Eric Kuhn: Former sub officer navigates turbulence of water politics

Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy

Eric Kuhn along the banks of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, general manager of the Colorado River District.

Eric Kuhn explains how the Colorado River District is laid out.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Seek to sum up the personality of Eric Kuhn and the nautical phrase “steady as she goes” comes to mind.

Or maybe “even keel.”

Either seems appropriate for someone who was in fact a Naval officer, and whose calm and easygoing manner must have served him well during years of service on a nuclear sub that engaged in spying missions off then-Soviet waters.

It’s the kind of personality that also serves the Glenwood Springs resident well as general manager of the Colorado River District, where he helps navigate the turbulence of water politics and policy for the Western Slope.

It’s not an easy course to steer for a region coping with twin and opposite-pulling tides that seek to transport its water riches to the thirsty and politically powerful Colorado Front Range and the desert Southwest. But Kuhn, 60, approaches the task in characteristic low-key style.

“Eric is unflappable. Nothing seems to bother him,” said Dave Merritt, a former river district engineer who now serves on the district board. “One of the jokes is that he can come back from a meeting in which almost everybody was yelling and screaming and he’d say, ‘Oh, there was some good discussion.’ It just never really bothered him.”

He can see why Kuhn was a good fit on a submarine.

“You don’t want to find yourself a thousand feet down with somebody who doesn’t get along,” Merritt said.

Perhaps Kuhn’s unassuming, unthreatening demeanor also has worked on his behalf as he has endeavored in recent years, through papers and speeches, to sound the alarm regarding the threat that demand and drought pose to the Colorado River basin.

Not everyone wants to hear such warnings, particularly when they’re based in part on controversial assumptions regarding global warming. But with his engineer’s mentality, Kuhn has undertaken an unemotional, extensive, science-oriented inquiry into the matter and simply laid out the facts as he sees them.

In searching, he’s also found that, except for the additional aggravating factor of climate change, concerns about overallocation of the Colorado River are far from new.

“I like the history of the river and what I find interesting is that the issues that we’re discussing today are the same as they were discussing in the 1960s and pretty much the same as they were discussing in the 1920s and ’30s,” he said.

For someone who has spent 30 years involved with water issues himself, Kuhn’s pres ent career was something of a fluke. Previously employed as a nuclear engineer for Bechtel Power Corp. in California, he had gone to meet a fellow employee to drive to a nuclear power plant and started leafing through a Wall Street Journal while waiting outside the coworker’s office. There he saw an advertisement for assistant secretary engineer at the river district. He decided to apply, and got the job.

It wasn’t the first unexpected detour from Kuhn’s envisioned career path. He originally had hoped to serve in the Navy up in the air, as a pilot, rather than underwater. His grandfather had been a pilot, and his dad was in aviation in the Marines.

Kuhn, the oldest of nine children, was born in Edmonton, Alberta, where his American parents lived at the time because of his father’s work as a geologist in the oil business. The family eventually settled in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Kuhn graduated from high school in 1968.

Kuhn received a Naval ROTC scholarship to the University of New Mexico. With the Vietnam War winding down when he finished college, there was a one-year waiting list to get into flight school. But as an engineer he also was interested in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, which with the Cold War still going strong was fast expanding. He served 4 1/2 years doing engineering work as a submarine officer, having been assigned in 1973 to the U.S. Halibut.

“We did some interesting things,” Kuhn said in a bit of an understatement.

Among them was tapping undersea cables connecting the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Soviet mainland. As a result the United States was able to intercept communications on the performance of Soviet test missiles fired into the peninsula.

It wasn’t until many years later that Kuhn came to fully understand the gravity of the work in which his sub was engaged. The role it played and the risk that was involved are particularly well detailed in a book called “Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.”

Kuhn said it turned out that if the sub ran into troubles, the captain was under orders to scuttle it, meaning the deaths of all 120 or so on board.

“I didn’t really realize it at the time and it never really crossed my mind at that time that it was all that dangerous, but reading back on it, it clearly was dangerous,” he said.

After his Naval service, Kuhn went to graduate school at Pepperdine University in California while starting to work at Bechtel, part-time at first. He helped Bechtel with start-up of a number of nuclear plants.

But over time he saw that the future of nuclear power didn’t look promising. The capital costs were high and utilities weren’t ordering new nuclear plants. It was just when Kuhn was wondering what to do career-wise that he spotted that Wall Street Journal ad.

Soon, a guy who spent months at a time underwater aboard a sub was becoming immersed in Western water issues. When Kuhn joined the river district, it mostly was involved in lobbying on behalf of Western Slope interests. He now oversees an agency that has diversified through means such as taking on reservoir projects, participating in endangered fish recovery efforts and focusing on issues such as protection of recreational river flows for tourist-based economies.

Meanwhile, Kuhn has become increasingly concerned as recent developments have provided further evidence for long-held worries about the Colorado River’s water supply. Just last fall, Lake Mead’s elevation fell to the lowest level since it first started filling in the 1930s. Tree-ring studies and other evidence now suggest the last century was one of the wettest periods over more than a millennium for the Colorado River Basin, meaning a river that already struggles to meet human and other needs today may have even less water to offer tomorrow.

And then there’s climate change. Kuhn realizes the skepticism surrounding this issue, but feels obligated to listen to the preponderance of science suggesting it is a legitimate threat likely to make the Southwest drier.

“Do you ignore that, and if you do, isn’t that very risky?” he said.

Kuhn fears a future in which things get drier and municipal water development continues at the expense of agriculture, recreation and the environment. But he’s also hopeful that forward-thinking organizations can work to protect these other values.

When Kuhn isn’t contemplating such weighty issues, he enjoys biking and hiking with his wife, Sue. Kuhn also is a high school football referee, and the younger of his two daughters, Kenzie, is a standout player for the Glenwood Springs High School basketball team.


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