The quickest way to endear yourself to Grace Guryan is to bring her a rock you’re excited about. I arrived rockless and unendearing at the café to interview Guryan, but she was kind enough to tell me about her work as a consulting hydrologist and hydrogeologist anyway.
Guryan graduated from Colorado College with a Bachelor of Science in Geology and Earth Sciences in the spring of 2017, but she currently works as a hydrologist – a scientist who studies water – at a consulting firm in Denver. This firm advises clients on how to find and use their water most efficiently.
“It’s hard for me to think about ‘a day in the life,’” said Guryan. “Every week looks different day-to-day, which is actually something I really like about my job.”
Guryan splits her time between working in the office and driving out to sites where she does fieldwork. In the week before this interview, Guryan estimated that she drove 400 miles to sites across Colorado, but the week before that she worked exclusively in the office.
One of Guryan’s recent expeditions into the field involved hiking out to find and photograph a pond on a client’s property. The catch was that the pond doesn’t always contain water, so it might not even exist for her to find. The story reminds me of a fairytale – a quest for a magical pond that can only be found by those who already know where it is. For Guryan, though, this was standard fieldwork.
The firm that Guryan works for installs equipment to record how much water is in a stream or well over time, often in remote locations. Some of this equipment transmits its data back to civilization, but periodically someone needs to check on the equipment or download the data in person. This kind of expedition requires a broad set of skills, because the equipment can break in many different ways.
“Field equipment is so finnicky!” Guryan explained. “It’s pretty impressive that we can have data loggers out in the wilderness at all. But gosh, I feel like every time I go up, I have to fix something. It’s like, I guess I’m a hydrologist, but I’m going to have to be an electrician now too.”
When she’s not troubleshooting, Guryan determines how best to use and conserve water. At the time of this interview, Guryan was working with a client who wants to buy a parcel of land in the mountains. But it’s not often wise to purchase land that doesn’t have access to water, and in this case, the water was playing hard to get. One of Guryan’s tasks was to help her client decide where to drill a well that would allow for a stable, long-term water supply on the land.
The consulting firm often works with private citizens like this, who are interested in buying or selling property and want to know how difficult it will be to use the water on that land. The bulk of the firm’s client base, though, is municipalities and metropolitan districts.
“A lot of municipalities obviously have a strong interest in making sure they have an abundant water supply, making sure that their water is going to last them into the future,” said Guryan. This is a big deal everywhere, but it’s especially crucial in a place as dry as Colorado.
“At this point, the surface water in Colorado is way over-allocated most of the time,” Guryan explained. “Pretty much any major city in Colorado that you can think of is probably actively involved in a water case against some other city.”
Because of this, Colorado has a special court devoted to water law, which is highly niche and deeply involved. The in-office component of Guryan’s job involves a lot of this complex water law. She spends much of her time reading documents from the water court and learning all the legal precedents for water rights disputes. “I like that my job isn’t all science all the time,” she said, “and that I get to engage with the law and policy side of things.”
One tricky thing about the water situation in Colorado is that most of the available water lies on the western slope, far away from the bulk of the population on the eastern slope. When I asked Guryan why everybody settled so far away from the water, she reminded me that the plains are great for agriculture, which is ultimately where most of our water ends up.
“Domestic water usage is such small potatoes,” said Guryan. If you want to conserve water, it’s key to think about literal small potatoes – the kind that you eat. Colorado grows a lot of alfalfa, which Guryan calls a “super thirsty crop.” Still, she noted, “I wouldn’t vilify agriculture too much. We all eat food.”
What really consumes an inefficient amount of water is livestock. “The most water-intensive is beef, but really any meat,” explained Guryan. “Because you have to grow all the grain to feed the animals, and then you also have to maintain the animals throughout their lives. They’re big, and they’re thirsty.”
The lesson is this: if you want to conserve as much water as possible, it’s actually better to minimize your consumption of animal products than to give up your luxurious showers. Particularly because overly-conservative domestic water use can create an opportunity for developers to swoop in and say, Aha! There’s so much extra water here that no one’s using! Let’s build a big, thirsty subdivision. “Which is just such a can of worms,” said Guryan. “Is development good? Is development bad? How do we grow our cities responsibly in dry areas? I don’t think anyone really has the answer to that.”
These issues at the intersection of policy, economics, and science are dauntingly complex, but Guryan makes it clear how important it is to consider all the facets. She encourages other scientists to engage with policies that might be informed by their research. “I feel like there should be more science involved in policy,” she said, “and the best way to do that is to be a scientist and go into policy.”
“I kind of like being right in the middle of law and science and, you know, minerals,” said Guryan. It’s reassuring to know that there’s someone as brilliant and thoughtful as Grace Guryan at that crucial intersection.
By Graycen Wheeler