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Steamboat Magazine

A Passion for Water

07/04/2023 07:00AM ● By Lisa Schlichtman
(The Yampa River winds its way through hay pastures west of Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of Noah Wetzel.) 

From Steamboat Magazine Home Edition 2023. 

Kelly Romero-Heaney considers herself lucky. The Steamboat Springs woman has transformed her passion for Colorado’s rivers and streams into a career that now has her advising the governor on the topic.

Kelly’s interest in water springs from a childhood spent playing along Big Dry Creek, the stream near her family’s home in Littleton on the southern edge of metro Denver. 

“Me and my best friend would make forts out of the willows and catch crawdads, and I think that was my first exposure (to water),” says Kelly, who now serves as assistant director of water policy for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and as Gov. Jared Polis’ water policy adviser.

But luck had very little to do with the trajectory of Kelly’s career path. 

Kelly Romero-Heaney

The Colorado native, whose family has lived in the state since the 1860s, earned an environmental geology degree from the University of Montana, and  shortly after graduation, she moved to Clark in North Routt County, where she worked as a hydrologic technician with the U.S. Forest Service for several years. During that time, she was also a wildland firefighter serving as a member of the Yampa Valley Wildland Fire Crew and the Craig Hot Shots. 

Kelly later accepted a position with Shell Oil Company in the early-2000s at a time when it was difficult to find environmental science jobs on the Western Slope. 

The people I worked for gave me the space to advise them on best practices for protecting the watersheds and streams,” Kelly says. 

At the time, Kelly was a single mom trying to provide for herself and her son in an expensive town. Eventually she was able to buy a house in Steamboat and a week after the closing, she learned that Shell was divesting of its assets in Northwest Colorado – she was out of a job.
It was a nerve-wracking time, but fate intervened. 

As she was beginning the search for another job, the city of Steamboat Springs created the position of water resources manager within the public works department. Kelly was hired. She says she was “turned loose” for the next seven years to pursue projects that are still having positive impacts on the community today. Working with the Nature Conservancy to establish the Yampa River Fund to help support river health projects and implementing a stream management plan to restore flows and the riparian forest along the river are just two accomplishments she achieved during her tenure with the city.

That experience helped Kelly land her current position with the state in June 2021 – a move that shifts her focus from the technical side of water to policy. 

In her role as assistant director of water policy for Colorado DNR, Kelly works closely with various water-related agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Division of Water Resources. Because she’s based in Steamboat, she’s on the road a lot, traveling a few days every other week to meet with agencies and stakeholders across the state.

“I see my role as making sure that our agencies and divisions have the resources they need to do their best work,” Kelly says.

As a member of the governor’s policy team, Kelly has Polis’  ear when it comes to issues surrounding water. In his recent State of the State address, Polis used the word “water” 24 times.

“I’m going to be a busy lady for the next four years,” she says. “Water is going to be a really big issue for Colorado in the coming years – more so than it ever has been – and I get to be part of really advising him (Polis) on where to focus the administration’s energy.”

Kelly says issues surrounding water can be complicated, and she believes that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. 

“We’ve turned it into wizardry, and people get excluded that way,” she says. “The more we can demystify water for the general public – for concerned water users – the better off Colorado will be.”

When Kelly is not working, she enjoys baking pies, cross country skiing, mountain biking, paddleboarding and camping, and most importantly, spending time with her family – husband, Geo Romero, and sons, Luke Bedell, 15, and Nico Romero-Heaney, 5.

“My family is my north star,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard because my work takes me away from them, but at the end of the day, I also know that I’m investing in the natural resources and landscapes that are going to support them and their children, and hopefully, the next seven generations of our families.”