James Eklund, former Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and chief author of the Colorado Water Plan, was named the 2017 recipient of the Leo C. Riethmayer Outstanding Colorado Public Administrator Award. Named for the founder of the School of Public Affairs, the Riethmayer Award annually recognizes a distinguished Colorado public servant.
We asked James to reflect on his career, advice he might offer to current students, and the future of public service.
What sparked your interest in public service, and in water law specifically?
I first became interested in water at the “business end” of a shovel. I am a fifth-generation Coloradan from the Western Slope, specifically, the Grand Mesa area (Collbran and Cedaredge). My parents run the cow-calf operation that they took over from my grandparents. Prior to that my parents were schoolteachers who moved around a lot and lived in a number of different places, including Yakutat in southeast Alaska.
Yakutat is one of world’s rainiest places, getting something like 200 inches of rain per year. So I saw water in two extremes growing up, and attended college in water-stressed California. I feel like I’m a product of the West, and you can’t grow up out here without learning about water in some way, shape, or form.
Is there a particular person or mentor who had a large influence on your career path?
While I was attending law school at D.U., I did an internship in Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar’s office. He was very inspirational and someone I really wanted to work for, and with. And he has rural roots that go back much further than my own.
I worked on his re-election campaign for Attorney General, but given my lack of experience at the time the only available opportunity was to serve as his driver. In driving him around I had lots of opportunities to speak with him, and he knew a great deal about water law and would talk about the history of places, especially on the Western Slope, as we were driving past.
In the course of those conversations, Ken Salazar basically mapped out what I should do for a career: get into water law, and if there’s ever an opportunity to work as legal counsel for the Governor, do that. He also advised me to take advantage of any opportunity to run an agency, because in law practice it’s very difficult to get managerial experience. I was fortunate to have him as a resource and to receive his advice.
In terms of other people who had a big influence on my career path, I would point to my wife, Sara — the wisest counselor I’ve ever met — Governor Hickenlooper, my parents, and my brother. They have helped and guided me in some challenging periods, particularly in regard to putting together Colorado’s Water Plan. A lot of people said that there was no way that plan was ever going to come together and be meaningful, and having their support during that process really meant a lot.
What were some of your ‘aha moments’ during the process of developing Colorado’s Water Plan?
One thing I learned in working on the plan was that while water was the subject matter of the plan, it was really more about people and the business of working with people. Forming relationships with people involved in water and motivating state agency employees to do things that weren’t necessarily in their job description was challenging. Luckily I think I inherited my dad’s knack of being able to work with people and seeing the joy in that.
We could have written the world’s most perfect water plan using all kinds of experts and consultants, but in reality that was never going to work. That had been tried before, in the 1970s, and never took root.
We quickly figured out that we needed to flip that paradigm on its head and have people who were actually using the water tell us what our plan should look like, starting with the regions. We had the largest civic engagement process in state history, starting with the basin roundtables in 2005. So, in essence, we had the users write it, then took it upon ourselves to harmonize it and honor all the things that were said in the regions.
A second big ‘aha moment’ during that process was understanding the need to move beyond looking at the Continental Divide as a dividing force that draws lines between the two sides of the state. Instead, we need to look at it at as a connection between those two sides.
We have 25 transmountain diversions that move 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Western Slope to the Front Range every year. That’s a lot of water! But there’s no Western Slope flag, no Front Range flag: there’s only one State of Colorado flag. We’re all in this together, and an adversarial approach doesn’t benefit anyone. As Governor Hickenlooper says, “There’s no margin in making enemies.”
A third big ‘aha moment’ was the realization that, in the face of a crisis, the federal government wasn’t going to allow us to fiddle around and mess this up. We could either develop a water plan ourselves, or we would have bureaucrats in D.C. do it for us. We needed to come together as Coloradans and figure this out for ourselves so that we could continue to manage our water. People felt that if someone was going to talk about your water rights, it would be best if they were other Coloradans rather than D.C. bureaucrats.
In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently in developing the CWP?
I would like to have learned earlier to look at challenges less as problems, and more as opportunities. Learning to step into the person’s shoes I was managing was important, especially as an administrator. Otherwise, there can be a lot of unintended consequences.
For example, I started out using metrics and a dashboard at the Colorado Water Conservation Board without adequately explaining what I was trying to do with them. To some employees it came across as me not trusting them, even though that wasn’t the case, and it sent the wrong signal. I came to understand the importance of making sure people feel respected, and that putting the right people in the right positions and giving them autonomy was key.
In state government, especially, there’s little financial compensation for exceeding expectations. It can be frustrating for employees, and challenging for morale when you have that dynamic. That’s why it’s so important to recognize employees when the opportunity arises, and I tried to do that whenever I could in as many ways as I could.
What advice would you give to a student who is considering a career in public service?
Anytime I get the opportunity, it’s a real honor to talk to young people who are considering a career in public service. The advice I often give students comes from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave in 1910. The passage is often referred to as “The Man in the Arena” but, as is demonstrated by the amazing women leaders at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a little updating to make it more gender neutral is in order:
It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong person stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends him/herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I tell students to go into public service not because it pays better, or because you’re going to get some sort of prestige out of the deal, but because, if the cause is worthy, there is no better crucible to harden their metal. The harder the job, the more rewarding it can be.
I also tell them not to turn their nose up at the opportunity to do something like be someone’s driver. You sometimes find kernels of wisdom in odd places, where you’d never expect them, and they can guide you on your path. I continually look back at the meaningful advice and guidance that I received from Ken Salazar on those drives when given the honor to advise a student.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of public service?
I really hope that the current generation and future generations of leaders aren’t discouraged by political whiplash about the value of public service. Public service is a place to dare greatly and not be lulled to sleep by what can sometimes feel like warm bureaucratic water.
I also hope that students see that the value of public service transcends whoever is in the Oval Office. There will often be people you disagree with who occupy a higher office and who, at least according to the org chart, are your boss. But there are tremendous gains to be made by not being discouraged, and by committing to a career in public service. The vast majority of people who work in public service are in nonpartisan positions, and they’re in a privileged position to make life better for people.
Also, if the people in D.C. don’t want to take on certain issues — for example, issues that I work on, like the environment, clean water, and clean air — and want to delegate that to the states, someone has to be there to catch that ball. Those issues and challenges aren’t going away, and it becomes even more important that young people are engaged and commit their careers to public service.
The idea of daring greatly is more than hyperbole for me. I think that as a country and as a community of public leaders, we have to make sure that we’re developing and keeping pace with all the challenges that are coming our way, even though they can seem intimidating and politically challenging.
What’s next for you?
At the beginning of April 2017 I joined the Denver office of Squire Patton Boggs as Of Counsel in the firm’s global Environmental, Safety and Health Practice. I felt that I did as much as I could on the public side of the arena during the time I was there, and now I want to see what I can accomplish on the private side of that arena — but I’m always looking for good people to fight alongside.