Water leaders across Colorado stepping up efforts to educate public about resources

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Members of the Colorado River basin roundtable raise their hands during a tour of the Windy Gap Reservoir in September. Water education, on both the Western Slope and the Front Range, often involves tours of water storage and transport facilities.

Developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and presented to the governor in November 2015, the state water plan recommended creating a data-based water education plan, creating a new outreach, education and public engagement grant fund, and improving the use of existing state education resources.

While many water professionals are beginning to understand the importance of education, one Colorado River Basin Roundtable member has long understood the importance of an education and communications strategy. At-large roundtable representative Diane Johnson is also the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

In this position, she works in a variety of ways to engage the community, including through weekly spots on local radio station KZYR to talk about things like the preventive maintenance of drain cleaning, safe drug disposal (not flushing them down the toilet) and other issues the district faces. The district also staffs a water station at the farmers market, which Johnson said is a fantastic opportunity to talk with people about how the district brings safe drinking water to the masses.

“We all have much more ability to get our message out to people directly via social media or to your inbox,” Johnson said. “It’s great to have the e-news thing, but you’re not growing the engagement pie. So that’s the whole thing. You get that by having your voice in different places.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A group of rafters in Fruita preparing for a river trip on the Colorado River this summer. Many water professionals in Colorado are working to educate people about water, and many people's interest in the subject is formed on recreational river trips.

Communicating with the public

The Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs, has not formally “gone pro” in terms of hiring a specialist. Johnson said she sees the benefits of the Colorado roundtable having a position focused on education, but there are currently no plans to hire anyone. The roundtable is working on launching and updating a website as a means to get information to the public about its message, goals, and projects.

“I certainly understand why you would want to have someone that [education] is their focus and will keep getting information out about all this work and conversations that are going on every month,” Johnson said. “So much information is competing for our attention, and we know people care about things they are connected to, so whatever we can do to get more people to care, it just creates an informed citizenry in the state.”

The nine basin roundtables were established in 2005 to facilitate discussions on water management and encourage local solutions. While there is information about each basin roundtable on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website, some roundtables have created their own website, including the Gunnison and Arkansas roundtables.

Two Front Range roundtables have created a position that will help implement their education action plan, their basin implementation plan, as well as Colorado’s Water Plan.

The South Platte and Metro roundtables, which meet in Longmont and Denver, respectively, joined forces this fall and hired Lacey Williams as their first-ever education coordinator. The two basin roundtables (the Metro Basin is located entirely within the South Platte Basin) first combined their resources in 2014-15 to provide educational outreach activities, but this is the first time a position has been dedicated solely to education.

Williams, who has worked with the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association and American Water Works, will provide information on water projects and studies and encourage community and stakeholder participation in discussion of issues and solutions.

“Most people don’t know where their water comes from, so they take it for granted,” Williams said. “They don’t necessarily always use it carefully or appreciate or value it. We’ve got to be cognizant of the future and planning appropriately to handle the supply gap that is coming.”

Williams will be paid $44,000, and her contract runs through 2018. A Water Supply Reserve Fund grant provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and administered through the Colorado Watershed Assembly funded the position.

Executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, Casey Davenhill, said the sheer number of new people moving to the Front Range is a main reason the education coordinator position is needed.

“I think most of the roundtables have come to see that the task of engaging the public and keeping a robust volunteer group functioning at a high level requires some extra work,” Davenhill said. “New people coming into the community from outside Colorado may not understand about how [water] is used and how important it is and how they can be engaged in decisions that are made around water.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalsim

Casey Funk, the senior water attorney at Denver Water, speaking in Grand Junction this summer about the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a copy of which he is holding in his arms, during a water education tour put on by Colorado Mesa University. The agreement took years to negotiate between Front Range and Western Slope interests and is one key to understanding how water is managed in Colorado.

Water Education Colorado

The statewide, nonprofit group Water Education Colorado is also prioritizing the importance of educating the public and has rebranded itself to help achieve that. Created by the state Legislature in 2002, the organization was previously called the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. In October, it rolled out the new name to match its new ambitions.

“Colorado Foundation for Water Education was very long, people can’t remember the acronym, and the word ‘foundation’ was tripping people up,” said Stephanie Scott, Water Education Colorado leadership programs manager. “We wanted to eliminate that confusion. Our new brand is moving toward being a new resource in Colorado.”

The organization has two main goals: developing skills and knowledge through its water leaders program and publishing a variety of news and information, including Headwaters magazine. The organization is looking to hire a content manager to organize all the published information from the last 15 years to make it searchable on the website, as well as a water reporter.

“I think the water industry as a whole is starting to value what outreach can do for them,” Scott said. “This burst of education in the state is long overdue and very much needed.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily News, The Aspen Times, and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, in both its print and online editions. The Summit Daily News published it online on Dec. 27. The Post Independent published the story on Dec. 28 and The Times published it on Dec. 29.

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