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Gunderson, 58, served with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment since 1989. He rose to prominence during his work with the state as a leader in the cleanup of the polluted nuclear weapons production site Rocky Flats near Boulder in the 1990s. Gunderson began leading the Water Quality Control Division in 2005.
Gunderson’s last day on the job is Friday.
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The state is searching for Gunderson’s replacement. The state agency, which enforces state and federal water regulations, oversees permits for 10,000 entities related to water and wastewater management and regulates 2,000 drinking water systems in Colorado.
During Gunderson’s tenure, the division grew to 190 employees from the 120 workers when he started as water quality director.
“I think the division has become more sophisticated,” Gunderson said. “It’s grown with the complexity of the world we’re in.”
As the state’s water quality chief, he is known for his work on rulemaking related to temperatures in rivers and streams and pollutants in waterways.
Gunderson and his staff helped develop regulations on proper temperatures in rivers and streams as well as reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels that lead to algae growth, leading to increased protection for state fisheries, said Melinda Kassen, who owns a water-consulting firm in Boulder. The regulations balanced the interests of industry and environmentalists.
“He was super helpful, creative and diligent about not only getting a rule in place, but also finding a way to implement it in ways that make sense both from a regulatory and community standpoint and from a river advocate standpoint,” Kassen said.
Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that Gunderson grew the division with intelligent staff members who provide thoughtful responses to requests by conservation organizations.
“They’re the contrary of bureaucratic,” Whiting said. “Part of that is Steve’s doing.”
Gunderson sees challenges ahead for the water quality division, including addressing pollution from industry and Colorado’s superfund sites, a designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of hazardous waste locations slated for cleanup.
“We still have water quality challenges, and they’re harder to deal with,” Gunderson said. “As Colorado’s population continues to grow, there will be more and more pressure. People, whether they like it or not, contribute to pollution.”