The challenges facing Southwest Colorado’s next water manager are not light undertakings – drought, climate change and a demand on water that isn’t going anywhere.
Last month, Bruce Whitehead announced he was retiring after more than a decade as executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which is charged with conserving and developing water in nine Southwest Colorado counties.
Now, the search is on to replace Whitehead, a task that has prompted SWCD board members to analyze the agency’s mission and the way it does business in the face of challenges brought on by drought and climate change.
This week, the SWCD board held work sessions in Durango aimed at this endeavor, having guest speakers Friday lay out the realities of climate change in Southwest Colorado.
Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, said, first and foremost, climate change is happening and having impacts all over the world.
“Within the scientific community, there is no doubt about what’s going on here,” he said. “This is an issue humans have to face up to and realize we’re causing.”
Southwest Colorado, in particular, is acutely at risk to the effects of climate change, with higher temperatures and less water increasingly becoming the norm.
“Clearly, the job of water managers is to figure out how to adapt,” he said. “When we don’t let our partisan politics get in the way, we work together really well. In small communities, it can work.”
Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the state is trying to help local districts maximize efficiency with water resources and integrate climate change response into planning processes.
In many ways, it is planning for a future that is unknown, she said.
“The past is not a good indicator of where we’re going in the future,” Finnessey said. “Climate change is water change.”
For years, the SWCD’s driving mission has been to support water development projects, mostly for agricultural use. Most recently, the district was able to help with the construction of Lake Nighthorse.
But with a future that promises less available water, some members of the board say that might need to change.
“There’s a consensus (on the board) about the drought issue,” said board member Jenny Russell, who represents San Miguel County. “But this is the first time we’ve talked about the climate. And you can’t talk about drought without talking about climate.”
Charlie Smith, who represents San Juan County, reiterated the importance of the board recognizing climate change and its impacts.
“Step one is to accept things are changing,” he said. “Our charge is to adapt to an unknown future … but we should be prepared for the worst.”
During public comment, several residents said it’s time for SWCD to start representing the many diverse water users, rather than just agriculture.
“So much of our tax money is used to support the district, but are they representative of everyone footing the bill?” said Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The district needs to make sure all those interests have a seat at the table.”
Kent Ford, a Durango resident and professional kayaker, said a 2006 study determined river recreation brought in nearly $20 million annually to Durango’s economy.
Bob Wolff, who represents La Plata County on the board, said the job posting for SWCD’s executive director position will likely go out next week. It’s important to find someone who can juggle all of the complex, difficult issues.
“We’re all savvy to the realities of being in an 18-year drought,” Wolff said.
Steve Harris, a local water engineer, is serving as interim director.