Legal luminary retiring after nearly 50 years at Denver Water
Attorney Casey Funk spent most of nearly five decades at Denver Water working on water rights cases both critically important and impenetrably esoteric to most everyone outside a courtroom.
And he did it all with a sense of humor famous within the small world of water lawyers who, like him, struggle to explain what they do.
“I usually just say I work at Denver Water,” he said, on how he describes his work. “And if that’s not good enough, then I say I’m an attorney. If they want more, I say 'water rights attorney' — and that’s when their eyes glaze over.”
Funk, an institution at Denver Water and within the broader community of water lawyers, is retiring this month after toiling away on some of the most important cases in the utility’s modern history. His legal wrestling stretched from the Two Forks era, to early steps at cooperative agreements with the West Slope to colossal and contentious litigation with Englewood and Thornton.
The cases, at their heart, involved work to protect Denver Water’s legal access to water for its customers. It’s work that requires an attention to detail and mastery of legal arcana that could drive many into something simpler — say, tax law. Funk himself said the cases are becoming even more byzantine, one of the reasons he cited for deciding to call it a career.
“Some of these water cases can get so intricate, it’s mind blowing. The modeling involved. It’s harder to get my head around some of these,” he said.
But colleagues say Funk set the standard for plunging into such thorny litigation. He’d “dive into his bunker and overprepare,” said colleague Dan Arnold.
“Casey would get so focused on trial preparations, that if you were counting on him for a ride to the courthouse, you’d better tail him out the door,” Arnold said, “because he was very likely to forget and leave his co-counsel behind.”
He combined his talent with a wit that at times left even the witnesses he was cross examining stifling a giggle and judges smiling. “That’s when you knew things were going well,” Arnold said.
Competitors learned not to take him lightly. In his most recent appearance before the Colorado Supreme Court, opponents paraded a flashy diagram illustrating the rivers and reservoirs at issue in the case. But when Funk’s turn came to argue, he used their own exhibit to dismantle their case. “To their chagrin,” Arnold noted.
Colleague Gail Rosenschein recalled how intimidated she was by Funk in her early days on the job. From her perspective, he was an “old guard” lawyer at the agency. Until one fateful lunch hour.
“One day as I was eating my sandwich at my lonely desk. I heard the greatest peal of happy laughter rising up from the cafeteria to the third floor and over the rail,” she said, in a description of Denver Water’s former administration building. “I looked down and saw it coming from Casey, head back, mouth open. What an awesome laugh he has. I went down the next day, joined them for lunch and never ate alone again.”
Funk orchestrated one of his most public pranks at the Colorado Water Congress gathering in the summer of 2019. There, former Denver Water General Counsel Patti Wells was slated to be inducted into the Ancient and Honorable Order of the Water Buffalo, a sincere — if corny — annual recognition by the Colorado Bar Association of those who’ve made major contributions to the water law field.
Funk worked the sidelines and arranged for David Robbins, a giant in the field himself, to raise a courtroom-style objection to Wells’ induction, including standing up and — using Funk’s script — alleging Wells shouldn’t be admitted in part because she was often so critical of water law. The series of objections drew roomwide laughter before Funk then enumerated Wells’ many contributions.
He loved skits. Once as part of the Denver Metro Water Festival, he performed in a skit about one of Colorado's most important water rights cases (Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co., an 1882 decision that helped embed the prior appropriation doctrine). "Many thought this was better than 'Hamilton,'" Funk cracked.
Wells said Funk’s accomplishments and sense of humor “are inextricably intertwined.”
“The link is his self-deprecating persona. He laughs so much at himself that someone just meeting him might be surprised at his brilliant legal mind, his incredible memory for the arcane detail of water cases, and his legendary work ethic,” Wells said. “Other water lawyers respect him and often defer to him.”
Unknown to many, Funk’s career at Denver Water started some eight years before he joined the ranks of the utility’s lawyers. He worked summer jobs on the streets, installing taps into water mains, painting equipment and adjusting valves that were covered in asphalt by city paving crews.
He noted it was nearly twice the pay he made as a janitor at Denver Public Schools: “Denver Water at that time was paying $3.05 an hour — I didn’t care what the job was.”
After graduating with a degree in environmental conservation he went to work for Denver Water’s environmental planner, Bob Taylor. At the time, the utility was working through the permitting process for Strontia Springs Reservoir in Waterton Canyon. Taylor assigned Funk to count bighorn sheep to develop a baseline population number.
“You think that sounds easy, but they all look alike, and they move around a lot,” Funk said. “I would start: One, two, three … oh no, he moved … and start all over again.”
Funk was also involved in seeing to the removal of a historic bridge that was to be taken apart and saved. “For the life of me I have no idea where it ended up.”
Environmental planning wasn’t Funk’s cup of tea. So he went to law school and embarked on his Denver Water legal career around 1981.
The timing gives Funk a sound perspective on cultural changes at the utility, as it moved from an aggressive actor in pursuit of water — he recalls his involvement in an effort to even ensure a Girl Scout camp in South Park wasn’t improperly pulling from the South Platte supply — to a collaborator and cooperator seeking partnerships, a shift that began in the 1990s.
The agency’s new director at the time, Chips Barry “asked the legal division to stop litigating everything and to hold back unless it was a really important case,” Funk recalled with a chuckle. “We didn’t need to go after the Girl Scouts anymore.”
He describes the change as the “New Path” for Denver Water.
From there, Funk was involved in an early series of agreements to leave additional water in the Fraser River while securing Denver Water supplies elsewhere, moves that Funk called a “precursor” to more recent agreements cementing more partnership with Grand County and other West Slope organizations.
It wasn’t the end to all battles. Marathon litigation over water rights with Englewood, a period Funk calls the “Thirty Years War” and later over water quality with Thornton, which he called “the most acrimonious litigation I’ve ever been involved with,” would consume wide swaths of Funk’s career before ending in truces and settlements that belied the intensity of battles at their apex.
Bill Bates, a longtime water rights experts who retired from Denver Water last year, said underneath all the legal armor, Funk had a big heart. He recalled a return trip from Greeley when Funk stopped for a car stalled in the middle lane of Interstate 25 during rush hour. A young female driver was so frightened she didn’t utter a word. Funk and Bates pushed her car to the breakdown lane, went for gas, filled her tank and saw her on her way. “She was like a deer in headlights the entire time,” Bates said. “Treasures in heaven, Casey.”
Bates said Funk and his daughter, Molly, were in a YMCA father/daughter program. When Funk’s turn came to host the monthly meeting, he had to plan a craft. With the holiday season approaching, Funk proposed a reindeer ornament using a pine cone for the head and pipe cleaners for the antler. The next day, the Christmas tree in the Denver Water lobby was missing its pines cones.
“He maintains to this day he got permission,” Bates said.
Funk said his decision to retire was driven by several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic. He misses working in the office around people. He also said he can’t compete with the pace of the younger attorneys who “can put out work product like I can’t believe.” It’s an impression his colleagues would likely contest.
“I just felt like it was time,” he said. “I compare it to Forrest Gump, when he was running back and forth across the country and one day he just stopped. They asked him why. He said, ‘I’m tired. I want to go home.’”
His legal abilities will surely be missed at Denver Water. His laughter — and the laughs he inspired — even more.