Colorado Water Congress Annual Conference

Colorado Water Congress Annual Conference 2014: Investing in Public Water Education

January 31, 2014

The Colorado Water Congress held its annual convention at the end of January at the Hyatt Regency. On the last morning of the convention, Nicole Seltzer, the executive director of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, moderated a four panel discussion titled “Platform Plank V: Investing in Public Water Education.” The discussion focused around effective ways to engage citizens in the water permitting process. Seltzer explained how it is important to educate the public to help make them a partner in problem solving. The panelist included Rick McCloud, the Water Resources Manager of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District; David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited; Brian Werner, the Public Information Officer of Northern Water; and Lurline Curran, County Manager of Grand County. The four panelists represented a range of perspectives and commented on effective ways to facilitate public input. They each commented on the purpose of public involvement, the issues associated with public communication, and suggested ways to make public communication in the permitting process more effective.

Rick McCloud of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District spoke of his challenges and victories with public engagement in the Chatfield Reallocation Project, a project aimed at expanding the Chatfield Reservoir. McCloud acknowledge that the federal requirement is the underlying reason for public involvement in the water permitting process. However, his team also realizes that their projects impact people and it is in the organization’s self interest to get public input from people who have superior knowledge. McCloud admitted that it is often challenging to have meaningful public involvement because there is frequently a great disconnect in communicating some of the fundamental issues of a project. When a disconnect arises, people tend to make untrue conclusions about the plan, he noted.

To ameliorate the communication issues, McCloud suggested that agencies should engage the public more than the required federal minimum. There should be open, honest, and straightforward attempts to involve the public early because the days of backroom decisions are over. McCloud implemented his suggestions in the Chatfield Reallocation Project. Because Chatfield is such a loved and highly visited Colorado park, McCloud said they made it their mission to inform the public early and often so that their plans to alter the park would not surprise the park visitors. His team created a public relations program where they handed out flyers to park visitors, posted signs in the park, created a website, and also managed a hotline for people to call and comment about the project. McCloud also stated that they held a series of monthly meetings discussing the mitigation plans for the park, and four out of the five environmental firms found reasons to support the project.

David Nickum of Trout Unlimited represented the public interest group voice among the panelists.  He spoke about how groups like his involve citizens in the water permit process. Nickum noted that public interests groups allow a large number of people to organize and let the interest groups publicly reflect their values. He explained that involving the people who live near a proposed project in the permitting process is extremely important. Those are the people who will care the most and give the greatest insight because they see the area on a day-to-day basis, Nickum commented.

Nickum also highlighted the lack of dialogue present in the federal permitting process. He stated that the federal requirements provide a “propose and respond” kind of process, where people just submit comments and the agency responds. When asked about potential solutions to more effectively engage the public, Nickum suggested the integrated licensing process is a good model because it frontloads the public input. Getting the public involved early helps navigate what issues need to be studied. This process is also beneficial because it encourages public dialogue and helps the agency seem more credible to the public. Additionally, he noted, the more public engagement before triggering the National Environmental Protect Act (“NEPA”), the quicker the NEPA process runs.

Brian Werner of Northern Water has worked with the public agency for thirty-two years and spoke to his experience with public involvement on the Windy Gap Project. The purpose of public involvement is to figure out how to make projects better. Also, the public gets us to a place where we can build the project, Werner remarked.

For Werner, the length of permitting process is the most frustrating with regards to public involvement. He explained the difficulty of keeping the public engaged for ten years on the same project. Werner also discussed the challenges associated with public misinformation. In addition to the public often getting wrong details about a project, citizens often do not realize that the federal agencies dictate the process, and state agencies do not have as much leeway and control in the process as the public thinks.

When asked about potential solutions for the public communication struggles, Werner noted that there has to be a better way to do the Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) process. Werner would like to see a briefer and more simplified process as well as shorter and more easily understandable documents to facilitate public comment. Additionally, Werner thinks that there needs to be more coordination during the comment period because there is a lot of cherry picking by the various agencies.

Lurline Curran, County Manager of Grand County, primarily commented on her experience in working with the public on the Windy Gap Project. Public involvement facilitates the permitting process, Curran explained. Once the locals approve a project, the federal process flows more smoothly.

Curran also discussed some of the downfalls of the federal permitting process as well as other challenging aspects with public communication. Specifically, Curran mentioned that the EIS process eliminates the public dialogue. People send in their comments, and although the agency might answer them on one page in their report, the EIS excludes an actual interchange. She believes that Grand County found a solution to the limited dialogue present in the federal setting and set a template for how groups should work with the public. Curran credits the 1041 permitting process with helping achieve the necessary dialogue that lets all people feel like the permit issuer heard them. For example, in Grand County when the staff presents their recommendation for a project, the people in the audience get a chance to make statements in response in a town hall setting.

To Curran, the most frustrating part of public communication is trying to determine how to communicate with all groups in a way that they feel secure in a process where there can be lag time between various steps. To keep the public informed, Grand County developed a list with everyone who wants to receive information about the Windy Gap Project, and sent those individuals updated information. If you really want public input, Curran notes, you have to be willing to take the time to get it.

Despite the varying backgrounds of each panelist, Rick McCloud, David Nickum, Brian Werner, and Lurline Curran, all found that public participation, if approached right, could enhance the water permitting process.

The title picture is of downtown Denver, Colorado. The picture is attributed to George Miquilena under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic, and the use of this picture does not in any way suggest George Miquilena endorses this blog.