Posted: May 01, 2012

Athena Award finalist: Patricia Wells

Denver Water general counsel is a woman of many firsts

Maria Martin

Patricia Wells is accustomed to seeing the word "first" in front of her title.

She was Denver’s first female city attorney. Since 1991, she has served as general counsel to the Denver Board of Water Commissioners. She is the first and has been the only woman employed in that role in the organization’s 94-year history.

The workplace has changed dramatically for women in her field, Wells says.

"Women are now more than half of our law school students," she says. "At Denver Water, you see more women in positions of authority, and more is being done to help make that happen."

Women who have recently had babies, for instance, often now have the option to come back to work part time.

"It’s so important to have family-friendly policies," says Wells, who has two sons who will soon graduate from college.

Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, says that as the managing partner of an 11-lawyer firm, Wells oversees an incredibly broad spectrum of the law, from employment to water rights.

"The unique thing about Patti is that she’s the heart and soul of Denver Water," says Lochhead, who nominated Wells for the Athena Award. "She brings a passion to her job that goes well beyond legal work. She’s a moral compass for the organization who brings a passion and a high set of ethical standards to everything she does."

In her role as general counsel, Wells has led five years of negotiations on the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a proposed agreement that sets a new vision for the way water is managed in Colorado. With more than 40 partners from Grand Junction to the metro area, the agreement is a historically significant change in Colorado’s water resource management.

"We’ve been involved in more than five years of negotiations with 35 organizations on the Western Slope," Lochhead said. "She’s poured her heart and soul into the agreement. It’s a monumental and historic achievement for the state, and she’s been a big part of making that happen."

A demanding career has not stopped Wells, 63, from volunteering for organizations like the Colorado Water Trust, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and several organizations that help youth.

The environment, she says, has always been important to her; one of her first jobs was working as an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Now I work for an organization that tries to provide water to people," she says. "I’ve learned that you try to do the right thing. You have to respect the environment while understanding that people need to drink water. You try to use only what you need when it comes to water."

Her work with youth rubgy teams ensures she adds variety to her life, she says.

"If you don’t get out of the workplace, you get myopic," Wells says. "Volunteering gives you a better understanding of the world.

"Plus, if you have a great career, like me, consider yourself lucky. Why not share that luck with others?"

Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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