Bell, `chief water cop,’ retires
Orlyn Bell’s introduction to real-world hydrology came in June 1965, when a catastrophic flood struck the South Platte River in Denver.
As a college student working for the state water engineer, Bell watched flood-borne mobile homes bang up against bridges. Then, because the state’s chief dam inspector was trapped by high water, Bell and another engineer followed the river all the way out to Julesburg to measure the flood flows.
“I was a hydrographer. My summer job was to measure streamflow,” he recalled.
His work earned him a governor’s citation. More importantly, it proved that he could blend his desire to help people with his growing skills as an engineer.
Bell graduated from the University of Denver in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He worked for the Washington Highway Department for a couple of years until new state legislation brought an infusion of cash and prominence to the state engineer’s office.
That was his ticket back to Colorado.
Today, after 30 and a half years of service with the state engineer’s office, including the past 17 years as the Division 5 water engineer in Glenwood Springs for the Colorado River, Bell is retiring.
An open house in his honor is set for 3 to 6 p.m. Friday at the Hotel Colorado.
As one of seven division engineers governing the state’s seven major river basins, Bell’s job is, in his words, “to allocate the waters of the state on the mainstem of the Colorado and its tributaries to people with water rights.”
His territory runs from the Continental Divide in Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties downriver to the massive agricultural diversions for farms and orchards in the Grand Valley and out to Utah.
The job also includes dam safety inspections, issuing well permits, delivering water stored in reservoirs and consulting with the water court on new water rights applications.
Bell has to find balance between competing users, always keeping in mind the “first in time, first in right” priority system of Colorado water law.
“He’s the chief water cop on a river that has users all the way from Grand Junction to Julesburg, because of the transmountain diversions,” said Eric Kuhn, manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Every year, about half a million acre-feet of water is diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms that stretch down the South Platte and Arkansas rivers.
The diversions create perennial tension between the diverters and the Western Slope, especially in headwater counties that need water for their own growth.
In marking Bell’s retirement, the Denver Water Board issued a tongue-in-cheek proclamation.”
Calling themselves the “Royal Society of Transmountain Diverters,” the Denver pranksters bestowed on Bell the “coveted Robin Hood Memorial Award” and saluted him for “fearlessly keeping the spirit of Robin Hood alive today, no matter how misguided.”
Denver’s message demonstrates how Bell has turned a contentious and often litigious transmountain situation into a friendly atmosphere of cooperation.
Yes, there are still disagreements, fights and even lawsuits, but Bell has calmed many confrontations and mediated solutions that benefit everyone.
“There’s a lot more trust now,” said Hal Simpson, the top state engineer and director of the state Division of Water Resources. “There used to be a lot of animosity. People would get mad and walk out of meetings.”
“My office has been one instigator. Having seen the problems, I could suggest ways they might be resolved,” Bell said. “We used the SWAT team concept, where you leave the attorneys at home and think-tank until you come up with ways that will work.”
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