Colorado’s top water official leaves CWCB for law firm in Denver

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The building in Denver, not far from the state capital, that houses the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

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 go 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 CWCB’s board of directors on 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 Jennifer Gimbel at the top of the CWCB, becoming the 10th director in the agency’s now 80-year history.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, on the road promoting Colorado’s Water Plan.

The plan

What followed was an intense two-and-a-half-year effort by Eklund and CWCB staff members to produce “Colorado’s Water Plan,” including a long series of meetings and presentations around the state.

When Eklund got up in front of an audience to tell them about the water plan, he often appeared to be a Denver attorney in a three-piece suit. But he almost always began his presentations by invoking his great-grandparents, Ole and Mary, immigrants from Norway who homesteaded his family’s ranch in Plateau Valley near Collbran.

Eklund collection

James Eklund, in the state Capitol building in Denver, while serving as an attorney in the governor’s office.

Eklund collection

James Eklund, with his father Larry Eklund, on the family homestead in western Colorado.

Old talking points

By sharing his roots, 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,” said Eklund. “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.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From left, Russ George, a CWCB board member, Andrew Gorgey, then Garfield County manager, Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, and James Eklund, director of the CWCB, talking about the potential for new transmountain diversions outside of the Garfield County building in Glenwood Springs in 2015.

Big river

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 sit around a table and discuss things, instead of pulling pistols on each other and litigating.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers, fall 2016. If water makes it here, it’s bound for the lower Colorado River basin, so just how much water gets to this point matters to people in seven states.

Running hot

Eklund’s resignation after nearly four years at CWCB was a bit of a surprise to some professionals in the Colorado water sector, as the delivery of the water plan is often cited as a successful exercise that galvanized both the state’s water wonks and water users. The result was a glossy and readable policy document, but 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.”

Eklund was also known within the CWCB for the mock headlines he presented during his director’s reports at CWCB meetings, doing so to make a point. Sometimes the headlines, attributed to various local newspapers, got a chuckle, sometimes a groan.

On Wednesday, at his final CWCB board meeting, the last of Eklund’s headlines read: “CWCB Spokesman tweets: ‘Smart ass director, his “fake news” headlines, & reign of terror finally over.'”

The reference to a “reign of terror” may have been Eklund’s way of acknowledging he pushed the CWCB staff hard during the development of the water plan.

“It was very intense,” Eklund said of the two-and-a-half-year water plan process, which had firm deadlines for both the draft and final versions. “Everybody had to be all in. The engine was running at a very high level. We kept dumping in new oil, but it runs hot when you have to do something that aggressive.”

Not long after the water plan was duly delivered to the governor at the end of 2015, at least six mid-level and senior employees left the CWCB.

Asked at the time about the turnover at the agency, Eklund said that in many cases it was his staff’s good work on the highly visible water plan that led to them getting better job offers and opportunities.

“Because it has been so successful,” Eklund said of the water plan, “it has raised the brand of each of the individuals who’ve worked on it.”

That may be true of Eklund as well.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Post Independent, Aspen Times, Vail Daily, and Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin and the state. The Post, the Times and the Vail Daily published a version of this story on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The Summit Daily News published it on March 24.

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