Lawyer, Scholar, River Master: Jim Lochhead

Diane Hoppe Leadership Award
Water Education Colorado’s 2015 President’s Reception

When I was young the waters sang of being here before I am,
of falling sweet and soft and slow to berry bog and high meadow.

Consider the geography of the Colorado River and Jim Lochhead. Arise each morning along the river in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Have your first cup of coffee in Pasadena, California, fed by the river through the Colorado River Aqueduct.

Colorado and California have gone head to head over the waters of the Colorado River since the early 20th century. The entire length of the river from its source in Rocky Mountain National Park to Mexico’s delta reflects Jim’s personal and professional lifeline. He was born in Pasadena in the mid-20th century; Delph Carpenter in Greeley in the late 19th century. Architect of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Carpenter forged himself into becoming Colorado’s first interstate water diplomat. Lawyer, scholar, river master, Jim is Delph’s 21st century successor.

Growing up amidst the sunshine glory of Southern California, its beach athletics and orange grove sweets, Jim migrated upriver joining his nurse wife, native Coloradan Abby, in pursuing their small town professional practices in Glenwood Springs. When you settle in a river town, you get to know — close up and personal — how the glow and health of these communities fluctuate like snowmelt in a water gauge. When the gauge is full, all is well. When the gauge is empty, hire yourself a really good water attorney. Through tenacious credibility and leadership, Jim is among the best of them.

And shape the stones to carry me when I am young and full of fight

for roaring here and roaring there, for pouring torrents in the air.

As a partner in a small Western Slope law firm, Jim put together water supply plans for growing communities along the Colorado main stem and its tributaries from the Divide to the Utah border. Because the Colorado River flows east by transbasin diversion to Colorado’s Front Range and southwest to the Sea of Cortez, you don’t become a river expert except through hard work, common sense, and humility.

Jim served as big case litigation counsel to the Colorado River Water Conservation District in some really difficult federal cases in the 1980s and 1990s pitting the City and County of Denver against the River District, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. At stake was the right to protect the waters of Green Mountain Reservoir, a compensatory feature of the 1937 Colorado-Big Thompson Reclamation Project, for the intended Western Slope water uses. Denver attempted to usurp the ability of Summit, Grand and Eagle County communities to utilize Green Mountain releases to offset diversions on Colorado River tributaries above the 1903 Shoshone run-of-the river hydroelectric power water right in Glenwood Canyon.  Jim and colleagues won that case against Denver in a 1991 decision by the 10th U.S. Court of Appeals.

A revolution in Colorado water was occurring at the same time. The federal courts upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of Denver Water’s Two Forks transbasin project. The Denver Water Board doubled up. It hired Chips Barry from his position as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and it set his engaging embrace loose.

The mystery of a Divide is this, you can stand on opposites and not lose your balance, half of you belongs to the other ocean. 

Chips helped renew Denver and Colorado, implementing several master water exchange stipulations negotiated by Jim and colleagues benefitting western and eastern Colorado.  These agreements respect the superior right of Western Slope water uses, even as Denver Water won the ability to firm up water for its million-plus customers.  Queen City meets Mountain Stronghold!

Jim also proved his water diplomacy mettle as a member of Colorado’s Water Conservation Board. From securing instream flow water rights for preservation of Colorado’s environment to protecting its interstate water compact entitlements for present and future use, he excelled.  He became Chips’ successor as Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, following Clyde Martz and Ken Salazar, and served as Colorado’s commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Compact Commission.

His subsequent law practice partnership with the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck law firm extended his interstate reach to matters involving the Great Lakes Compact, Idaho’s Snake River Basin Adjudication, and New Mexico’s effort to comply with the Pecos River Compact with Texas. East Slope and West Slope Colorado municipalities and water districts hired him to counsel Colorado in high risk/high stakes negotiations involving all of the Colorado River Basin states and their many component interests. During those days and plunk in the middle of many long nights, no doubt, Jim authored a major article for the University of Denver Water Law Review addressing “An Upper Basin Perspective on California’s Claims to Water from the Colorado River.”

Know them by their names: need, conflict, confusion, good will.  Always the River at the heart of all possibility. One body, one spirit, many futures.

Due to tough and resolute negotiations, Jim often in the center of them, cogs are not whirling off the flywheel of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They’re grooving and synching. California has cut back from taking 5.3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to living within its 4.4 million acre-foot share. The seven states and Mexico have negotiated shortage criteria, compelled by 15 years of drought and aggravated climate change risk. Mexico is enjoying water storage in Lake Mead. Dietary water conservation measures are taking root in willow shoots and restored riparian habitat. Transboundary environmental allies are singing the Beatles song, Get Back!  Get some pulse flow water back into the bone-dry Colorado River channel in Mexico! It’s a picture puzzle of persistent increments the willow flycatcher and the river-swimming pikeminnow, among the rest of us, depend upon for survival.

This morning Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, will enjoy a first cup of coffee at his northwest corner desk looking out to the Great Divide. Half that cup will be South Platte water; half Colorado River water. As a whole it’s all Colorado’s water. Jim will be back on the phone attempting to implement the break-through Colorado River Cooperative Agreement between Denver and a myriad of Western Slope water supply and environmental interests. Whereby, water sharing in a water-short state might have another once and future better day.

Shall we dwell in the great houses of our many communities?

(Excerpts from Colorado Mother of Rivers, The Mystery of a Divide, and San Juan Our Way Out Of It? by Greg Hobbs)

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