Get Big Pivots


The Colorado Water Congress sold out again this year, this time a month in advance. How much do the Colorado River problems explain this surge?


by Allen Best

Members of the Colorado Water Congress this week have gahtered for three days at a hotel along Colfax Avenue in Aurora to hash through dozens of topics. There were sessions about wildfire and water, the views of Gen Z water professionals and, of course, a report from Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s chief negotiator on Colorado River issues.

Not registered to attend? It’s too late. The conference was sold out in late December, the registrations capped at 650. It sold out last year, too. In prior years, the maximum attendance was around 500. Other water conferences in Colorado and beyond have also seen an uptick in attendance.

What’s going on? Conference organizers in some cases attribute the increased attendance to the Colorado River crisis. More broadly, though, they attribute the swelling registrations to other triggers. Most important is the desire of people to get together in the flesh once again after the social isolation forced by the covid epidemic.

“It might be a little bit of a mix,” says Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, the state’s largest organization of water professionals. “I don’t think it’s being driven by a specific water issue.”

There is interest in the Colorado River, obviously, given how much of Colorado depends upon the troubled river, both for agriculture and for its supplies for urban cities. About half of water for Front Range cities comes from the Colorado River and its headwaters.

Jim Yahn at 2024 Colorado Water Congress

At the Colorado Water Congress conference this week, Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Reservoir District, explained why partnering with two Front Range cities to export water from the Sterling area benefits his farmers. Top, Lake Powell in May 2022. Photos/Allen Best

Also stirring interest, said Kemper, are other topics, such as the question of whether Nebraska will be able to develop its share of the South Platte River within Colorado.

Mostly the increased attendance of the last two years has been driven by the desire of people to see faces, not computer screens.

Attendance at conferences organized by the American Water Works Association seem to confirm Kemper’s observation that the uptick has more to do with Covid recovery than to any specific water concerns.

Greg Kail, director of communications for the Colorado-based organization, the nation’s largest for water professionals, reports that numbers have grown at all conferences across North America, not just those in places close to the Colorado River.

“We would attribute those upticks primarily to Covid recovery, people wanting to get together in person,” he says.

Where the Colorado River tensions really do seem to drive greater attendance is at an annual  meeting in Las Vegas. There, the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference is held each December at Caesar’s Palace or some other hotel along The Strip. In some years past, even as the Colorado River situation continued to deteriorate, enough conference chairs remained vacant to seat the entire population of a small town from the river’s headwaters.

Then, in 2022, attendance surged. Water levels in the river’s two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, had dropped precipitously, posing difficult questions whether too little water would remain to generate electricity, something that had not occurred since the two reservoirs filled in respectively the 1930s and 1960s. The Bureau of Reclamation adopted a more urgent stance. National media devoted space, ink and time.

Whereas the average attendance in prior years had been 1,100, registration in 2022 swelled to 1,374. In December 2023, the 1,700 cap at a larger conference venue was also reached.

“A lot is happening on the Colorado River right now and will continue through 2026, and I attribute the increased attendance in large part to that,” said Crystal Thompson, communications manager for the Central Arizona Project, who handles press relations of the annual conference.

Thompson expects that increased attendance will be the new norm during at least the next several years.

In Colorado, Northern Water also reports a surge in attendance at its twice-annual conferences held in Loveland. Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the wholesale provider, reported that attendance at the events held at the Embassy Suites hotel was around 175 in 2017. The conferences are free, but there is a capacity limit at the hotel: 400. That cap has been reached for the last couple of years. He attributes the full house to a broader interest in water, both in the Colorado River and along the Front Range.

Allen Best
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