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May 17, 2017: What I learned at Water Fluency, part 1

By Rebecca Callahan

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of spending time with more than 30 other Coloradans who, whether for work or for fun, felt the need to learn more about water in our State. The Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Water Fluency course is in its third year. It’s a 3-month education program complete with in person lectures, site visits, homework assignments, online lectures, quizzes, and group discussions. Attendees run the gamut of the water resources community: engineers, fly fishermen, city/town officials, regional board members, “river-huggers” and me, a corporate marketer. Attendees were there for as many reasons as there are ways that water flows. We were there to learn from the experts; to better understand the state of water in the State of Colorado; to better understand different points of view from different walks of life so we could go back to our personal and professional lives and make informed decisions.

And, wow, what a success it has been so far. Several of us even joked it should be a pre-requisite for the 1,000-new people moving to Colorado each month. Below is a quick snapshot of what I’ve learned so far. I have 2 more in person events to attend and lots of homework to do between now and the end of July. I’m surprisingly excited about that having been out of school for over 15 years.

#1: Onions are our friend

Walking in the first morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I understand what people were Water Fluencytalking about? Was I going to be bored? Overwhelmed? Given my background in marketing in the travel industry, switching to the water resources industry has been a big leap. It’s been a vertical ramp up and while I’ve learned an enormous amount in the past 6 months, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like talking about water for two days. And, when I looked at the class roster, I got concerned – public servants and engineers and conservationists? Would I have anything in common with them?

But then we did an ice breaker where we went around the room and introduced ourselves. And I kept hearing analogies of peeling onions – even those who were water resource professionals felt the same as I did – that every time we learned something, we realized how little we knew. And throughout the two days, I realized it wasn’t just talk. Folks were as engaged and questioning as I was. I’m confident when I say everyone came away with learning something.

Oh, and my concern about talking about water for 2 days? Not a problem. There were a few times where things got a little too technical for me but overall I was riveted because of the amazing speakers with incredible insight and historical knowledge.

#2: Colorado is the best

Water Fluency - Roaring Fork ValleyWe had a chance to do site visits to rivers and water sanitation stations in the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s an area I’ve gone to since I was a kid but I’ve never looked at it the way I did that day. And it wasn’t just that it was a bluebird day with Mt. Sopris in the background. It was getting up close and personal with the Crystal River and the surrounding habitat and seeing how it directly impacts the farm lands it irrigates. It was listening to the Roaring Fork Conservancy discuss how it’s trying to define what a “healthy” river is while trying to bring other Carbondale open ditch systemstakeholders (recreation, agriculture and municipalities) to the table to discuss the best way to manage this finite natural resource. It was visiting Carbondale and learning that their open ditch system provides free water for landscaping for anyone who lives by the system and wants to build a pump. And how much money that system is saving the town. And that the ditch system was built over 100 years ago to supply the agricultural community that first settled there. There is so much history and ingenuity in this State, all with the goal of ensuring stakeholders get their fair share of water.

We had the opportunity to listen to Justice Hobbs speak about the history of Colorado. He brought to life how water shaped the development of this State that people are flocking to. He made history come to life. Amy Beatie from Colorado Water Trust did the same with water law and instream flows. Never have I thought law was so interesting…she brought it to life because she is passionate about what she’s doing. I have a new-found respect for the forethought on how water is managed in Colorado.  All the experts in the room agreed that while it may not be perfect, the government regulations for managing water and the legal procedures for how water conflicts are resolved are well-thought out, fair, usable and flexible. These are all things you hope for in your government and legal system. It’s a structure other States in the West can look to as a model to follow.

#3: The struggle is real

As a layman, I’ve heard about the push/pull between the Front Range and the Western Slope of Colorado. I’d heard the 80/20 rule – 80% of the population is in the Front Range with only 20% of the water. I’ve heard the phrase “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.” And, I learned of a new phrase, “You can mess with another man’s wife but you can’t mess with his water.”

While all of this is said with a smile and a wink, there’s a lot of truth in it. We’ve come a long way from the wild west of sabotaging diversion points and head gates but people are still passionate about ensuring they get their fair share of water.

There’s a push/pull for different water uses. Land owners/ranchers/farmers want water to support their livelihood. Municipalities and utilities want water to support growing populations. Conservation organizations want to protect the environment and wildlife that depend on water. Tourism is a thriving industry for our State and relies on snowpack and instream flows.

Water FluencyThis push/pull isn’t only limited to Colorado. Between the Upper Colorado River Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) interstate compacts had to be created to ensure each state (and Mexico!)received their fair share. Colorado is a headwater state and everyone who is downstream from us also relies on that water for their livelihood. So, how do you ensure everyone has enough and no one has too much? It is possible, but it requires all stakeholders to agree to listen and discuss collaboratively. Colorado has become a model for how to manage this natural resource.

#4: Can’t we all just get along?

So, what brings people to the table to discuss these issues? In my mind, there are two uniting forces. 1) water treatment plantPassion: we all love where we live and want to sustain it 2) Necessity: water management and scarcity are here to stay. We live, work and play in “the Great American Desert”. We must come to the table. Enter Water Sage. We’ve developed this platform to be accessible, transparent and efficient to allow data-driven decisions to be the driver in water resource management for all stakeholders.

#5: Education is key

I’m only half joking about this course being a pre-requisite for new Colorado residents. It’s said with a wink and a smile. But, there is a lot of truth in it. The more people aware of all the issues and onion peeling that goes into water resource management, the better. The more we come to the table with creative solutions and open minds, the better.  That’s the goal of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to attend this class.

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UPCOMING EVENTS

  • Jim will be at the Montana Agriculture Summit in Great Falls, MT on May 31-June 1.
  • Jim will be at the Montana Governors Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee Update in Helena, MT on July 18th.
  • Spencer and Kelly will be at the Summer Colorado Water Congress Conference in Vail, CO on August 23-25.
  • Jim will be at the Montana Association of Counties Annual Conference in Bozeman, MT on September 17-21.
  • Jim will be at the Montana League of Cities & Towns Annual Conference in Great Falls, MT on Septrember 27-29.
  • Jim will be at the Montana Rural Water Systems Conference in West Yellowstone, MT on October 18th.
  • Jim will be at the Montana American Water Resources Association in Helena, MT on October 19-20.
  • Jim will be at the Montana Association of Conservation Districts Annual Conference in Bozeman, MT on November 12-14.

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