Jessie Olson and family on vacation in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. (photos courtesy Jessie Olson)

A Fish in Water

By Tanya Ishikawa

“Thank you, river, for the water!” exclaimed 3-year-old Margot, as water flowed from the faucet while she washed her hands.

“Hey mom, save some water for the fish,” the toddler warned mother Jessie Olson when it was her turn to wash.

Jessie Olson’s daughter, Margot, volunteering at a planting event.
(photos courtesy Jessie Olson)

Olson was delighted. As executive director at Lefthand Watershed Oversight Group (LWOG), her job goes beyond scientific analysis of the watershed and restoration of creeks and riparian areas. She also oversees the production of educational programs for all ages and the development of a community of watershed stewards.

“One of the easiest things you can do to educate children is talk about where your water comes from in your house. Most of our water on the Front Range comes from the Colorado River, and some comes from creeks,” said Olson. “Teaching about this has really worked well in developing Margot’s appreciation of water; she has a great sense of water stewardship.”

In 2015, Olson, with a master’s in environmental planning, began her career at LWOG. The organization was founded in 2003 to assist with mine reclamation work in the headwaters of the watershed near Jamestown and Ward. For 10 years, the main activity was water sampling, which was managed with just one part-time employee and a $20,000 annual budget.

After the 2013 floods, new stakeholder coalitions were created to develop a master plan for recovery. LWOG was identified as the entity to help carry out the plan in its watershed, and Olson helped assemble and manage a $9 million budget for restoration projects aimed at protecting human life and safety, improving in-stream ecology and reducing erosion and bank instability.

Her job has been complex, not only scientifically but also socially and politically, as most of the land along the creek is privately owned, rather than public, like along most other creeks impacted by the floods, such as the St. Vrain.

“It was a huge effort,” Olson admitted. “I’ve worked with 100 landowners so far.”

Mark Schueneman, a property owner who was asked to join the LWOG Board, said Olson’s knowledge of recovery efforts, patience and soft-spoken demeanor seemed to gain the respect of the landowners, design engineers, excavation companies and government agencies.

“Everyone had Jessie’s phone number—everyone,” Schueneman recalled. “Halfway into the project, she knew most all of the landowners’ names and their dogs’ names, when they were on vacation and what they did for a living. What’s mind-boggling to me is there were many other groups besides ours in the watershed that she was working with. She guided the recovery ship with an even keel and a temperament to match.”

Jessie Olson in her front yard in Lafayette.
(photos courtesy Jessie Olson)

With the first round of major projects completed, Olson is now starting on a new set of projects on a $2 million budget. She recently secured a grant for an adaptive management plan to keep streams resilient and completed a regional stream stewardship and recovery handbook in collaboration with multiple watersheds.

Olson finds it hard not to bring her work home and easy to bring her daughter to work events. Margot’s been volunteering for the watershed and the city of Lafayette since she was about 2 years old. She loves planting grasses and trees, and building fish and bird habitats.

“We definitely spend a lot of time outside as a family. The access to trails and nature is so great here,” said the 37-year-old, who has been an avid trail runner since she was in high school. “We really like going to Waneka Lake Park near our house and LaVern Johnson Park in Lyons.”

They love sitting along St. Vrain Creek looking at rocks and talking about whether they see “a lot or a little bit” of creatures in the water. Every spring, when the runoff from the snowmelt causes creeks to swell, they stop at bridges to see how powerful and dynamic the rivers and creeks have become.