I am one of a couple people who work at Colorado Water Trust who doesn’t speak Colorado Water Law. I’m learning it, slowly, but it’s a really tough language. It’s legal, technical, jargon-y, and the measurements include something called cubic feet per second (hmm?). When my team describes our projects to me, I can get overwhelmed quickly. But, I understand their overall importance and am proud to work with my innovative teammates. Together, we’re protecting our beloved Colorado environment that is increasingly threatened by population growth and frequent droughts.
Naturally, I’ve been searching for how to relay my passion for this work in a way that avoids dabbling in the Colorado Water Law language which doesn’t resonate with me (and plenty of people in my personal circle of humans). This past week, in Steamboat Springs, I found what I was looking for.
I sat down with Scott Hummer, our former program manager from the mid-2010’s as well as water commissioner in the Blue River Basin for over 20 years, and current water commissioner in the Upper Yampa River Basin, about our first project:
A local ranching couple, Scotty and Jeannette Moser, with generations of history living alongside the beautiful Blue River north of Silverthorne, were retiring and selling the majority of their land, along with the water rights. They donated much of their land to the Forest Service, and were glad it would stay protected from development. They had similar hopes for their water rights, to help keep their river protected.
For years, they saw their Blue River hurting. Rather than flow west in its wild, natural way, enriching the agriculture, fish, and other wildlife that depends on it, it was being redirected east to support an exploding population on the front-range and the surrounding area. Their mission was to keep their water rights in the Blue River by ensuring that their water go to local use and not to “water some lawns on the front-range.”
But to do that is extremely complicated in the Colorado Water Law system that was set up in the 1800’s. They would need a lot of help. Scott Hummer, then the water commissioner in their area and whom they went to asking for help, knew there was a group of people who might be able to make this possible. He contacted Colorado Water Trust – a newly formed organization with the goal of proving that you could work within Colorado Water Law to restore water to rivers by buying and leasing it.
It turned out we could help. We met with Scotty and Jeannette Moser and they shared their mission with us. We looked into their water rights and then we looked into the river to make sure their water was going to be able to help the part of the river that needed water. It turned out, it really would. In fact, the part of the stream their water rights were on was a prime fishery in need of water. We contacted the partners we would need to help make this project possible, we navigated the rights through the complex legal system, and carried out the transaction to pay the Moser’s for their water rights at fair market value and ensure their water remained in the stream, heading west, in perpetuity. They were thrilled. It was such a ground-breaking project that it made the news. And Scott Hummer said it was a turning point for not just the Water Trust, but also for spawning action in the Blue River Valley community. The talk about this project and the recent years of dramatic differences in stream flows with high flows and then drought-like conditions shortly after, mobilized the community to form the Blue River Watershed Group aimed to engage their local community in protecting their watershed. The details of our projects have evolved and matured since then, but our goal remains the same: To help Coloradans like the Moser’s help their rivers and streams in need.
Get this though, the Moser project took 7 YEARS! Although our projects generally take much less time today, this was for a couple reasons. The first is because that’s how complicated it is sometimes to navigate the Colorado Water Law system. The second references the most special and unique aspect of our work – Trust. Scott talked about how hard our first Executive Director, John Carney, worked to build a strong and trusting relationship with the Moser’s. It was an important piece to this project’s puzzle. Today, the Moser’s grandson lives on the property and still operates the ranch on a smaller scale. And Colorado Water Trust is finding innovative solutions to keeping ranches and farms in operation and/or compensated for temporary water rights contributions to the environment, while restoring where lost, the beauty of flowing rivers.
One of the reasons trust is so important is because Colorado’s water rights owners are highly protective of their water rights. Water rights are incredibly valuable and have a long, fascinating history of being fought over. Owners are not keen on letting anyone, let alone a nonprofit from Denver, analyze their portfolio of water rights to see if there are opportunities to restore water to rivers in need. BUT, what I learned in Steamboat Springs, is that despite that conflict, people are working with us anyway and together, we’re transforming rivers. This is why we are so special to the state of Colorado: People trust us.
I spoke with Kelly Romero-Heaney from the City of Steamboat Springs about our long-time relationship working with them to help the stressed Yampa River, as well as other partners and donors in the area. When I asked why they partner year after year with us, they talked about trust.
We have years of history of being strong and neutral partners. We are known for our creative solutions and for not being political, in the sense that we don’t do advocacy work or lobby for policy changes. Working with us is always voluntary. We will spend years listening and developing relationships, we’re transparent, we find solutions that support not just the environment but also the water rights owners through compensation, and we protect their water rights.
We are also trusted because we are home-grown. No other nonprofit in Colorado focuses solely on working within the Colorado Water Law system to restore rivers in need. We were locally born to address Colorado’s unique water challenges.
I left Steamboat Springs feeling like I found my passion for why I love this organization. It’s super simple, and it doesn’t need any complicated language:
In a world of seemingly increasing ideological divides, we are a confluence (pun intended). We bring people together to help rivers. Sometimes these people have been on opposite sides of the water aisles for decades. But because we’ve spent years developing people’s trust in us, we can bring them to meet at the same table because every one of us shares in the desire to see our rivers flowing.
In the end, if we’re going to be able to protect Colorado’s water for future generations, we’re only going to be successful if we all work together. Colorado Water Trust is the only entity that is uniquely positioned to facilitate this. That is really darn special.