A thirst for knowledge: Chips Barry hoists a cool one.
A thirst for knowledge: Chips Barry hoists a cool one.

Lunch Meet

Denver Water Manager Chips Barry -- Hamlet J. Barry III, for those seeking the pedigree, which extends back through various jurists including a Colorado Supreme Court justice -- considers his empty water glass. Unlike his Shakespearean namesake, there is no hesitation.

"I guess I'll have some of yours," he says, reaching across the table at Bambino's, a new Italian eatery at 1135 Bannock Street. The gesture is fitting, both professionally and personally.

The Denver native gave up most other liquids -- from soda pop to beer -- several years ago in favor of this city's own mountain-fed elixir.


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"It hasn't helped me lose weight," he sighs, "but I like the taste."

Professionally, the head of the quasi-independent agency, which supplies water to about 1.1 million customers in Denver and surrounding communities, also has fluids on his mind. And while he is known for a self-deprecating dry wit (in his biography, for example, he notes that his "favorite fish with which I identify closely -- probably because of my current job -- is the flannel-mouth sucker...the only vertebrate in the building with which my looks compare favorably"), he is deadly serious about water matters.

"How close to the brink are we on this? Is the glass half full or half empty?" the Lunch Meet correspondent quizzes, not begrudging the aqua-napping gesture. But Barry's not about to simplify a complicated, critical issue in what may be a record drought year.

"It depends on who the 'we' is and what the brink is," says Barry, a former Cabinet member for Governor Roy Romer (he was executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources) who's been manager of Denver's water department since January 1991. "We're in a position we've never been in before."

Barry answers with statistics, legal terms (he's a graduate of Columbia University Law School) and common sense. Denver, he points out, has storage capacity for some 650,000 acre feet of water, in reservoirs including Lake Dillon and ten others. The system is built to overcome conditions that are as dire as the three driest years on record here: a parched stretch from 1954 to '56.

Yet those models are built on assumptions of normal climate conditions -- including the notion that on July 1, which is roughly the peak of the mountain snowpack runoff, the water supply is usually at 90 percent of capacity or better. This year Barry expects it to be at less than 70 percent. More troubling, the exceptionally dry months of April and May were contrary to the climatological trend. That means this year may have 50 percent less precipitation than the lowest year on record.

"We're trying to figure out what to do. We're at the beginning of a drought and don't know how long it's going to last," he says. "There's no glib answer."

As the man who describes himself as looking a bit "like Teddy Roosevelt" prepares to address the topic, his Italian-sausage sandwich arrives with a sidecar of red gravy; eggplant parmesan is the Lunch Meet lunch.

Barry now launches into both the sandwich and the explanation with gusto: While other municipalities have imposed water restrictions, he notes that Denver has its own system that comes equipped with "emergency drought plan in place." He continues, "I didn't want to just go through ad hoc-ing everything. I wanted to stick with the plan."

And so far, that's made sense, because the plan's "trigger" of about 80 percent storage capacity only requires imposing voluntary water conservation. However, unlike at Bambino's, there's no magical water waiter refilling the watershed. And with that 80 percent heading downward, Barry says, "It looks like we've got to speed things up."

Some actions have already been taken. The fountains in Denver parks are dry, for instance, not just because such an unusual measure may save water, but because "it sends a symbolic message." And there's talk of having so-called "water cops" scour Denver looking for water-use scofflaws. But that's only if mandatory restrictions are put in place by the five-member Denver Water Board. Barry chooses his words carefully when describing this possibility: "Clearly, there are difficulties in enforcing water restrictions using water cops."

At best, the sod squad would serve an educational purpose, continuing a long-standing conservation effort that includes Denver Water's pioneering use of xeriscaping -- gardening with water-frugal foliage -- as well as ongoing promotion to raise awareness of wise water usage. The Denver Water Board has also embarked on construction of a $150 million water-recycling plant, which could be operating by 2009, that will redeem treated water for use in parks and at Denver International Airport.

Barry's explanation is interrupted by greetings from some fellow Bambino diners, one of whom is involved in water-conservation issues in Douglas County. The friendly hellos underscore a common goal: finding ways to cope with limited water resources across the state.

Barry notes that Denver Water is currently studying something known as "conjunctive use" -- think hooking up a pipeline to connect large Douglas County communities like Parker and Highlands Ranch, which rely on deep wells, with Denver, so that the city can sell extra water to those communities during wet years when Denver has extra water. However, the cost of installing huge water pipes could run into the billions of dollars, which gives politicians plenty to ponder: big bucks now, or potentially more costly deep wells (which are not tied to drought) in the future.

Still, the concept could create some assets for Denver Water. The agency does not rely on taxes; its $195 million annual budget comes from the sale of water to about 350,000 customers, as well as from some other sources, including the sale of hydroelectric power. But like the hazelnut-mousse torte Barry has just polished off, any conjunctive-use revenues wouldn't be Denver Water's primary form of sustenance.

For Barry, the water challenges ahead are to be met with plans, not hand-wringing or profiteering. "Some people seem to think that as long as you have money, you can get water," he observes. "That's not true." For example, Denver Water has talked about cloud-seeding and may even give it a try, but "there's no real way to know if it's effective," he says.

Barry, whose casual blue shirt ("No, I didn't pick it because of the color. It was clean and in my closet") is unspattered, pronounces lunch good. In terms of liquidity, keeping the red sauce on the side allowed him to eat his sandwich without it becoming soggy. Sometimes soggy is not good.

In other cases, soggy would be grand, such as this summer in the Rocky Mountains -- when rains might replenish the watershed and also cut water use.

After all, every cloud has a silver lining. "An occasional drought can be useful," Barry points out. "You can't take the water supply for granted in the West."


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