Former Colorado River District chief, Rolly Fischer, dies

Roland “Rolly” Fischer, the longtime head of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District who guided the organization through a period of intense and often contentious change, has died.

Fischer, a petroleum engineer who came to western Colorado in the 1950s ahead of the eventual oil shale boom and bust, was secretary-engineer and general manager for what was then known as the Colorado River Water Conservation District from 1968 until 1996.

A sometimes controversial figure, Fischer remained a fixture in Glenwood Springs along with his wife, Tillie, after his retirement. He died Friday morning at the age of 88, according to family and friends.

“The entire River District is saddened by the news, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family,” River District spokesman Chris Treese said.

“Rolly certainly deserves the credit for what the River District is today,” said Treese, who went to work for Fischer in 1991. “He was a visionary, and as manager he hired a lot of the people who make the River District the success it is today.

“First and foremost, he looked out for western Colorado and only did what he thought was best for its water interests,” Treese said. “He was willing to be the lightning rod in doing that.”

Outside of work, wife Tillie said he was the consummate family man. She accompanied him to western Colorado in 1955 when he went to work for Union Oil Co. of California to secure a water source for oil shale development.

“He was happiest when our children, George and Katie, or myself had some success,” she said. “He never wanted the success for himself, but was so happy when we did anything that made him proud.

“In the water industry, the verbal word of Rolly Fischer and a handshake were more binding than any one-inch-thick legal document,” she added.

Writer George Sibley, in a summary written for the Post Independent of his 2012 book Water Wranglers, described Fischer as a “visible, creative and often controversial leader for the West Slope’s traditional water users through his 28-year tenure.

“One of the district’s best achievements in that time was a truce with Denver, resulting in construction of the Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling using Denver money for joint East and West Slope storage.

“But Fischer’s greatest achievement may also be organizational, turning the River District from a nearly invisible two-person operation into an effective organization employing around 20 highly skilled people by the time he left,” Sibley wrote.

David Merritt, whom Fischer hired to oversee the Wolford Mountain project, said Fischer was responsible for the River District’s transition in the 1980s away from larger-scale water projects to operating existing projects and building more local projects.

“He saw the organization through that difficult time, and built up the staffing to support that,” Merritt said. “He could be irascible, and we could have our disagreements on things, but if I could convince him on something he would support me.

“As a boss, mentor and friend, I considered him par none,” Merritt said.

More recently, Fischer became embroiled in a 2010 finger-pointing controversy when former Congressman and then-gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis, now a Mesa County commissioner, was accused of plagiarizing parts of water articles he was commissioned to write, and for which he had hired Fischer to gather research.

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