Ouray County’s representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District board has been replaced after serving nine years.
In a split 2-1 vote, county commissioners on Tuesday decided to remove attorney Marti Whitmore from the position and appoint Ridgway resident Cary Denison. The two candidates have been on opposite sides of a four-year-long water court case in which Ouray County filed for water rights in Cow Creek, which remains unresolved.
Commissioners Jake Niece and Lynn Padgett voted for Denison, who has worked on a variety of water conservation efforts for more than 30 years and is also a former water commissioner. They cited concerns about conflicts of interest with Whitmore in their discussion.
Commissioner Michelle Nauer voted for Whitmore, who has primarily worked on water, environmental permitting and compliance, public lands and natural resources cases in Colorado since 1978.
Whitmore also formerly served as Ouray County’s attorney from 2012 to 2017, during Padgett’s first two terms as county commissioner. The decision comes at the end of Whitmore’s third term representing Ouray County on the water board. During this time, she was the first woman president of the River District board.
The district, formed by the state legislature in 1937, protects Western Slope water resources through legal and legislative advocacy, technical and engineering support, community outreach, education and multi-benefit water project grant funding. It is governed by 15 board members appointed by the counties within the district. County commissioners are free to appoint whomever they choose, and some counties opt to send one of their own commissioners.
Commissioners received an unusual amount of written public comment about the position – 95 pages – mostly consisting of forwarded email endorsements for Whitmore. A review of those public comments received by the deadline for the hearing shows 47 emails were received in support of Whitmore’s reappointment to the board, while 14 supported Denison.
Comments supporting Whitmore attested to her legal expertise and history on the board, while Denison’s backers focused on his ranching background and hands-on experience with water issues.
During the interviews for the position on Tuesday and in his letter of interest, Denison told commissioners he was interested in representing Ouray County since he’s intimately knowledgeable of water issues both in Ouray County and on the Western Slope.
“(I) have concerns about how we are going to protect the resources we rely on on the Colorado River, including in Ouray County, going forward with the extreme pressures being put on the river, going forward with the limited water resources that we have, continued droughts and increasing demands on the river, making it more and more difficult for us to manage the system and protect ourselves,” Denison said.
His resume includes serving as the state’s water commissioner in the San Miguel and Upper Gunnison basins from 2000 to 2005. Later, he owned and operated a consulting firm that focused on agriculture water management and habitat improvement projects.
Denison also served as Ouray County’s representative on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable from 2008 to 2018 and as the environmental representative since 2018. Denison also worked as Trout Unlimited’s Gunnison Basin project coordinator from 2011 until 2022.
After a brief public discussion, Niece and Padgett said they were more comfortable appointing Denison because they thought he had fewer potential conflicts of interest.
Nauer said she preferred to stick with the incumbent Whitmore, who has served as the county’s representative on the Colorado River District Board since 2015, citing her past involvement.
“I am more inclined to lean toward Marti’s experience on the board and the knowledge that she has right now. In changing the representative, I just feel like there’s going to be a learning curve for the new representative, although that’s fine. And I know that Cary will probably serve the county well as a representative,” Nauer said.
Denison disclosed a potential conflict of interest during the interviews. He currently works for holding company PLC Resources Group, which owns and manages land and other natural resources in California, Colorado and Oregon. He told the board he primarily manages ranch lands, natural resources and water projects in Oregon.
Much of the discussion centered on the candidates’ ability to represent Ouray County’s interests without potential conflicts.
Padgett characterized Whitmore as having numerous conflicts of interest and said they could pose challenges in the future. Among those challenges she cited are ongoing litigation and negotiations that could impact administration of the Colorado River and its tributaries, including storage units managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, such as Ridgway Reservoir.
“It’s just really unclear where all of these different interests lie. And we’re human, it’s hard to be unbiased. And then I think that there’s far less of a conflict with the applicant Cary Denison, and I think we can see pretty transparently there’s no paid representation by multiple clients, multiple groups using or benefiting from the Ouray County water that originates in our headwaters,” Padgett said.
Whitmore, who currently serves as Montrose County’s attorney, is also of counsel at Glenwood Springs-based law firm Karp Neu Hanlon — which means she has a relationship with the firm but not an employee, associate nor partner. Sometimes attorneys work “of counsel” to have a professional agreement to maintain liability insurance and have other support, such as an office space or paralegal assistance.
Karp Neu Hanlon represents Wolf Cattle Company and the Colorado River Water Conservation District in lawsuits that Niece argued could potentially benefit Whitmore financially. But she disagreed with that claim.
“I don’t think there are any conflicts that would have affected the position,” Whitmore said after the meeting.
Niece said he was concerned that Whitmore didn’t disclose that information or think it posed a potential conflict of interest. He also said he doesn’t believe Whitmore has always represented Ouray County’s best interests since she was appointed to the board.
However, Denison has officially opposed efforts by Ouray County to file for water rights in Cow Creek, in the same lawsuit in which Wolf Cattle Co. is represented by Karp Neu Hanlon.
In February 2020, Denison filed court documents against the 2019 water rights application filed by Ouray County involving a proposed pipeline to bring water from Cow Creek to Ridgway Reservoir. That case involved three applicants: Ouray County, Tri-County Water and the Ouray County Water Users Association. The purpose of the water-rights application was to use Cow Creek water to hedge against times of drought and downstream, senior water rights’ holders ability to shut off upstream, junior users.
Those court documents indicate Denison is concerned his water rights would be injured if the joint applicants, including the county, are granted the rights to use Cow Creek water to prevent downstream water calls during times of scarcity. Ouray County would use that pipeline to supplement water levels in Ridgway Reservoir, helping local water users avoid being cut off from supplies.
Whitmore was representing the Ouray County Water Users Association pro bono in that case. Court records show she withdrew as counsel for the association in December, when she closed her firm. The case remains active in water court.
Before the board entered deliberations, Whitmore agreed to sign a waiver agreement that would require her to recuse herself if a conflict of interest ever arose. Denison also committed to signing a similar waiver.
Commissioners also questioned Whitmore’s position that she represents the Colorado River Basin and not just Ouray County on the River District board.
“I disagree with that perspective. Yes, our representative should represent the whole river district, but the reason counties appoint (board) members is so they can represent that county specifically,” Niece said after the meeting. “I feel like Cary would represent Ouray County’s interests more in that situation.”
After the meeting, Whitmore rejected Niece’s position and stood by her reasoning during the public hearing.
“It’s not a parochial board that is simply out for individual interest or individual county interest,” she said.
Whitmore added the statutory responsibility of the River District board members is to protect the Colorado River for the whole basin, specifically the Western Slope and the 15 counties in the district.
After the meeting, Whitmore told the Plaindealer she was disappointed by the decision.
“I thought I had done a good job representing Ouray County. But choosing someone else is certainly the Board of County Commissioners’ prerogative,” she said.
Denison’s term will begin immediately and he will represent Ouray County at his first River District meeting this month. His term ends in 2027. This is his first appointment to the board.