On Wednesday, September 6, 2023, Water Education Colorado recognized Russ Sands with the 2023 Emerging Leader Award. Read more about the award and past award winners here.
Russ Sands, Section Chief of Water Supply Planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, developed an understanding of the many uses of water and challenges to water quality from an early age. Born in Spain into a military family (his father was a Marine), Russ had moved to Kenya by the time he was in seventh grade. During a family visit to a scenic waterfall there, he was amazed and concerned to see local villagers doing their laundry in the pool below the falls, creating huge amounts of soapy foam in what should have been a pristine stream. Later, while living in the Dominican Republic, it was necessary for his family to drink bottled water due to a public water supply that was not safe to consume. These early experiences helped shape his concern for both protecting water supplies in the environment and providing safe drinking water to the public.
Russ interned at Denver Water while a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and credits his boss, Fred Sanchez, with inspiring his passion for protecting water quality. Russ transitioned from intern to employee, then transferred to backflow prevention, where he had the opportunity to work with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on providing consistency across the state in standardizing backflow regulations. His perspective was greatly broadened by working with people in water systems with divergent needs and resources.
Moving on to the City of Boulder, he found himself working “in the middle,” negotiating issues involving stakeholders with varying perceptions on how to achieve water quality goals. He then succeeded a retiring Paul Lander as the leader of Boulder’s strong conservation initiatives, eventually helping Boulder County lead a 2013 water planning task force, developing a final report for the country that focused on regional water collaboration and launching the first Watershed Summit as a result. All of this presaged his work on Colorado’s state water plan and efforts like the state’s recent 2023 Drought Summit.
While with the City of Boulder, Russ embraced the opportunity to participate in a federal program that paired international cities facing similar challenges. He worked to share lessons and develop strategies in Shimla, India (which led to helping them launch a water conservation campaign), and on follow-up work with multiple cities including Bangkok, Thailand.
“I think public service and international connections are just in my blood,” he says. “I’d like to continue to find ways to mix the two.”
Russ describes his current Section Chief role at CWCB as a “Jack of All Trades,” encompassing, but not limited to, conservation, education/outreach, resilience, and project financing. His experience in so many aspects of Colorado water, working to satisfy the needs of diverse groups, prepared him well to lead his team at CWCB in developing the 2023 update to the Colorado Water Plan – a crowning achievement for a relatively young water leader.
Outside his professional water life, Russ enjoys rock climbing (especially at Joshua Tree), which he shares with his son, and creating award-winning graphic design, which he often weaves into his water work.
Looking to the future, he observes, “The lessons in Colorado on all the work we do, whether it’s Colorado River issues or the Colorado Water Plan, are transferable in that they focus on collaboration, building trust and trying to make an impact not just for our generation but for those that come after. I assume whatever next chapters unfold in my life will include that same drive toward making larger impacts that can transfer, scale-up and inspire coalition building.”