranch open spaces irrigated by waters of the Arkansas, and you’ll see this business of Colorado’s agricultural, municipal and recreational economy is alive and well due to many public and private relationships well-forged by people like Alan.

A river can’t live to do its work and play and run along without being tended well. A good water plan serves the spectrum of human and environmental needs Coloradans value.    

The Pueblo Board of Water Works has a portfolio of transbasin Colorado River water rights and native Arkansas River water rights it owns, supplemented by annual deliveries from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Most recently, under Alan’s tenure, Pueblo’s water utility has acquired 25 percent of the Bessemer Irrigating Ditch Company shares with storage in Pueblo Reservoir. It currently leases back 100 percent of this water to farmers.  The utility’s aim is to keep as much of this water as possible in agriculture, except when needed by the municipal customers it serves in scarce water years. It is looking at negotiating and implementing rotational land and water use plans for an enduring sharing arrangement between municipal and agricultural users.

“You need a good base load of storage to do this,” says Alan, “…enough flexibility to withstand drought. You don’t want to permanently dry up lands you don’t have to.”   

He adds, “Colorado needs a water plan. We’ve reached a time when, as a state, we need to come together for our future. We need to share water resources, infrastructure and tools we haven’t even thought about.”

Grace under pressure can gauge a person’s meritorious contribution to community. Alan treasures a polished-up brass pressure clock the employees of the Pueblo Board of Water Works gave him when he retired in 2012. It dates back to 1874, measuring the pressure along that pump station line he maintained as a working college kid.   

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