Routt County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf retires after 38 years
Steamboat Springs — Over the course of his 38-year career in Routt County’s department of environmental health, Mike Zopf has played a significant role in protecting the air and water quality of the upper Yampa River basin. But Zopf, who retires next week as director of the department, almost didn’t get the job to begin with.
During a reception in his honor at the courthouse Tuesday, Zopf explained he was 24 years old and working in public sanitation at a Front Range City in 1977 when he spied a job opening in Steamboat.
“I was 24 years old (in 1977) when I read an ad in the Denver Post for an opening at the Routt County Sanitation Department,” he recalled.
Granted an interview with the late county commissioner Doc Utterback, Zopf drove up U.S. Highway 40 from Denver and spent the night before his interview, sleeping under the stars on Rabbit Ears Pass. He recalls the impression that night spent slumbering above 9,000 feet made on him.
“I got up in the morning and stole a shower at the Fish Creek Campground,” Zopf recalled. “Doc Utterback was a very smart veterinarian and rancher. He asked me if I was confronted with sewage backing up in a drain ‘What would you do?’”
Zopf acknowledged to Utterback he had no idea how to handle such a mess.
“I didn’t get the job, but a few weeks later, I got a call saying the first guy quit,” Zopf said. He leapt at his second chance, and nearly four decades later, his peers praised a track record that has far transcended sewer issues.
“We’ve accomplished a lot together,” Zopf told colleagues and friends this week. “We’ve (reduced the numbers of) woodstoves and we’ve protected water quality in a 1,700-square-mile river basin. One thing I take credit for is hiring the right people. I don’t take credit for the elected officials and the administrators,” who carried out the initiatives.
Although he was modest this week, during his career, Zopf partnered in the late 80s and early 90s with federal, state and other local officials to champion a drastic reduction in wood-burning appliances in the city, resulting in substantial reduction of woodsmoke that had formerly fouled Steamboat’s air on winter nights. The wood smoke, along with fine dust from road sanding, even resulted in sanctions imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the community has been given a clean slate from the EPA for many years thanks to pollution monitors on the courthouse roof, faithfully monitored by Zopf’s staff.
Zopf also helped to form an alliance that included the city of Steamboat Springs and U.S. Geological Survey to ensure the Yampa River was tested annually to establish baseline water quality standards, a tool intended to protect the region’s prized resource for generations to come.
Former County Commissioner Ben Beall said it was Zopf who, in the early 1990s, succeeded in making the case that the terrain and soils of Routt County dictated rural lots in the countryside should be no smaller than 5 acres in order to support leech fields for private septic systems.
“It was a battle,” Beall said, “but Mike was able to explain our geology to us and the reason we can’t have building lots as small as on the Front Range.”
Universally, Zopf was praised this week by associates, including County Manager Tom Sullivan and County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, for his calm demeanor and willingness to listen, which have defused many potentially tense situations.
His employees praised him for his management style.
“He’s the most diplomatic person I’ve ever met,” water plant manager Scott Smith said. “He always makes me feel appreciated about what I do.”
“He’s levelheaded and diplomatic,” longtime associate and Senior Environmental Health Specialist Heather Savalox said. “Mike’s the reason I am who I am today, because I learned everything from him.”
In retirement, Zopf said he intends to continue his work with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, Yampa Valley Recycles and the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group.
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