“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
– Shozo Tanaka, 19th-century Japanese politician
When Barb Horn reads these lines from Shozo Tanaka, considered Japan’s first conservationist, she takes a pause and says it just about sums up her decadeslong career working with rivers, water quality and people.
“I think I did science as a path to work with people and to work with what I love, which is rivers,” she said. “I love people and I love rivers, and it was a natural thing to bring them together.”
Horn worked for years for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, starting in 1989 what is certainly her legacy, River Watch of Colorado, a one-of-a-kind program that sends hundreds of volunteers across the state to rivers to test for water quality.
River Watch is a partnership between CPW and a nonprofit called River Science.
For one, the program has been vital for tracking river health in Colorado, providing years worth of water-quality data, which has helped influence environmental cleanup projects and policymaking.
“It’s been an enormous help,” said Peter Butler, co-founder of the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, which for years led the cleanup of mine contamination around Silverton that affected the Animas River.
And, River Watch has helped foster the next generation of environmental stewards and scientists by enlisting students from schools around the state to take the lead on testing the waters of their hometown rivers.
“Colorado has been very fortunate to have Barb Horn,” said Buck Skillen with the local Trout Unlimited chapter and a longtime River Watch volunteer. “She’s been a true gift to Southwest Colorado, as well as the whole state.”
Horn recently retired from CPW and the River Watch program, but that doesn’t mean she’s going anywhere.
“Barb is truly a unique person,” Skillen said. “On the Animas, there’s certain sites with upwards of 25 years of monthly sample data. It’s due to Barb’s passion, expertise and persistence.”
Horn, 58, was born and raised in Broomfield. Her parents weren’t the outdoorsy types, but whenever the family would visit Estes Park, Horn would immediately go down to play along the Big Thompson River.
“I was the kind of kid who could not sit still,” she said. “So I’d go straight for the river. I was fascinated by rivers.”
In high school, Horn wanted to be a counselor. But, oddly enough, her own school counselor recommended against it. So, she went onto her next love: rivers and science.
“But all along, the passion for me was about working with these groups,” she said. “So many people who get into wildlife management think it’s all hugging a bighorn sheep, when 99% of the job is dealing with people.”
Horn started an internship at the Division of Wildlife (now CPW) around 1990, and her career trajectory very much tells the story of the evolving need and desire to more accurately home in on river health over the years.
At the time she started her career, most people thought of places that needed an environmental cleanup as sites that posed a risk to human health, such as the nuclear Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver.
But around the time of a concerted effort to clean up the Idarado mine site outside Telluride and Ouray, Horn said that increasingly, impacts to fish and other wildlife started to become a priority.
“The health department needed data to say, ‘What streams are polluted?’” she said. “My job was to go out and generate data on rivers that potentially could qualify for (cleanup) funding.”
Not long after, Horn heard of a doctor in Wisconsin who had been taking students to rivers to monitor waterways. And it clicked.
“I said we got to do that in Colorado,” she said. “And it blew up.”
Partnering with schools, River Watch first brought students out to test water quality in major river basins – the Animas, Arkansas, Eagle and Clear Creek. But within five years, more than 200 schools across the state were participating in monthly monitoring.
River Watch would provide the equipment and training, while schools and students would do the dirty work on the ground, covering vast portions of the state that wasn’t possible for other agencies with limited resources.
At one point, Horn said every junior high school from Silverton down to Durango, even crossing the state line into Aztec, were taking part in the River Watch program.
And the data was being put to good use, Horn said. State agencies would rely on it to set water-quality standards for rivers, and it allowed policymakers to prioritize which areas needed cleanup projects the most.
Butler said River Watch’s data was the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s main information source for tracking water quality.
“And because it’s monthly, it gives us a long record of how things have changed over the years,” he said.
In fact, Butler said River Watch’s data for the Animas was the only way the Environmental Protection Agency knew water conditions had returned to pre-spill conditions after the Gold King Mine blew out in 2015.
“EPA had no data before the spill,” Butler said.
Just as important as keeping a record of water quality is the contribution River Watch has made to foster the next generation of environmentalists and scientists, Butler said.
“A lot of people that get River Watch training go into the sciences or water-quality issues,” he said. “It trains a lot of people and gets them interested and involved with science.”
Horn said that over the years, it has gotten harder to partner with schools, and as a result, more volunteers have stepped up to keep the program running. Around Durango, some schools still participate, such as Animas High School.
“This program does a good job of letting these kids know they are important and this work matters,” Horn said. “They connect to nature, and then they connect to a community that cares about it.”
Several factors went into Horn’s decision to retire.
On one hand, Horn said she ran into issues with the bureaucratic nature of CPW, which she said suffers from inclusion issues. As a result, she decided to retire earlier than she wanted.
“It’s not a diverse group,” she said. “Not everyone feels like they belong. We’re an amazing agency on the outside, but we have work to do on the inside.”
CPW said in a statement the agency does not comment about personnel issues.
“The River Watch program is a valuable program for Colorado,” CPW wrote in an email.
And, on the other hand, Horn said it also felt like the right time to pass off River Watch to someone who can direct the future of the program.
“After 30 years, it’s also time,” she said. “A good leader knows when to step down.”
Horn plans to take some time off, and then eventually build another career as a voice coach or therapist to help women and young people find their voice and power – hearkening back to her desire to be a counselor all those years ago.
But, she’ll certainly still be found playing along the banks of a river.
“I’ll probably come back and volunteer,” she said.