Veteran Colorado water attorney Jim Lochhead has been part of most of the history-making Colorado River deals crafted over the last 30 years including California’s landmark 2003 quantification settlement agreement, where the state famously agreed to cut back its overuse of the Colorado River. For decades, he advised state and local agencies on Colorado River issues. He also directed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994 to 1998.
But in 2010 he moved into a decidedly different role: running Denver Water, a 1,200-employee agency that serves more than 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area and which operates as an independent government agency.
Under his leadership, Denver Water launched a major capital investment program, which included a new, hyper-green operations complex. It built a new water treatment plant and battled on many fronts to expand Gross Reservoir. The agency also launched one of the largest lead-pipe replacement programs in the country.
Lochhead, who announced he was leaving Denver Water in December, has a departure date of Aug. 7. Alan Salazar, chief of staff for the city of Denver, will take over as interim CEO for the next year, until a permanent hire is made.
But is Lochhead, 71, planning to retire? Not just yet. See what this high-profile water veteran has to say about the state of the Colorado River these days and what his future may hold. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Fresh Water News: Why leave now, when issues on the Colorado River are just getting interesting?
Jim Lochhead: I think as a CEO you need to realize what your shelf life is. I’ve accomplished what I was hired to do. When I came, Denver Water was right in the middle of negotiating the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement [a deal that resolved many, though not all, conflicts between West Slope Colorado River water users and those on the Front Range, including Denver.]
I was really brought in to move Denver Water forward in terms of being a trusted leader in the water industry and in serving customers, and to focus us on the sustainability of our water supply and the health of our watersheds. I’d like to leave Denver Water in a good place, and I feel like we’re in good a place.
This summer critical negotiations begin on how to operate the Colorado River system and the two major reservoirs on the river, lakes Powell and Mead, in ways that stop overuse and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Have you heard any great ideas that you think would solve its problems?
Unfortunately, no. What we need is a path forward that includes the tribes in the basin. We need a process that is not so onerous for participants so that we can collaborate and come to solutions. It’s going to require tremendous leadership.
Lakes Powell and Mead operate under different agencies, in some cases use different calendars, and serve different regions. Some have suggested that the two lakes should be operated as one, to simplify management and improve operational efficiencies. Do you support this idea?
It’s worth exploring. We need to be looking at totally different ideas about how the system is managed.
Others have suggested that any new reservoirs or dams should be stopped, that the seven-state Colorado River Basin should be closed to new water development. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t even know how you would do that. There is no authority. In Colorado [and the other Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] the prior appropriation system is self-limiting. [The system delivers water in times of scarcity based on which water right is the oldest. Any newly claimed water rights, in practicality, would never receive water.] All of our rivers are over-appropriated. If you are going to do something new you have to buy an existing water right. You would just be shifting use between sectors.
And in the Lower Basin [Arizona, California and Nevada] the amount of water that is taken is limited by contract and federal law to 4.4 million acre-feet in California, 2.8 million acre-feet in Arizona, 300,0000 in Nevada and 1.5 million acre-feet in Mexico. The big problem is that river [transit] losses and evaporation sit on top of all of that.
Farms and ranches use as much as 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. What could be done to reduce agricultural water use while protecting the farm economies and food supplies?
The fundamental dilemma that we have is the conflict between the priority dates of long-established irrigation districts in the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin under the priority system versus new development and growth that is occurring that is junior in priority.
If we strictly went by those priorities, you would literally be cutting off the Central Arizona Project, as well as Las Vegas, Denver, and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California]. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we equitably manage through that dilemma, so that ag economies and the communities that have grown to depend on those priorities grow and can rely on that supply? And how do we have security of water for the 40 million people who live in this basin?
It is going to result in a shift of waters. The Lower Basin has asked for $1.2 billion to reduce demands. I don’t have a silver bullet, but to me that is the heart of the negotiation that is going to have to occur.
A number of people have suggested that a new forum of some kind needs to be created to help solve the Colorado River’s problems now. You’ve said that you don’t plan to retire. If you were offered the opportunity to run that new entity, would you take it?
Going out to pasture is not my nature. I would have to think about it. I would love to stay involved.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News, an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at [email protected] or @jerd_smith.