Aspen Journalism won 11 awards in 10 categories, including first place honors for best beat reporting and best extended coverage, in the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2021 Top of the Rockies contest. 

Competing in the small newsroom category with entrants from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, and judged by journalists from SPJ’s Oregon and Washington chapters, Aspen Journalism’s awards covered a broad range of topics and formats. The awards included four first place honors, four second place honors and three for third place.

“It’s an honor to have so much of our work recognized,” said Aspen Journalism Executive Director Brent Gardner-Smith. “I’m proud of the list of journalists who were recognized, and especially proud that Heather Sackett won three first-place awards for her reporting on our Water Desk. The recognition shows that our nonprofit journalism model can produce truly outstanding reporting, and of course, none of it would occur without the ongoing support of our donors and funders, so we also consider these awards to be in their honor.”

The following is a complete list of Aspen Journalism’s recognitions from the contest, which included about 25 other newsrooms with five or fewer employees, according to contest administrators. Aspen Journalism is staffed by two full-time journalists, and works with numerous freelance reporters roughly equivalent to one additional full-time journalist.


1st Place Beat Reporting

Award winning beat reporting: The Water Desk, covering the upper Colorado River basin.

Water Desk Editor and Managing Editor of Aspen Journalism Heather Sackett is honored in this category for a group of more than six stories from one reporter on a particular beat. With Sackett’s 42 water desk stories written in 2020, complemented by another 23 from freelance reporters, we had plenty to choose from in submitting our application. We submitted six stories for consideration covering a range of issues including demand management, the Grizzly Creek Fire’s impact on downstream endangered fish and a ballot question raising taxes to fund the Colorado River District.

“Deeply researched, full of clarity, the author displays a knowledge and ownership of their beat,” contest judges wrote in the award notification.

The Aspen Journalism Water Desk focuses on water management in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins and the stories are published on our website and by newspapers covering headwaters communities including The Aspen Times, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Vail Daily, Steamboat Pilot & Today, Summit Daily News, Craig Press and the Sky-Hi News in Granby.

1st Place Extended Coverage

Award winning series: Quarry operators near Marble push aside creek, violate federal law

A quarry operator near Marble rerouted a high-mountain creek to fill in the natural stream channel in order to build a new road, and did so without securing the proper permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett broke the story, which came to light after the same operator in October 2019 spilled some 5,500 gallons of diesel fuel out of unsecured tanks near the path of that new road. While the 1,500-foot diversion around a ridge may have spared Yule Creek and the Crystal River from the impact of the spill, concerned citizens are urging the Army Corp to require serious compensatory mitigation for the damage done by moving the creek. Sackett wrote five stories about the issue in 2020, following the determination that a violation of federal law occurred and the resulting fallout, which continues to make headlines in 2021.

Again, the judges: “True ownership of a topic, explored over and over again with each new development is on excellent display in this series.”  

1st Place Legal News

Award winning series: Water court fight over the need for White River storage project 

Aspen Journalism submitted four stories from Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett’s coverage of a proposed dam and reservoir that would store water from the White River. 

“A comprehensive and thorough look at water rights through the lens of a proposed White River storage reservoir. The reporter made what could be a dry topic an interesting read,” noted the judges. 

Coverage included the news from the beginning of the year that state engineers had serious questions about the proposal, followed up by a report in October that the case was headed to a water court trial. Through an open records act request, Sackett obtained deposition transcripts laying out the record for the court and just as the year was coming to a close, she covered a critical ruling that later forced the parties to come to a settlement, which granted water rights for the reservoir. The stories were published by The Aspen Times, Steamboat Pilot & Today, Vail Daily, Craig Press and Rio Blanco Herald Times.

1st Place Information Graphic

Award winning story: Western Colorado water purchases stir up worries about the future of farming

Aspen Journalism Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett and Luke Runyon, who covers the Colorado River basin for northern Colorado public radio station KUNC, published an investigation in May into a New York-based hedge fund’s purchases of a large amount of agricultural land in the Grand Valley. They found that Water Asset Management, which describes itself as involved in water investments that “solve quality and availability issues,” had spent $16.6 million buying up 17 parcels encompassing 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. The graphic, created in collaboration with the reporters on the story by Caitlin Ketel, a former public radio journalist with expertise in GIS mapping, identified each parcel on a map, included photos of the properties and linked to information about each sale. This interactive graphic used information from public property records and each parcel was photographed by freelance photographer Bethany Blitz.

“This excellent interactive graphic provides essential context and complements the story it is part of quite well,” the judges wrote. 

The story was part of a series on water investment in the West, produced by KUNCKJZZ in Arizona, The Nevada Independent and Aspen Journalism.


2nd Place Pandemic Reporting 

Award winning story: Nonresident COVID-19 cases are a significant part of virus’ footprint in Pitkin County

This story, by Aspen Journalism Editor Curtis Wackerle and data journalist Laurine Lassalle, presented the most detailed early local reporting on how many people tested positive in Pitkin County for COVID-19 who were not county residents. The project, which relied on compiling data from public records requests and comparing already-available case count data, played a role in Pitkin County increasing public disclosure of so-called out-of-jurisdiction cases. It was also published by The Aspen Times.

2nd Place Agriculture or Environment News

Award winning story: Study finds small number of jobs lost under demand-management program

Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett covered an important aspect of the demand management debate, which is what impact temporarily fallowing fields in agricultural communities in order to send more water to Lake Powell would have on employment. While some jobs connected to agricultural work would be lost, the payments to water rights holders would add jobs in other sectors of the economy. Some water managers say negative impacts could be greater if these payments are given to absentee, out-of-state owner-operators because the money won’t stay in the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.

The story ran in The Aspen Times and Steamboat Pilot & Today.

2nd Place Agriculture or Environment Feature

Award winning story: How a high-elevation irrigation study in Kremmling could help Colorado avoid future water shortages

Freelancer Sarah Tory — also a High County News correspondent — wrote this piece about a Grand County rancher involved in a demonstration project to study the impacts of various water-saving strategies. The results of the study could help the state of Colorado figure out whether it should implement a demand management program, which would pay irrigators to leave water in the river to send to Lake Powell.

The story ran in The Aspen Times and the Sky-Hi News.

Aspen Journalism also won third place in the Agriculture or Environment Feature category for another story (see below).

2nd Place Feature Photography/Videography

Award winning story: Big annoyed mountain lion in tree, from below

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy, who at the time was the editor of Aspen Journalism’s Connie Harvey Environment Desk, took this photo of a mountain lion in a tree, as part of her reporting on a story — which also won an SPJ award — about expanded mountain lion hunting near Aspen.


3rd Place Enterprise Reporting

Award winning story: Western Colorado water purchases stir up worries about the future of farming

This story, with reporting by Heather Sackett, Luke Runyon and Brent Gardner-Smith, required lots of old-fashioned shoe-leather: multiple trips to the Grand Valley, knocking on doors, tracking down and cold-calling potential sources and poring over public records. The work turned up that New York private equity firm Water Asset Management had spent $16.6 million buying up 17 parcels encompassing 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. These facts were the backbone around which the rest of the story was built.

3rd Place Politics Feature

Award winning story: Boebert, Mitsch Bush dueling to wrest the reins of CD3 race amid COVID-19

Freelancer M. John Fayhee spent six weeks following the campaigns of Lauren Boebert and Diane Mitsch Bush in the the fall of 2020, as they were competing for votes to represent the 3rd Congressional District. He authored a profile of the race full of context and perspective from political insiders across the vast district spanning the Western Slope. The story was published in partnership with Aspen Daily News.

3rd Place Agriculture or Environment Feature

Award winning story: Mountain-lion hunting expands near Aspen

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy, who at the time was the editor of Aspen Journalism’s Connie Harvey Environment Desk, joined an early morning hunt near Woody Creek to document the opening of new terrain to mountain lion hunting. The story was printed in The Aspen Times and an audio version aired on Aspen Public Radio.

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit organization based in Aspen, Colorado whose mission is to produce investigative and in-depth journalism, but we can’t do it without the support of our readers. Will you consider supporting our award winning journalism?


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