Dealing With Government Agencies – Lessons Learned

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Last fall, I reported on attempts to save a sparkling creek under the title of ‘A Government Of The People – For The Trout‘. We once again have a clear beautiful stream running through our community that originates in the San Isabel National Forest and contains a sub species of the western cutthroat trout known as Rio Grande cutthroat trout. This native species has been studied and preserved for many years and thrives in this small stream and a few other streams and is also unique to our area of the country.

The saga started when several of us decided to go on a picnic on the banks of this stream. While enjoying each other’s company we noticed a white pipe sticking out of the ground near the stream. Being curious we investigated and were amazed to find the stream blocked for approximately 25-30 feet with large river rock and boulders with water being diverted to cisterns. (see photo) Those responsible for this blockage contended they had obtained all needed permits to block the stream and divert water. Not always being one to take someone’s word for something so obviously illegal I checked with those agencies responsible for issuing permits. It was not a total surprise to find that those agencies knew nothing about the blockage of our clear stream. This topic is not about the history of the incident but specifically about what I learned in the process of seeking restoration of this beautiful stream and dealing with government agencies.

The first thing I learned was government agencies are pretty slow out of the starting blocks. My expectations and actuality were obviously different. However, once the government agencies left the starting blocks they took off at a fast run with determination and focus. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers wasted no time in taking the lead and sending those responsible a letter advising that the stream had to be restored in 10 days or they would face a $25-50,000.00 per day fine. They clearly were not bluffing and left no doubt exactly how serious they were. I also learned that one government agency is not hesitant to involve other federal agencies also. In the end the Bureau of Land Management, EPA, U.S. Forest Service and Department of Justice were either notified or involved to one extent or another. Now that the restoration is complete the U.S. Attorneys office will also be involved. Recently as an interested party who initially reported this matter I was privileged to witness the final stage of restoration one year later. Had it not been for winter and frozen ground the matter would have been resolved much faster. 

While the Federal agencies were straight forward, efficient and no nonsense, the State agency I was dealt with was exactly the opposite. They were more interested in making the entire situation just go away even if that meant condescending to the violator instead of addressing the violation. They actually poked fun at the ‘little fishes’ swimming up the stream’ in their report. One notable exception was the willingness of our County Land Use Administrator who performed his duties quite well. Even a letter to the governor outlining the problem within the state agency went ignored. It seems with so many bright, enthusiastic and talented young people graduating from college and seeking employment it would be appropriate to replace some of the stagnant bureaucrats who seem more intent on avoiding work or maintaining the status quo with young enthusiastic prospects. Dealing with the state agency was the only disappointment I experienced in this matter but other agencies performed exceptionally. As our first line of defense in protecting our water rights our state agency came off lack luster and indifferent.

I also learned that Federal Agencies take water resources that originate on federal land very seriously when they are tampered with. They take a no nonsense approach to remedy violations and are decisive once they become involved. I was further informed that once the final restoration stage is completed the matter will be referred to the U.S. Attorney General’s office to review the violations and any illegal activity to determine if further action in the form of prosecution or fines is warranted.

Once the violation became public, I also learned that people wanted to help and become involved. I received offers of help from various individuals and concerns. I further learned that when you report violations like the blockage of a creek you need a plan already in place to accommodate those volunteering to help. When offers came I didn’t know what to have them do or how to coordinate volunteer activity. Having a pre arranged plan is vital as I wasted available resources by not being prepared. To all who offered to help I appreciate your willingness and hopefully there will be no next time but if there is I will be better prepared to accept your help. I also learned that those who violate our natural resources when reported can be threatening and belligerent. 

The last thing I learned was that when you report violations or illegal activities to any agency it requires perseverance and patience. Photos of the blockage helped drive the point home and get agencies involved. They are very busy people so it is important to keep your report brief and to the point. All agencies expressed appreciation (even the one which ran for cover) for the report as they lack the manpower to seek out and find violations on their own. The photos depict the removal of the two cisterns and how the stream looked when it was blocked. The stream is now restored and the trout’s future is once again secured and the water again runs freely. While I was watching the restoration I noted several native trout swimming up and down the stream. When the last cistern was removed there were two trout trapped in the muck at the bottom but were revived and released into the stream and slowly swam away. I am hopeful that my experience will benefit anyone else who encounters the illegal and unauthorized degradation of our natural resources. 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain experiences go to: