The hopes and good cheer of Charles Wilkinson — @BigPivots (Allen Best)

John Echohawk. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Eulogists gathered at the University of Colorado in Boulder remembered the visions, passions, and well-grounded mentoring by the law professor who knew how to use words and make a difference

Charles Wilkinson arrived in Boulder during 1971 as a young staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. In 1975 he left Boulder to teach in Oregon, but then returned for good in 1984 and, according to his eulogists at a memorial on Saturday, created a lasting legacy on the human and physical landscape of the West.

He did so with his words, said Terry Tempest Williams, paraphrasing what she heard Wilkinson tell his own law school students many years ago.

This was on a field trip to Utah’s Canyonlands, such field trips being a crucial part of Wilkinson’s instruction, she explained.

“It felt like family, so much more than a class,” she recalled. “He told his students beneath the stars along the San Juan River, ‘As an attorney, all you have are your words,’ he said. ‘Remember that what you say and how you say it will become truths. Your words may begin as aspirational, but if you back up your word with ground-truthing the beauty and brokenness of the land, the waters and the people you represent, those words will become law, horizon-bidden truths that will come to you from the land itself if you listen and live with an open heart.”

Williams, explained that she had consulted her journal from that trip, which reminded her that his words had felt dangerous She asked for clarification.

“He looked at me. ‘As a writer, you surely know this,’ he said. I didn’t. And then he said, ‘If you say something and know where your words are rooted, and the words will become alive and become true. Aspirational words have the potential to become facts of the future.’ He paused. ‘We just have to make certain  the words we choose come from the depth of an ethic of place.’”

The lesson she drew was that there can “be a straight shot from writing to real-world results.” “That,” she added, “changed everything for me as a writer.”

Wilkinson died at the age of 81 in early June, just days before the annual Western water conference sponsored by the academic institution that partly bears his name: the Getches-Wilkinson Law Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. This year might have been special for him had he lived as there was a lengthy afternoon panel with representatives of many of the tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

John Echohawk and David Getches had founded the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder in 1970. They had some success, but “nobody knew anything about us, and Charles really picked up on that and decided he needed to go into teaching and writing and scholarship,” said Echohawk (seen in the photo above) in his eulogy.

In that, he succeeded. Returning to Boulder, Wilkinson became affiliated with the law school in 1987. In time, Wilkinson and Getches put the University of Colorado Law School on the map as “basically the greatest law school in the West when it comes to federal Indian law. That is the reputation of this law school,” said Echohawk during the sunshine-swathed memorial held outside the architecturally-commanding four-story CU Law School building.

“Our friendship spanned 50 years,” said Echohawk. When I would think about trying to draw tribal leaders together to develop consensus about building a political agenda for Indian country or planning education or institutes focusing on specific topic areas important to tribes, I would call Charles to see his advice. When we talked, he would listen for a while and suggest what we had to do. He was always spot on. He was always supportive and somehow made time to be an essential part of the many meetings we held across Indian country and Washington D.C.”

Wilkinson, said Echohawk, “always knew how to laugh and joke and appreciate life.”

All 11 of the speakers told stories or shared observations about Wilkinson’s boundless enthusiasms, including the outdoors. He taught Echohawk how to flyfish. His enthusiasm could be traced to a love for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“You have to pay attention to nature, every piece,” he had instructed.

This enthusiasm extended to his family. One of his sons told about Wilkinson’s efforts to get another son into an elite summer camp designed for high school basketball stars. Wilkinson succeeded and then traveled to New York so he could watch the proceedings courtside. That was not something parents normally did. He did that with most everything.

“My dad was very good at being a dad,” said his son Seth. “He was emphatically present with us.”

Those enthusiasms continued into his more advanced years. Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the CU Law School and former director of the law school’s American Indian Law Clinic, told of meeting him as he walked up the law school steps a decade ago. She asked him how he was doing.

“Life just keeps getting better and better,” he replied. “But only up to a point.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Wieser, a former l dean of the law school, reported that as a law professor he only once got a 6.0, the highest course evaluation possible, from his students. It was for a course he co-taught with Wilkinson.

“All the students knew that he cared deeply about them,” Weiser explained.” He respected them. He empowered them. And that’s something I will carry with me.”

It was not, he went on to say, just in the classroom. “Charles made everyone feel important. Charles cared about everyone and people loved working with Charles, and that is something else that will stay with me. His presence and his ability to be present were truly exceptional. “

And Wilkinson could be determined. Weiser said he was there as Wilkinson lobbied Mike Conners, then an undersecretary in the Interior Department, for designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. “He was persistent, and he was going to win.” He also credited Wilkinson with leading the fundraising effort for the law school building, a very challenging task. Students — not just law students — voted to raise their own fees to pay for the building built to the highest green-building standards of the time.

Wilkinson’s optimism was a theme noted by many speakers. “Charles Wilkinson was an unwavering optimist,” declared Lolita Buckner Inniss, the current dean of the University of Colorado Law School. “ He never tempered his enthusiasm in any way.”

Several identified a link to the late writer Wallace Stegner who taught at Stanford University when Wilkinson graduated from law school there in 1966.

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope,” wrote Stegner in one of his most celebrated essays. “ When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Said Weiser, “Light in time of darkness is precious. It always matters. Charles, through his optimisms, through his humbleness, through his romantic spirit and aspirational spirit for a better West, for a better humanity, made us better.”

Vast swath of #Colorado public lands would be off limits to oil and gas leasing under federal plan: BLM acreage available for leasing in a western section of stat would drop from 85% to 20% — The #Denver Post #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal land managers have proposed blocking future oil and gas development on more than a million acres of Colorado’s Western Slope as they reshape how they handle energy development in the face of a drying and warming West. The Bureau of Land Management’s draft management plan for a swath of land between the Utah border and Eagle would close 1.6 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing. If approved, the plan would forestall the drilling of hundreds of future wells.

“What we’re seeing here is a draft management plan that is really reflecting the changing economy of the region, which is becoming less dependent on oil and gas extraction,” said Erin Riccio, advocacy director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop

The management plan would drastically reduce the percentage of land available for leasing — from 85% of the area to 20%. It would block roughly 599 new oil and gas wells over the next 20 years, according to the BLM. Currently, 125,400 acres in the area already are closed to oil and gas leasing. If the BLM enacts its proposed plan — called “Alternative E” based on its review of multiple possibilities — an additional 1.4 million acres would be closed…

There was another option considered by the BLM, labeled Alternative F, that would close even more land to oil and gas leasing. That plan would block about 95% of the Western Slope area at issue to leasing, leaving only 104,100 acres open to development. Alternative F would add protections for habitats of endangered species such as the humpback chub, a river fish, as well as for recreation areas, the Dolores River corridor, watersheds for municipal water supplies and habitats for trout, birds and bighorns. The plan would block the creation of about 779 wells, the BLM estimated.

Opinion: How does #water law handle #ClimateChange? Watch the #EncampmentRiver — @WyoFile

Wyoming angler Jeff Streeter’s shadow casts over the shallow flow of the Encampment River, a tributary to the North Platte River, July 21, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Anne MacKinnon):

Climate change poses challenges for Wyoming water law, seen these days on the Grand Encampment River southwest of Saratoga.

The Encampment River valley is like many small, irrigated valleys in Wyoming. It was once the home of a few pioneer ranches that built a network of ditches, but the ranches have been divided up, the river has moved over time, and people have kept irrigating using the old ditches, sometimes with a little jerry-rigging. The Encampment valley is also narrow, with usually more than enough water, so state water officials haven’t had to “regulate” to keep water use in line with water rights. 

Enter the Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Carbon County’s biggest employer. Its workforce includes people from the Encampment valley, located some 40 miles away. In just the last year and a half, the oil company that took over the refinery bought a ranch on the Grand Encampment River.

The attraction: the old water rights on the ranch. The goal: to bolster the refinery’s water supply in the face of climate change.

Two years out of the last six, the Upper North Platte Basin has seen climate change in low snowpack. It has meant that in spring, the refinery couldn’t legally use its own 100-year-old water rights. Refinery managers had to arrange for temporary use of older water rights from elsewhere. Buying the Encampment ranch offers the new refinery’s owners, called HF Sinclair, a more permanent solution for those low snow-pack years. 

That has some neighbors worried. Now, how water works in the Encampment valley — which lands are irrigated or not, when and through what ditch — must be examined. 

It might seem neighboring irrigators wouldn’t care if a ranch won’t use its water rights in some years. But in a classic Wyoming spot like the Encampment valley, where the water rights and ditches and the irrigation practices and the water table and the water runoff from irrigation are interwoven, the refinery’s water use could disrupt the current pattern. 

The HollyFrontier Sinclair refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming as seen in July 2011. (James St. John/FlickrCC)

HF Sinclair’s plan will test the capacity of Wyoming water law to serve both the refinery and the Encampment irrigation community in the era of climate change. Will water officials’ decisions start to unravel the fabric of the community, as some fear, or will it leave that fabric substantially intact?

Map of the North Platte River drainage basin, a tributary of the Platte River, in the central US. Made using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Most climate change headlines in Wyoming have focused on the Colorado River Basin, but the Upper North Platte River Basin — embracing both the Sinclair refinery on the North Platte and the Encampment River, a North Platte tributary upstream — has also gotten steadily hotter in the last 20 years.

HF Sinclair’s proposal to move water rights from one location to another — in response to the impending climate crisis — is a prospect that has long alarmed Wyoming irrigators. The fear is that “drying up” a ranch can damage local economies. Such moves were once mostly illegal in Wyoming, and many irrigators believe they still are. But 50 years ago in another national crisis — rising energy prices, creating demand for power plants in Wyoming — the state changed its law to allow such moves if they meet strict standards. There must, for instance, be proof of how much water was consumed at the original spot — no more can be consumed at the new spot, and the amount of water that used to return to the stream from the original irrigation must be left in the stream at that point. 

Notably, HF Sinclair is not proposing to dry up its ranch with any such permanent move of water rights. Only in low snowpack years would the refinery activate a new arrangement — a proposed “exchange.” The plan is that in those years the refinery would legally get to use its rights on the North Platte despite low flows, while it would not irrigate its Encampment ranch at all in spring or summer. That would allow Encampment water unused at the ranch to flow down the North Platte to Pathfinder Reservoir as “makeup” water, as required by the Wyoming water exchange law. 

HF Sinclair also says it will invest in the interconnected headgate and ditch system on the Encampment to make sure that when the ranch does not tap the Encampment River at all for a year, neighbors still get water for their rights.

There is heavy pressure for an uncomplicated review of HF Sinclair’s plan. The company does not hesitate to underline the implications for sustaining local jobs. To get approval, the company has hired a phalanx of high-powered law and technical people, including a former Wyoming State Engineer.

But leading irrigators on the Encampment have asked state officials for a thorough review — they don’t, however, want the cost and trouble of hiring lawyers and engineers to fall on them. The Wyoming Stock Growers, meanwhile, this summer called for public meetings on water changes as a review of Sinclair’s plans got underway.

Neighbors don’t have grounds to complain if a ranch just decides not to irrigate in a few years. But because HF Sinclair is proposing a legal change, the ranch neighbors have brought concerns to the state water officials who must decide whether to approve the exchange.

To get that approval, HF Sinclair must take two steps: first clean up the water rights on the ranch, and then get the exchange petition granted.

Cleanups are standard in places like the Encampment River, since actual use of old water rights in Wyoming often changes over decades, as streams move a little and ditches fall into disuse. Often old water rights must be identified and nailed down to the current use, at the expense of the right-holder. Sometimes, cleanups get complicated. The strict standards of Wyoming’s water-moves law can apply, if change over time includes water moving some distance. 

HF Sinclair is asking for a simple cleanup, which could avoid that scrutiny. The company has filed documents to show that only relatively insignificant changes in irrigation have taken place in over a century of ranch operations — nothing that should invoke the scrutiny required for serious movements of water rights. 

There are, of course, all kinds of questions that could arise in HF Sinclair’s cleanup: How much of the ranch’s Encampment River rights have actually been used, where and from what headgates? Does the groundwater level in low-lying lands mean that water consumption there can’t really be stopped, and maybe fields there haven’t required much irrigation water? Has enough irrigation water been used on other ranch fields to provide the proposed “makeup” water for the exchange? 

How intensely to review HF Sinclair’s cleanup is a decision for the state Board of Control (the State Engineer and the superintendents of Wyoming’s four geographical water divisions). Then HG Sinclair’s separate request for an exchange – a transaction expressly encouraged by state law – goes to the State Engineer alone to decide.

It will take months or years to see how Wyoming’s water rights review process plays out in this case. And the practical impact may finally depend on how many low snowpack years the future holds for the North Platte Basin. But ultimately, what happens on the Encampment will say a lot about how the state’s water law system will handle the pressures on water that are brought by climate change. 

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Relatively smooth approval of an exchange on the Encampment could encourage towns and industries in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins to seek their own exchanges. For them, exchanges could be a solution to water supply shutdowns threatened by climate change on the Colorado River. In recent years the State Engineer’s Office has suggested that exchanges could be useful for that purpose, using reservoirs as makeup water.

On the Encampment, HF Sinclair’s experts include former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, former Division I Water Superintendent Brian Pugsley, and veteran water lawyer Dave Palmerlee.

The facts on the ground may well be such that the refinery’s proposal would easily survive any tough scrutiny. But the way the consultants have couched the requests makes it appear they’re betting they won’t trigger that kind of review, so they get approval — and relatively quickly.

The Encampment community’s fear of local damage has brought an audience to the normally unnoticed Board of Control meetings, however.

Nearby ranchers would like to see Sinclair offer a signed contract for the investment in headgates and ditches to secure access to all neighbors’ water rights. They don’t want to contend with Sinclair’s experts in formal hearings or appeals. But they do want a very careful state review.

Wyoming rivers map via