GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Coming from water-abundant Ohio, Andy Mueller used to have trouble explaining his line of work to relatives on trips back east.
"When I used to say 'I'm in water law,' they're like, what, are you a sewer lawyer?
"I think that's one of the unique characteristics about the West, is the scarcity of water is what drives our communities and the value of a reliable water supply is so critical to vibrancy of a community on the Western Slope," Mueller said.
These days, Mueller is in water policy, as the new general manager for the Colorado River District, a taxpayer-funded, 15-county entity based in Glenwood Springs. Such work is a little easier to explain back east, and even among western Coloradans, describing what the river district does can be difficult. But Mueller says that at its core, the district advocates for water users on the Western Slope.
While historically, water has been depicted as something that has driven a wedge between communities, "I think it should be something that ties our communities together," Mueller said. "We all need it, we all depend on it, we all want it in one way or the other. If we can work together (on water) we're much stronger."
Mueller was an undergraduate student pursuing his history degree at Kenyon College in Ohio when he took a class on history in the American West and became intrigued about the region.
"I remember thinking, I wanted to get involved in that," he said.
Mueller, 49, moved out west to get his law degree at the University of Colorado, having been attracted to the school because of its reputation for natural resources law. Almost immediately after becoming an attorney he was able to take over a practice in Ouray in which he focused heavily in areas such as water and hard-rock mining, working with clients across western Colorado including farmers and ranchers, Ouray County, developers, logging companies and others.
"I really learned from my clients what it meant to live on the Western Slope and it was a really good experience," he said.
In 2006 he was appointed as Ouray County's director on the Colorado River District board, eventually serving nine years on the board, including two as president. One of the key accomplishments during his board years was the cooperative Colorado River agreement reached between the district and other Western Slope entities and Denver Water. After decades of expensive legal battles, the agreement provided a path for Denver Water to develop water while addressing Western Slope concerns such as the need for river restoration.
"We were able to really get some significant commitments from Denver to participate in very important projects for our headwaters communities in terms of the health of our river systems," Mueller said.
He eventually relocated his law practice to Glenwood Springs, joining a firm there. Meanwhile, longtime river district general manager Eric Kuhn made the decision to retire.
Mueller said he was pretty upfront when he applied to replace Kuhn that he couldn't fill Kuhn's shoes.
"He's really a giant in the intellectual world of water policy but I have other skills and talents I think will serve the district well," Mueller said.
Mueller said the district has two charges — to protect the Western Slope and Colorado's share of the river.
"That's a very significant charge for a little government agency like ours," he said, noting that there are other well-funded water entities out there looking after the interests of millions of people the river serves in places including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California.
For Mueller, a major issue facing the district is the increasing variability of climate and the changes that result. Growing seasons are lengthening, which can benefit agriculture, but also mean more water consumption. At the same time, recent droughts have meant decreased flows into Lake Powell, which Upper Basin states rely on for meeting obligations to downstream states that already use more water than they're entitled to under an interstate compact.
"The biggest issue we have as a river district is helping the basin as a whole try to bring the system into balance," he said.
Mueller said it's important to do drought-contingency planning and look to conservation while keeping in mind how to accommodate projected growth and development.
The district has been involved in initiatives such as analyzing pilot projects for limited rotational fallowing of agricultural land for farmers who are compensated in return. The goal is to explore alternatives to buying and permanent drying of agricultural lands to meet municipal water needs should drought lead to a water supply crisis. But Mueller said it's important that agriculture be protected and that Eastern Slope cities and farmers also do their part to head off shortages.
"If our agricultural community is going to step up and contribute, so should everyone who depends on Colorado River water," he said.
Mueller and his wife, Kara, are raising two high-school-age girls in Glenwood Springs. Mueller enjoys water recreationally as a rafter and fly-fisherman, and also hunts elk, mountain bikes and skis. He said it was hard giving up his law career, but it was worth doing so to get to work with a talented staff at the river district. He sees his new job as a logical progression after 23 years of advocating for Western Slope families as an attorney.
"Now I get to (advocate) for the entire Western Slope and that's why I'm excited about this job," he said.