A Conversation with Elizabeth Schoder, Colorado Water Conservation Board

We spoke with Elizabeth Schoder for the spring 2023 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Colorado Water Plan Update” about equity, inclusion and outreach work in the Colorado Water Plan update. Elizabeth is a member of the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees and the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) water planning and community outreach specialist. 

What has your role been in working on the 2023 water plan?

Generally, my role was to support the update process through broadening our stakeholder engagement and outreach, coordinating our public education efforts, and advancing CWCB’s equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) goals, making sure they are a foundation of the 2023 Water Plan.

When it comes to your outreach and equity work, can you describe how this plan goes beyond where CWCB’s EDI work has gone before, who you’ve heard from, and how you’ve done it?

The 2023 Colorado Water Plan really builds on the robust stakeholder process of the 2015 water plan. Since the 2015 plan was released, CWCB has been gathering input from communities across the state and we never really stopped. Updating the water plan is an iterative process, from the technical update that was done in 2019, to local basin roundtables updating their respective Basin Implementation Plans in 2021, which all informs the larger state plan. Before staff started to draft any of the 2023 water plan, staff held a year-long scoping effort to hear from communities and sectors across the state about their top water concerns and what they wanted to see reflected in the updated plan. We heard from over 1,200 people during that initial scoping period.

Part of that scoping period was the creation of the Governor-appointed Water Equity Task Force, made up of 21 members that included seasoned water professionals, community leaders, representatives from the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes, and a representative from the acequia community. Over the course of a year, they drafted principles around equity, diversity and inclusion that guided the update of the water plan and are reflected in each of the four action areas of the plan. The task force’s work laid a foundation and starting point for CWCB to keep moving forward in this space — this work doesn’t end with the water plan. It also opens the door for more Coloradans to use these principles in the water plan to apply for grant funding or advance projects in their own communities.

For the first time, we translated the draft water plan, all of our educational handouts, our website, comment platform, and offered live Spanish interpretation for all of our public listening sessions during the public comment period. We also focused on brevity, clarity and accessibility for both the updated plan and our online platform and data visualization tools.

We’re really proud as a team, our staff made it to all 64 counties through over 100 events during the public comment period last summer. We wanted to make sure we were hearing from communities across the state and not just those who are normally in our water circles. So we were at a wide variety of events from water festivals, county commissioner meetings, ag forums, conservation and conservancy district meetings, farmers markets, farm tours, public libraries, the Congreso de Acequias, you name it. With the help of our local partners, we reached a wide swath of Coloradans, nearly 10,000 people in person, and many more through print and social media, radio, podcasts etc.

Another important part of our process was recognizing the importance of community connectors and local partners who have built and trusted relationships with communities, and who often are the best messengers.

Among those partners was CREA Results, who did an amazing job in helping us broaden our outreach to better engage with Spanish-speaking, BIPOC and underserved communities across Colorado. For the first time, we received comments, edits to the plan and water conservation success stories in Spanish.

We also relied on other important partnerships with local nonprofits, WEco’s Water ’22 campaign, and our Public Education Participation & Outreach (PEPO) committees in each river basin who helped amplify our message and got people engaged in the public comment process.

Why is that outreach work so critical and how has it influenced the plan?

Everyone that lives in Colorado is tied together by water. It will take everyone collaborating — sometimes in unlikely partnerships to come together on projects with multiple benefits and purposes — to get us to the water future we all hope to see. We need more people at the table sharing different perspectives and lived experiences to get us to the strongest solutions — solutions and pathways forward that are both equitable and water-smart. We know people are inspired to take action from better awareness, education and connection — hopefully people seeing themselves in the water plan, and understanding the call to take action in their own community.

Is there anything you’re most proud of with this water plan?

I’m proud that the water plan — beyond just being a great educational tool that anyone can pick up and learn about where their water comes from and how water is managed in our state and in their own local river basin — I think anyone who reads this can see how they fit into the plan as someone who lives in Colorado. Whether that’s joining a local watershed group, tackling a project in your community or backyard, or understanding what’s happening at the state agency level and how agencies are working together. There is something in it for everyone — whether you want a solid Colorado water 101 in Chapters 1, 2, and 3, or want to understand what’s happening in your local basin in Chapter 4 — or to better understand examples of important projects you could move forward where you live in Chapter 6.

The other thing I am proud of is how reflective the plan is of Coloradans of all backgrounds and walks of life. The plan was really strengthened by the amount of community outreach and participation from all corners of the state, and the over 2,000 individual comments we received made it the best version of the plan.

What’s next? Where are you focusing your energy now? How will you continue to engage more diverse populations and hear new voices?

Now it’s all about implementation! There are many exciting initiatives that are already in motion and that we’re gearing up for. A big lens going into the summer season is drought resilience and water conservation. But whether it’s updating our climate-decision tools and research, launching our turf replacement program, continuing to build relationships and engage with communities that are feeling disproportionate impacts from climate change and drought, supporting the basin roundtables and PEPO with increased funding, our team is busy and the Agency Actions in the Water Plan are really our strategic plan for the next 10 years.

We hope that all of the momentum built around the public comment period will translate into communities rallying to move water projects forward at the local level, especially with the historic funding opportunities for water we are seeing at the state and federal levels.

Is there a recommendation for how people would stay engaged with CWCB and the water plan at this point?

There are a couple of different ways to stay up to date with CWCB: signing up for our newsletter, checking out our website, and tuning into our podcast are all great places to start.

Beyond that, water issues are complex in Colorado, and just learning more about those that affect you and staying up to date on water issues is an important step. Through the water plan, we hope more Coloradans feel empowered to take action, even if it’s on an individual level like taking steps to reduce your water footprint. And of course, it will take collaboration and solutions from everyone, and more voices need to be heard. We encourage people who are curious to join local water stakeholder meetings like their basin roundtable, and to check out our grant programs to see if they are a good fit for a water project they are passionate about.

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