Sunday Profile: After nearly 30 years with the River District, Chris Treese still loves the water
Three years ago, the Colorado River District recognized those who had been with the organization for five, ten, 25 and 30 years.
Chris Treese was stumped. “I couldn’t think of who had been here 25 years.”
Everyone laughed, then told him, “It’s you, idiot.”
After 28 years with the River District, Treese is set to retire Sept. 13.
“Time really does fly, and the issues persist,” Treese said in an interview at his Glenwood Springs office, located across the street from Two Rivers Park, right beside the river that provides water to states in the Western U.S. and Mexico.
The River District was founded in 1937 with a mission to conserve water and avoid fights, sometimes literally, over a resource often cited as more precious than gold.
For the last third of the River District’s 82-year history, Treese has been the organization’s external affairs director, managing communication of the district’s mission to the public; to other nongovernmental organizations; and to local, state and the U.S. government.
And during that timeframe, change has been a consistent.
Water demands — and the way water is conserved — has changed somewhat.
As the Western Slope has grown, the meaning of conservation evolved, placing more value on environmental priorities and recreational use of the rivers. Conservation has come to mean something different and the advent of climate change has forced the River District to think in different ways.
“The conservation in our title, historically, meant building a dam to conserve spring runoff for later use, year-round allocation,” Treese said. “We have grown as the term has grown.”
From east to west
Treese has watched the Western Slope change almost since the day he came out west. He moved from the Front Range — where he grew up and went to college — to Grand Junction in 1982.
Treese was hired as the “boomtown planner” for Union Oil’s shale oil market expansion. When he arrived, housing was nearly impossible to find because so many people were moving to Grand Junction to work with oil.
Four weeks after arriving, “Black Sunday” occurred, when the shale oil market took a dramatic downturn May 2, 1982.
Treese’s job changed, but oil companies still needed to have an economist plan out their impact on local communities.
“There was still a responsibility that Union Oil recognized to work with the communities,” Treese said, “and to address the changes that were happening.”
Initially, his job was dealing with the “bursting bubble expectations,” but Union Oil at that point was sticking around.
“Union Oil still planned on growing and expanding,” Treese said, “so I had the role of working with the communities to plan for that change.”
From oil to water
Treese joined the River District as director of external affairs in 1991. He started as a one-man external affairs department, and now has four people working with him.
The River District is funded by a relatively small property tax, and is tasked with ensuring that water is conserved and managed to accommodate the many uses — from agriculture and oil extraction to providing cities with water and making sure there’s enough water in the river for recreation and the people downstream.
During the past 20 years, growing populations, shifting priorities and increased demand for water has needed many creative solutions, some of which Treese has been a part.
For example, Treese remembers the development of instream flow policies, which started out as a creative solution and is now precedent across the western states.
The instream flow doctrine is not a particularly recognized term but it was critical during the creation of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness area around 2009.
“One of the core values in the West is protecting and maintaining the states water rights,” Treese said.
But with the creation of a wilderness area, the federal government naturally exerts control over the water. The Dominguez area, however, was downstream from non-wilderness streams, setting up a struggle between holders of water rights and the feds.
“We came up with an approach to the federal interest in water that implicitly relies on Colorado’s instream flow law,” Treese said.
Water scarcity and climate change
Treese has two degrees in economics, a bachelor’s from Colorado College and a masters from Denver University. He likes to joke his degrees “are largely irrelevant to my current field.”
But economics at its most fundamental level studies the allocation of scarce resources, and in the West, water qualifies — especially in a warming and unpredictable climate. Water consumption plus the demand for water in the rivers for fishing and recreation have placed strains on the system.
On top of that, “You have a supply that by almost all scientific accounts is diminishing,” Treese said. “The last two decades certainly point to it.”
“We have grown in the west where demand exceeds supply,” Treese said.
Still, it’s critical to plan for the uncertainty.
“Climate change is in every conversation,” Treese said. “It’s part of every future forecast. It’s a large part of what we’re doing now.”
Retired but working hard
Treese recently returned from a five-day hiking and climbing trip in the San Juan Mountains, and still loves to do everything his knees allow.
Although he’s retiring to spend more time with his wife and his daughter who lives in Colorado Springs, he is still a member of several boards.
Gov. Jared Polis appointed Treese this year to the Water and Power Development Authority, which implements federal funds for water treatment systems. Treese serves on the Water Education Colorado Foundation, and Garfield County asked him to facilitate a water forum for local governments and utilities. He also will stay on the Club 20 board for Garfield County, and on Glenwood Springs’ streams and rivers committee.
Treese’s experience in the world of water issues taught him a helpful lesson that could be expanded to a number of occupations.
“There is no guidebook, no textbook, there is no lesson plan,” he said. “It’s getting out there, finding good people and working with them.”
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