Water buffaloes in the mist


You can get a decent sampling of the folks attending the 51st Annual Convention of the Colorado Water Congress at a Hyatt in Denver just by looking at the coat rack.

Navy sport coats and professorial tweeds predominate, but there is also a camouflage fishing vest, fringed duster, and a smudgy Carhardt jacket. The Grand Mesa Ballroom  is filled to capacity: ranchers mingle with engineers and entrepreneurs, lawyers, state and local representatives, and the occasional environmentalist. 

The mission of the Colorado Water Congress is to "promote the wise management and stewardship of the State's water resources for the benefit of Colorado's present and future generations." It would be hard to find a group of people with less consensus on the definition of "wise management."

In one of over 40 Powerpoint presentations given at the conference, Shell Oil spokesman Tracy Boyd looks rather eerie in the bluish light of his projector. 800 billion barrels of oil are recoverable from western oil shale, he says. Processing oil shale to make crude, which he says takes about 3 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil,  is really just "speeding up Mother Nature." 

Across the hall, lawyer Ken Wonstolen from the international firm Fulbright & Jaworski pronounces the copious amounts of toxic runoff produced in coalbed methane drilling a "gift" to the United States for the next 50-75 years. If the water is deemed "non-tributary" because of its depth, and  if it can be successfully de-contaminated, this mined water will be an even bigger gift to the folks who treat and sell it.

At a panel on agricultural-to-urban water transfers in the Arkansas Basin, MaryLou Smith of Aqua Engineering moderates a dialog between stakeholders and consultants. There's nowhere left to sit, so folks line up against the walls and cluster around the entrances looking tense and expectant. Smith, with honeyed voice and gushing praise for each participant, works hard to set a civil tone. The men look a bit at sea, unused to being "moderated," but their responses are thoughtful and for the most part restrained.

Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms wonders how we can choose "pavement over peas," "ipods over onions," and "bluegrass over broccoli."  Peter Binney, an international consultant with Black and Veatch, criticizes the Arkansas Basin discussions for their "naivete" and insists that the conversation become less emotive and more practical. It's time for farmers to stop squibbling over relatively minor water tranfers, he says, and focus instead on creative ways to adapt to the bigger picture, a 65% population increase expected in Colorado by 2030. 

There's lots of talking at this conference, but not much small talk. Intense conversations take place during every recess-- in clusters of two or three in corners, in private booths at the hotel cafe.  Old-time Water Buffaloes may be receding into the mist, but there are new beasts on the savannah, eager to take their places at the rapidly shrinking Colorado watering hole.




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