Colorado’s Water Governor, Governor John Hickenlooper

Diane Hoppe Leadership Award
Water Education Colorado’s 2016 President’s Reception

hickelooperI began my interview with Governor John Hickenlooper in his office at our state’s capitol building by suggesting he’d become our “Water Governor.” I brought along a copy of the Winter 2016 issue of Headwaters magazine, The Collaborative Alchemy Around Water Today. Its content features the tone he has helped set around the water courses of our state’s future.

I mentioned his 2012 “Year of Water” proclamation kicking off water education events throughout Colorado; his 2013 proclamation calling on the Colorado Water Conservation Board to coordinate preparation of a statewide water plan; and the November 2015 History Museum celebration where he toasted the hard work of the CWCB and the nine Basin Roundtables, recognizing also the Colorado General Assembly for its leadership role in passing the Water for the 21st Century Act in 2005.

He quickly steered me to the second week of his moving to Colorado in 1981, when he rafted the Arkansas River through Brown’s Canyon. “I discovered water in the West is more like poetry than prose. In the East, huge flows blunt everything. It’s more nuanced out here, like fly fishing.” He’s fascinated with how rivers became transportation corridors for settlement. He thinks state agencies work better if they relate well to the river basins they work in. He’s a reader, a thinker, and a conversationalist.

Born in Narberth, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, he majored in English at Wesleyan University and completed his Master’s degree in geology there in 1980. He worked as a geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum in the early 1980s, then, when the oil industry buckled, co-founded the Wynkoop Brewing Company near Denver’s old Union Station, participating in the remarkable remake of the lower downtown (LoDo) district centered around baseball’s Coors Field.

As a businessman, two-term mayor of Denver, and now in his second term as governor, he’s learned that “water affects people and enlightened self-interest” often leads to resolution. “The harder you listen the more you realize fights are often about things that aren’t really that important. When you hear others talk about their problems you find ‘I can fix that.’”

The terrible drought year of 2003 was his first as Denver’s mayor. While campaigning he’d heard some old-line civic leaders boasting the city could stand on its senior water rights, while Aurora and Douglas County had to cope with their less certain junior rights. But the self-interest of neighboring cities and counties were already aligned with each other and “establishing a context for relationships” was paramount. None can afford to have any other “run out of water.” His new appointees to the Denver Water Board, working with manager Chips Barry, relied less on Denver’s “cushion” and more on building cooperative relationships along the Front Range and across the Divide. Meanwhile, Denver residents cut their water use by 20 percent over a five-year period from 2003 to 2008.

As Colorado’s Water Plan was taking shape, the governor traveled throughout the state as Colorado experienced drought, fire and flood in rapid succession. I recall, in particular, a meeting in Fort Collins where he talked with northern Colorado Chamber of Commerce members about the expected doubling of our state’s population by the year 2050. Drawing on his experience as a businessman and municipal leader, he pointed to conservation, collaborative water projects, and environmental measures as essential to meeting Colorado’s future water needs.

The governor holds a deep regard for farmers and ranchers. “Preserving the long-term asset that is Colorado,” he says, requires protecting the quality of life on farms and ranches as well as in cities—and the streams for rafting and fishing. “It’s part of Colorado’s code of ethics. It’s not our water. It’s Colorado’s water.” As I left his office, our Water Governor reminded me he learned to work water in the brewery business. His purchase of the old Silver State Cleaners & Laundry property included a water well. Colorado’s water alchemy is a collaborative partnership he leads well personally and enthusiastically.

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