Our Heroes: Gary Wockner of Poudre Waterkeeper

This week’s installment of Know Your Waterkeeper is with executive director, spokesperson and "Poudre Waterkeeper" for the Save the Poudre Coalition Gary Wockner. Gary is a writer, ecological scientist and advocate and has been active in environmental issues for 25 years. He consults for and represents environmental organizations in Colorado and the Southwest and he helped co-found the Coalition. He works intensely on a variety of environmental issues including river protection and fracking. “I save rivers, fight frackers and climate change and love endangered species and democracy,” Gary says.

Gary received a Ph.D. in environmental geography from the University of Colorado at Boulder and has worked for government and academia, in addition to advocacy organizations. He lives in downtown Fort Collins, just a few blocks from his beloved Poudre River.

When was the first time you thought to yourself, “I need to protect this body of water?”

About 10 years ago a proposal for a new dam and reservoir on the Poudre River became public. At the time I was working at the university here in Fort Collins, and a colleague of mine and I started talking in the hallway at work about how bad of an idea it was to drain and destroy the Cache la Poudre River. I had purposely raised my kids in a house very near the river and we spent a lot of time playing in the water and sandbars. At the same time, I was getting more politically active in my local community, and I was also looking for some more professional and passionate opportunities to engage with the issues of the day and protect the natural world. So the idea of protecting the Poudre River presented itself and I jumped in. It's been great fun and passion ever since.

Describe the Poudre River and how it’s used. 

The Cache la Poudre River starts in Rocky Mountain National Park around 13,000 feet of elevation among icy peaks and rocky crags. The River flows about 90 miles down a beautiful canyon during which it is the only National Wild and Scenic River in Colorado flowing through wilderness areas and National Forest. After that, the river flows out onto the plains, through Fort Collins, and then out to Greeley where it meets the South Platte River. The river is used heavily for rafting, fishing and tubing. But, in this arid state, the river is also heavily depleted and diverted, mostly for irrigating corn and wheat farms which are fed to cattle in feedlots. About 15 percent of the river's water is diverted for city use, and it is the growing cities that are trying to build three new dams and reservoirs on the river.

What are the biggest threats to the Poudre River?

Dams, dams, dams — three of them, in fact — but one really big one is proposed called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), that would almost completely drain and destroy the river. Due to this threat, the Poudre was named one of the Most Endangered Rivers in America in 2008. We've fought this dam to a standstill so far, and are now awaiting the next draft of the Environmental Impact Statement to come out so we can go back into river warrior mode.

How do you motivate people to protect the Poudre River?

We are very lucky here in that the Poudre River is really the heart and soul of Fort Collins and the canyon-loving people all around the region. The state, county and city have bought lots of land along the river and have turned that land into parks and open space, and so any threat to the river is also a threat to the quality of life of residents. The Poudre River is the namesake of our local library system, hospital, school district and on and on — the river defines much of Fort Collins, Colorado. People here love the Poudre River and so people are pretty easily motivated to protect and defend what they love.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve experienced during your time as a Waterkeeper?

I am always just a little surprised at how much some people hate people like me who work to protect and restore nature — I've been called every name in the book for trying to protect this river. I was once called a "radical extremist" in a public meeting in front of 50 people by a prominent director of a city water department. I responded by saying that draining and destroying a river, and killing everything in it, was the most radical and extreme act that any person or agency could ever do. I continue to be surprised at the outright lies used by the people who want to drain and destroy the river. It's almost as if destroying nature has become a compulsion in our American society — and maybe I'm still just a bit naive, but all of that strikes me as odd when it is so obvious that nature is the sole source of everything humans need to sustain ourselves and that protecting and maintaining health in nature is really just human self-help. It seems to me that all children want to love and protect nature and that somehow, our not-very-civilized society drains that love out and turns some adults against the nature that sustains us all.