Shakeup at water district brings in new face to deal with old problems

Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 3:37 PM
Amy Novak Huff, a local water attorney, has been appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

A fresh face was appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation District to bring new ideas to decades-old problems surrounding water in the arid Southwest – at least that’s the hope of La Plata County officials.

In January, La Plata County commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff, in their last meeting before leaving office, along with commissioner Clyde Church, appointed local water attorney Amy Novak Huff to the district.

The move ousted longtime board member Bob Wolff, who has represented La Plata County on the commission for more than 10 years.

Lachelt, speaking to The Durango Herald, said commissioners will sometimes replace people who have served long bouts of time to bring in new perspectives about various issues facing the county.

“This was just a great opportunity to appoint a new person with a lot of experience,” Lachelt said. “With Amy’s experience and her background as a water attorney, she just has so much to offer.”

Huff, 46, a Durango resident since 1996, says she’s up for the challenge.

“I just thought it’s time for me to start giving back,” she said. “And now I have a seat at the table to learn more how to help Southwest Colorado.”

Huff was raised in Southern California, but went to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and never looked back. After teaching high school in Durango and Mancos, she went to law school at the University of Denver while working at Denver Water, where she became drawn to water law.

After she passed the bar exam, Huff was selected for a judicial clerkship in Division No. 1 Water Court and then worked for a water law firm in Denver. All those years on the Front Range, where water is scarce, allowed her to experience firsthand the contentious water issues.

“I was just fascinated by the water rights system,” she said.

Huff said she has now been practicing water law for 18 years, the majority of which has been in Southwest Colorado where water issues abound, exacerbated by drought, increasing demand and tricky multi-state compacts.

Now that her children are growing up, Huff said she had more time to give back to the community, and put in an application to serve on the board of directors for the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

“I feel like I have the experience and knowledge and commitment to this region to do a good job and represent La Plata County,” she said.

Huff enters the fold at a critical time as water issues in the Southwest come to a head.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District was created by the state of Colorado in 1941 to conserve and develop water resources in nine counties: Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan, San Miguel and parts of Hinsdale, Mineral and Montrose.

As with any issue involving water in the West, conflicting interests can get contentious as a result of the demand for water from ranchers, irrigators, municipalities, recreation and environmentalists.

All these conflicting interests were longstanding before prolonged drought in the region, as well as a growing population, exacerbated the issue.

“It’s a concern and everyone’s worried about it,” Huff said. “But we need to work together to advocate for our interests.”

Huff said the majority of her clients are ranchers and farmers. But she said she also makes a point to “straddle the line” between all the interests and demands on water.

“You have to try to find ways where everyone’s interest can be respected,” she said. “And you need to find creative water management practices, which produce better results for everyone.”

Wolff, for his part, said “surprise” wasn’t the right word when he heard the news he was not reappointed. He said he was given no previous warning he would not be reappointed as La Plata County’s representative on the district.

“It was a total shock,” he said.

For three years, Wolff has been serving as president of the board. And for the past two years, he has increased his workload, which is all volunteer, to help fill in while the district looks to find a new general manager.

For more than a decade, the district was headed by Bruce Whitehead. But in March 2019, Whitehead announced his retirement. His replacement, Frank Kugel, lasted a few months on the job before he was fired.

Essentially, Wolff said, the district has not had a general manager for two years, and the hiring process has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it hard to hire potential candidates.

The district, when fully staffed, has only two employees: a general manager and a programs coordinator.

“It’s been a struggle,” Wolff said. “And I’ve picked up the slack being board president. I worked my tail off, but who knows.”

Don Schwindt, who represents Montezuma County on the board, said because district representatives are selected by a county’s commissioners, the position is inherently political.

“The state set up a good system overall for dealing with the important issue of water, and politics are a part of it at times,” he said. “That’s the nature of the business, and I respect the process.”

Schwindt said the district will miss Wolff’s institutional knowledge, but welcomes what Huff may bring to the board.

“Bob put his heart and soul into the job,” he said. “I have not met (Huff), but I expect her to also be a good board member.”

Huff, for her part, will take a seat at her first board meeting Wednesday. She said she understands the gravity of the moment and how important local decisions will affect water availability and people’s way of life.

“We’re going to be faced with water restrictions, changing landscapes and people are going to be forced to learn (about water issues),” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think.”

jromeo@durangoherald.comA previous version of this story had the incorrect day for the Southwestern Water Conservation District meeting this week.