Coming full circle with water
A Q&A with Alan Salazar, new Denver Water CEO/Manager.
Denver Water’s new CEO/Manager, Alan Salazar, traces his memories of water — and his awareness of water’s power to both nurture and destroy — to his earliest years.
He’s spent decades in public service at the local, state and national levels after studying water law (along with mining, natural resources and public lands law) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
He’s served two Colorado governors (John Hickenlooper and Roy Romer), a congressman (Mark Udall, later a U.S. Senator) two U.S. senators (Tim Wirth and Gary Hart) and was chief of staff to former Denver Mayor Michael Hancock from 2016 to the recent transition to current Mayor Mike Johnston. And he helped oversee the creation of the first Colorado Water Plan, released in 2015 and updated in 2023, which serves as the state’s framework to tackle Colorado’s water challenges.
But he traces his earliest memories of water to when he was a toddler, drinking from the thermos his grandmother filled at a sparkling waterfall tumbling off the Continental Divide high in the Rocky Mountains. And when, as a boy, his family fled one of the most destructive floods in Denver’s history.
Salazar started his job as Denver Water’s new CEO/Manager on Aug. 7. He takes over the role from Jim Lochhead, who had led Denver Water since 2010. Lochhead announced in December 2022 that he would step down from the position after working for decades on water issues at the local, state and national levels.
We sat down with Salazar to ask his thoughts on water, leadership and the role he envisions for the state’s largest water provider, which serves 1.5 million people in the city of Denver and surrounding suburbs.
What excites you about coming to Denver Water?
I am over the moon with the opportunity to work for an organization that has this long, 100-year-plus history of building prosperity in Colorado, a state I love, where I was born and where I’ve been raised.
I’m excited about the people. I’m excited about the public mission, and I can’t think of a better place to land to make positive change for our communities.
What kind of changes do you want for the community, and what do you envision for Denver Water?
We, collectively, are facing a lot of challenges, like climate and population growth. I think Denver Water can play an enormously productive role in helping to work on the issues and challenges that cities and communities are facing.
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I’ll give you one example: The challenge of density and how communities will grow is different, I think, in the post-COVID world. This organization has resources related to planning, people and infrastructure that I think are very important for the future. So, playing a role in that will be very exciting.
How has your background working in natural resources prepared you for this new role?
This job actually brings me full circle to where I started after law school. I studied water law, mining law, natural resources law and public lands — and that’s where I started in public life. I ended up working for two U.S. senators, a congressman and two governors, where natural resources were a centerpiece of what I worked on.
I took a detour to the city for the last seven years as Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff, and I’ve now learned about some other things, like energy development, downtown planning and infrastructure.
But we’re in Colorado, so the very foundation of our prosperity is built on how we manage our natural resources — and nothing is more important than water. I hope my experiences have prepared me to make a contribution in this public policy space, because for me, coming to Denver Water brings me full circle to what motivated me toward public service in the first place.
How do you envision the CEO role at Denver Water, and what’s your vision for the organization?
I’m going to start out with a commitment to learning and listening. My vision is to make sure this organization continues to run efficiently and smoothly with the large strategic goals that have been put in place.
I inherit this role from predecessors who have very big shoes, and it’s not lost on me that I have some very big shoes to fill. I’m excited by the opportunity to work with people who are very committed to serving our communities and our customers.
I’ve been amazed by the number of people who, when they learn I’m taking this role, have said “Oh, Denver Water, that’s a wonderful organization. You’re going to love it there. The people are wonderful, the mission is important.” So, the brand of Denver Water, it seems to me, is already pretty strong.
My vision is to maintain the strategic goals and the forward momentum of the organization. I want to see how I can make a contribution.
You’re following Jim Lochhead, who held the CEO/Manager role for more than a decade. What was your message to employees?
I come to this job with enormous humility and a desire to learn.
While I’ve been in the public space in Colorado for almost 40 years doing a lot of work in the public sector, what I want employees to know is that I’m not bringing with me any preconceived notions about making change or moving the direction of the organization in any particular way.
I’m here to learn. I want to know what they do. I want to know how we can work together. I want to know how we can continue the strategic goals and mission that have already been put in place.
And I hope employees will also give me some time and be patient with me as I learn new things, and as they hopefully learn new things from me as well.
Life is better with water. Can you share a memory that shows what water means to your life?
I was born in Leadville, Colorado, and when I was a little boy, I’d visit my grandmother and grandfather in Minturn, a small town between Vail and Beaver Creek.
My grandparents would pick me up in Littleton where I lived, and we’d drive up into the mountains. Along the way, we would always stop close to where the Eisenhower tunnel is now — though it wasn’t constructed at the time — and they’d pull off to the side of I-70 at a little waterfall. My grandmother would fill her thermos with water from that little waterfall. Thinking back, it probably wasn’t the healthiest thing to do, and we wouldn’t do it anymore, but this was a ritual whenever I would go to visit my grandparents and spend time with them.
Stopping by that little waterfall was always important to me. It was a touchpoint for going to the mountains and being with my grandma and grandpa, which was always cool. That little waterfall is my earliest memory of water.
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I also have a more challenging memory of water — the flood of the South Platte River in Denver in the mid-60s.
We lived in Littleton at the time, and the floodwaters came close to where we lived. I remember being evacuated and being really terrified. I remember my mom and dad were very concerned, and after the floodwaters receded, we drove around some of the areas that were hit hard. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the emotional experience of seeing the destructive power of the flood.
So, I have those two very early memories of water — the destructive power as well as the importance and emotional connection we have to water.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m really excited by the opportunity to work with people who are already contributing in important ways to the growth and prosperity of our community.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Denver Water personnel over the course of my public life, so I know this institution and the people who work for it do good work.
I’m personally excited by the opportunity and committed to doing my best.