Twenty years ago, many car bumpers in Colorado sported a no-holds-barred sticker: "Dam the Denver Water Board." It was easy enough to dislike the agency then. It was big -- Colorado's largest water utility and one of the largest in the West -- and it reflexively used its political muscle and economic sway to realize its goals. While the narrative wasn't quite the same, there were echoes of Chinatown, the story about Los Angeles' dewatering of California's Owens Valley.
Resentment of the Denver Water Board has since shriveled, and one reason was the vision, skill and charm of the late Hamlet Barry III, the executive director of the Denver Water Department. Universally known by his childhood name of Chips, he died recently in a farming accident, just a few weeks before his retirement.
Two things about Barry were apparent even at a first meeting. One was his remarkable walrus mustache. He must have needed garden shears to trim it. The other thing was his good humor, the twinkle that was always in his eye. That twinkle served him, Denver, and arguably all of Colorado, well.
A Denver native and a product of Ivy League schools, he took over Denver Water in 1991. It was a rocky, transitional time for Denver and the other cities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Water had always been considered a property right, and it still is. But federal and state laws adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s introduced other values, particularly environmental. Two decades later, Front Range cities got their lunch handed to them when a couple of controversial projects were defeated. One of them –– known as Homestake II –– would have diverted water from around the Mount of the Holy Cross, not far from Vail. Denver Water also pushed hard for Two Forks, a giant dam that would have flooded a treasured trout fishery in the foothills southwest of Denver. It was killed by the elder Bush's administration.
The suburban cities surrounding Denver pushed back, filing a lawsuit to overturn a veto by the EPA's William Reilly. But under Barry's leadership, the Denver Water Board refused to join the suit. Dan Luecke, a hydrologist who had been pivotal in the effort to defeat Two Forks, says that Denver's refusal sent a message -- to the Front Range suburbs, to the Western Slope, which feared more raids on its water, and to the dam-hating environmental groups -- that Barry knew that the water game had changed. But Barry also had to spread that message within the water board, says Luecke. Before Two Forks, Denver Water was an agency of monument builders. But Barry, who was a lawyer and not an engineer, saw the need to build policies instead. Conservation was one such policy, though it had a problem: It wasn't sexy.
"Nobody puts a name on the brick you put in your low-flow toilet," Luecke points out. Denver Water coined a word, xeriscaping, to encourage the idea of climate-appropriate landscaping that didn't need a lot of water. The agency tried to make conservation fun. One advertisement showed a man in a barrel, with the advice to use only the minimum amount of water necessary for showering.
But Coloradans still aren't humming "kumbaya." Seventy-five percent of the state's precipitation falls west of the Continental Divide, especially around ski towns, although 80 percent of the state's residents live to the east. Understanding this imbalance, Denver long ago staked claims on the mountains' more plentiful water supplies. Tempers have flared and old hostilities reignited recently as Denver took steps to divert more of the water it owns near the ski town of Winter Park to the metropolitan region.
Even so, most Western Slope leaders credit Barry with having a broad view: He clearly understood that Colorado consists of more than Denver and its colonies. Barry's sense of respect, which included rural areas, leavened every discussion, as did his good humor. "He was a wonderful person to disagree with," says Chris Treese, the director of governmental affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, based in Glenwood Springs.
In recent years, Barry began to tackle the challenge of climate change. In 2004, Denver joined the Rocky Mountain Climate Change Organization, and in 2006, it partnered with other major water utilities in the West in an effort to figure out how best to adapt. In that, Barry had an ally -- and a fan -- in Pat Mulroy, the outspoken boss of the expansionist Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Credit or blame can only rarely be assigned to one person for sea changes in thought. Barry always insisted he was just the lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe, but other water agencies clung to their damming past far longer than the Denver Water Board did. Thanks to Chips, an unwieldy institution began to move toward more modest and sustainable goals.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in the Denver area.