Voices from the River: Playing the long game

Mely Whiting

By Randy Scholfield

You probably don’t know Mely Whiting. She has worked quietly and persistently behind the scenes—for years on end—to keep your rivers healthy and flowing.

She’s playing the long game. And she’s winning.

Mely Whiting has been counsel for Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water and Habitat Program for over 10 years. After stints working for the Department of Interior and the Colorado attorney general’s office and in the private sector, she was recruited to join TU. One of her first major projects was taking on a planned proposal from Denver Water and Northern Water District to expand water diversions from the Upper Colorado River system to satisfy urban growth in Denver and Northern Colorado.

With streams in the Upper Colorado already severely impacted by the utilities’ ongoing diversions, Whiting and the TU team decided that being at the table with our partners and the utilities to negotiate ways to fix the problems and prevent future impacts was a better approach than outright opposing their new projects – a difficult proposition in any case. The strategy was to dig in and press Denver Water and Northern to commit resources to restore the damaged streams and take measures to prevent additional impacts, keeping the Colorado River and tributaries healthy and fishable.

Initially, “we were not exactly welcome at the table,” Mely says. In fact, she got kicked out of the meetings for a while for pushing the utilities too hard. She faced one stone wall after another.

For years, Whiting spent countless hours on the road, driving to meetings in all kinds of weather, including blizzards.

Once, she was driving home to Pagosa Springs from an especially dismal and unproductive meeting and got pulled over for speeding – 85 mph.

The trooper asked her, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

She told him she’d had a bad day and just wanted to get home. Then she burst into tears.

It was just a bump in the road--Whiting is nothing if not persistent. In coming months and years, she kept showing up, ready to listen and to talk. And in 2011, she helped negotiate a landmark settlement with Denver Water for their Moffat Firming Project that secured a sweeping mitigation package to offset any project impacts on river health.

Moffat diversion pipeline

The agreement specifically required Denver Water to alter their operations to minimize impacts and invest millions of dollars for long-term monitoring and habitat projects to help keep the Upper Colorado River basin healthy in perpetuity, through a new program called Learning by Doing.

In a partnership of this scope, “there is no end date,” she says. “It’s a commitment. With Learning by Doing, we’re literally helping to manage the river long-term.”

The pieces are coming together, over time, to put the Upper Colorado River back together.

In another major victory for the Upper Colorado that was years in the making, she helped negotiate an agreement with Northern Water District to fix of the problems caused by Windy Gap Reservoir. For decades, the Upper Colorado has suffered from this shallow reservoir plunked down in the middle of the river’s world-class trout headwaters. Whiting got consensus on a bypass—which will build a channel around the reservoir and reconnect the Colorado headwaters. She also single-handedly put together a major grant proposal that secured nearly $5 million in federal funds toward the $15 million needed for the project.

These were legacy wins—the kind that secure important safeguards far into the future, for the benefit of local communities, ranchers, anglers, sportsmen and others who cherish the Colorado River headwaters and depend on its health.

“Getting in there and working with partners takes a long time—and a lot of talk and understanding and building of trust—but it’s worth it. It took years to make any headway with Denver Water.” But now, she says, TU and Denver Water—formerly bitter antagonists—are productive partners, along with other stakeholders, in the Learning by Doing program.

Whiting is encouraged that the old conservation model of Us vs. Them and endless litigation is shifting to more of a collaborative framework.

Today, in part because of the pioneering work done by Whiting, water utilities and other interests traditionally wary of working with conservation groups are seeing more value in bringing conservation groups to the table.

“Our influence doesn’t have to be filing lawsuits—forming partnerships and having an inside influence can often be just as effective and sometimes more productive.”

That said, “I don’t like to lose. And I’m just stubborn as hell.” She describes herself as a “nuts-and-bolts” person who likes to figure out how to make things work. “I don’t know how good I am at the PR thing. I’m good at strategy and managing the details—what is it going to take to get this machine to work? What will it take to make progress and get people excited and engaged?”

She loves that the Denver Water staff are now “inspired and excited about what we’re doing together.” That’s a huge accomplishment.

“There are a lot of men in the hunting and fishing world. But there’s also a lot of room for women to make their mark,” she says.

No doubt about it—Whiting is making a lasting mark on Colorado’s best trout waters.

Randy Scholfield is TU's communications director for the Southwest.




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