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Honoring a trailblazer: Patti Wells

Officials, friends hail one of Colorado's most tenacious water leaders.

As the first woman to be named Denver City Attorney and the first woman to be the lead lawyer for Colorado’s largest water provider, it’s no surprise that “tenacious” is often the word used to describe Patti Wells, Denver Water’s general counsel from 1991 until her retirement in 2018. 

Wells was honored Thursday as the 2023 Wayne N. Aspinall “Water Leader of the Year” for her service to Colorado on the state’s complex water issues. The award came from the Colorado Water Congress at its annual winter gathering of the state’s water leaders.

Patti Wells, right, talks to colleagues at Denver Water's Recycling Plant. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“When I think of an Aspinall Award winner, I think of someone that people trust, someone who’s been influential across the state and someone we can all look to as an example of what we can be as a state as we move forward in the future,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO Manager of Denver Water and himself the 2014 recipient of the Aspinall Award. 

“She’s the perfect person for this award.” 

Learn about the people who work 24/7, 365 days a year to deliver clean, safe water to 1.5 million people. 

Aspinall remains one of the most influential water leaders in Colorado history as he played a key role in in the development, protection and preservation of Colorado’s water and the West.

Wayne Aspinall at the Aspinall Unit, the three dams — the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and the Crystal Dam — on the Gunnison River. Photo credit: Museums of Western Colorado.

Colorado Water Congress established the Aspinall Award in 1980 in recognition of the courage, dedication, knowledge and leadership qualities personified by Aspinall. 

In a video announcing Wells as the 2023 recipient of the award, there was a common theme: Wells made it happen. 

Watch a video tribute announcing Patti Wells as the 2023 Wayne N. Aspinall “Water Leader of the Year.”

Wells was praised for her work leading years of negotiations that led to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, known as the CRCA, between Denver Water and several West Slope governments and entities, and also for her role in crafting the first-ever Colorado Water Plan that outlined the state’s approach to its most precious resource. 

“This year's winner is an excellent choice. She's a brilliant lawyer. She's a tenacious leader. And most importantly, she's a passionate public servant,” said Jessica Brody, who followed Wells to become Denver Water’s general counsel in 2018.

The CRCA, which involved 18 partners and became effective in September 2013, ushered in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the state’s largest utility responsible for 1.5 million people and West Slope water providers, local governments and several ski areas.

The agreement protected watersheds in the Colorado River Basin, including the development of a Learning By Doing approach in Grand County, while helping pave the way for the expansion of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir. The five-year Gross Reservoir Expansion Project started in spring 2022. 

Patti Wells was known to fight for the best interests of her clients, the people who relied on Denver’s water every day. Photo credit: Denver Water.

David Taussig, a fourth-generation Coloradan and veteran water attorney with White & Jankowski, remembers Wells as a tenacious negotiator during the CRCA process. 

“She was for fighting for her client’s best interests at all times, but she was principled in those negotiations,” Taussig said. 

“And I think the longer we were together, the more she understood the interests that I was representing — which was Grand County — and understood that what was good for Grand County was also good for Denver Water,” he said. 

A stretch of the Fraser River in Grand County was restored for fishing due to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. 

In addition to serving as Denver Water’s attorney, Wells served the state as a member of many boards, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Water and Power Development Authority

Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which works to protect Colorado’s water and represents the state in interstate negotiations, said she can see Wells’ influence in the first Colorado Water Plan, completed in 2015. 

“The Colorado Water Plan was important for Colorado because it set our path forward,” said Mitchell. “And Patti (Wells) was a huge part of that. Patti's opinions came clearly through. When I go back and read through that first-ever water plan, Patti is speckled through it.”

When she retired in 2018, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper proclaimed July 25 as “Patti Wells Day” across the state in honor of her work as a visionary leader and protective steward of Colorado’s water. 

David Little, who worked at Denver Water for 34 years and did so hand-in-hand with Wells as Denver Water’s director of planning until his retirement in 2015, said Wells’ work for Denver Water changed how the utility was perceived by people across the state.

“When I came to work for Denver Water, Denver Water was known for a couple of things,” Little said. 

“One was Glenn Saunders (Denver Water’s general counsel from 1929 to 1969), who was a hard-nosed attorney. And the other was, on the West Slope, we were known as the ‘God damn Denver Water Board,’” Little said. 

“When I left Denver Water, we were known for the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, for Environmental Outreach, for the WISE Project (partnering with Aurora and several southern suburbs). And Patti was involved in all of those.”

Patti Wells was a recipient of the “Water Buffalo” award given by the Water Law Section of the Colorado Bar Association. Photo credit: Mark Hoskin.

But Wells wasn’t “just” a water lawyer. 

In fact, she didn’t know much about water when she joined Denver Water in 1991 from her role as the first female Denver City Attorney, recalled her former boss, Steve Kaplan, Denver City Attorney from 1983-1990.

Wells served in Denver’s City Attorney’s office from 1983 to 1991. 

“She was a Deputy City Attorney for six or seven years before she became the City Attorney, and her real work for the city was making Denver International Airport happen,” Kaplan said. 

“She, along with Tom Gougeon (then the assistant to Denver’s mayor and currently president of the Gates Family Foundation), worked on DIA day-in and day-out — all the negotiations on the land acquisition, the intergovernmental agreement with Adams County. She did almost everything that needed to be done on the legal and policy side of DIA.” 

Denver International Airport opened in 1995 and is a major economic engine for the Denver metro area. Photo credit: Jacob Montgomery via Wikimedia Commons.

DIA is now the third-busiest airport in the world, with 68.8 million passengers passing through the airport in 2020. The airport generates more than $33.5 billion in economic activity for the region every year. 

Nor is Wells “just” a lawyer. 

Colleagues and peers said in addition to her smart, strategic and visionary mindset, Wells is a generous, warm and funny person, co-worker, wife and mother. 
“Passionate is the word I use to describe Patti,” Denver Water’s Lochhead said. 

“She was passionate in her love of Denver Water, of the work that she did here. And integrity, her integrity in terms of what she brought to the job and her feeling and emotions — which we all know she wore on her sleeve.” 

Patti Wells and family, (from left) Wells and husband Mark Hoskin, son Alex Hoskin and his partner, Claire Morrow, son Cody Hoskin and his wife, Jenna. Photo credit: Mark Hoskin.

Paula Herzmark, a Denver Water Commissioner from 2009-2021, marveled at how Wells navigated work life and home life. 

“Her husband and family are so important to her. She’s a devoted, truly devoted wife and mother,” Herzmark said. “And how she juggled being a wife and mother and one of Denver’s and Colorado’s true water leaders — I will never understand it, but she did it as smoothly as anyone I've ever seen. 

“The whole notion of the Super Mom was a possible thing with Patti Wells. She made it happen.”

Patti Wells retired from Denver Water in 2018, after nearly 30 years as Denver Water’s General Counsel. Photo credit: Mark Hoskin.

Wayne N. Aspinall grew up in Palisade and represented Colorado’s West Slope in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 to 1973. As chairman of the House Interior Committee from 1959 onward, Aspinall, who died in 1983, shaped how water flows across the West to this day.

His name is on the Aspinall Unit, the three dams — the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and the Crystal Dam — that store water and provide hydroelectric power along a 40-mile section of the Gunnison River in Colorado, and in turn help regulate the Colorado River. The dams were built through the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act, legislation that Aspinall heavily influenced and that also included the construction of Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge and Navajo dams.