Working Together to Develop Drought Strategies

Remarks Delivered By:
John W. Keys, III, Commissioner

Colorado River Water Users Association
Las Vegas, Nevada

December 17, 2004

Good morning. I'm pleased to be here today.

Deputy Secretary Griles just talked about the recent accomplishments in the Colorado River Basin and the challenges we now face with the current drought.

I'm going to talk a little bit more about the drought. But before I do, I want to show you some graphic evidence of its impact.

This is a photo of the upper end of Lake Powell in 1999, when it was essentially full.

This is the same general area in March of this year. Note the boat ramp in the left hand corner.

Here is a picture of the upper end of Lake Mead, again in 1999 when the lake was nearly full.

And here is the same picture about a year ago.

As Deputy Secretary Griles said, we have seen five consecutive years of drought basin-wide. We asked ourselves how this drought compared to other droughts of similar length in our recorded history. As you can see, this is the worst.

A record five years of drought has certainly gotten everyone's attention. It is not unusual to have drought on the Colorado River.

But we haven't seen one this severe in recorded history. And this drought has been a major challenge, though not the only one, to Reclamation's work in managing the Colorado River system.

Still, it's not time to panic. The system is still about half full, even after the past five years.

And neither we nor the States have been sitting around wringing our hands over this situation- we've been looking at potential operating scenarios and strategies for managing the river in the future, whether or not the drought continues.

As most of you know, Reclamation conducts hydrologic analyses and develops scenarios for different water supply and water use situations as part of its routine river management work.

Today, I will provide you with some of the information developed by analyses that have been performed in recent months.

About four years ago, we put some rules in place for management of the "high end" of the operational range of Lake Mead - that is the transition from surplus to normal. Now it is time to do the same for the lower end, to be ready to transition from normal to shortage.

Setting the Stage

Last year, I noted that if we had another similar dry year in 2004, we would surpass the driest five-year period in 100 year of record keeping. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened, as inflow in Water Year 2004 turned out to be just 51% of average.

We don't know how long this drought will last.

But I can tell you we have not seen six consecutive years of below average runoff in our record, so it might seem that we are due for a turn-around, although no one knows whether that's in the cards.

I want to draw your attention to just how quickly the hydrologic situation on the Colorado River has changed.

In Water Year 1999, inflow into Lake Powell was 109% of normal and our reservoir system was nearly full.

Today, our system is about half full and, although this still represents a large amount of water in storage (about 30 million acre-feet or nearly two full years of "average runoff"), we cannot ignore the possibility that the drought may continue.

What will it take to refill the system? If we were to get the inflows we saw in 1983 and 1984, back to back, we would get the system up to about 90% of capacity. This is possible, but not very likely any time soon.

The more likely event is that we will continue to see storage decline in the near-term and it will take us longer to recover our system storage than it did after previous droughts - largely because of the greater demands on the system today.

Under current operations, and without high flows, water leaving Lake Mead exceeds inflow by more than a million acre-feet per year, causing Lake Mead to steadily decline.

Luckily, history shows that the Colorado sooner or later will have high flow years and Powell and Mead will capture those high flows for future use.

The good news is that throughout this drought, we have been able to continue to meet our delivery obligations throughout the Basin, although we do recognize that in some areas of the Upper Basin, shortages have occurred simply due to low river flows.

And we anticipate that we will be able to meet our delivery obligations in the coming year. As you know, the Secretary has determined next year to be a "Normal" year in the Lower Basin in the Annual Operating Plan.

However, all previous hydrologic studies told us we would face shortages some day. Our challenge now is to figure out how to do that.

How long will we continue to be able to meet full delivery obligations in the Lower Basin and to Mexico? Again, that is something we cannot predict, but we do know that it is time to discuss appropriate strategies for managing this system with lower reservoir levels.

Summary of Reclamation's work on reservoir elevations, management scenarios and future options

In May of this year, the Basin states approached the Department and indicated they would like our support to look at some of the technical issues with regard to the drought and possible options that might be available to manage limited water supplies in the future.

We formed a team representing both the Upper and Lower Colorado Regional offices and made this a top priority. We staffed it with our best hydrologists as well as Reclamation leadership.

Our folks have been working closely with the Basin states to develop and refine different modeling strategies for policy makers to consider.

We have shared this information with everyone who has asked, to help them understand the work we are doing to face these water management challenges.

I believe it is vitally important for you to understand Reclamation's work on reservoir elevations, management scenarios and future options, and that is why I have made this topic the centerpiece of my presentation to you today.

The development of the Law of the River, particularly since the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act, calls for Reclamation to coordinate the operation of the reservoirs on the Colorado River.

All of the management options that we have looked at boil down to trying to answer a key question: How will limited water supplies be managed to deliver water and power in accordance with our obligations?

We turn this broad question into operational alternatives by focusing on what it will take to protect certain lake levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Our experience on the Colorado demonstrates the importance of having rules in place that allow water users, water managers and the public at large to understand the "rules of the road" so they can plan for the future.

For example, by having Surplus Guidelines in place before the elevation of Lake Mead started to drop, we all understood when surplus water would be reduced and, ultimately, eliminated.

When you work on this concept of managing the reservoirs at low lake levels, it means you are essentially making decisions that trade off protection of particular lake levels with the risk of imposing reduced water deliveries.

For example, if we are willing to take smaller and more frequent shortages to keep Lake Mead at a higher level now, we may avoid having to deal with a large shortage sometime in the future.

Conversely, if we are willing to allow Lake Mead to go much lower and avoid shortages in the near-term, we will increase our risk of experiencing a much larger shortage sometime in the future.

So, how does Reclamation analyze this trade-off of reservoir levels and deliveries? We follow the same approach that we have used historically.

First, we model the basic delivery obligations under the Law of the River for both the Upper and Lower Basins. Then we factor in water use.

We know in the Lower Basin we are essentially using the full allocation and Mexico has been taking its full allocation for decades.

In the Upper Basin, we are using demand schedules consistent with the Upper Basin's use of its Compact allocation by 2060.

Then we build in future hydrology. What amount of runoff should we assume Mother Nature will provide?

We have looked at a wide range of possibilities, but for prudent water management planning, we have focused on developing a "worst-case" scenario to help us plan in case this drought does not turn around.

After building in the current drought, we took the worst twelve years over the past century and assumed that is what we will face over the next twelve years.

Some of us have been around long enough to remember the dry period of 1953 through 1964.

We even went so far as to look to see how this approach would stack up against droughts we can see from the tree ring data. Our "worst-case" scenario would rank as one of the third worst of the past 500 years.

What does this "worst-case" scenario tell us about possible future elevations at Lake Mead and Lake Powell and the imposition of shortages in the Lower Basin?

Here's what we found.

If we don't protect any particular elevation at Lake Powell, we would start to reach dead pool by the winter of 2007-2008.

Running Lake Powell down that low may not be the way to go. If we did, we'd lose power production, and likely see negative impacts on recreation, and fish and wildlife resources.

So what do we do? We start building in modeling assumptions that prevent the reservoirs from being drawn down so low. This would have the benefit of protecting power, recreation, and other interests.

The trade-off that I spoke of earlier though, is that water deliveries would have to be curtailed much earlier. Just what that curtailment would entail, and how much earlier it would be required, would depend on which operating scenario was selected.

For example, under the "worst-case" scenario, deliveries from Glen Canyon Dam would need to be reduced as soon as 2006 in order to protect power generation at Lake Powell.

Moving downstream to Mead, if we wanted to also protect the existing ability to produce power at Hoover Dam, shortages would need to be imposed as soon as 2007.

I want to emphasize that this is only an example to illustrate the trade-offs that will have to be considered when making decisions with regard to future operations.

The challenging policy trade-offs and why States should work together to find a consensus-solution that balances these competing interests

Regardless of the option chosen, there are going to be impacts and tradeoffs.

What do you in the Basin think we should do?

Do we protect power generation? Where? At Glen Canyon? At Hoover? At both?

Do we protect lake levels at Mead to ensure that the Southern Nevada Water Authority's intakes are still able to draw water from Lake Mead?

Do we protect lake levels for recreational uses?

Keep in mind that every time a decision is made to protect a particular lake level, there will be some reduction in water deliveries, either from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin, to the Lower Basin states, or to Mexico.

As you can see, this is a very, very serious situation with enormously challenging policy trade-offs. It's taken years for the situation to develop, and we're not going to work our way out of it overnight. And all of you—water users, Indian Tribes, power customers, states, environmentalists, recreational users—obviously have a direct interest in how these issues are resolved.

That is why we have consistently asked the states to work together, with all stakeholders, to develop solutions to manage the drought in a way that meets the needs of all in the basin in a fair manner, while respecting the Law of the River.

Given the recent trend in cooperation and progress in the Basin, I - like Secretary Norton and Deputy Secretary Griles - also am optimistic that we will find those solutions.

Water 2025

I want to spend just a minute or so talking about the Secretary's Water 2025 initiative.

As I travel across the West, I see many opportunities for improvements in infrastructure and other water conservation actions.

The Water 2025 program cannot solve problems on the scale presented in the Colorado River Basin. But it is an important tool to help individual water users and individual projects push the limits of existing water supplies.

The heart of Water 2025 is the Challenge Grant program, which provides federal matching grants to assist locally managed, on-the-ground conservation efforts.

And it has been inspiring to see the 2004 Challenge Grant recipients—tribes, states, local water organizations, and other stakeholder and citizen groups - step up to meet the challenges of water conservation.

They have taken the lead in resolving differences, looking to innovative solutions, and mapping out the future of water management

There were 19 Challenge Grants awarded in 2004. We expect the program to thrive this coming year. Proposals are due in January, and Congressional action to date supports $19.5 million for Water 2025 next year.

Water 2025 demands that we look at water management in a new way, and we see the obvious benefits that it is bringing about.


As Deputy Secretary Griles said, we have a long history of working cooperatively in the basin.

Since the development of the 1922 Compact, the Basin states have provided leadership on the fundamental issues facing the basin.

And the federal government has a history of seeking recommendations on important water management actions - from the 1931 Seven Party Agreement, through development of the Interim Surplus Guidelines in 1999, to today regarding drought management strategies.

We look forward to continuing to work together. The task facing us now is to figure out how to make do with a limited supply, as many other basins have to do.

As Deputy Secretary Griles stated, Secretary Norton prefers to make decisions regarding management of the river in the context of consensus, but will have to act without consensus if necessary.

I'm calling on you - the people whose lives are most affected - to step up to this challenge.

Reclamation will do its part - planning for the worst, and hoping for the best. But hope is not a strategy that will we use to deal with the drought in the basin.

Thank you.

For More Information:

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles' Speech to CRWUA