Appreciating the complexity that is the Upper Uncompahgre River Watershed

Hello, my name is Rock Gibbs. I am a Ouray High School graduate, and currently studying biology at Endicott College in Massachusetts. This summer I interned at the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, and I was given the opportunity to learn all manner of things about the watershed I grew up in. I was able to participate in a number of capacities within the UWP such as: water quality testing as part of the RiverWatch program, attending Ouray Regional Recreation & Conservation Alliance meetings to discuss the ways in which recreation in the watershed can be managed, and community outreach through events like the Ridgway RiverFest.

In early July, I joined Arlen Huggins on his monthly RiverWatch trip up to the lower Camp Bird area to take water samples of both Imogene Creek and Sneffels Creek. We collected samples from the still freezing cold water, due to it being almost all snowmelt, and took them to the UWP office in Ridgway to test for pH and to titrate them for total dissolved solids and the hardness. I had some experience with titration from my chemistry labs in college, but getting to use the techniques and knowledge in a real-world scenario was rewarding.

The other side of the UWP as a stakeholder group in the watershed was the government aspect. This was also a great learning experience for me and was my introduction into bureaucracy. While members of the organization attend a number of boards and committees focused around water rights and environmental concerns/conservation, I attended meetings with the Ouray Regional Recreation and Conservation Alliance or ORRCA for short. The goal of ORRCA is to preserve both the nature/environment that surrounds us in the county while also preserving the ability for recreation and enjoyment of said nature. Through these meetings I was surprised by the number of groups that were represented, and the various perspectives that must go into creating a sustainable balance between preservation and progress.

It is very easy to overlook our surroundings when they have existed in the background forever. For me this was the Uncompahgre River and the other numerous creeks and water sources around the county. They were relegated to a part of my mind that didn’t take much note of them, and so they remained. My internship this summer was eye-opening because it brought the background to the foreground for me. I was able to appreciate the complexity that is the Upper Uncompahgre River Watershed, both its beauty and its issues, for maybe the first time in my life. 

Goals for Internship with UWP

An understanding of the challenges and opportunities for preservation and protection of the Upper Uncompahgre River Watershed

While I have developed some knowledge related to this goal, I am also aware that I lack sufficient understanding of the total reach of the organization. In my mind some of the biggest challenges are the legal pathways that have to be followed in order to accomplish the goals of the organization and the nature of the group as a mostly volunteer organization. However, I think these things can also contribute to the opportunities in a sense. Because the group is mostly volunteer and made up of members of the community, the community itself is more inclined to support the group. It is also a good thing that the community we are living in cares about things like the health of the river and the conservation of the area. This allows community outreach among other things to be a smoother process.

In the legal challenge area having to acquire permissions, permits, consensus of stakeholder groups, and other avenues it can be difficult to get so many people on board with an idea, especially if that idea is not always something pertinent to them. The groups that are needed to make a project proceed may think that the project is outside of the scope of their commitment and decide not to put a lot of time into it. Because of this the time table for many objectives has to be pushed back and restructured to fit the criteria of the many interest groups. The other thing that comes to mind is the money. This is, of course, an issue in every venture, but when the funding for a group comes almost entirely from grants, fundraising, and charitable donations, having enough capital to effectively execute plans is another hurdle to jump. Plans have to be made with all these things in mind, and this makes them challenging to accomplish.

Addressing the idea of the volunteer aspect of the UWP, I feel like from my perspective organizing volunteers from a relatively small selection presents challenges. It is fortunate that for the UWP the volunteers are all dedicated members who really care about the goals. However, just because people care about something doesn’t mean that their schedules are always fully open for every opportunity. Having to work around the many obstacles that the nature of volunteer-based organizations present I would say is a challenge.

As for the aforementioned opportunities, being able to contact individuals around the area that have a stake in the operation and health of the river on a more personal basis is an effective tool. By being able to make asks of constituents as a community based volunteer organization I think the chances of positive response is much higher. On the same note I think people are more inclined to help local organizations rather than state or even local governments organizations that have the same goals.

An understanding of the range of work projects and activities in a science-based watershed group and the skills, knowledge and capacity required for each

To be honest the idea that I had in mind of what the UWP did before this summer internship was very incorrect. I  thought it was similar to the Ouray Trail Group in that the UWP conducted mass river cleanups and invasive species eradication. I was for the most part entirely wrong, although there are some river cleanup events, the UWP is focused more on large-scale effective conservation of the watershed and this is accomplished through things like data collection with RiverWatch to monitor the health of the river in real time. It is also accomplished through participation in many committees and government groups in the area to be a force of advocacy for the watershed. These require a large variety of skills and collected knowledge, to not only be effective scientists, but the type of scientists that can effectively communicate their understanding of the subject to the greater community. Without this ability the data and knowledge of the group is basically irrelevant because those who need convincing and educating on the subject would be unable to acquire that. That would lead to a community that is in the dark about the issues present in the watershed and greater environment around the county.

Partner engagement skills and knowledge including communication, negotiation, consensus building, time management, reporting, etc.

I would say that I have improved in many of these areas this summer. Mostly in the realm of clear effective communication through online means mostly. I did not realize it was an area I was lacking in until I was presented with my own inadequacy. There were a number of times throughout the summer when I misinterpreted emails as statements rather than questions, and this caused confusion and misunderstandings. Due to these occurrences I am trying to be very careful whenever I read through things I am sent to ensure that I understand them entirely. I think that this deficiency is in-part because when one is a student the communications received are mostly informative about how to proceed and in what manner is expected of the person. I am now shifting to a different mindset where it is less of an order and more of an opportunity for more in-depth communication.

As for time management I have been dealing with this issue for my entire life, and to say it has been resolved in one summer would be more than false. However, I do think that because I stretched myself thin trying to do too many things I experienced an important tipping point. While I may still be dealing with poor time management skills I have a better idea of the level at which I am able to effectively improve those skills, and at what level it becomes too much.