STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Colorado Water Conservation Board stuck close to home in its selection of a new boss: Lauren Ris, its acting director and former deputy director, is stepping up to lead the water agency permanently.
The CWCB was created about 80 years ago to provide policy direction on water issues statewide. As Colorado’s top water agency, it provides technical assistance and runs a broad range of water programs. As director, Ris will lead the agency on key water issues, manage agency staff and work closely with other state agencies.
“CWCB is an amazing organization, but we know the challenges ahead of us are formidable,” Ris said Tuesday after the announcement at the Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs. “I think water in Colorado is a team sport, and I really look forward to working with all of you, learning from all of you in Colorado.”
After a nationwide search, the board identified three top candidates in July, said Greg Felt, chair of the agency’s board and representative of the Arkansas River Basin. The board was unified in its decision.
“You want to be open to the world of potential candidates, but they also have to meet a certain threshold of understanding of the role,” Felt said. “(Ris) is an incredibly astute observer of humanity. She really has this great sense of people and ability to communicate.”
The board was looking for candidates who had experience running an agency or enterprise. The candidates also needed to have more specialized skills, Felt said, like an in-depth understanding of how Colorado water law works.
“As I sorted through some of the applications, I realized there’s a lot of people interested in this who aren’t really qualified,” Felt said. “They don’t know the players — not just the people, but all the entities and how they interact — the plumbing throughout the state, and some of the history.”
Ris has demonstrated that she has the experience and know-how to jump into the role of director today, he said.
Ris joined the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2017 as deputy director. She previously worked for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, first as its legislative liaison and then the assistant director of water. She has also served as a board member for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.
Ris is replacing Becky Mitchell, who served as both CWCB director and the state’s Colorado River commissioner before moving full-time into her commissioner role. Mitchell was appointed to be the state’s first full-time Colorado River commissioner in part to devote more resources to high-profile negotiations about the river’s management in face of water supply insecurities.
Mitchell said it was an honor to work with Ris at CWCB, calling her a true water expert and saying her work in other state positions put her in the “perfect position” to lead the water agency.
“She looks to creative solutions and really values collaboration,” Mitchell said. “I look forward to collaborating closely with her in my role as commissioner.”
Ris said that CWCB will stay closely aligned with Mitchell in defending and protecting Colorado’s interests in interstate river issues.
Looking ahead, two of the most “formidable” challenges facing Colorado’s water future are the changing climate and continued population growth, Ris said.
Both of these challenges put pressure on the agriculture industry and environmental resources, which are critical to the Colorado way of life, she said.
“I do believe we have challenges ahead of us, but I also believe that our opportunities are greater, and the people of Colorado will lean into it and will find our way together,” Ris said.
The state is well-positioned to start addressing these challenges through the actions and goals listed in the Colorado Water Plan, Ris said.
Urban landscaping is one area where the state can take big strides toward water efficiency, she said. Communities can replace turf that sucks up water with different landscaping options, like more of Colorado’s native plants.
She also wants to analyze administrative hurdles that communities face when they’re trying to enter into creative water sharing agreements. Her hope is to make those collaborations more seamless, Ris said.
These agreements, formerly known as alternative transfer methods, are meant to be an alternative to buy-and-dry arrangements, in which municipalities in need of water look to agricultural water rights as sources.
“I think anytime you’re given the chance to work on something that’s bigger than yourself, there’s really no greater privilege in life,” Ris said. “That’s what I feel about the work that we do and this position in particular.”