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Anne Castle, 2017 Ronald Lecturer in Environmental Conservation (April 13)

Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Law, will present the 2017 Ronald Lecture in Environmental Conservation:

The Colorado River, The Years of Living Dangerously

8:00 pm, Thursday, April 13

Great Hall, Memorial Union

LAS News Story

Anne Castle: “Let’s see if we can find another way”

By Kelsey Simpkins

Sitting on the banks of the Colorado River, accompanied by the crackle and glow of a campfire, Anne Castle recites Robert Service poems from memory to a group from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). She sports an easy smile, short and sporty gray locks, and a purposeful composure. And when she speaks, it is simply a pleasure to listen.

Castle and her former USGS deputy, Lori Caramanian, are volunteering on an eight-day raft trip down the river, part of a vegetation monitoring trip conducted by the agency in September 2016. It’s their fourth such trip together – but their first since leaving their government positions. Castle is not a poet nor a scientist, but a lawyer turned public servant, always looking for a way to contribute.

Amidst the many agendas and bureaucrats in Washington D.C., Castle was called to join the Department of the Interior in 2009 after three decades working in water law in Colorado. She was appointed Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, and oversaw the USGS and Bureau of Reclamation for five years under the Obama Administration.

For anyone else other than Castle, it might seem disingenuous for someone to consider it “the best job in Washington.” But her time there seemed to only invigorate her passion for Western water issues.

“There aren’t that many people who practice water law,” Castle said. “One of the reasons I liked it was because it includes so many types of practice.”

In the western U.S., water law is an arcane form of property law. Water can belong to people, and ties in the legal framework set up to protect people’s investments and property rights. From litigation to administrative law, from buying and selling water rights to advocacy, there’s a great deal of variety involved.

The vegetation monitoring trips on the Colorado River were only part of a larger picture to research and monitor the impacts of Glen Canyon Dam’s operations. Glen Canyon Dam sits on the Colorado River, dividing the river’s upper and lower basins, just south of the border between Utah and Arizona. Above it lies Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the country. Below it, these raft trips traverse the river to inspect the health of fish species, monitor tribal archeological resources and the dam’s effect on vegetation. This was one of the first projects Caramanian and Castle worked closely together on when they took their positions in 2009. But it began as a rough ride.

Upon arriving at the capitol, Castle found serious disagreement among several of the interior bureaus, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service and the USGS, about appropriate goals and management of operations on the Colorado River. And while those disagreements had a lot to do with the different missions of those agencies, they were also allowed to fester.

So Castle assembled everyone in the same room and asked people to state their views in front of their fellow department members. That way, Castle said, they could “actively look for pathways forward that would honor the missions of all the different agencies,” and rebuild relationships within the building.

This type of engagement seems to blossom wherever Castle goes, as she nurtures a sense of unity with her leadership and expertise. It’s a desire to see progress through collaboration, bypassing partisan agendas, that might be the secret to her success in government.

“She is one of these people who lifts up everybody around her,” Caramanian said. “And the things you will hear when you talk to people about Anne is about her generosity, her leadership, her team building, her inclusivity. These are not things that are commonly found in the federal government. It’s rare.”

A Colorado native, Castle graduated in 1973 from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in applied mathematics, and again in 1981 in law, joining regional firm Holland & Hart in Denver for the next 28 years. She dove into water law because she liked the people working in it, a sentiment commonly echoed by her coworkers.

Castle is now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder law school. Students and faculty can now benefit from her legacy of leadership and collaborative approach to problem solving.

Castle is remembered for her work on issues surrounding the Colorado River and Glen Canyon Dam. As chair of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group and designee for the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, Castle implemented the first major changes in the dam’s management since the work group was established by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt in 1997.

In the 1990s, the dam was operated to maximize hydropower interests, which would fluctuate to meet the power needs during the day and drop down at night. This led to considerable environmental impacts on the river. Although a new regime was put in place to protect, mitigate and improve the resources for which Grand Canyon National Park was established, there had not been a look at the best way to do that since the late ‘90s. Castle initiated environmental studies to create new, innovative, science-based operations, which led to a new Record of Decision, the Long-term Experimental and Management Plan, signed at the end of 2016, which will guide Glen Canyon Dam operations for the next 20 years.

Part of the adaptive management plan included measures to ensure positive survival conditions for endangered fish species like the humpback chub in the Colorado River. Trout, a non-native species in the river, often eat endangered species.

“The traditional way of dealing with predator fish – any fish that’s eating the fish you want to protect – is to shock them and kill them,” Castle said, “And I didn’t know that.”

The Pueblo of Zuni, a New Mexico tribe that values the Colorado River as their birthplace, were upset about the U.S. government’s practice of killing fish at the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. The officials were merely complying with the Endangered Species Act. The tribe and the government faced an impass.

Castle was confronted with directly opposing obligations: protect the endangered fish, and honor the tribe’s requests to cease the killing. So she took a legal risk – and put a pause on the practice.

“I didn’t know what the solution looked like,” Castle said, “but it seemed to me that we couldn’t just proceed.”

After examining data, it was not clear that trout were a critical threat. In addition to the low numbers of chub impacted, there was also evidence of humpback chub eating their own species. It was decided that trout were not having a significant enough impact to justify the practice.

For Castle, making these kinds of decisions is about gathering as much knowledge as possible from the parties involved, however it is expressed. A far cry from the typical Washington routine, she brings a disarmingly human element to law, governance and her everyday life.

On the Colorado River, it simply came down to: “Let’s see if we can find another way.”