Longtime water chief steps down
If his wife didn’t know better, Jane Proctor would swear irrigation water — not blood — ran through her husband’s veins. For the past 19 years, as general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, Dick Proctor ensured customers along 55 miles of canal and through 150 miles of pipe received water for crops and landscaping.
Proctor, 62, retired from his post in early March, a few years sooner than he had anticipated because of health issues. Former assistant manager Kevin Conrad has taken the helm.
Even when droughts in 2002 and 2012 brought levels of the Colorado River precipitously low, Proctor is proud to say the canals never ran dry during the watering seasons. On his watch, the nonprofit organization helped usher in the Grand Valley Water Management Plan, a series of automated canals that simultaneously benefit endangered fish in the Colorado River and keep enough water in the canal for crops. The $8 million project was funded by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the Government Highline Canal operated by the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
“Last year’s drought, I felt like we did as good a job as we could have,” Dick said from his home last week. “The ground didn’t go dry.”
The son of a farmer, Dick was raised a few miles southwest of Delta on California Mesa. His father, a single parent, raised him and his two brothers, while the family farmed about 300 acres of pinto beans, corn, alfalfa and barley for the beermaker Coors. Dick attended Delta High School and set his sights on Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, earning a degree in agribusiness management. He returned home to continue his love of farming, working the land for the next 21 years.
As a farmer, Proctor had an appreciation for water, especially in the Grand Valley’s semi-arid high desert. He served as a board member for 16 years on the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Board. He then was tapped for the Association’s managerial position, a role that typically would fall to a civil engineer.
“He has such a love of the land and the importance of water to it,” Jane Proctor said. “It makes him more dogmatic. He knows that one is dependent on the other.”
Dick Proctor probably is best known for being diplomatic during nearly two decades of change at the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said Mark Hermundstad, a water attorney who worked closely with him during his tenure.
“It is not easy managing an agricultural water system in an urbanizing area,” Hermundstad said by email. “There were many challenges that he had to deal with, from kids swimming in the canal to easement encroachments to serving water to subdivisions. Dick handled those challenges with the right combination of diplomacy and firmness to ensure that the problems got properly resolved.”
On Proctor’s watch, the Grand Valley Water Users Association approved the use of fish screens on the Colorado River to ensure endangered fish and garbage did not enter into the canal. Complying with the fish recovery process was not popular with irrigation customers, but Proctor realized it was the right thing to do. A precedent already had been set with case law in Oregon after a judge there determined irrigators either needed to install fish screens on river water in the Klamath River Basin or water would be cut off to canals altogether.
“While the recovery of the endangered fishes in the Colorado River can be a controversial issue, it is a circumstance that must be dealt with. Dick’s efforts in guiding the Association through recovery efforts benefited the entire river system in general and the Grand Valley in particular,” Hermundstad said.
Bob Norman, a civil engineer with the Western Colorado Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, said without Proctor leading the agency, the automated canal check system probably would not have been installed. Although Proctor wasn’t keen at first on new technology, he gave a listen to the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan, Norman said. It was with that system, essentially a series of locks and dams on the canal, that water could be backed up enough to pump through customers’ elevated head gates. The system saved water for the Colorado River, while satisfying downstream users. For example, Norman said, prior to the canal checks, the canal would always run 450 cubic feet per second. After the system was installed, for example, during times of low water demand in the late fall, the canal might run at 100 cfs and still meet customers’ needs, Norman said.
Benefits of the project were realized during the especially challenging 2002 drought. Irrigators still received water, but the Grand Valley Water Users Association did not have to draw down water levels in the region’s water storage, Green Mountain Reservoir, thus saving water for other users, Norman said.
“He was able to customize it.” Norman said. “Dick figured out things that would help him. In the end he wanted to make it work. If he didn’t want to make it work, it wouldn’t.”
Fights over water between the Western Slope and the more populous and thirsty Front Range have been terse, and during years of negotiation, Proctor and Hermundstad “just burned up the freeway between here and Silverthorne,” attending meetings, Jane Proctor said. The resulting Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which offers some protections for water for the Western Slope, is nearly completed.
“His counterparts here in the Grand Valley would look to him for advice on various aspects of the agreement, saying, ‘If Dick is satisfied, so am I,’ ” Hermundstad said.
Most Western Slope residents wouldn’t have hesitated to label the Front Range’s efforts as a water grab.
Ever the diplomat, Proctor still tries to soften the tone.
“I think we tried to take the word ‘fighting’ out of it. It’s more of a cooperative agreement,” he said.