Late former county commissioner hailed for devotion to regional water issues

Jim Dunlap died May 10 after complications from April fall

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • A celebration of Dunlap's life will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 11 at the McGee Park Convention Center.
  • Dunlap served three terms on the San Juan County Commission.
  • He was also a founding and present member of the San Juan Water Commission.

FARMINGTON — Family members and friends are grieving the recent death of Jim Dunlap, a former San Juan County commissioner, rancher and farmer who was considered perhaps the region's foremost authority on water issues.

Dunlap, an 89-year-old New Mexico native, died May 10 in Farmington after experiencing complications related to a fall he suffered on April 24, according to his widow, Chris Dunlap.

A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, at the McGee Park Convention Center, 41 County Road 5568 between Farmington and Bloomfield.

Dunlap served three terms on the County Commission, according to his obituary, but he was best known for his work on various agencies and organizations that dealt with water issues throughout San Juan County and the Four Corners region.

"It's a tremendous loss," said Aaron Chavez, executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, who knew Dunlap for more than 20 years, considered him a mentor and relied heavily on his leadership.

Former San Juan County Commissioner Jim Dunlap died May 10, leaving behind a legacy as a forceful advocate for rural water users in New Mexico.

Chavez said Dunlap, who was a founding member of the San Juan Water Commission and remained in that capacity until his death, had a vast institutional knowledge of the history of water systems in the Southwest and was always able to offer useful information or perspectives whenever problems or issues arose.

"He was always able to reference a time or place something similar happened and give some good advice," Chavez said. " … He was the foundation of the water commission."

Chris Dunlap said her late husband often was encouraged by the people around him to write a book about his experiences as a member of that organization, as well as his time with the Lower Valley Water Users Cooperative Association in Kirtland, the New Mexico Rural Water Association and the National Rural Water Association, for which he served as president from 1996 to 1998.

Jim Dunlap

The amount of knowledge he had accumulated over the years about how those agencies operated was invaluable, she said, and now she fears much of that command of history has been lost.

But Jim Dunlap always downplayed his importance and his contributions to the community, she said.

"I bragged about him, and he would say, 'Oh, no, you don't need to brag about that,'" she recalled.

Chris Dunlap said her husband's volunteerism defined him in many ways, and it was only on rare occasions that he was compensated for the work he did on behalf of his community.

"I always called him a professional volunteer," she said. "I think he just felt like when you live in a community, you need to make it better, put into an effort to making your community a better place to live."

Jim Dunlap presses the button to begin a release of water from Lake Nighthorse on March 15, 2021, in Durango, Colo.

Jim Dunlap already was deeply involved in his community when he and Chris met in July 1993. She said he struck her as "such a gentleman," and she recalled that he was the first man who had ever tipped his hat to her. Their courtship was a short one, and they were married in November of that year, beginning a 29-year marriage that saw them travel throughout the region and the country attending water conferences and addressing the business of the various water agencies to which he belonged.

"Most people wouldn't think that was fun, but it was interesting to me," Chris said.

Chavez recalled how, later in life, Jim Dunlap was relegated to getting around those conferences in a motorized cart because of his lack of mobility. But that didn't stop him from making the rounds, Chavez said.

"He always had the whole membership around him," Chavez said, chuckling. "You'd see him zipping around the halls, going 100 miles an hour, then slamming on his brakes."

Chavez said he was fresh out of college when he had to make his first presentation to the San Juan Water Commission 20 years ago. The experience was a new one for him, he said, and his nervousness was apparent to everyone in the room.

Chavez got through the presentation, but afterward, he said, Dunlap couldn't resist the urge to needle him about his anxiety.

The late Jim Dunlap was described by his wife Chris Dunlap as "a professional volunteer."

"What I learned from that was, if he didn't tease you, he didn't like you," Chavez said.

As an elected official or community servant, Dunlap was a straight shooter, Chavez said, the kind of people's representative who didn't play politics or mince words about what he thought.

"He always had ideas and was thinking outside the box," Chavez said. "If he didn't like something, he let you know. He didn't sugarcoat it. I really appreciated that about him because you knew where he stood."

Chris Dunlap said the enterprise her late husband always expressed the most satisfaction in being a part of was the development of the Animas-La Plata Project, a water impoundment project for San Juan County in New Mexico and La Plata and Montezuma counties in Colorado that led to the formation of Lake Nighthorse. It took years for the plan to be finalized and approved, and Chris Dunlap said there was no shortage of controversy surrounding it as that process unfolded.

Even so, Jim Dunlap could not have been more proud when it was finished, she said. As his obituary notes, when the process began of filling Lake Nighthorse with water on June 29, 2011, he was at the controls.

"It was a huge accomplishment, even though it was downsized many times," Chris Dunlap said. " … It was incredibly important."

Her late husband's devotion to such causes was unmatched, she said, adding that the entire region has lost a great champion at a time when water issues are more important than ever.

"He loved New Mexico rural water," she said. "He was passionate about it."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription: