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Drought or Opportunity

Remarks Delivered By:
John W. Keys, III, Commissioner
Colorado River Water Users Association 2003 Annual Meeting
Las Vegas
December 12, 2003


Good Morning, I am pleased to be back here again with you. When I was here last year, I talked about Reclamation's Centennial - our first 100 years of service to the west -- and it was a good first Century. This year, I want to talk about some of out key activities on the river and to follow up on the Secretary's talk a little bit.

Drought Conditions: First off, I want to talk about the drought conditions facing this basin. We just heard David Brandon tell us about the weather outlook for the West. He noted the drought in the Colorado River Basin is probably going to continue.

We cannot prevent hydrologic drought. But we can, and will continue to, help the western states to minimize its impacts . The projects on the Colorado River provide a valuable insurance policy we should all be grateful for.

We cannot simply wait to react to whatever curve ball Mother Nature may throw at us. To be good stewards of the Colorado River water system, we must be prepared for all eventualities.

Our Hydrologists have been busy over the past year running "what-if" scenarios with our river simulation models -- looking at virtually every conceivable condition and extreme - from continued drought to extremely wet years. All this to prepare for any and all eventualities.

The four years from 2000 through 2003 rival the years 1953 through 1956, which were previously the driest four years in the Basin. If we have another similar dry year in 2004, we will surpass the driest five years in the historical 100-years of record keeping for the Basin. We are now on the cusp of the most severe drought on record. One more year will push us over the edge. This drought is even worse than that of the Dust Bowl years during the 1930's.

In water year 2000, runoff to Lake Powell was 62 percent of average. In 2002, runoff was 25 percent of average, the lowest in recorded history. 2003 looks like it will end up at 53 percent of average. Earlier this week, Lake Powell dropped below elevation 3,600 feet -- slightly over 100 feet from full. This is the first time we have been at or below 3,600 feet since 1973, when Lake Powell was initially filling.

The situation isn't much better at Lake Mead. Currently, Lake Mead is 59% full - with a water surface elevation of 1139 feet. By December, 2004, it is projected to be down to 1128. For context, at this time in December, 2000, Lake Mead's elevation was 1196 feet. That would be a drop of 68 feet in 4 years! At that elevation Lake Mead would have the lowest amount of water since 1965 when inflow was curtailed during filling of Lake Powell .

That is the bad news. The good news is that there is still water in both reservoirs – enough to ensure we'll be able to meet all out lower basin obligations, this next season, including any surplus allowed by the Interim Surplus Guidelines. Our insurance policy -- our investment - seems like a pretty good one.

2004 Projections: The 2004 Annual Operating Plan will require the upper basin to deliver only the minimum objective release of 8.23 MAF, to the lower basin for water year 2004 (running from Jan 1 - Dec. 31).

In the lower basin, the Partial Domestic Surplus determination will govern water releases from Lake Mead to Arizona, Nevada and California for calendar year 2004. We don't yet know whether or how much surplus water ach State may take, but we estimate r eleases from Lake Mead for water year 2004 (Oct 1 - Sept. 30) will be 9.5 maf with no flood control releases anticipated.

Further, we don't anticipate that there will be any available unused apportionment in the lower Colorado River basin for CY 2004. However, if there is, the Secretary will allocate it in accordance with the Supreme Court Decree and the Interim Surplus Guidelines.

Impacts to Hydropower On the hydropower side, the impact of the continuing drought has been significant and immediate for Upper Basin reservoirs. Two factors are at work: (1) the minimum annual releases of 8.23 million acre-feet of water and (2) the impacts of reduced power head as Lake Powell's elevation decreases.

As a result, our capability to produce hydropower to the transmission system has dropped. In the recently completed 2003Water Year, we only produced 31 percent of our output capacity to the system. That translates to 3,530,196,000 (3-billion 530-million 196-thousand) kilowatt hours of production using 8.23 million acre-feet of water. That comes out to 428 kilowatt hours per acre-foot of water. Contrast that to 1984, which was the record runoff year, in which we produced 93.78 percent of our output capacity to the system, which was 8,825,559,000 (8-billion 825-million 559-thousand) kilowatt hours of production while using over 18.5 million acre-feet of water. That equals 476.5 kilowatt hours per acre-foot of water. In summary, that's over 5 billion kilowatt hours and more than 10 million acre feet less than in 1984. A BIG difference.

Road to Recovery and Recharge: So what will it take to get us back to "normal?" Well, we won't get there even if this winter proves to be above-average. Even from 1953 to 1964 which is the driest 12-year period on record for the Colorado River, we had one wet year -- 1957. But it wasn't enough.

We know the Colorado River needs more than one good year to reset itself. Even the wettest year on record - 1984 - would not refill the system this year. In fact, it would take back-to-back wet years like 1983 and 1984 to refill Colorado River reservoirs. It is possible, but not likely to happen.

Why will it take so long to reset the system? It didn't seem to take that long following other droughts, such as in the early 1990's. In 1993, Lake Powell was 90 feet from full after a five year drought. We went into a wet cycle in the mid 1990's and the system refilled with even some flood control releases from Lake Mead in the late 1990's.

The difference between now and then is that demands in both the Upper and Lower Basins are higher than they were ten years ago.

Lake Mead is also much lower than it was in 1993. In 1993, Mead was 84 percent full. Today, Lake Mead is 59 percent full. Keep this in mind when we refill. Equalization requires that we fill Powell and Mead at roughly the same time.

Average years, if we are fortunate enough to experience a few in a row, don't do much for resetting the system. We are currently operating in a middle area of “not empty – not full.” With current demands, an average inflow year will only increase system storage by about three percent.

Furthermore, the ground is now so dry that average snowpack will translate into only about 75 percent of average runoff into our reservoirs. This year we will need above average snowpack to get average runoff.

Couple that reality against increasing demands for water as the economy and population in the Southwest United States continues to grow. Clearly, the challenges that everyone of us here today face are significant.

The bottom line: if "average" winters become the norm, it will take a minimum of 13 of them to refill the system. Clearly, we need a sustained period of above average snowpack and runoffs.

The probability that the system, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead, will refill within the current decade is only about 18 percent.

Sooner or later, we will get back in such a wet cycle and refill our reservoirs. We just don't know when it will happen. Because of this, we are looking at all the possible scenarios.

Era of Limits : In her speech to you last year, Secretary Norton noted that, after a number of years of high flow in the river, record drought and population growth in the basin had finally ushered in a long predicted era of limits in the lower basin.

What does this mean? In general, it means there will be fewer years in the future when surplus water is available in the lower basin than has historically been the situation.

It means that, far more often than before, the lower basin states will receive only their basic annual entitlement of 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, although there will continue to be years when surplus water is available in the river because of favorable hydrologic conditions. But those years are likely to be fewer in number than in years past.

To illustrate this point:

While studies show a 50 to 100 percent probability of a surplus occurring in any given year between now and 2016,

After 2016, the probability of a surplus occurring in any given year is 20 percent or less.

There is also, at least statistically, the possibility that a shortage could be declared in the lower Colorado River Basin in the future, possibly before the end of this decade. After 2015, the probability of a shortage exceeds 40 percent. That has never occurred on this river, which tells you how serious this water situation we're facing today is.

That's why Colorado River water must be carefully managed and used. That is why the lower region held eight public meetings in the lower basin this past year to make everyone aware of this new era. That is why we'll keep encouraging all Colorado River water users to pay attention to their water use. And that is why Reclamation, as the Secretary's representative, will continue to manage the river more intensely than we have in the past.

Water 2025 - Secretary Norton, in her remarks last night, touched on her initiative for Reclamation - Water 2025 -- for preventing crisis and conflict over water in the West.

We are very excited about what this initiative will and can mean for us in Reclamation - how we do business, what we can do and how we focus attention on our water resources management role in the West.

Many of you participated in our Water 2025 meetings and we appreciate the input you provided. With that input, we are forging ahead -- highlighting ongoing activities and past successes, further defining the tools available to us, engaging in new partnership opportunities and identifying projects that will provide the benefits of on-the-ground improvements to delivery systems, collaborative efforts to help the environment, enhanced research to make other technologies more cost-effective, and finding more effective ways to use our water infrastructures while improving interagency cooperation and coordination.

Through the Water 2025 initiative that is already underway, we are looking for cooperative partnership opportunities to research, development and demonstrations of 21 st Century technology to stretch our limited water supplies – as just one of the tools in our water 2025 toolbox.

Specific Issues - At this point, I want to change gears a little and touch on some other important issues

Yuma Desalting Plant - As the drought continues, increased attention and interest is being given to the United States' obligations to replace the bypass of Wellton Mohawk district return flows around the Colorado River.

The Yuma Desalting Plant was built to recover these flows for use by the United States in meeting the requirements of the Treaty with Mexico, but we've not needed to operate the plant to this point.

Now, however, with reservoir storage levels dropping due to the current drought, concerns are increasing over continuing the bypass operation without the United States either operating the desalting plant or replacing the bypass water through other measures.

Operating the plant would be expensive and it could have undesirable environmental impacts. Not operating the plant could save us money, avoid environmental impacts and help to protect the water resources of the Upper and Lower basin states.

We are currently pursuing a two pronged approach for replacing this bypassed water: we are initiating the work necessary to make the Yuma Desalting Plant fully operational; and we are concurrently looking at other possible measures to replace the ongoing bypass. For example, one way to do that might be to enter into forebearance agreements with willing water users, whereby we could lease water on an annual basis to use for bypass replacement.

We've met with the Basin States and other interested parties on this issue, and we will continue to meet with them to see if we can't find a solution that meets the needs of the states, our treaty obligations to Mexico and our other Departmental obligations. We look to this group for help in coming to that necessary consensus.

Animas LaPlata : I'm going to change gears even more and give you an update on another important issue - the Animas LaPlata Project.

Last year at this conference, I reported that construction activities in support of the Animas LaPlata Project continue to move forward. While I am glad to say that is still the case, unfortunately, i n July of this year, I notified Interior Secretary Gale Norton that the Animas-La Plata Project was facing sizable increases in the construction cost estimate that were identified during a comprehensive review of the original cost estimate, as well as new projections based on current data and final construction design. At the request of Secretary Norton, Reclamation conducted a meticulous review of these revised construction cost estimates associated with building the Animas-La Plata Project.

Although there can be unforeseen costs associated with any major public works project, I want to hold Reclamation to a higher standard.

Accordingly, I have directed Reclamation to take several initial steps to complete the Animas-La Plata Project in the most cost effective and efficient way possible. These actions, when fully implemented, should provide the safeguards necessary to avoid similar occurrences on this and other Reclamation projects in the future.

Further, we have undertaken a bureau wide review of our processes to assure that this will not happen in the future.

Budget: In conclusion, I would like to give you an update and summary of Reclamation's budget for this next year. Just last week, the President signed the FY 2004 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill into law (PL 108-137) which includes funds for Reclamation's activities and program.

In summary, I would say that while we didn't get everything we wanted or felt we needed, we fared - all in all - pretty well. A lot better than some others - relatively speaking.

"Tracing the waterdrop" through the Colorado River Basin : One of the joys of attending this meeting is the opportunity to see old friends, talk water management issues with those who care so passionately about our common concerns, and "preach to the choir."

Today my job wasn't to sell you on the need to carefully manage every drop of water in the Colorado River system. You, more than anybody, collectively understand that need and already work diligently towards that end. I do believe that my responsibilities are to call attention to all that we collectively do and to lead a celebration of those efforts.

To prepare for today, I spent some time on the Colorado River Water Users Association web site - looking at how all of you characterize our shared water stories and the specific work your districts, states, cities, and tribes undertake. I also looked at many of the web sites the Association links to.

As that great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching." That certainly applies here.

What I've seen was a lot of good information about the river and about how we all might manage our water better. There is a host of water conservation information that is extremely useful. I've seen information for consumers to assist them in surviving the drought as it impacts their yards and personal use of water. "Making every drop count" is a common theme.

Those of you who attended our seminars this past summer heard me repeatedly say the same thing. We have to make every drop count and we have to use that drop several times.

Well, actually we all are doing that right now and we are getting better at it each day.

As the Colorado River rises in the mountains of the Upper Basin and flows toward the Gulf of Mexico, it is used and re-used by farmers and municipalities.

Along the way, we protect its quality through the many innovative features of the Salinity Control program.

In addition, environmental and endangered species values are protected and enhanced through physical and non-physical cooperative efforts.

All along the system, recreation use abounds as people float or fish the rivers and play on the reservoirs.

Turbines at the dams send hydropower across the Southwest.

Finally, the water crosses into Mexico, where our neighbors enjoy an assured supply as the result of the 1944 treaty.

The Colorado is an amazing river which takes an amazing journey. Working together, the Federal government, the states, the water users, environmental organizations and Tribes, we can keep it that way and help to ensure that it continues to meet these same needs in the future.

I am proud of our commitment in seeking the best use and management of this river, and also proud of the collective commitment of all with a stake in Colorado River - especially including the members of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

I believe we have witnessed and are witnessing some historic times -- both from Mother Nature and from the people in this room who continue to find ways to make the river run and work for all of us. And with these historic times comes some historic opportunities -- through Water 2025 and through the work that we all do every day both to make the Colorado River so vital and to make this region of the country the envy of the rest.

Again thanks for the opportunity and honor to speak to you today. I look forward to visiting with you more as we continue to discuss these important issues.