Co-Chair of the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter

By Mary Coday Edwards

Myrna’s been a Sierra Club member for some time, but 20 years ago Mike Mueller and Club mainstay Charlie Oriez urged her to channel more of her environmental activism into the Club’s priorities. Involved ever since - Myrna is also a member of the Legislative, Political, Administrative, Personnel and Membership Committees - she continues to remain committed because “it is effective. The Sierra Club commands respect, even from our opponents, because of its reputation for winning environmental battles.

Myrna Poticha“Someone – not a conservationist! - once complained to me that it was not fair that a heavyweight like the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program always wins its battles because ‘it is so well-funded and attracts these passionate lawyers’. This may not always be true, but it [SC] commands respect in the legislative arena, and among the general populace,” Myrna said.

But attracting “passionate lawyers” isn’t enough, Myrna added. “An over-riding goal of mine is to let people know how desperately we need more hands, more brains, more energy, more involvement and enthusiasm from a larger group of people. We need younger people who are willing to pick up the torch and protect this unique state that we live in.”

Stepping into the waters - emerging a standard bearer

Although a community organizer by education and experience, her environmental expertise in the field of water quality and habitat came about due to her work as a neighborhood activist when the group “brought a lawsuit against Arapahoe County for a development issue that had to do with sewage treatment.

“Someone who was in the legislature at that time asked me if he could file an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) brief. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. We ended up not winning at the Court level, but that legislator was then elected governor – Richard Lamb. As governor, he called me and said ‘I need you’ and put me on the Water Quality Control Commission.”

Myrna served on the Commission for 10 years, four terms, from 1975 to 1985.

“It was a lot of work, but it was a very exciting time, as that’s when Colorado was given the program to put together a water quality plan under newly enacted federal legislation Public Law 92-500, the Clean Water Act.”

No pun intended, but these standards have not been watered down. Lamb’s five appointees put together the entire Colorado regulatory framework, and it’s still in existence, “almost exactly the same way as we wrote it.... This was the first such standard to be adopted in the United States, and set a precedent for other states. Our model was used by EPA throughout the rest of the country.”

Explaining further, Myrna said the state regulations are very interesting. “First you classify all the waters for whatever they’re suitable to be used for; for example, is this water good enough to be drinking water? Is it primarily for recreation? Is it for aquatic life, for fishing? So first you put those classifications on the water, and then you say what level of pollution the water could handle in order to keep those uses viable.... And the standards were so carefully researched that very little has changed.

“The more important part is that we had what is called an anti-degradation policy. You can’t lower usage just because someone wants to pollute so much that no one, for example, can swim there anymore. You cannot degrade water beyond for what it was originally suited.”

Myrna continues to immerse herself in Colorado water issues; she is a National Board Member for Colorado for Clean Water Action and was recently appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper to the Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority.

Constricted by structure: Water laws from the 1800s
Myrna Poticha, river photo
Water law and water quality law are very complicated and complex fields in Colorado.

“The question is does water law trump water quality law? In Colorado, water is a property - people own water - and just about all the water in Colorado has been appropriated. In many of the eastern states you wouldn’t find something so ridiculous, but here there’s a whole system dating back to the 1800s on water law, with established senior and junior rights, which is enshrined in our State Constitution. But the Federal Law requires certain standards in terms of water quality, such as an upstream user may not degrade a downstream user’s water source. This results in a huge disconnect between what you have to do to protect the quality of the water and your right to own the quantity of the water,” Myrna explained.

“This [disconnect] has never been tested in court … we just all manage to live within these two legal systems that sometimes don’t work very well together.”

In addition, before 2009, “you couldn’t put out rain barrels [for rainwater harvesting] - it was against the law because somebody owned all that water that was falling on your land. Now there are laws which allow for very limited rainwater harvesting in certain regions of the state.”

National Hero Status

Myrna’s environmental efforts have not gone unnoticed – or unrewarded.

In 2002, “I was named one of ‘Thirty Heroes for 30 years of the Clean Water Act’ by a national organization for my work to protect Cherry Creek Reservoir, and for my leadership on the Water Quality Control Commission. Barbara Boxer [U.S. Sen, D-CA] was one of the 30, as was one of the Kennedy’s; it was overwhelming to me.”

Particularly noted were Myrna’s efforts “in researching, proposing, and helping to ensure adoption of a protective standard for soluble uranium in drinking water.”

Facing limits

Anyone devoted to preserving our natural heritage must live with personal limitations and society’s hurdles.  

While Myrna feels very fortunate to be able to work with colleagues on the Executive Committee and in other leadership roles, it’s a challenge to “keep up with all the issues we deal with…. I struggle to find time to keep up with water issues.  They are critically important, as water is truly the lifeblood of our State. We need more people to become involved,” she stressed.

And thinking of the future, “my frustrations with Americans who would sell off resources today and don’t realize they’re selling off their grandchildren’s heritage really bothers me. It’s the attitude that this little nibble and that little bite out of the environment and this little road into the wilderness – all these little things don’t matter. It’s sort of like fracking [oil & gas industrial hydraulic fracturing] – they tell you that it’s using maybe only 2 percent of Colorado’s available water supplies. Well, that’s 2 percent on top of all the other percentages for different usages and each one of these little nibbles leads ultimately to tremendous degradation of the natural environment.

“People are very shortsighted about all these various activities, the ‘I don’t make a difference’ kind of attitude, what I do in my little bit of dirt doesn’t matter. As hard as we work, it’s difficult to get people to see that that little bit of extra traffic on the highway, or whatever it may be, might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”  

If you would like to make a difference and give more of your time, talents and energy to the Rocky Mountain Chapter’s efforts to preserve Colorado’s natural environment, contact Myrna.

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