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President's Reception

Russ George, 2010 President's Award Winner

Water and its use have been part of Russell George’s life from the time he was spreading it on fields on the 4th-generation family farmstead near Rifle, where his father Walter George served as president of the local ditch company. His interest in irrigated farming led Russ to consider a career in agricultural sciences, but “when it became obvious I wasn’t cut out for science,” he set his sights on a law degree, which he completed at Harvard Law School in 1971. “At that time,” he observes, “there were no programs focusing on water law.” One became a water lawyer by just jumping into it, and he sought help from some of the best – legendary Frank Delaney and “Blue” Balcomb. Russ married Neal Ellen Moore after law school and they returned to Rifle where Neal began a teaching career, Russ opened a general law practice with a preference for water cases and they began raising four sons.

In 1992 he entered politics, and was elected to the Colorado General Assembly. Russ is very much a “Jeffersonian Republican” with a conviction that government works best at the local and state levels where “it has more meaning for people.” His dedication led his peers to name him “Legislator of the Year” twice, and in 1999 he became Speaker of the House. In 2000, Governor Owens asked him to direct the Division of Wildlife and after four years there, he became the director of the Department of Natural Resources – home of nearly every state agency associated with water.

At DNR, his commitments to fair water allocation and well-coordinated good governance came together in his advocacy for the 2005 “Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act.” Concerned about the litigation over stalled water projects – Two Forks, Homestake II, Union Park – he began to pose the idea at meetings around the state of a statewide negotiating process. “Roundtables” in each of the states’ eight river basins (and a ninth for the “metropolitan sink”) would be charged with completing needs assessments to meet future water demands, and an “Interbasin Compact Committee” made up of roundtable representatives and agency appointees would seek mutually beneficial ways to move water between basins.

Russ gives a lot of credit for this legislation to West Slope attorney Peter Nichols and Governor Owens, and legislators like Josh Penry and Jim Isgar who shepherded its passage, but there is general agreement in the water community that his reputation for fair governance gave this “evolutionary act” the impetus to pass the Assembly on the first try. Now in its fifth year, the IBCC has still not been really “tested”, but there is growing agreement that the basin roundtables are a resounding success.

Today, Russ has moved to the directorship of the Department of Transportation, where he says he is trying to develop some of the same kind of open collaborative structure. But his greatest legacy to the state may well be the new public processes for addressing the complex challenges of future water supplies in this “land where life is written in water.”

 - Biography by George Sibley

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