State’s top water official leaves for Denver law firm

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily on coverage of rivers and water in the Colorado River drainage and the state. More water at http://www.aspen

GREELEY — James Eklund, the governor’s point person on the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, is leaving his post as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on March 31 to work as an attorney helping to develop private-sector water projects.

Eklund, 41, has been at the top of the state’s water-supply planning agency since July 2013. He gave notice to the board of directors March 13 and starts his new job at the Denver office of a large law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, on April 3.

“The private sector needs to make sure it is pulling its weight” when it comes to water infrastructure, “and I’m going to see if I can help do that,” Eklund said.

Eklund was appointed director of the water conservation board by Gov. John Hickenlooper after the governor signed an executive order in May 2013 calling for a new state water plan by December 2015.

At the time, Eklund was serving as senior deputy legal counsel in the governor’s office. By July 2013 he had replaced former water conservatiopn board Director Jennifer Gimbel at the top of the board and became the 10th director in the agency’s now 80-year history.

What followed was an intense two-and-a-half-year effort by Eklund and staff members to produce Colorado’s Water Plan, which was produced after a series of meetings and presentations by Eklund and board staffers around the state.

And when Eklund got up in front of an audience to tell them about the water plan, he almost always began by invoking his great-grandparents, Ole and Mary, immigrants from Norway who homesteaded his family’s ranch in Plateau Valley, near Collbran, on the Western Slope.

In doing so, Eklund was reaching out to Coloradoans on both sides of the Continental Divide, knowing that the Western Slope water interests often start conversations about more transmountain diversions with “not one more drop,” while Front Range interests usually revert to “see you in water court.”

“The toughest thing has been really trying to change that,” Eklund said. “And it’s like turning a cruise ship. It takes awhile, but it’s rewarding when it happens, and as it is happening. I certainly wanted it to turn faster than it has turned, or is turning.

“People go back on their old talking points on this stuff,” Eklund added. “And in some instances, they go back to their grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s talking points. Getting a different level of conversation going was, and probably will continue to be, the most difficult part of the whole thing.”

Eklund was also appointed by Hickenlooper to serve on the Upper Colorado River Commission, which works to administer aspects of the 1922 Colorado River Compact in conjunction with a lower basin commission. He has not resigned from that seat and said, for now, he is still serving at the pleasure of the governor on the commission.

He said the issues that divide the upper and lower Colorado River basins — think Colorado versus California — “is kind of like Colorado’s transmountain diversion conundrum on steroids.”

And he said the solutions to both conundrums lie in people, not in water.

“The art of this whole business is to get the two sides to see water as a linkage between them, as a common element that they all need,” Eklund said. “Then they can get sit around a table and discuss things, instead of pulling pistols on each other and litigating.”

Eklund’s resignation after nearly four years was a bit of a surprise to some in the Colorado water sector, as the delivery of the water plan is often seen as a successful exercise that galvanized the state’s water wonks and water users, if not an exact prescription for which projects to build or rivers to restore.

“In my tenure, he’s probably made more presentations about what the CWCB does than about the rest of (the agency’s directors) put together,” said Eric Kuhn, who has worked at the Colorado River District for 36 years. “That’s what I think the state is going to miss with James leaving — his energy and his reaching out. The water business is a pretty insular community, and James was unwilling to accept that and was more willing to get out and talk to everybody about what it is we do.”