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Q&A with Brian Jackson | Water expert raised in Littleton, schooled in the Delta

Brian Jackson

Brian Jackson is the senior manager for Western water for the Environmental Defense Fund. 

When it comes to water, you can call Brian Jackson immersed, from the swamps and vast nameless bayous of southern Louisiana to the babbling waters of Clear Creek near his home in the town where he grew up.

Jackson is the senior manager for Western water for the Environmental Defense Fund, engaging players across the spectrum who can improve ecosystems, natural infrastructure, community resiliency, conservation and species recovery in the West.

That affection comes naturally. He grew up in Littleton and received an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder before earning a master's in applied economics from Johns Hopkins University, where he focused on resource and environmental economics.

Jackson proved his environmental mettle, however, working on "proving ground" designs and relationships in southern Louisiana when he managed the Changing Course design competition.

The purpose was to produce "inspiring and well-received" remedies for the Mississippi River Delta, keeping communities and other stakeholders in mind.

Jackson worked with residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward on their flood risks and sustainability as the delta changes.

We caught up with Jackson to talk water in the West and a range of other issues. Here's what he told us:

Colorado Politics: What's the state of Western water, if you can be concise?

Brian Jackson: It’s not great. Thirty percent of Colorado is in extreme or exceptional drought, basically the entire Western Slope. Snowpack was decent, but when dry years stack up on each other we dig ourselves into a water hole. The Front Range has seen a wet summer, but half of our water supply comes from the really dry Western Slope. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are both at historic low levels.

It’s time that we plan for rivers and water supplies that scientists say we’re likely to have, not the ones we hope for — or used to have. Fortunately, we’re also at a potential moment of enormous investment opportunity with federal stimulus and infrastructure funding. We’ve got to use this once-in-a-generation infusion of cash to build resilience in our western water systems. Much of our water infrastructure was built 100 years ago. We need upgrades to improve leaks, rebuild and modernize water systems. We need water-related investments on farms and in rivers and forests so that these dry years — which are becoming more common as a result of climate change — don’t continue to wreak havoc the way they are now.

CP: You worked on restoring the Mobile Mississippi River Delta. Is there an analogous restoration in Colorado? What about the South Platte flowing through Denver?

Jackson: Restoration on the Mississippi River Delta is on a scale of its own. The Mississippi River literally built southern Louisiana — 7,000 square miles of it. But for over 100 years, the river’s been disconnected from the Delta and that land-building process has been shut off. Southern Louisiana now loses a football field of land every 100 minutes, land that protects New Orleans, coastal communities, and critical infrastructure from hurricanes and flooding.

The analog between land loss in southern Louisiana and water scarcity in Colorado and the West is the existential connection of the environment, society and commerce. In Louisiana, if the Delta isn’t restored, we risk New Orleans, vibrant coastal communities, culture and nationally important shipping lanes. In Colorado, we need to update policy and infrastructure to better utilize scarce water. The work I’ve done in both places has been to connect people, businesses and leaders who haven’t been aware—but should be— of these environmental challenges and the risk they pose to everyday life. Water has been “out of sight, out of mind” for many — voters, political leaders, businesses. As we face water scarcity here in Colorado, it’s vital to manage water for people AND nature, which means flowing rivers and productive agriculture and vibrant cities, not one over the other. That’s the Colorado Way. Water is too important to be left completely to the experts — if more people are engaged in water management and conservation, the better the outcomes we’ll achieve.

CP: Proposition DD in 2019 put money in the Colorado Water Plan from sports betting. You forecast two years ago that it would deliver $29 million a year, and it came in under $8 million last year. Those who wrote the plan said we needed $100 million a year. The legislature just spent $4.6 billion in state and federal stimulus and found only $20 million for the water plan. They put in $10 million once before. The plan is six years old. If water is such a priority, how do you make such a paltry investment look rationale? If not now when the economy is booming and money is available, then when? Was the water plan too ambitious or are legislators too stingy and misguided?

Jackson: Things in water move slowly. It drives me nuts because I’m impatient. Colorado’s Water Plan and the investments made since its inception have been a huge and relatively quick inflection point in how Colorado treats water. The plan itself set lofty goals for funding and implementation — goals that previously had never been attempted (Colorado tried to do a statewide water plan in the '70s and it was promptly killed).

And Colorado is responding to the plan. In the last six years, the Legislature made its first ever general fund investments in water — $30 million in total. In 2019 and 2020, Coloradans voted to tax themselves in three separate measures: Proposition DD in 2019 legalized and taxed sports betting statewide; and two regional measures in 2020 passed overwhelmingly to support the Colorado River District and the St. Vrain Lefthand Water Conservancy District to raise an additional $7 million annually. It’s remarkable that a water tax passed by 69% in Mesa County, in the same election where President Trump got 62% of the vote.

When you think about a global pandemic that shut down many sports leagues for months and cancelled many high-profile events, the revenue from the first year of sports betting was better than expected. It’s already raised $8.5 million and all trends point up. It is an emerging industry and will be an essential tool in helping fund water initiatives, but it was never intended to be the primary or only funding stream, pun intended.

And the industry is actually keenly aware of the role it can play not just in funding water projects, but in helping to promote efforts to protect and conserve water in Colorado. Earlier this year, BetMGM, DraftKings, FanDuel and PointsBet signed on as founding supporters of our Colorado Water Wins campaign, which is intended to raise awareness of the unique connection between their industry and Colorado’s water future. We’re happy to be working with them on that effort because getting Coloradans from all walks of life to engage on water issues will be critical to coming up with long-lasting solutions, as opposed to pitting regions, industries or even communities against each other. And nothing’s better for me than connecting water work and the Broncos. Sundays have become a winner for Colorado because even if the Broncos lose, rivers and water still win.

One thing I try to remind people is that water, especially compared to transportation or education, has a much smaller price tag and is solvable in Colorado.

Mother Nature is calling us to action, whether it was fires last summer or the ongoing drought on the Western Slope and in the Colorado River Basin. I hope and suspect that we will be able to bring diverse interests from across the state to help address water issues for Colorado in meaningful ways prior to some of the doomsday scenarios.

The truth is, we have to put more resources into water – financial, political, community, everything. But at the same time I appreciate the progress and investments made.

CP: Has the environmental movement gotten too political or not political enough? Some, myself included, can't tell where the politics stop and the common good begins. Where is that line?

Jackson: We all get the best policy outcomes when an issue isn’t politicized and with water and funding for water we’ve done a pretty good job of building diverse, bi-partisan support. It would be great if environmental advocates could ignore politics—but it’s clear we can’t. Good policy requires advocates participating in the political process, from helping someone get elected to ensuring there is public support for environmental progress. The stakes are simply too high. We need to make sure those elected to serve Coloradans are committed to preserving our natural resources and protecting public health. We’ve made some progress on that front here in Colorado, but we’ve still got a long way to go. At days end, Republicans, Democrats and everyone else rely on water and we have a mutual interest in solving our problems.

CP: What's the best-case and worst-case scenarios for water in the West on the path we're on?

Jackson: All the science points to less water in the West in the future. The alarming part is we are starting to see the impacts of climate change faster than many scientists expected. The Bureau of Reclamation just announced plans to drain water from three reservoirs to maintain Lake Powell water levels for hydropower production, an unprecedented move. The Yampa River is running dry in spots.

This onslaught of bad news should be a wake-up call for our leaders at both the state and federal levels to take action on water. So worst case, we see these impacts from climate change continue to intensify year after year, making our water supplies even scarcer, with dire consequences for rivers, agriculture, cities and the outdoor way of life that makes Colorado so special. Best case for Colorado, we innovate on policy, investments and infrastructure to be more prepared during times of shortage (which will become increasingly frequent), ensuring flexibility in water management and resilience of all water users, understanding better that we sink or swim together.

CP: What's on the horizon for the Environmental Defense Fund in Colorado?

Jackson: EDF and I will be here chipping away at these big, complicated water issues for a while, especially with climate change’s impact on the West (where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average). We’ll continue working on developing innovative strategies and tools, like alternative transfer mechanisms (ATMS) for farmers to lease water to cities rather than permanently drying up farms and OpenET a satellite-based online platform that will make water use data widely available to farmers, ranchers and water managers (and will launch very soon). And we’re digging in (yes, another pun intended) more on groundwater, which in Colorado and globally hasn’t received enough attention, especially given how much we depend on it

Fast Facts

Where did you grow up? I’m a Colorado kid, born and raised in Littleton.

Where's your secret fishing hole or stream? Clear Creek runs by our neighborhood, not much fishing, but our family uses it as our own slice of nature.

If you were limited to one outdoor activity, what would it be? Biking. Road, mountain — anything with two wheels powered by my own legs.

Do you have a quote you live by? Not really… though I do like the humor and go-with-the-flow attitude of this quote attributed to Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Pets? Two cats, Nola and Beignet. Their names were inspired by my water work in southern Louisiana.

Do you wear shoes when you work from home? Rainbow sandals year-round, because it’s Colorado.

Do you have a favorite team and a particular athlete? I’m a HUGE Broncos fan, and was sad to see another Colorado kid, Phillip Lindsay, leave Colorado. Also a huge fan of bike phenom Fabio Wibmer.

Beef, fish or arugula? Beef

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