No Más Mustache

U.S. Senator Ken Salazar's unlikely ascent.

August 2008

One of the staples of Salazar's Senate campaign was natural resources. The issue has always been a critical concern for the nation, but these days it's also a trendy, hot-button Inconvenient Truth theme that any political opportunist knows provides the chance to score points with swing voters and the media. But environmental issues have been at the core of Salazar's political career, which, in the beginning, flowed from water.

Water is liquid gold in Colorado. There are the Haves, such as the folks along the rivers and in the higher elevations of snowcapped peaks; and the arid Have-Nots, like those on the Plains and the Denver area. In the 1980s, as Denver was becoming one of the nation's most rapidly growing cities, momentum built for a controversial plan that'd been kicked around for years: constructing a billion-dollar dam in Park County. It would be erected west of Denver, on the South Platte River, in order to collect and channel flow toward the metro region. Advocates of the Two Forks Dam were thirsty city and suburban folk, their elected officials, and private vested interests. The other side was a loosely united alliance of Park County (and neighboring Jefferson County) residents and environmentalists. Leaders on both sides knew the water laws and were hard to budge, and were referred to collectively as Water Buffaloes.

The Two Forks Dam proposal dominated Colorado politics. A $25 million study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the plan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagreed, finding it would upend the surrounding environment. Ultimately, the decision would be George H. W. Bush's administration's to make, but the Democratic governor, Roy Romer, had a considerable say, and he relied on his chief legal counsel, Ken Salazar.

With Salazar's backstage counsel, Governor Romer stated his opinion publicly that he viewed the dam as a "last resort" in an effort to send a clear message to Washington, D.C. It was an unequivocal choice of phrase that, before Salazar's arrival, opponents had never before heard the governor employ. Romer promised to convene a commission to investigate alternatives to Two Forks, and shortly thereafter, in 1990, he appointed Salazar the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, effectively pouring the water war into his lap.

Hydrogeologist and water expert Dan Luecke at the time was the Rocky Mountain director of the Environmental Defense Fund. One of the most outspoken critics of the dam, Luecke worked with Salazar on that commission. He was skeptical that any substantive study would occur. "Ken was the person who was the prime mover behind that study and it happened," Luecke says. "Money was found and the study was done, and it did involve the environmental community as well as others to produce a report on meeting water needs." Salazar set about negotiating water-exchange compacts with Colorado counties and state and federal agencies, and nudged a consensus among the stubborn Water Buffaloes, prompting the federal government to forgo the dam.

"Working on environmental issues," Luecke says, "you always talk to decision makers, and quite often they'll give you an audience, but they're not really paying attention. He paid attention, because he cared and he thought it was his job, and he demonstrated that he paid attention. But he didn't do it to demonstrate that he was paying attention. It's natural, it's his way."