Rebecca “Becky” Mitchell, the new director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, got right to work this past week.

But she didn’t have to go far, as she was in the same office in Denver she was Wednesday, when she learned that she was selected by the CWCB’s board of directors to serve as the state’s top water official.

Wednesday afternoon, Mitchell was responsible for managing nine employees as head of the CWCB’s water supply planning section.

But Thursday morning, she was responsible for 45 employees across various departments working on climate change, flood restoration, instream flows, loans and grants, the Colorado River compact, and other issues and projects.

Becky Mitchell

Asked midday how her first day on the new job was going, an exuberant Mitchell said, “I’m really nervous and I’m scared” before laughing, and not sounding either nervous or scared.

“I want to do right by the people of the state,” she added.

The broad priorities of the Colorado Water Plan as put forward by Becky Mitchell in a June 20 presentation to three Front Range roundtables. The slide reflects the competing priorities in Colorado when it comes to water and rivers. Credit: CWCB

Range of issues

In her new role, Mitchell, 43, is responsible for small things that can affect regional watersheds, including the Roaring Fork River region, such as grants to help fix irrigation ditches, to big things, like avoiding a compact call from California and Arizona, which could turn off many junior water rights.

“I think it’s an excellent choice,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, who also serves as the chairman of the Colorado River basin roundtable. “And it won’t take any time for her to get to know the issues.”

Praised by CWCB board members for her personality and ability to get things done, Mitchell is the second woman to serve as CWCB director since the agency’s founding in 1937. Jennifer Gimble led the CWCB from 2008 to ’13 and is now at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.

More meaningful to Mitchell than gender is that she is the first CWCB department head to rise through the ranks and become director.

She said her first priority is to “get staff set in place and make sure that the goals and directions are clear.”

An organizational chart from a presentation by Chris Sturm of CWCB shows how the agency fits within the Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources. Credit: CWCB

Heavy lifter

Mitchell has worked at the CWCB since 2012 and was instrumental in bringing forth the 2015 Colorado Water Plan after an intense, three-year planning exercise.

James Eklund, who served as CWCB director from 2013 until March, and was ultimately responsible for producing the water plan, also praised Mitchell.

“She did a ton of heavy lifting on the water plan, had a great outlook the whole time, and had people working at a high level,” said Eklund, who is now an attorney at the Denver office of Squire Patton Boggs. “That’s not easy to do.”

Patricia Wells, the general legal counsel for Denver Water, who represents the city and county of Denver on the CWCB’s board of directors, added: “Becky was largely responsible for the state water plan, which was an enormous undertaking, and she did it with style and good nature. And even though [she and her staff] worked themselves practically to death — sleeping on cots at the end there — they managed to do it in good spirits.”

She ticked off three challenges Mitchell will face: implementation of the 2015 water plan; producing the next iteration of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which is more technical in nature than the policy-driven water plan; and helping to develop a permanent and reliable source of funding to meet the state’s water needs.

Before joining CWCB, Mitchell worked on water policy in the executive director’s office at the Department of Natural Resources. And she’s been a consulting engineer, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Colorado School of Mines.

Mitchell, one of three finalists for the director’s job, was interviewed by the CWCB board in an executive session June 23 and gained the support of the full board, according to board member Heather Dutton, who is manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, and represents the Rio Grande River basin on the CWCB board.

“Becky brings with her an incredible intelligence but also a personality that makes her unique and approachable, and she has a big heart,” Dutton said. “Those attributes are going to go really far.”

Mitchell will begin her tenure as head of CWCB with the benefit of the state Legislature having just approved $164 million in the agency’s annual projects bill.

The bill includes $130 million for loans for water projects, $9 million for CWCB operations, and $25 million to help implement aspects of the water plan.

Mitchell said one of her early goals is to let people know that the water plan is not solely the CWCB’s plan.

“Just because the CWCB was leading the charge to develop the plan, it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t developed only within CWCB, and the responsibility is beyond CWCB,” she said. “It includes all of the people that can make a difference in reducing the supply and demand gap and solving the future of Colorado water. It’s everyone’s responsibility to play a role in that.”

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News on the coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story on Saturday, July 8, 2017.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...