Attorney John McClow practices water law in Gunnison, a town of 6,500 people in southwest Colorado, but his influence spreads far wider: to the Front Range and even to the state’s largest provider, Denver Water.
Over the last two decades, McClow has risen to prominence in the state’s water community, with roles on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Upper Colorado River Commission, the state’s basin roundtables and the Colorado Water Congress. That’s in part because of his ability to speak on behalf of all of Colorado while continuing to protect the water interests of the West Slope.
McClow’s voluminous, long-running contributions to the Colorado water community were recognized earlier this year when the Colorado Water Congress awarded him the prestigious Wayne N. Aspinall “Water Leader of the Year” Award.
Every year, the water congress presents the award to a person “who has dedicated a significant part of his or her career to the advancement of the state and its programs to protect, develop and preserve the state’s water resources.”
Past winners include luminaries such as former Colorado U.S. Senator Hank Brown, Northern Water’s longtime general manager Eric Wilkinson and former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
“John has made important contributions to water law and policy for Colorado,” said Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead, himself an Aspinall winner in 2014. “He’s a strong advocate for the Gunnison Basin, but he also brings a statewide and basinwide perspective. People on both sides of the divide listen to him.”
People who have worked with McClow often describe him as the calming influence in the room: thoughtful, constructive and able to see issues broadly, beyond the narrower interests of single constituencies or a single river basin.
People like McClow are important in the water community, supporters said, because they can help reassure one group or region that another one isn’t out to get them, a challenge endemic throughout the historically charged politics of water.
Michelle Pierce, president of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and one of the people who nominated McClow, cited his leadership in developing the bylaws and other elements needed for the creation of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. Colorado’s basin roundtable process started in 2005 as a way to bring representatives from the state’s nine river basins together to discuss water challenges.
“He presented this information to each of the other eight basin roundtables (across Colorado) in 2006 and 2007, the result of which was a softening of the hard positions being taken by all interests at the time,” she recounted. “That eventually opened the door for substantive discussions among them.”
Fellow Colorado Water Congress members Don Ament and Ty Wattenberg, in their nomination letter also cited McClow’s leadership style, in his role with the group’s State Affairs Committee, for helping “bring order and consensus to situations with a potential for chaos and divisiveness.”
Among his many important roles, McClow served as chair of the CWCB during the development of Colorado’s Water Plan in 2013 and 2014.
The document endeavored to speak with a statewide voice — by assembling input from nine basin roundtables — to set guidelines for how Colorado could meet its future water needs. The effort had all the ingredients for controversy and even the potential for failure. McClow’s leadership is credited for being one of the factors that ensured its success.
“John’s wisdom, judgment, vision and ability to build collaboration and consensus were integral to the CWCB’s ability to meet the overwhelming challenge of developing a Water Plan in less than 30 months,” Ament and Wattenberg wrote. The two noted that even as McClow represented the Gunnison Basin in his seat on the CWCB, he “conscientiously and consistently worked to incorporate balance into the Water Plan.”
McClow’s leadership on statewide and regional water issues continued after he left the CWCB in 2018, when he finished the last of three terms.
Last fall, in an interview with Aspen Journalism, McClow discussed the need to develop a mandatory water reduction plan for water users as part of drought planning for potential shortages on the Colorado River. He said the idea, largely pushed by Front Range water users, had merit even as some West Slope officials expressed concerns.
“The temporary, voluntary, compensated reduction in consumptive use is the way we have looked at it since 2014, and that’s what the public is accustomed to,” McClow told the publication. “And most of us think that’s a good idea. The problem we have, though, is what if it isn’t enough? What if it doesn’t work? There has to be a backup.”
State lawmakers, in comments during the 2019 session on the floor of the Colorado General Assembly, also recognized McClow for his leadership in rising beyond parochial interests.
“He’s taking it on himself to try and do what’s best for state of Colorado but still remember he’s from the Western Slope,” said state Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican representing four southwest Colorado counties. “He’s done some amazing things for the state of Colorado.”
A Q&A with John McClow
Q: You’ve obviously had a storied career in water, both in southwest Colorado and as an important statewide voice. Is there one accomplishment or role that you particularly appreciate? And if so, why?
A: My nine years of service on the Colorado Water Conservation Board is an accomplishment that I am particularly proud of. Working on water policy for Colorado, directing funding for many exciting water projects through loans and grants, guiding the instream flow program, and especially participating in the creation of Colorado’s Water Plan made that experience very significant in my career. A close second is the successful mediation of the federal reserved water right for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. That settlement protected more than 350 Upper Gunnison Basin water users from a potential downstream call that would have devastated agriculture in the basin.
Q: What was most challenging about your role as the Upper Colorado River Commissioner for Colorado?
A: Colorado River water users within Colorado are widely diverse in water uses, geography, history and plans for the future. The greatest challenge for the commissioner is adequately understanding all of those interests and representing them with equal effectiveness in dealing with the other Colorado River basin states, the federal government and Mexico.
Q: Many of our readers are people interested in Denver Water: customers, employees and partners. It’s no secret Denver Water has a mixed history from a West Slope vantage point. Can you provide any perspective or advice for the utility as it continues to try and ensure a secure water supply for nearly one quarter of the state’s population in the face of many challenges, including climate concerns and the issues of potential reductions in access to Colorado River supplies?
A: Beginning with Chips Barry and continuing under Jim Lochhead’s leadership, Denver Water has been the best example of a Front Range water provider protecting and developing its water rights while collaborating with West Slope interests. Certainly, other municipal water providers on the Front Range have made significant advances in water conservation, efficiency and collaboration, but in the Barry-Lochhead era Denver has been the leader. I hesitate to give advice to Denver Water, but it would be “stay the course.”
Q: As the focus on water in Colorado only intensifies with population growth and climate concerns, what would be your advice be to a new generation of emerging water leaders in the state?
A: The only way that Colorado can continue to grow and prosper in what is certainly a more arid future is to continue the collaboration that has recently evolved among all water users in the state. We will have to adapt to the changing climate and inevitable growth by learning to do more with less water. Colorado’s Water Plan provides the blueprint for achieving a future Colorado that maintains the lifestyle that we value today. My advice is to use that blueprint, adjusting it as needed along the way, to overcome the challenges ahead.