Denver’s water chief praised as ‘great mind’
DENVER – Denver’s vast and powerful water empire, once seen as a Western bully bent on expansion at any cost, was reeling from defeats and beset by rivals when Hamlet “Chips” Barry took over as manager in 1991.
Barry, who died May 2 just four weeks away from retiring, guided the city-chartered utility known as Denver Water through a radical transformation. These days, it’s viewed more as a collaborator with other districts and environmentalists, an advocate for conservation and a pioneer in scouting the effects of climate change.
“One of the great minds of modern Western water,” Patty Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, said of Barry. He broke down a culture of hostility among competing water utilities and looked for ways they could cooperate, she said.
The utility Barry ran is an engineering marvel, a network of reservoirs, pipelines, pumps and tunnels that collects 234,000 acre-feet of water a year – about 76 billion gallons. It supplies about 1.3 million people in Denver and some suburbs, amounting to a fourth of Colorado’s population.
About half that water is gathered from the Colorado River watershed on other side of the Continental Divide and diverted eastward in tunnels bored through the Rocky Mountains. Denver Water’s stake in the Colorado has long made it a player in larger Western water skirmishes, including the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and all the successive rulings, agreements and settlements that parcel the river among seven states.
The compact divided the river’s bounty equally between the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, and the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Mexico was granted a share in a later legal agreement.
Barry, 66, was killed in an accident on his Hawaii farm. Hawaiian authorities said he was pinned under a tractor he was operating.
“He was a wonderful man, he was an admired water leader in the state and throughout the West,” said Jim Lochhead, who was appointed last month to succeed Barry. “He took Denver Water to a whole new level in some trying times.”
Denver Water, as with most big water utilities in the West, faces potential challenges moving ahead – not the least of which is that the Colorado River is stressed to provide enough water to meet all the legal claims to it.
When Barry took over Denver water, federal regulators had just dealt the utility a stunning setback, vetoing the $1 billion Two Forks project, a massive dam and reservoir the utility wanted to build in the mountains southwest of Denver.
For decades after its 1918 founding, Denver Water had encountered little opposition when it wanted to build a dam because most of the sites were sparsely populated, said Patty Limerick, a University of Colorado historian who is writing a history of the utility.
When it did run into resistance, Limerick said, Denver Water’s attitude was: “We are pre-eminent and we are going to act on that pre-eminence, and if you are in the way, you are going to be a pancake.”
Not even the federal government was immune. In 1963, Denver Water began filling the new Dillon Reservoir in central Summit County in defiance of the Interior Department, which had ordered the utility to hold off until a dispute over federal water rights was resolved.
The utility backed off after the federal government filed a lawsuit, which was settled largely in Denver’s favor, Limerick said.
By the 1970s, Denver Water began to run into resistance from the new Environmental Protection Agency, other regulators and newly powerful environmental groups.
The big blow came in 1990, when the EPA vetoed Two Forks, saying it would cause too much damage to fish and wildlife habitat and to recreation areas.
It was obvious the utility had to change, Barry said in an April 13 interview with The Associated Press. “Everybody hated us.”
He began by talking with Denver Water’s one-time adversaries, sharing more water data and looking for opportunities to collaborate.
A breakthrough came in the mid-’90s when Denver Water struck a deal with a one-time rival, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which makes sure Colorado River water users in western Colorado get their share.
The deal gave Denver a share of the water from a new reservoir in exchange for helping pay for construction.
Other deals followed, including a complex arrangement involving Denver Water, suburban Adams County and the U.S. Army. The county and the Army got water from Denver. Denver got cash and help from Adams County with building new water storage. The Army gave up its rights to a leaky, inefficient irrigation ditch.
“When Chips came in, it was like somebody had turned on a light switch – or turned off a light switch, depending on your perspective,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River district.
Experts also give Barry credit for being among the first executives of a major water provider to consider the potential effects of climate change.
Predicting those effects is tricky. Utilities can calculate the impact of rising temperatures on consumer demand and evaporation from reservoirs, Barry said in the April interview, but predicting the impact on precipitation is far more difficult.
Denver Water hasn’t embarked on any massive projects as a hedge against climate change because of those uncertainties, but the board is considering whether to double the amount of water it keeps in reserve.
Criticism of Barry is rare, and it focuses on narrow issues. Some environmentalists said he could have pushed conservation and regional cooperation harder.
Lochhead and others can tick off a long list of potential problems that may await Denver Water besides climate change. New disputes could erupt over the Colorado. Supplies could be strained by population growth and new demands to leave water in mountain streams for recreation and scenery. Erosion caused by wildfires could make water treatment more expensive. The utility’s 15 reservoirs scattered across 4,000 square miles could be vulnerable to post-9/11 security threats.
Lochhead, 57, was to take over on June 1. He said Monday he wasn’t sure if he would move that date up.
Barry is survived by his wife, Gail, a Denver landscape architect, and two sons. A service is planned May 21.
He had planned to remain in Denver but also wanted to spend more time on the 8-acre farm in Hawaii, where he produced coffee, macadamia nuts and honey.
In the April interview, he gruffly dismissed the praise of his colleagues with a sweep of his hand.
“I’m merely the person that occupied this job and did what seemed to me to be the obvious needs at the time,” he said.