Long before most students at Colorado Mesa University were awake on Friday, October 1st, 2021, Colorado River District staff were already busy in the Meyer Ballroom preparing the space for the District’s Annual Water Seminar. As the first of the in-person registrants began to arrive at 8:30 a.m., Wake-up Call on the Colorado River was ready to begin.
With signage, speakers, and swag in place, overcoming the usual and unusual technological challenges of pandemic-era events was the final hurdle. Due to COVID –related complexities, the 2021 Annual Water Seminar offered both virtual and in-person access, with an additional twist of simulcasted speakers from a parallel event ‘across the divide.’ Over the mountains in Boulder, the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s conference, Equity in the Colorado River Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource, also aired and intermingled with the River District’s event in Grand Junction throughout the day via virtual collaboration.
In Grand Junction, the River District’s seminar began with Board President Marti Whitmore taking the stage. Andy Mueller, Colorado River District General Manager, followed her soon after. Their opening remarks acknowledged the harsh realities of a difficult year for West Slope water users and set both a sober and inspirational tone to be echoed throughout the day.
“We have climate-change-induced drought; we have explosive wildfires; we have flash-flood induced debris flows, and we have incredibly low rivers. All of it can be tied back to rising temperatures in Western Colorado… It is our generation’s time to innovate.”
The morning program then progressed with a simulcasted hydrology panel, “Happy New (Water) Year,” which offered audiences the expertise of both Dr. Gigi Richard on stage in Grand Junction and climate scientist Brad Udall, speaking live in Boulder. Both speakers broke down the effects of the region’s multi-decadal drought into easy-to-understand slides and data analyses. Soil moisture, atmospheric thirst, and snow persistence all played a part, with an upcoming La Nina threatening future forecasts.
The first keynote of the day then brought in Tanya Trujillo, the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water & Science, livestreaming from her Washington, D.C. office. Her talk focused on a 30,000-foot view of water in the west and priorities for the many departments she oversees, including the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We do know that we have to continue our efforts to develop new tools and new ways to look at what we are seeing on the ground.”
Out on the patio for lunch, in-person attendees were treated to an engaging ‘old school’ presentation from Dr. Jack Schmidt, Director for the Center for Colorado River Studies at the University of Utah. Using posters and whiteboards to great effect, Dr. Schmidt broke down the ways in which we need to re-frame our thinking about how water management decisions and the environmental impact and inform each other.
“We’ve got to start dealing with the big water management questions and the environmental outcomes together.”
Politics and panels took center stage in the afternoon program.
Zane Kessler, the Colorado River District’s Director of Government Relations, stepped up along with Kathy Chandler-Henry, Vice President of the Colorado River District Board, to illuminate the exceptional alliances across the District’s 15 counties that brought Ballot Measure 7A across the finish line last November.
“We saw the challenges facing our rivers and economies and we knew that a well-funded River District would be needed to face those challenges. As a whole, the West Slope doesn’t think too much of tax increases, but we knew we had to take action. [T]he voters throughout the district stepped up and voted to pass 7A. Red and blue counties, ranchers and environmentalists, boaters and county commissioners said ‘yes.’ “
The 7A snapshot naturally transitioned into the benefits of a 7A win – establishing the Community Funding Partnership grant program. Moderated by the Colorado River District’s Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer, the panel highlighted three Community Funding Partnership grantees from Grand, Garfield, and Gunnison Counties. Ed Moyer, Grand County Manager, Paula Stepp, Executive Director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, and Sonja Chavez, General Manager of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, each explained how their unique, boots-on-the-ground water projects provide multiple benefits for water users and water quality.
Read more about recently funded Community Funding Partnership projects here.
The final simulcast in coordination with Getches-Wilkinson Center brought former Deputy Secretary for the Department of the Interior Michael Connor to the stage, giving another ‘big picture’ look at water in the west. Beyond management and storage strategy, his talk discussed the idea of equity in water policy and the multi-generational effects when that equity is not incorporated.
To close out the District’s Annual Water Seminar afternoon session, a dynamic panel of representatives from various Colorado River-dependent industries sat down with Andy Mueller to share their personal stories, and the impacts of this historic drought on each of their economic sector. Audrey Gehlhausen, Mike Camblin, and David Dragoo brought the unique perspectives of agriculture, ranching, and recreation respectively, bringing the big ideas of the day down to a local and relatable level. Becky Mitchell, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director, joined the panel via Zoom to offer a State perspective.
Six-and-a-half hours of solid content later, seminar attendees gladly stepped out into the terrace sunshine once again to enjoy complimentary beverages thanks to Ouray Brewery and American Rivers, and to network with others in the water community on a beautiful fall West Slope afternoon.
Ultimately, the event was a huge success with 120 participants joining us in person, and another 240 attending the seminar virtually. The Colorado River District team extends our whole-hearted thanks to everyone involved behind the scenes, on the stage, and in the audiences – all of whom came together for the sake of our rivers and our communities across Colorado’s Western Slope.
Please enjoy the photos below, and visit this link to review any content you may have missed.