Legendary water manager John Porter, who died this week in Cortez, leaves a legacy as the champion of McPhee Reservoir who laid an enduring foundation for water storage and agriculture in Montezuma and Dolores counties, and for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
He was 87.
Porter is remembered for his dogged determination and diplomatic professionalism, which broker the deal for the creation of McPhee Reservoir.
“He lived an amazing life and will be remembered as a man who loved family, water and the land,” said his daughter Marsha Porter-Norton. “He loved people and always looked for the good in them. He was a skilled statesman, and one of his main legacies is water storage.”
Porter served as the general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District from 1980 to 2002 and was instrumental in pushing the $500 million Dolores Project over the finish line. The project, which featured McPhee Reservoir, irrigates 35,000 acres of formerly dryland farms, provides domestic water for Cortez, Towaoc and Dove Creek, and fulfills Ute Mountain Ute tribal water rights.
The reservoir water also provides a full season of water supply for 35,000 acres of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. farmland.
“Without John’s interpersonal and diplomatic skills, the Dolores Project would not have been completed,” said Mike Preston, who followed Porter as DWCD general manager.
A key contribution was his collaboration with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to broker the 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, which allowed the project to go forward.
“The project was on President (Jimmy) Carter’s hit list, and it only survived because of the prospect that Ute Mountain water rights could be settled,” Preston said.
The settlement guarantees a domestic water supply for Towaoc, along with Dolores River water stored in McPhee Reservoir delivered to irrigate the tribe’s 7,600-acre farm and ranch operation.
Porter managed community relations during McPhee’s construction, developed water contracts that endure today and operated the reservoir and canals in cooperation with the DWCD board and Bureau of Reclamation.
“His dedication transformed the community in a major way,” Preston said. “He had the water fever that is fundamental for the interior West and passed that on to us.”
Colleague and friend Don Schwindt, a longtime DWCD board member, worked with Porter for two decades.
“He was a great teacher for me, a true gift to the community,” Schwindt said. “John was a very innovative manager. He worked with the board as a team and could facilitate compromise when there was a strong difference of opinion. The project lives and breathes because of him, and he gets a ton of credit for making it happen.”
‘Administrative genius’Colleagues last week recalled when Porter stepped in after Montezuma and Dolores county farmers became alarmed at the cost of McPhee water, an obstacle that threatened to derail the project.
He held meetings with farmers that ended in a deal with the Bureau of Reclamation to delay water payments until newly irrigated lands were well in production.
The compromise provided farmers the chance to build revenue for the water payments. And as water was delivered from McPhee storage, former dryland farms became verdant with irrigation for the first time during periods of drought.
As general manager, Porter also set up an organization capable of operating the brand-new project.
“He was very sharp, an administrative genius,” Preston said. “He created a system of water accounting spreadsheets, budgeting and processes out of blue sky, and they are still used today.”
As a member of the Southwest Water Conservation District Board for 27 years, Porter also was instrumental in building consensus that allowed the Animas-La Plata Project, which created Lake Nighthorse in Durango, to be built.
While serving on the SWCD board, Porter initiated a grant program that continues to provide vital help to water-oriented entities throughout Southwest Colorado.
While his priority was securing McPhee water for agriculture and domestic use, Porter also understood the importance of recreational boating and the native fishery below the dam, his daughter Porter-Norton said.
He was a key player of the Dolores River Dialogue, a diverse stakeholder group that figures out how to best manage dam releases allocated to help native fish.
“The forum brought DWCD and scientists together to find the best solutions for the releases. He always worked toward finding solutions without compromising his principals,” Porter-Norton said.
Negotiations for the Dolores Project and Ute Indian Settlement Act were intense and required a lot of lobbying in Washington, D.C., Schwindt recalled.
A favorite memory was in the mid-1980s when Schwindt, Porter and DWCD board members Dopey Butler and Bruce McAfee were on a sparsely populated flight to Washington to lobby for a critical portion of project.
“We were huddled together at the back of the plane strategizing, talking shop, making sure we got our message right, and didn’t realize we were supposed to get back to our seats for landing. The stewardesses just laughed and said they enjoyed watching our intense conversation. That is so typical of what we did. We were all dead serious.”
Generations of diplomacyPorter picked up his work ethic and diplomatic talent from his father, Charles Porter, who ran a family farm in Lewis, was a state senator, Montezuma County commissioner and the first DWCD administrator.
After Charles Porter was killed by lightning while irrigating fields in 1980, Porter became the first full-time general manager for DWCD. He held the post for the 22 years.
Porter-Norton, a newly elected La Plata County commissioner, continues the family’s tradition of public service into a third generation.
Her background as a moderator at water meetings is rooted in her upbringing, and bodes well for a career in politics.
“I take to heart how my dad looked for ways to find common ground, how he respected people and stood up for what he believed in,” she said. “Like he did, I also value research and studying topics before making an opinion in order to better understand where the solutions are.”
Porter served on many boards, including Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., Southwest Basin Roundtable and Empire Electric Association. He also served a term as president of Colorado Water Congress.
In 2000, he was awarded the 20th annual Wayne N. Aspinall Water Leader of the Year Award by the Colorado Water Congress.
Shortly before his passing, the Colorado State University Water Resources Archive compiled an oral history of Porter, as part of collection of prominent Colorado water professionals.
Once it is safe to have gatherings again, the family plans to have a memorial celebration for Porter at, of course, a spot that overlooks McPhee Reservoir.