Lobbying job a conflict?
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
After several weeks of deliberation, one Gunnison County rancher has replaced another on the Colorado River District board of directors. County commissioners appointed Kathleen Curry on Tuesday, January 12 to replace former member Bill Trampe. Curry has served as chair of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable for the past three years, works as a water lobbyist and is also a former state legislator, having represented Gunnison County in House District 61 from 2005 to 2011.
Curry was one of three initial applicants for the appointment that came when Trampe, a prominent rancher in the Gunnison Valley, announced he would retire from the board at the end of 2020. “We’ve been faithfully served by Bill Trampe for the past 20 years,” said commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck.
The river district was created in 1937 to protect and defend Western Slope water rights in 15 western Colorado counties, including Gunnison, Pitkin, Garfield and Montrose. Each director is appointed for a three-year term.
Commissioners held interviews on December 29 for the appointment. Houck had initially joined two other applicants, Curry and Sonja Chavez, in applying for the appointment, but later withdrew his application to remain focused on his other roles.
It seems Trampe’s replacement was bound to be someone of ranching background. Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, was born and raised on a ranch in Colorado. And Curry works with her husband on their family ranch in Tomichi Creek Valley.
“We have two extraordinary candidates,” said Smith during deliberations on Tuesday. Commissioners openly struggled to make a decision between the two candidates. Smith said the decision had occupied much of her conversations for the past two weeks, but she believed Curry would make the best choice based on her legislative experience representing Gunnison County.
Commissioner Roland Mason said he too had spent time speaking with people who would be impacted by this position. “Not one person had something negative to say about either candidate,” he said. Having the commissioners working in one area on the upper basin and having Curry coming from the lower Gunnison basin would make a strong position, he added.
Houck spoke last. “The one thing that I’ve struggled with is that [Curry] represents water interests in an area downstream with Mesa County and the Colorado River District,” he said. Curry is a registered lobbyist, working on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
Houck called this potential even for appearance of conflict of interest a potential problem for county interests and “a small burr under the saddle.” His intention was to vote for Chavez, he said, but he considered both women close friends and colleagues, and he would vote to make a unanimous decision with the board.
During her interview, Curry addressed her current work, her strengths in policy, and her proudest accomplishment of ranching. “I submitted my application because there are a few things that the [River District] board will be dealing with probably in the next 10 years.” The renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines, she said, would be one, with demand management a subcategory of it.
“It’s pretty esoteric stuff, but it’s going to have…a direct impact on anybody with water rights junior to 1922. Most ranchers here got their decrees in the 1940s…and that drives how Powell is operated, and then Lake Mead, and then how we meet our requirements at Lee’s Ferry,” she said.
Regarding conflicts of interest, Curry said she had considered what to do if she had a client with a different view from that of the river district on a bill. She said she had contacted her water clients to say her priority would be the Gunnison County view, and her clients understood that.
Curry emphasized that as issues arise related to legislation and policy, balancing many interests among agriculture, environment and recreation is key. “We need to understand the importance of Ag water, making sure we aren’t converting Ag water.” But she also said she had learned from her work in Mesa County that “We don’t have the luxury of adopting one or the other extreme view.”
Curry said she would seek the same diplomacy as Trampe. “Even though Bill was clearly an Ag advocate, he was open to other types of water use. He never spoke badly of other uses.” As for representing ranchers, she said, “They aren’t necessarily all that vocal. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care or have a view. What I’m most proud of is that we actually run a production ranch, and we grow food for this country. I try to walk the talk. All the ground we have is under easement; it’s all going to stay like you see it. And when I’m sitting in my rocking chair on the porch at the end of the line, I would think that continuing to grow hay and raise fine cattle is the thing I’m most proud of.”