Nov 16, 2016

Author: Megan Holcomb

Ahhh, that glamorous conference life. Who doesn’t love wearing your own name in a plastic sleeve for three days, binging on coffee, and jotting down notes in the program you’ll never look back at?

We’ve all been there. Whether you attend to “show face,” network, or simply want a break from the office, professional conferences are an odd bird – and I would know. As I navigate the independent consultant world, I’ve spent the better part of the last 14 months attending almost 20 water-centric conferences around the Front Range. Some, I would consider revisiting; most, were exactly what you expect out of a conference; and, one, I’ve already marked on my calendar for next year…
The 2016 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, attended as a first-timer, was an energetic whirlpool of colleagues, old friends, and niche topic tracks. I quickly described the atmosphere as the goldilocks of conferences: not too big, not too small, and just the right size tequila bar.

Jokes aside, I had a blast and I walked away with 5 big checkmarks next to my 5 universal conference goals:

  1. Connect. Make face-to-face connections.
  2. Deepen. Learn something new in your field of expertise.
  3. Grow. Learn something outside of your field of expertise.
  4. Be inspired. Renew your commitment and passion to the work you do.
  5. Switch it up! Get out of your office chair, put that to-do list on hold, and exercise a different region of your brain.

Curious why this particular conference exceeded expectations? Jointly hosted by the Colorado Watershed Assembly (CWA), the Colorado Foundation for Water Education (CFWE), and the Colorado Riparian Association (CRA), the Sustaining Watersheds Conference felt balanced both in topical scope and discussion scale. Sometimes we need to get caught up in the details of technical tools and sometimes we need to step back and evaluate whether our past plans have brought success and whether our current plans are still appropriate. The presentations and panels throughout all three days offered opportunities for both. The theme of this year’s conference was “A river runs out of it: building strong upstream communities.” There seemed to be a loose emphasis on the collective themes of community discussion, technical reflection (successes and failures), and management planning. I’ve outlined a few of my big take-aways through the context those 5 conference goals:

  1. Connect.

While I was not able to attend the pre-conference workshops, I did kick-off the event by attending CRA’s open board meeting. The meeting atmosphere was welcoming, inclusive, and the organization was highly democratic – everyone was given a chance to reflect on the year past and contribute their vision of CRA’s direction of growth. The lighthearted atmosphere of that initial meeting echoed through the conference breaks, social hours, and especially meal times. Attendees were engaged and eager to strike up a conversation with their neighbor and share experiences, making the trip to Avon especially worthwhile for anyone interested in networking!

Connecting at the Sustaining Colorado’s Watersheds Conference

  1. Deepen.

As a technical data nerd, my experience with wat
er quality and climate change models is conflicted. For me, it’s easy in the depths of data manipulation and model calibration to disentangle the plan from the tool from the process. It may be a less tangible take-away, but listening to the more big-picture presenters, such as “Lessons learned from flood recovery” and the “Legacy of mining,” helped me frame my own experience in the context of Colorado realities. Amongst the reflections and commentary, I quietly untangled the vast opportunities we have to utilize these tools not just for prediction, but also for reflection – for deepening our understanding of large-scale events.

  1. Grow.

I’ve lived and worked all over the midwest and east coast. Colorado. Has. Weird. Laws. And what I really mean by weird, is different… new to me. Yes, as one of the many dreaded “newcomers,” I have invested lots of reading time into Colorado history to develop a base understanding of Colorado water law. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about more intricate Colorado histories like the State’s original Augmentation Plans of MolsonCoors and the relationship healing between traditionally opposed organizations like Denver Water and conservations groups such as Trout Unlimited through “Learning by Doing” agreements. As a non-native water steward, absorbing the history of place (and especially the history of local relationships) is essential to developing truly informed plans and partnerships.

  1. Be inspired.

My vested interest in Colorado’s watersheds grew through an expanded understanding of the many Colorado organizations committed to growing the state sustainably through proactive and innovative efforts. With new contacts, renewed contacts, and a deeper understanding of existing partnerships and developing collaborations, I found myself leaving the conference energized and filled with new project ideas, a few book recommendations, and lots of people to email!

  1. Switch it up

Lastly, the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference was a welcome change of pace from hustle of Denver life. Meeting sessions were balanced with two big social events, an exploration of Avon and Edwards, Colorado, and even a gorgeous autumn hike before making my way home. Can’t complain about the sunshine on those aspen vistas either.

Group event at the Sustaining Colorado’s Watersheds Conference


Colorado Riparian Association