Colorado Appoints First Full-Time Colorado River Commissioner

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The state of Colorado has appointed its first, full time Commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. The commissioner is expected to take a lead role in upcoming negotiations around the Colorado River and its water uses. KGNU’s Jacob Agatston spoke with Commissioner Becky Mitchell yesterday.

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    Colorado Appoints First Full-Time Colorado River Commissioner Jacob Agatston

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Interview Transcript:

Jacob Agatston, KGNU: So to start, Becky, what is your professional background and how did you get into Colorado Water? 

Commissioner Becky Mitchell: Well, I’ve been working in Colorado Water for about 20 years. I have a technical background, graduated from Mines with both my bachelor’s and master’s. So I really come from the scientific standpoint and really focus on what works for the system. I have been the commissioner for the last four years, but really what this transition is about is about stepping away from another role, which I also held, which was the Water Conservation Board director. And I think it’s such a critical time, that is why we have Colorado’s first full-time Colorado River Commissioner and we’re in the midst of negotiations on the river right now, really focusing on changing the direction that we’ve been going in and doing the right thing for Colorado and for the entire basin.

Jacob Agatston: So you’re stepping down from your other roles to focus solely, full-time on the Colorado River crisis. Why did Colorado create this full-time position? And what do you expect to happen in the first year? 

Becky Mitchell: I think it’s because we are in such a critical time. We have to start focusing on long-term sustainable solutions to managing the Colorado River. When you look at climate change coupled with overuse in the lower basin states, specifically of California and Arizona, the dynamics on the Colorado River have changed and we have no choice but to do things differently and that takes a full focus. 

Jacob Agatston: So what are some of the challenges that we face when it comes to Colorado Water Resource management?

Becky Mitchell: The Colorado River is more stressed than it has been in the history of the modern West. Studies upon studies have shown we’re in some of the worst drought that we have seen. And so when we talk about the decades of drought and the impacts of climate change and the reduction of snow pack and increased evaporative losses, the uses cannot stay consistent. We have to be able to respond to that. And so I really think it’s changing the mindsets of the masses to make sure that we convince people that not only do we have to change the way we are doing business, but we have to be open to thinking about different ways of doing business and that counting on something that is not there, is not gonna work going into the future.

Jacob Agatston: What about working with farmers and ranchers to conserve more water and have sustainable farming practices? Will that be part of the negotiations? 

Becky Mitchell: I think we all have to be efficient with our water use, regardless of sector. But every solution needs to be on the table, and so how do we build systems and structure that still allow for food production and supplying food for the masses, but also figure out how do we respond to what Mother Nature is telling us.

Jacob Agatston: There are a lot of people who want access to this water, this limited resource. How do you determine which party gets a stake in it over another? 

Becky Mitchell: Well, I think what’s important is to lead by example, right? As we focus on this in Colorado, we try to hear as many voices as we can. Whether that is the agricultural voices, whether it’s the environmental voices, whether it’s the indigenous voices, whether it’s rural or urban. We try to hear all of those voices and take those to the table with us. 

Jacob Agatston: In the original Colorado River Compact, indigenous tribes were explicitly cut out of the deal. How are negotiations moving forward with indigenous tribes this time and have you been a part of those consultations? 

Becky Mitchell: So there is a consultation that happens on the sovereign to sovereign basis with the federal government and the tribes. But we also have a sovereign to sovereign discussion with Colorado and the two Colorado Ute tribes, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute, and make sure that we’re bringing those voices to the table.

Jacob Agatston: Last week, the Supreme Court decided against the Navajo Nation saying that water rights are an issue for lawmakers, not for judges. Where do you stand on this decision?

Becky Mitchell: I need to spend a little more time with that decision before I get to a comment level on that. I think you’re exactly right. It just came out last week and I think we need time to measure what the implications are of that decision. 

Jacob Agatston: Is there anything else you want to add that you think listeners should know?

Becky Mitchell: I think I want us to continue to pay attention to what’s happening. I think there’s been a little bit of a reprieve that Mother Nature has given us with this last year’s winter and the rains over the summer. But I want us to not forget how important this river is, not just to Colorado, but to the entire West. And to those two countries, seven states, 30 indigenous tribes that rely on it. And so to not just do not let one year take away the pressure that we need to do better. 

Jacob Agatston: I’ve been speaking with Becky Mitchell, the newly appointed Colorado River Commissioner. Thank you for taking the time, Becky!

Becky Mitchell: Thank you so much!

Produced by Alexis Kenyon and Jacob Agatston

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    Colorado Appoints First Full-Time Colorado River Commissioner Jacob Agatston

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