It was a predictably goofy photo op last week amid the heavy machinery poised to rip into the area around the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County to save a stretch of moribund Colorado River.

Diane Carman

Sen. Michael Bennet was there along with his Republican challenger, Joe O’Dea, and dozens of smiling county commissioners, Trout Unlimited members, ranchers, conservationists and representatives from water districts on both sides of the Divide.

Speaker after speaker cited the extraordinary collaboration achieved after decades of grueling negotiations that finally resulted in an agreement to dig the Colorado River Connectivity Channel and allow the river to flow again in an area where fish, bugs and most every living thing that used to thrive in it there has died.

“It was my privilege to get the project unstuck,” said Bennet, who is credited with cutting red tape and prying loose $14 million in essential federal funds to finally get the channel construction moving.

Kudos rained upon the politicians, engineers, water district managers and advocates assembled under a tent at the construction site. All said the credit for the long-sought agreement must be shared.

But despite all the magnanimity, one name was mentioned again and again with exceptional warmth and respect.

It was that of Lurline Underbrink Curran, whom everyone called “Lur.”

Lur got involved in the campaign to restore the river around the time she was named Grand County manager in 1999.

“She was a no-nonsense person,” her old friend, former County Commissioner James Newberry, said diplomatically. “She would tell you exactly what she thought.”

Most memorably she did so with lavish f-bombs, according to her many admirers at the groundbreaking at Windy Gap.

Lur grew up in Kremmling and worked in her father’s welding shop, in a bowling alley and as a short-order cook, Newberry said, before she got a job as an administrative assistant for Grand County in 1982.

She was a detail-oriented person and had read the loathed Document 80, which outlined the Big Thompson Project to dam and divert the Colorado River, “probably 20 times,” Newberry said.

That enabled her to go toe-to-toe with engineers, hydrologists, politicians and armies of lawyers hellbent on protecting the status quo. 

Lur made it her mission to advocate for the project to rescue the river through a plan conceived in 1998 by Vernon “Bud” Isaacs, founder of the Upper Colorado River Alliance.

“At one of the first official meetings with the high muckety-mucks,” Newberry recalled, Lur got her back up about their dismissiveness toward her ideas.

“She was known for her, um, colorful vocabulary,” he said, “and she told them, ‘I usually like for someone to buy me dinner before they f— me.’ ”

The room went quiet.

But from then on, Newberry said, nobody ever underestimated her again.

When Lur was in the room, she controlled the meeting, citing data and calling out anyone who dared to misrepresent the facts. She had grown up on the river, rafting every season, first as a child and then with her grandchildren. Restoring it wasn’t her job; it was her passion.

“I think we have an opportunity to do something special with the Colorado River plan,” she once told Newberry after a particularly gnarly meeting about the Windy Gap project. “This is our place in time, and if we screw it up, shame on us.”

Lur was the linchpin that held the project together for more than two decades while federal, state and local agencies ground less resilient advocates into submission. 

Lawyers and water district managers with fancy degrees, huge staffs and giant salaries came and went, but Lur never wavered, even when breast cancer sapped her strength.

“She was doing chemo during the negotiations at one point,” Newberry said. “She was sick as a dog and still came to those meetings. It’s another testament to her character.”

Even when agreement was reached on what needed to be done, finding the money threatened to queer the deal. 

Mely Whiting, a lawyer for Trout Unlimited and the project manager for the channel, raised millions in donations from Pepsico, Grand County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other organizations, setting the stage for Bennet’s success in securing the necessary federal funds to start digging the channel.

Work on the connectivity channel will begin within days, as soon as the chicks from an osprey nest in the area fledge. The mile-long channel will allow the Upper Colorado River to flow again, creating wetlands and restoring habitat, bringing back the stone flies and the trout that disappeared after Windy Gap choked the life out of the stream.

Lur’s spirit was alive at the groundbreaking even though she died May 31, 2021, before she could bask in the August sunshine and sincere gratitude for all she had done for the Colorado River.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “This represents an opportunity to correct one of them.

“And as Lurline would say, it’s about f—— time.”

No joke.

It took 23 years of hard-headed negotiations, fueled by the spirit of a tenacious and indomitable woman, to restore just one mile of an endangered river that is absolutely vital to the future of the American Southwest. 

That leaves 1,449 miles to go. 

And time is running out.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @dccarman