Colorado’s top water-law enforcer, Kevin Rein has been a key adviser in some of the state’s prickliest water debates. Now, he’s ready to let another person take the helm.
Rein, 64, will retire this month after spending more than six years of his 43-year career in the role of state engineer, where he worked to ensure essential water resources flow to Coloradans, people in 19 downstream states and Mexico.
“It’s very daunting to think that my life will change, and I will not be so engaged in these important issues,” Rein said. “This is a big job, and I do it with a lot of passion. … To stop doing that is a little scary because life will change.”
His retirement will require a top-level transition among Colorado’s water leaders even as they grapple with interstate negotiations about the basin’s future and plan how to fulfill legal water-sharing obligations in a drier future. Those who have worked with him (and against him in court) all agreed on one thing: Rein takes the time to hear people out and to look for middle ground — and they hoped the next state engineer will do the same.
“I think coming down with a hard hand is not a good approach with water users,” said Erin Light, one of Colorado’s seven division engineers who work under Rein. “It’s finding win-win solutions. I see that approach with Kevin, and it’s the approach I take.”
Rein heads Colorado Division of Water Resources, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, where a contingent of engineers handle the nitty-gritty, technical details of water distribution. He and his team are on the ground daily, carrying out the policies put forth by Colorado River negotiators, legislators and state agencies. They’re spread around the state and serve as local officials on how the water in streams and ditches is shared among farmers, cities, recreators, industries and ecosystems.
In his role as state engineer, Rein has weighed in on everything from anti-speculation efforts to the Nebraska-Colorado canal war. He has been a go-to adviser in statewide conversations about the Colorado River Basin, which has been on the brink of a crisis since 2020.
When the law isn’t clear on how to handle some of today’s water challenges, Rein works with other agencies, like the attorney general’s office, to try to clear up the gray areas.
If water users, like farmers or cities, want to change their water rights in some way — to conserve water without impacting their water rights, for example — can they actually do what they want under state law? When should a river be declared over-appropriated because more people have legal rights to water than the river can actually support?
“In Colorado, there are a lot of folks that are always looking over the state engineer’s shoulder on what he’s doing. Water is a big business, it’s very important, and it’s very competitive,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. “[Rein] is very much more in the public eye, I believe, than a lot of other Western states. I think he’s managed that very, very well.”
Leaving in the middle of the debate
Rein is leaving as Colorado and the six other U.S. states in the Colorado River Basin are negotiating the rules that will govern how the basin’s biggest reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, will operate after 2026 and for years to come. Colorado’s mountain snowpack is the biggest water contributor to the Colorado River and the rest of the basin.
Colorado water users also don’t know exactly how much water ends up going where. Rein and his team have been working with parts of the state to set up measurement rules, but they’re up against a problem that has been perpetuated for over 125 years, Light said.
In the past, close measurement wasn’t as vital because there was enough water to go around. As the water supply gets tighter because of climate change, the state needs to decide how measurement should be done statewide, Light said.
Another key issue: If Colorado ever has to cut its water use to comply with its legal obligations to send water down to Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states in the Colorado River Basin, how would the state engineer know where to pull the water from in Colorado — especially when the state’s water isn’t being closely and consistently measured yet?
“The next state engineer has to determine how far they want to go with these rules,” Light said.
Gov. Jared Polis will appoint the next state engineer in 2024, and in the interim, the Division of Water Resources will be run by an acting director.
Rein said he spent the past year making sure that the division’s staff was ready to take over. He picked a time when he wasn’t leaving any water users who were working with him in a bad position and when he could hand off his work on water court cases and other projects to his team.
“These are such important issues that it’s a privilege for me to be involved at such … an important level,” Rein said. “But I also respect that that’s going to be the case whenever I retire.”
Seeking middle ground
Rein has chosen to handle sticky situations where water needs conflict by listening to every person’s perspective in search of common ground. Not every state engineer does the same: Others have been more inclined to hand down the law with a “my way or the highway” approach, several people said.
Rein, in a word, is accessible, several people said. He is known to hop on a call to help with a question and to drive to meet with people in every corner of the state.
“You wouldn’t feel dumb going to him with a dumb question,” said Kate Ryan, who worked with Rein as a water attorney and as executive director of Colorado Water Trust. “You’d know he would take it seriously; you’d know he’d give you a fair answer; and you’d know that he would appreciate being asked. That’s kind of a big thing.”
Part of Rein’s diplomatic approach to the job had to do with being a good public servant for everyone in Colorado, said his predecessor, Dick Wolfe, who supervised Rein for many years.
“He’s very empathetic. He really understood and sensed where people are coming from and the challenges that they had,” he said.
Rein was also an apostle of efficiency, which might be the engineer in him, Wolfe said. Having difficult conversations up front is another way to be efficient — after all, it can help head off decades-long, thorny legal battles that take up more time and money.
“The strength is he was willing to listen. The challenge is sometimes there just wasn’t, or isn’t, middle ground among the stakeholders,” water attorney Peter Nichols said. Despite disagreements over water issues in court, he and Rein have become friends who occasionally mountain bike together or share a glass of high-quality scotch, like Macallen 12.
“He was cautious about stepping into something without being sure that he had the support to do so,” Nichols said.
With staff, Rein made sure he knew everyone on his team, Light said. If he saw a water commissioner in the grocery store, he’d know their name. Or, if for some reason he didn’t recognize someone — which did happen once in Light’s district — he’d call twice to apologize, she said.
“That’s Kevin, right? Other people may have not even thought twice that they can’t remember 200-something water commissioners,” she said. “I’ve also heard from the water commissioners how much they’ve liked that — the fact that they’re a person to him.”
On Dec. 31, Rein, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair that has a touch more salt, will conclude a four-decade career as an engineer in Colorado that started with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University.
“I have a wife of 38 years that, too often, I’ve had to say, ‘Well, let’s try that next year,’ or ‘Let’s see if we can do that next weekend,’” Rein said. “We’re a very tight family, and we do a lot together. Too many times I’ve had to say this doesn’t work for me.”
He’s ready to spend more time with family, although he may stay involved in the water community, he said. If his family has its way, the internet will catch onto Rein’s Instagram hashtag, #melanzanagrandpa, and make him an influencer, he joked.
Looking back over a long career, Rein said it has been satisfying to be part of a 250-person team where people do their jobs and do them well. But what will he miss most?
“This sounds so cliche but … making the difference in the lives of our water users,” Rein said. “I think it’s very satisfying to say we’re doing good water administration.”
This Fresh Water News story was produced as part of a collaboration between the Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado and will also appear at coloradosun.com. Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.