Sunday, February 2, 2014

Three legs of the table elevate CUSP

Born of floods, following fires, the organization philosophically and metaphorically, is held up like a three-legged table.
In what some call the double disasters, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (or CUSP), now serves as a model... statewide, nationally and perhaps internationally.
"We have more fire experience, and we have seen time and time again, that floods follow wildfire, so our main focus was to keep people safe and infrastructure intact when the inevitable flooding strikes the communities around the burn scar,"said Carol Ekarius, CUSP Executive Director last week.
Through the three legs: economic sustainability, community values, and cooperative efforts of the stakeholders; CUSP seeks to protect the water quality and ecological health of the Upper South Platte Watershed.
It all started after the Buffalo Creek Fire and Flood (which did more than $35 million in damage resulted in two deaths) in Jefferson County 1996, when 11 government entities saw the need for a non-profit organization to coordinate volunteer projects according to the principals of the three-legged table or stool.
Now, its 17-member board of directors reads like a who's who, and encompasses stakeholders representing the City of Aurora, Jefferson County, The Wilderness Society, Center of Colorado Conservancy District, Park County, Jefferson Conservancy District, Centennial Water & Sanitation, Douglas County, Upper South Platte Water Conservancy, Denver Water, Trout Unlimited - Cheyenne Mountain Chapter, Teller County, Colorado Springs Utilities, and interested individuals.
The in-and-out budget last year was nearly $3.7 million and allowed for a 25-person staff (19 full-time equivalent) headquartered in the small office in Lake George. For 2014, they are conservatively budgeting $2.5 million, but it will likely grow as driven by need and funding, as last year's did.
Most of their work, of course, is in the 2,600 square miles of the district (area larger than the state of Rhode Island), though increasingly, their expertise is sought out for projects outside of their boundaries.
Because of their experience, similar fire and flood issues in Northern Colorado and elsewhere, has prompted requests for staff to go to other fires in an advisory capacity. East Peak, West Fork complex, Arizona fires, conferences in Washington, have all benefited from that considerable expertise.
When dealing with four major water providers, multiple organizations and four different constituent counties, it might seem impossible to stay out of the crossfire created by emotionally-charged issues of water, property and politics,.
"We are apolitical," but Ekarius says.
"We don't comment, and stay out of contentious issues. By the time the dust settles, advocacy is not our role."
Instead they focus on robust monitoring programs, mapping, organizing volunteer efforts, education, and in her words, "doing no harm," as the result of unintended consequences.
"We work with Mother Nature."
About 6,500 people helped in their volunteer force this past year.
Historic information gathering, evacuation considerations, data recording, and generally trying to understand and function within the given resources optimally, sometimes gets them labeled. Especially when warning of possible impending danger.
"We haven't hit the worse-case scenario yet," says Ekarius, in describing the possible problems in the case of the Waldo Burn Scar area. Though, that area is not in their district, they have been asked to help  and have done extensive work in the last years following the fire.
"It is amazing how fast we go from 'fear mongers' and 'Chicken Little' to 'expert,'" notes CUSP Environmental Education Coordinator Theresa Springer.

"While the life-theatening, post-fire impacts in and around the Waldo Canyon burn scar were the most immediate concern this year, we still found time to do some exciting work in the Upper South Platte Watershed," observed CUSP's most-recent quarterly newsletter.
"Volunteers of all ages worked on projects doing rehab in the Waldo Canyon, Springer, and Haymen burn scars; fuels mitigation; river restoration; and improving water quality."
All efforts, three legs, working with Mother Nature, and holding up the stool or table.

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