The decision of commissioners in two counties to appoint different representatives to the Southwestern Water Conservation District is a change worth watching, especially in a year that may well bring change for the safeguarding and management of Western rivers.
John Porter’s term had expired, and the Montezuma County commissioners chose to replace him with Don Schwindt. Porter had served on the SWCD board since 1990.
Commissioner Larry Suckla said the county felt like it was time for “new eyes.” Schwindt also has a long tenure in water management. His eyes are not necessarily newer, although they may be looking in a different direction. Montezuma County wanted stronger opposition to a potential National Conservation Area along the lower Dolores River. The commissioners have long been concerned with how proposed land and water-flow protections downstream would affect Montezuma County.
It is difficult to imagine anyone in Montezuma County who has a broader view of water policy than Porter gained in his long career. For the 22 years leading up to his retirement, he was the general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages McPhee Reservoir and its water-delivery system.
Porter, who calls himself “an old water buffalo,” has been an invaluable resource for the entire nine-county SWCD region. He has been a steadfast advocate for agriculture, as Schwindt will be, but he’s also been a realist concerning other water uses.
Although Steve Fearn, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, had a year remaining in his three-year term, San Juan County commissioners opted to replace him. Like Porter, Fearn had served on the water conservation board since 1990.
Commissioners said that Fearn, with his ties to mining, no longer represented the evolving economic and environmental values of the county. Anyone who was alarmed when mining waste turned the Animas River the color of orange juice probably concurs, especially since Fearn may be facing a lawsuit related to mine pollution. Still, there is no doubt that mining is, and will continue to be, a factor in the region’s water management.
Together, Porter and Fearn had contributed more than 50 years of service to the Southwestern Water Conservation District, one of four regional tax-funded districts charged with supervising the state’s water resources. The two men represent two different sets of interests and a lot of history – the lengthy effort to fund and then build McPhee and its canal system and the mining heritage of the Silverton area.
New San Juan board members Charlie Smith and Don Schwindt will do a good job, but they’ll be pulling in opposite directions, Smith toward the future and Schwindt toward the strong agricultural heritage of Montezuma County. La Plata County representative Bob Wolff and Dolores County representative Doug Stowe will serve ably as president and vice president, respectively.
Stick your finger in a bowl of water, an old adage instructs. If it leaves a lasting hole when you pull it out, you are irreplaceable. Porter, though, is as close to irreplaceable in the water community as it’s possible for anyone to be. He is well past retirement age (although he has proven to not be very good at retiring), and he has many laurels upon which he can rest. He should have been allowed to step down from the water conservation board in his own time.