Water engineers from Tajikistan visit Boulder




October 5, 2009, Laura Snider



Monday morning, as cold raindrops began to fall in Nederland, reservoir manager Jim Creek stood on top of the Barker Dam and made a joke to a group of water managers at his own expense.


"I jokingly say this dam is like me," he said. "It's big, it's strong and it's ugly."  No one laughed -- at first. It took a few minutes, after all, for Alexander Etlin to translate the joke into Russian, so that the visiting water engineers from Tajikistan could understand. And then the chuckles began.


This week, a delegation of Tajiks is visiting Boulder to learn how the city manages its water resources, promotes conservation, harnesses hydroelectric power and collaborates with its neighbors.


Only one, Gulru Sharofovna, speaks English, which means she and Etlin were busy asking and answering questions for the others, sometimes having to translate complex technical terms about treatment chemicals, water pumps and hydroelectric turbines into Russian or Tajik.


Despite the fact Tajikistan and Colorado sit on opposite sides of the world, the two places face some similar challenges in water management. Both rely on snowmelt from their high peaks for drinking water and irrigation, both have semi-arid climates and both argue with their neighbors over water rights.


Water that melts from Colorado's mountains flows through Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming. And that doesn't include the snow that feeds the Colorado River, ultimately flowing past Utah, Arizona, California and Mexico, which have battled for decades over how that water is allocated.


More than 90 percent of Tajikistan is covered by the Alay and Pamir mountain ranges, where snowfields and glaciers melt to feed Central Asia's two great rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, which eventually supply water to the otherwise parched countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. When all four countries were ruled by the Soviets, control over the water was centralized, but since the fall of the U.S.S.R., the countries have disagreed over who should get how much water and at what cost.


"Here you are (fighting) within one country," said Sharofovna, who lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capitol and Boulder's sister city. "We are different countries."


Despite Tajikistan's wealth of water, the infrastructure for delivering clean water to the people is crumbling and insufficient. Nearly half of all Tajiks do not have access to clean drinking water, Gul Sharifov, chief water engineer for the country's Rural Water Supply Department, said through a translator. And 70 percent of the systems that are now delivering water are in need of "reconstruction, rehabilitation or expansion," Sharifov said.


The delegation is sponsored by the Open World Program -- which facilitates exchanges between the United States and many of the former Russian republics -- and hosted by the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities organization.


On Monday, the group visited Barker and Lakewood reservoirs, the Nederland wastewater treatment plant and the Betasso water treatment plant. Over the next few days, the delegations will explore Boulder Reservoir, learn about transmountain diversions of water from the Western Slope and explore issues of Climate Change at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.