As President Joe Biden addressed the nation during the State of the Union on Feb. 7, two Grand County community members were in the audience, alongside the country’s most powerful leaders. Senators and representatives could each invite one prescreened guest. Kremmling rancher, fly-fishing guide and Colorado River advocate Paul Bruchez received an invitation, as did Brett Schroetlin, Grand County Sheriff and president of the Western State Sheriff’s Association.
Paul Bruchez advocates for Colorado River protections
When it comes to critical issues affecting water in Grand County and Colorado at large, Kremmling resident Paul Bruchez is a leading expert. On Feb. 7, he attended President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol. Senator Michael Bennet invited Bruchez as his sole guest, to draw attention to the water crisis the West is facing.
A fifth generation cattle rancher and fly-fishing guide, Bruchez understands how the health of Colorado’s waters are essential to not only ranchers and anglers, but to human survival itself. Both he and Sen. Bennet have made water and agricultural issues their life’s work. Ahead of the president’s address, Bennet and Bruchez sat down together and discussed water in the West and the federal government’s role in protecting this resource.
“I’ve been to (your) ranch several times and we’ve had lots of conversations over the years about the challenges that we’re facing in the Colorado River basin, especially with the effect of drought on farmers and ranchers,” Bennet said in the recorded discussion. “You’ve been a leader in terms of how farmers and ranchers need to think about the very tough situation we’re facing.”
Bruchez and his family currently run Reeder Creek Ranch, a cattle and hay operation outside of Kremmling. The once abundant Colorado River runs through the 6,000-acre ranch. When a catastrophic drought hit from 2000-2003, the family watched their ditches dry out and irrigation pumps come up empty. They battled to save their irrigated hay fields and livestock.
“We saw the most substantial impacts of drought that the river had seen in the modern era to that time and we took a stance and said we want to make a difference,” said Bruchez.
Although Reeder Creek Ranch has recovered from the severe drought 20 years ago, it faces new challenges as water from the Colorado River continues to be diverted to Front Range cities and states farther downstream. The river is further strained by the West’s megadrought that has continued since 2000.
Bruchez’s journey to protect his family’s livelihood and fellow ranchers began at the local level. He became the leader of a coalition of ranchers called the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling. He also become vice-chair of Grand County’s Grand County’s Open Lands, Rivers and Trails Advisory Committee. From there, he branched out to effect change at the state level.
He currently serves as the agriculture representative of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which works to protect the headwaters of the Colorado River. He is a member of the Interbasin Compact Committee and the Colorado Water Trust Board. Most recently, he was appointed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is spearheading a 12-mile restoration of the Colorado River in collaboration with 12 landowners.
“The entire future of the American West depends on what we do together,” Bennet said. “The kinds of things you’re doing on your ranch are critically important to your family, but also to the future of American agriculture for the next century.”
Bruchez and Bennet then discussed how the federal government’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and 2018 Farm Bill have worked to support agriculture and combat environmental crises such as drought. Bruchez explained that he has seen the Farm Bill in action on the local level, as it financially supported agricultural producers to make environmentally sustainable changes. The 2023 Farm Bill is being crafted by legislators now.
“When it comes to agricultural practices in particular, the only way anybody really ever embraces change is if they see each other doing something new and that it actually makes a difference to their bottom line and to their ability to pass their farm or their ranch on to the next generation,” Bennet said.
After their discussion, it was time to enter the House Chamber. As Bennet’s guest, Bruchez was able to view the president’s address from an upstairs gallery. Afterwards, he spoke with Sky-Hi News about his experience.
“It was an honor and privilege to be there. Senator Bennet and his staff were incredibly welcoming,” he said over the phone from Washington. “I’m grateful for the invitation but even more so for Senator Bennet’s focus on Western water and specifically what it means for our state.”
In addition to visiting the Bruchez Ranch, Bennet has also been closely involved with other Grand County water sustainability measures, such as the Windy Gap Firming Project in Granby.
“He understands the challenges we face and he keeps pushing that towards Washington for a deeper understanding,” Bruchez said of the senator. “As a frontline stakeholder in agriculture, I’m very grateful for that.”
He added that during his time at the Capitol, he had the opportunity to speak with other government leaders on water issues.
“I’ve been heavily working in water for a couple of decades so I don’t feel it’s a challenging thing for me to talk about, but this was a different scale than I’m used to … I’m very humbled. It was almost a surreal experience,” he said.
Bruchez also enjoyed dinner with Bennet and his staff.
“It’s great to see how engaged and in tune his staff are with the issues, and himself personally, working on them on a daily level,” he said.
Bruchez first met Bennet when the senator visited Grand County in 2014 to view a project benefitting agriculture and river health. Bruchez and a group of landowners had constructed the project, which continues to this day.
“Colorado is structured well to be able to have water conversations and take a leadership role. Senator Bennet in his position is doing the same thing … I think that if we all work together, there are solutions,” Bruchez said.
He also reflected on the president’s performance at the State of the Union.
“I really wished he would have mentioned something in his address specific to water-related issues in the West,” he said. “That was something I was really hoping for – that it would be recognized, and the challenges we’re facing. This is a very big deal for our country.”
Although Biden did not speak on the water crisis in the west, Bruchez was gratified to make connections with many people around the country who share his vision of protecting the fragile resource. Bruchez’s connections with other agricultural producers, academics and government leaders mean he has new partnerships to reach his goals.
“I’ll be a very busy man for a while … I can barely pack all my clothes in my bag because I have so many business cards! It was incredible networking,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing how worlds intersect.”