A radical water czar is cashiered by his board

 

It is not on quite the scale as the 1989 defeat of Denver's $1 billion Two Forks Dam, but it is worth a mention. On July 16, the Colorado River Water Conservation District board fired its secretary-engineer, Rolly Fischer, after 28 years on the job.

Fischer was fired - officially he resigned - in large part because of an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Heather McGregor in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

The Sentinel's three-day series centered on Fischer's financial abuses and extravagances: his $105,000 salary with a $10,000 bonus for finishing a dam on schedule; the district's exclusive use of an office-temporary firm he and his wife own; his use of a River District vehicle for personal travel; charges of unfairness from several employees; and so on.

The series started on the Sunday front page, the day before the River District's quarterly meeting in Glenwood Springs. As the last part of the series was being circulated on Tuesday, Fischer was giving a farewell talk to his staff and 15-person board.

One element was missing in Fisher's abrupt departure. When President George Bush stopped the Two Forks Dam, it signaled the West that the nation had turned against large dams. But Fischer was ushered out without the debate on fundamental issues that might have enlightened Colorado.

There is a lot to debate. The River District should be the most important water entity in western Colorado. Once named the Western Slope Protective Association, it is supported by a property tax on people living in the 15 counties within the Colorado River Basin. Until relatively recently, the district used that tax money to file on potential water rights and dam sites in the basin, and to litigate or lobby against water diversions from the Colorado River through the Rockies to the populous Front Range on the eastern slope of the mountains.

But Fischer was not interested in just defending the Colorado River Basin and in slowly planning for the future. In 1986, he reached an agreement with Denver to build the Wolford Mountain Reservoir so that Denver could divert more water. The key for Fischer was that his district - at long last - got to build a dam. The key for Denver was that the river district agreed to sit out the Two Forks fight, thereby betraying its primary purpose.

In addition to dams, Fischer was obsessed by the Endangered Species Act. He couldn't stand it that the presence of humpbacked chub and other threatened or endangered species in the Colorado River drainage made water development more difficult. So he worked hard to convince Congress to gut the act.

In an ideal world, western Colorado would have debated Fischer's willingness to send Colorado River water to Denver; his hatred of environmental regulations; and the undemocratic nature of the outfit he governed. (The River District board, although it raised $1.8 million in property taxes in 1995, is appointed by the county commissioners in each county.)

But it is at least possible that these larger issues did play a quiet role in Fishcer's departure. The River District board's quickness to fire Fischer once the Sentinel had struck the first blow shows that his position was already weak; western Colorado may have come to understand that Fischer's policies were firmly stuck in a vanished past.

There is another possible lesson: Fischer was finally let go because he betrayed the region's rural life and values. It is a familiar story. Rural leaders, including the leading attorneys, auto dealers, the most prosperous business people, the heads of banks and of such institutions as water boards and land-grant universities, often have little respect or affection for rural people and rural ways.

However big their belt buckles and shiny their cowboy boots, they seem intent on aping suburbia, with its country clubs and shopping malls.

Fischer could have seen the Endangered Species Act and the fish in the Colorado River as tools for protecting rural ways, or for cushioning the transition to a different society. Instead, he saw them as obstacles to faster development and more urbanization. And so he turned the River District from a conservative institution that fought to conserve rural resources into a radical institution run in a high-handed and profligate way.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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