Politics aside: Life as a water board commissioner

With 25 combined years of service, Tom Gougeon and Penfield Tate talk lessons learned and what lies ahead.

November 13, 2017 | By: Steve Snyder
Former water board commissioner Tom Gougeon says the apolitical nature of Denver Water’s structure lets commissioners focus on long-term issues.

There’s an old expression about water in the Western United States: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.”

Nobody is quite sure who said it first (though it was not Mark Twain as many believe), but the sentiment rings true. You think we have water courts in Colorado because people have easily agreed on water issues through the years?

It is that divisive and political nature of water that led to Denver Water being structured in a unique way from the day it was founded. In 1918, Denver residents voted to buy the Denver Union Water Company and form the municipal agency now known as Denver Water. In doing so, voters created an entity that would operate independently from city government, keeping water service separate from local politics.

Nearly 100 years later, that structure is still in place. Denver Water is run by a five-member Board of Water Commissioners, charged with ensuring a continuous supply of water to the people of Denver and Denver Water’s suburban customers. The mayor of Denver appoints its members, but there is deliberate separation between City Hall and Denver Water — a separation that commissioners take very seriously.

“Board members have to ensure accountability to the owners and customers of the system, since there are no mechanisms for voters to do that directly,” said Tom Gougeon, a board member since 2004, who just completed his final term. “We also have to take the 50- to 100-year view to manage and invest in the system. Commissioners have been given the ability to do that through a structure that tends to dampen the shorter-term political pressures that other public agencies and water systems sometimes experience.”

“We have the ability to consider policy in both the short and long term impacts on the public,” said fellow outgoing board member Penfield Tate, a commissioner for 12 years. “Every board member knows what we are supposed to be doing in that regard. The original intent has been well maintained.”

Former water board commissioner Penfield Tate is proud of what was accomplished during his time on the board but says major challenges remain for the new board.

The work is important, but the job of commissioner is far from glamorous. They spend multiple hours of their own time between meetings, reviewing contracts and contemplating policy issues. And they are still paid the same $25 per meeting as when the board’s charter was adopted in 1959. But Gougeon and Tate, as is the case with most commissioners, are more concerned with the bigger picture.

“I had a good appreciation for the importance of the mission and the vast scale of the system,” Gougeon said. “Denver Water also has a tremendous statewide and regional impact. I wanted to be involved with that.”

“Both economically and environmentally, Denver Water has a major role to play, and it extends far beyond the city of Denver,” Tate added. “But commissioners are also an important voice for our customers. We have to balance all of those interests equally.”

Tate actually started at Denver Water as an employee in Water Distribution early in his career, as one of the front-line employees on the streets. Now, he sees a very different organization than the one he started with — one with significant challenges the next commissioners will need to manage.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in negotiating deals like the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the Water Infrastructure Supply Efficiency partnership,” Tate said. “But Denver Water needs to continue to be a leader in water policy and the efficient use of water locally, nationally and even internationally. It must continue to be a good steward of the environment, particularly in the face of climate change. And leadership must do all of that while remaining responsive and adaptive to the needs of its customers. These are daunting challenges.”

“There will be a need to continue to innovate and think differently about how to meet future water demands,” Gougeon said. “Other communities and systems may face significant water challenges in the future, and those challenges could cause people to want to put additional responsibilities and demands on Denver Water and the system.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has now appointed new commissioners to replace Gougeon and Tate. Moving forward, both men say they will stay connected to Denver Water through the many relationships they’ve built through the years. And of course, they will still be customers of Denver Water, carefully observing an organization that has come a long way in nearly 100 years.

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