Editor’s note: Crystal Thompson joined CAP in 1996 as a community relations representative and in 2017 she was promoted to communications manager. She has also served as chair of the Public Affairs Committee for the Colorado River Water Users Association for more than 20 years.
Crystal Thompson has always liked a challenge. As a child, she was a competitive downhill skier – a sport that is cold, painful and thrilling. She played piano – an instrument that has 88 keys and pedals. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that for more than 26 years, Thompson has tackled a challenging career – telling the story of water in the desert.
Thompson wasn’t always a desert dweller, but water always played a prominent role in her life. She was born in Southern California and moved to Lake Tahoe when she was almost five years old.
“My mom grew up in a small town in Kansas and she wanted us to have opportunities she didn’t have,” said Thompson. “Her approach was to put us in every possible activity.”
Living in a “year-around playground” provided plenty of opportunities for Thompson, the middle of three children. She was competitive in tennis, swimming and downhill skiing and spent hundreds of hours with her family on the lake. She was involved in theater and the arts and discovered that she loved telling stories. In fact, while in high school she was the only member under 30 years old in a Shakespearean troupe.
As college approached, her diverse experiences and talents provided many options for her future, including accepting a skiing scholarship. However, she chose a different path.
“My father was a commercial airline pilot and placed a high value on academics,” said Thompson. “Having a quick and open mind, and thoughtful approach to your future was valued in my home, so that’s the path I chose to focus on when I graduated.”
She accepted an academic scholarship from the Wynn Foundation and headed back to California to attend Pepperdine University, with the desire to pursue broadcast journalism.
“Although I like a good challenge, I am risk averse in general and pursuing a career in the arts didn’t seem like a sure thing,” said Thompson. “So, I thought I would do something that allowed me to perform and tell stories; I would be a news anchor.”
However, once she realized that before she could be an anchor, she would most likely need to cut her teeth on some “ambulance chasing” reporting, she decided she needed another path that would help her pursue her passion of storytelling. She found organizational communication.
She graduated in three years and, as a Wynn Scholarship recipient, accepted a job in the organization’s management training program at the newly opened Mirage Casino in Las Vegas.
“It was an exciting time. The Mirage was new, Treasure Island was under construction, we imploded the Dunes and were breaking ground on the Bellagio,” said Thompson. “I was having a great time communicating about orchestrated hotel implosions and new one-of-a-kind entertainment, Cirque du Soleil, and truly expected to spend my communications career in Las Vegas.”
But then she met Scott, the man who would become her husband — who didn’t love Nevada and was annoyed by video poker in restaurants and slot machines in grocery stores.
“Gambling was normal in my world,” said Thompson. “Growing up, my dance recitals were held in the Harrah’s showroom, and I didn’t think twice about walking in my ballet costume through a smoke-filled casino floor to get to the stage.”
The newly married couple headed to Phoenix where Thompson looked for a position that was a perfect fit. She started with a software startup company and in less than a year discovered that a startup environment felt too risky, so she looked for an established organization with a history and a future. She accepted a communication position at the City of Phoenix and found that it had the opposite challenge.
“I realized that municipal government was not fast paced enough for me,” said Thompson. “When I was hired at CAP, I realized I had found the right fit.”
The perfect fit was about more than just the right pace for her. In her first week, she found herself at the site of a siphon replacement project, where the normally buried 21’ diameter siphons were sitting above ground.
“That siphon was the coolest thing I’d seen since a casino,” said Thompson. “I realized that what I had loved about the casinos was that their super-size made them interesting to most people, and here I was experiencing infrastructure that was larger than life, and I was excited to tell people about it.”
The next thing she realized was how important water resources were to her personally. She had spent most of her life in communities where ethics around water and natural resources were top of mind. Now she found herself in a desert, where water should be top of mind, but for many residents, it was not.
She dug in, another challenge was before her. Thompson spent years telling the story of CAP and the importance of water in the desert. She helped build and launch CAP’s first website. She wrote brochures, created a robust educational program, developed an extensive oral history library and spent thousands of hours building relationships with customers and community groups, telling CAP’s story. Regionally, she was tapped by the Colorado River Water Users Association to lead a committee of communicators to tell the story about the Colorado River, a position she has held since 2002. Her passion for water grew. She continued to find the issues compelling, ever-changing and incredibly complex.
The challenges have always been there, whether it be reaching people, learning new technologies or continuing to tell stories in compelling ways. In recent years, there are new challenges. How do you reach people in this news-on-demand culture? Most importantly, how do you take the incredibly technical topics the water world is facing, make them understandable and relevant to your audience, AND have people want to hear your story?
More than 26 years into her tenure at CAP, Thompson still eagerly embraces the challenges every day and finds the work very rewarding.
“It is fulfilling to know that I am able to leverage my talents to share the truths about water that our community needs to be aware of – that it’s important, precious, and needs to be used wisely,” said Thompson. “It was true when I started, it’s true now and it will be true 20 years from now.”
Water is critical to the quality of life in Arizona, and the only way that quality of life can be sustained is to be mindful about the preciousness of the water supply.
“I think that as we move into increasing water scarcity that more people will realize that they need to be aware of their water,” said Thompson. “It’s not that it will become more important — because it’s always been important – but I think more people will be open to learning about how to be better water stewards.”
And Thompson will continue to accept the challenge and continue to tell the story.
For Women’s History Month 2023, the National Women’s History Alliance has designated the theme “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” This theme recognizes “women, past and present, who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling including print, radio, TV, stage, screen, blogs, podcasts, news, and social media.” It honors women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.