Managing Water with Data: Q&A with Lauren Ris

By Nevi Beatty

laurenrisprofileLauren Ris is the assistant director of water for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she served as interim director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board earlier this year, and has been serving as a member on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s board for the past two years. As the assistant director for water, Lauren develops and implements water policy. In this interview with former CFWE Intern, Nevi Beatty, Lauren describes how she and DNR use water data to manage water resources.

Nevi: How long have you been in your current job?

Lauren: About five years. I started out with DNR as the legislative liaison and I was in that position for a little over two years. I’ve been in my current role, assistant director for water, for about 2 1/2 years.

 

N: How does water data impact the decisions you make at the DNR?

L: I personally don’t work a lot with the actual data, but the DNR has a lot of smart, talented people whose expertise is collecting and analyzing water data. My job is more about making sure we make policy decisions based on the best data and science that is available.

I would say that what is even more important, or equally important, is how the data is collected. Specifically, making sure that the process we use to collect the data is inclusive of stakeholders and transparent about how we went about getting the information. Also making sure it is accessible so people can see how we are using the data and how it has informed our decisions. That way they do have access to that same information source.

The DNR does use water data directly when considering how to prepare for an expected issue with Colorado’s water. For example, planning for and managing a drought requires diligent monitoring of a variety of dynamic water availability and climate factors in order to gauge the severity of drought. I’m a couple steps removed from the actual data collection and analysis, but I certainly see the end product, help translate it to policy makers, and use it to guide the decisions we make at the DNR to a higher level.

N: What are some of the DNR’s recent decisions that have been influenced by water data?

L: Colorado’s Water Plan was founded on a data set that we referred to as SWSI (the Statewide Water Supply Initiative) and that really formed the technical foundation for the water plan. However, the process for that was super important.

We could have written Colorado’s Water Plan and had no stakeholder involvement, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as useful or reliable. We held over a thousand public meetings and over thirty thousand public comment on the data that formed the water plan. Therefore, it was super important that we had the quality data that we collected through SWSI, but it was the whole process of involving the round tables throughout the state, and making sure that the data was representative of all parts of Colorado.

A few years ago the CWCB adopted higher Statewide Floodplain Rules and Regulations, requiring all communities in Colorado to adopt the state’s higher standards. National data trends were used to support the policy decisions. Findings show that regulating floodplains to a higher standard than the minimum required by FEMA provides greater protection to life and property.

N: What are some ways that the experts at the DNR collect the data that you use?  

L: It’s so varied. At DNR we have several different divisions. The most obvious water divisions are the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the Division of Water Resources (DWR). DWR is in charge of administering all of the water rights through Colorado, they’re kind of like Colorado’s water police. So DWR uses a database called HydroBase that has all sorts of stream flow data, lake level data, and water rights data that you can overlay on top of each other and determine what water rights are in priority when. That forms the basis for when [DWR] puts a call on a, for example a river, whose water rights are a priority. So water data is used directly in making those types of decisions.

Another example is CWCB’s annual process where the CWCB board hears recommendations from the staff about instream flow acquisitions and protections. This is largely based on using a tool called R2Cross which, similarly to SWSI, models instream hydraulic parameters to develop instream flow recommendations in order to preserve or improve the environment.  So the board uses this data to construct their instream flow recommendations. And again, this data is reliable because the process we use is transparent and accessible so that people who are outside the State system can easily verify and check what the State is doing in regards to water use. Both the CWCB and DWR have a couple things in the works for improving our data’s accessibility.

N: How does the DNR ensure this data is accessible?

L: We make our data transparent and accessible so people have information available to them about what the state is doing. Currently, DWR and CWCB are developing water management systems called Decision Support Systems in each of the state’s major water basins.  The goal is to develop user-friendly databases that are helpful in the administration and allocation of water in Colorado while providing data and models to evaluate water administration strategies.

N: What audiences are using this water data and how are they applying it after you make it accessible?

L: Similar to CFWE, at the state we have a variety of audiences that use that data such as water engineers and water attorneys that are involved in water court cases that need a robust data set to do their work. We have legislators, as another audience, who need a much higher-level, bigger-picture data set and they’re looking for recommendations on policy problems that are based on a sound summary of data from us. The general public would be a broader audience—for example it was news to my mom that we get water from the West Slope—she’s a very different audience from our water engineers interacting with the water resources. Environmental organizations also partner with us on a variety of different efforts: water utilities, local governments, etc.

N: Why do you serve on the CFWE Board?

L: I serve on the board for one because DNR holds a seat on the board. Aside from that, I think the work that the foundation does to educate and help inform the public, so we can make better and more informed decisions about water and our water future, is really important and so complimentary to the work we do at the state level.

I also really appreciate the perspective of the foundation. One thing that, I think, offers a lot of credibility is the fact that the CFWE really makes it a number one priority to be a balanced, nonpartisan, fair source of reliable information. Because you can have the best data, the best scientists, the best staff but if you’re known for having that influenced perspective then your credibility is invalid.

N: What is DNR’s mission and why is it important for CO?

L: Generally, the mission of the DNR is to safeguard the natural resources of CO, make sure we are making balanced decisions for future generations, and that we are inclusive of all interests, water interests specifically, and making sure that we are heading toward a sustainable water future.

N: How does the water data you collect tie into this mission and achieving the goals you have for the future?

L: It’s really important that the policy decisions you are making are backed by the best available data and science. There are always improvements to be made about how we collect data and how it is analyzed.

There’s a lot of room for innovation, but I think the decisions we are making today are narrowing the scope of available options to future generations. It’s important that we use the best data and information we have, but we aren’t going to be able to move forward and take action on that information if we don’t have buy-in on that information and if we don’t have a well-informed public. I think that ties into your question about how important the foundation is. The mission of CFWE is to help facilitate getting that information out and translating information that is super technical, and I think that’s been one of the real values of the foundation. Water is so complicated from a scientific stand point, but also water law and water policy is so multi-faceted and there are so many competing interests that are so unique in Colorado. Having an organization that is devoted to breaking down and making information surrounding water accessible and understandable to the general public is so important if we are to be able to move forward and use the data that we collect to make well-informed decisions.

N: Do you have any wisdom you have gained to share with the CFWE audience?

L: I hesitate because I am relatively new to this field. In Colorado there are people who have worked in this field for 30 years and they have built their whole careers around this so as someone who has just come into this in the last few years or so I’m hesitant to offer words of wisdom because I still have so much to learn.

However, being relatively new to this field, I would say it is so important to keep an open mind, not be afraid to step out of old paradigms, and move past this East Slope West Slope divide that is separating Colorado. I hope that in the future we are able to see past the regional differences in Colorado and we can think more holistically about how to create balanced solutions for the state as a whole moving forward. And the water plan takes us one step down the road but there is still so much to do.

N: Have you noticed or learned anything new about CFWE before you came on the board?

L: Yes. Before I came on the board, I primarily knew of CFWE through the basin water tours and through Headwaters magazine. Since becoming a board member, I was really surprised and impressed with the size of the board and all the different interests that are represented in Colorado. I think it is so important to have that diversity of voices on the board.

The other thing I was surprised to learn is the variety of programs that the foundation offers with such a small staff.  Maybe that is the big take away for me that with such a small staff they are able to accomplish so much not to mention managing the huge board which is a task in itself.

Find further coverage of water data in the Summer 2017 Data Issue of Headwaters magazine and check out the latest episode of our radio series, Connecting the Drops Using Real-Time Data to Encourage Water-Wise Habits.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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