DENVER — Gunnison rancher Kathleen Curry is in her first term as a state representative, but she’s already shown she isn’t afraid to take on powerful interests or defy deeply rooted traditions.
Curry, a Democrat, tried to force oil and gas companies to negotiate with landowners before drilling on their land, and she supported in-state negotiations on water — a step her neighbors often view as a power grab by big Front Range cities.
Curry eventually voted against the water bill, saying it cost too much, and her attempt to give landowners more power over drilling rigs failed. But she made a powerful impression on lawmakers and lobbyists alike.
“I’m a big fan,” said Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction.
“When she’s working an issue, you have to sit down and talk with her. She’s not going to be a shoo-in,” said Stephanie Bonin, an energy advocate for Environment Colorado, a lobbying group.
Curry, 44, a water expert and a former manager of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservation District, decided to run for office in 2002 when she saw firsthand the devastation a crippling drought can bring.
A couple about to lose their ranch came in to ask for help, but there was nothing Curry could do, because their water had been claimed by someone downstream with senior water rights.
“That was a life-changing experience. It put people out of business who had been there 100 years,” she said.
Curry said she came to the Legislature determined to push the state into starting negotiations for water transfers from one river basin to another to help prevent that kind of heartache.
As chairman of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, she backed a Republican-sponsored measure designed to encourage talks among water users in the state’s seven major river basins.
Western Slope water users have been traditionally suspicious of any attempt to get all the water basins to the table, fearful that Front Range water interests would find a way to take more of their water, without compensation.
Curry said the Front Range will need more water, and it likely will come from the Western Slope, whether the Western Slope likes it or not.
“We need a safety net to protect rural Colorado. I think water can be developed equally,” said Curry.
She voted against the plan on its final reading because of the $247,000 price tag, but it passed overwhelmingly.
Curry is the first Western Slope lawmaker to head the Agriculture Committee in 15 years. Buescher said that’s important, “but it’s even more important to have someone like Kathleen, who knows water inside and out.”
Rep. Diane Hoppe, R-Sterling, said she and Curry often see eye-to-eye on water legislation because they both represent rural areas.
“I don’t have any complaints, except that she’s in the wrong party,” Hoppe said.
Bonin describes Curry as a pragmatist who doesn’t always pick the Democrats’ usual side.
Bonin said she had a tough time convincing Curry to oppose a statewide task force on roadless rules, seen by environmentalists as an attempt to loosen forest protections. She said she finally won Curry over, but only after some late-night meetings.
Curry, married and raising two children, said she’s a policy wonk who stays up late reading water proposals and state laws.
She said she learned valuable lessons when her oil and gas bill died.
Curry thought the Agriculture Committee would be a place lawmakers could negotiate the specifics of her proposal, but instead she ran into colleagues with hardline positions and little interest in collaboration, she said.
“I thought there was common ground. I learned that a committee was not a task force; they were not there to have us work together peacefully,” she said. “I blame myself for not realizing the committee was not there to write a bill. They were there to respond to other bills.”
Curry said she plans to introduce the bill again next year, but she still has to wrestle with political reality. Her colleagues told her it takes three years to make a major policy change, and that it will come in increments.
“I have to ask myself, ‘Did I come down here to make incremental progress and am I doing a good job,’ or ‘Is that not an appropriate goal?’” she said.
Curry introduced three bills this session, while most lawmakers had five, the maximum allowed.
Pointing to a bookcase filled with statutes, Curry said she decided to focus on issues she believes need attention, not meet a quota.
“We have plenty of laws. I didn’t come down here to pass legislation to get a feather in my cap,” she said.