Dam Technology in Reclamation's Water Management Strategies

Remarks Delivered By:
John W. Keys, III, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation

U.S. Society on Dams - Annual Meeting and Conference
Salt Lake City

June 08, 2005


Being the after-dinner speaker for a bunch of engineers is tough. You're all thinking about how they could have served the food more efficiently, and I have to get your attention back on dams.

Congratulations on an outstanding program. The topics are all on target, and you certainly have the right people here to go over them. The Reclamation folks here are the best. Barry Wirth's talk reminds us what a blessing those Colorado River dams are. They've really saved us during this drought.

The United States has the most impressive infrastructure of dams on the earth. Marvels of engineering have been produced by private and government organizations. What we've produced here in the United States is serving as a model for countries that are working to develop their own system of dams, and we should take a lot of pride in that.

Reclamation's history is bound up with dams. As soon as the Reclamation Service was formed in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt began to look for irrigation projects for Reclamation that would help to populate and develop the West. In its first few years, Reclamation undertook more than 20 projects.

Less than two weeks ago marked the 70th anniversary of the completion of Hoover dam - May 29, 1935 - the best known of any Reclamation project.

Reclamation dams such as the Hoover are American landmarks. We're very proud of these achievements. But these are new times, and we face new challenges.

As water management has evolved, Reclamation has transformed into a more comprehensive water management agency, while maintaining a focus on our core mission of water and power deliveries.

Don't get me wrong - our system of dams plays a vital part in Reclamation's current water management strategies, and that will be my subject this evening. We face challenges today in maintaining and improving the system that are in many ways as formidable as those challenges that had to be surmounted during the construction of projects.

A lot of what we're concerned with now is improving the safety, security, and efficiency of the structures that we already have. You've heard a great deal at this conference about work in these areas being done by Reclamation and others.

I want to mention a very significant piece of legislation for Reclamation's work that passed during the last Congress - that is the Safety of Dams cost ceiling adjustment.

The bill does three things: 1) It increases the appropriation ceiling for this program overall so that we can complete important Safety of Dams projects over the next ten years as we identify them instead of having to increase the ceiling case by case.

2) It increases the threshold for required reporting to Congress on fixes.

3) It also puts the project beneficiaries, the water districts, at the table while the safety fixes are being designed.

The Benefits of Storage Over the past six years, parts of the West have been going through one of the worst droughts on record.

Some have compared the magnitude of the current drought to that of the Dust Bowl. That comparison is arresting. Just as arresting is this: we are not in a crisis.

Our dams and reservoirs have been like insurance policies all over the West, cushioning people from the effects of the drought has been the water available in our major reservoirs.

Our forefathers had the wisdom to build the system of dams that has helped with flood control - and with water scarcity, to get through the tough years. Those dams and reservoirs have done a tremendous job. But they weren't designed for the demands that we are putting on them.

We've had some good hydrology news recently, as you just heard from Barry Wirth, but previous years have been tough.

Problems with Storage

New water storage is sometimes suggested as an answer to water supply challenges across the West. Reclamation is working with some state entities and a variety of other stakeholders to explore new storage opportunities.

But we have to be realistic: there are environmental and cost constraints, and that means we need to look at new storage differently from the way we did in the past.

In some cases, new storage projects may be the only viable solution to local water supply issues. Working with the Colorado River Basin States, we will have developed by 2007 a plan for dealing with shortages; part of this effort may involve looking at new storage on the system. Part of what we are doing with CALFED is to look into increased storage. But not only is storage complicated - it may take years to build. In the short term, the best alternative is to find technology and other solutions to stretch what we have.

So what will the dam project of the future look like?

The dams probably won't look a lot different on the outside. The technology of the inner workings will be improved. An example of improving our current structures is the Arrowrock diversion dam in Idaho.

The dam was completed in 1915. At the time, it was the highest dam in the world at 350 feet.

Arrowrock dam served Idaho well for a long time, but equipment wears out, and technology improves. So in 1997 we embarked on a project to replace Ensign valves with a new technology: clamshell gates.

The clamshell gates were designed specifically for the project. The height of the clamshell gates will permit future maintenance and inspection of the dam while the reservoir is full. So the technology enhances the operation, and it provides benefits to the fish population.

This kind of rehabilitation is a major focus for Reclamation. The average age of a Reclamation project is 50 years; some of our projects, like Arrowrock, are approaching 100 years.

Maintaining the aging infrastructure and improving security, safety, and efficiency - these are the immediate challenges that we are facing at Reclamation. And that isn't different from what others in the dam business are facing. Substantial resources are directed to these areas in the President's 2006 budget proposal.

Probably the biggest difference from the past will be the perspective with which we approach projects.

Whether we're talking about new projects or maintaining existing ones, we're talking about cooperative efforts. The days of the large federal project are probably over. That doesn't mean that there won't be projects; it means that localities will have to look beyond the federal government as a sole source of funding. There is still an integral federal role, but as a cooperating partner.

The idea of cooperative projects is here to stay - it has to be. Neither the federal government nor the localities can go it alone.

And again, a lot of our work concerns the approach as much as the technology. For instance, as a way to facilitate project funding, we are looking at a loan-guarantee program modeled on USDA's.

In addition to the challenges I've talked about - new projects, aging infrastructure, drought - we face the challenge of adapting our work to meet the demands of a new West. The West is the fastest-growing area of our nation. What were once agricultural areas are now often thriving municipal centers. Changes of this sort along with explosive population growth can result in competition for a finite resource.

Between 1990 and 2000, the population in Nevada increased by more than 60 percent. Arizona's population increased by more than 40 percent, and the populations in Utah, Colorado, and Idaho increased by more than 30 percent.

And drought, as much of a problem as it has been, is not the only cause of water shortages. Droughts come and go in the West. One of our greatest fears is that, when droughts break, existing supplies will not be enough to meet demand, even in the normal years. This situation is fast becoming the reality in many Western river basins.

But numerous opportunities exist where water supplies can be managed more efficiently, water markets can be developed, collaborative solutions can be found, and new technologies can be researched.

Response: Water 2025 as a Water Management Strategy This chronic challenge of finite supply coupled with increasing demand is addressed by one of our most successful partnership efforts: Secretary Norton's Water 2025 initiative.

Water 2025 provides a vision and a comprehensive water management strategy for this quarter century.

Let me say here that Secretary Norton really understands and supports our work. In my 38 years in Reclamation, I have never seen a Secretary more knowledgeable about water issues. I'm very proud to be working under Secretary Norton and President Bush.

The hard reality is that federal funds for water management are limited. We have to conduct our work in a fiscally responsible way. Water 2025 enables us to do that.

Water 2025 reflects the Bush Administration's commitment to local decision-making. Through Water 2025, Reclamation can partner with local decision-makers and focus limited funds where those dollars can have the greatest effect.

Water 2025 looks to innovative approaches in stretching supplies, implementing what we can do today to prevent the devastating effects of conflict and crises over water.

Water 2025 highlights five key tools to improve water conservation and management. These tools are not new, but they have proven to be effective on the ground in the West.

The first tool is water conservation, efficiency, and markets. Most irrigation delivery systems were built in the early 1900s and remain virtually unchanged today.

Water 2025 promotes partnerships that provide technical and financial assistance to modernize facilities.

A second tool is collaboration - Water 2025 promotes cooperative approaches to resolving conflict. The Department's work with the Colorado River Basin states in developing shortage criteria is a great example.

A third tool is research into technology that can identify new water supplies and help to reduce the costs that slow adoption of these technologies. New water purification technologies such as desalination and water recycling fall under this category.

These technologies show tremendous potential for water conservation. In 2003, projects delivered nearly 93,000 acre-feet of reclaimed water to their local costumers. This means that nearly 93,000 acre-feet of potable water did not have to be used for irrigation and industrial uses.

The amount of reclaimed water increased to nearly 110,000 acre-feet in FY 2004, and we estimate that number to grow to approximately 137,000 acre-feet this year.

And new technologies show great potential for efficiency. For example, desalination of brackish groundwater may be more affordable than piping water for some rural areas.

A fourth tool is inter-agency cooperation to remove institutional barriers. Excess capacity in existing facilities is sometimes unavailable for distribution because of legal or policy constraints. In some cases, we can free up this capacity through legislative or policy changes. In other cases, we can simply work to coordinate our operations with other agencies to manage water more effectively.

Finally, a fifth tool that is new in our 2006 budget request is systems optimization reviews. This tool provides the opportunity to irrigation and water districts and other water delivery authorities to partner with Reclamation to analyze their delivery systems and provide recommendations for efficiency in water management.

At the heart of our Water 2025 initiative is the Challenge Grant program, which Secretary Norton launched last year. Challenge Grant projects have proposed innovative ways to head off problems by conserving and distributing water more efficiently and more effectively through water conservation, collaboration, efficiency, and markets.

This 50-50 cost-share program enables Reclamation to partner with local decision-makers and focus resources where they can make the greatest impact.

Last year, nineteen projects representing ten western states received Challenge Grants totaling $4 million. The projects will return almost $30 million in on-the-ground water delivery system improvements. That is a return greater than 7 times the investment.

The projects that received Challenge Grants last year are already under way. They include improvements in monitoring and delivery, and market solutions such as water banks.

This year we received 117 proposals. Last month, Secretary Norton announced the initial selections for this year's Challenge Grant program.

We selected 43 projects in 13 states and awarded $9.9 million. Including the contributions of non-federal partners, the projects represent more than $27 million in water improvements.

For 2005, Congress provided Water 2025 with $19.5 million, and $10 million of that is dedicated to the Challenge Grant program.

In his 2006 budget request, President Bush proposed $30 million for Water 2025. This is more than 50 percent above the amount appropriated by Congress for 2005. We are very excited about the promise of this program.

The FY 2006 budget passed the House, and the Senate markup will be next week. For the FY 2007 budget, this morning I made a presentation for Reclamation to the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget. I have to say that it is brutal in some areas.

President Bush has asked us to reduce the budget deficit by 50 percent by 2009. That is a tall order, but it is something that we must accomplish for our economy. So we will try to get it done.

I also want to say a word about security before I wrap up. Since September 11, we have evaluated the security needs at every Reclamation dam - 290 critical facilities and some more. And we are implementing changes that resulted from those reviews. Our goal is to protect the public, our people, and the projects - prepare, protect, prevent, respond.


We all need to become better and better water managers, and one of the important ways we do that is to change the perspective with which we approach present and future challenges.

When Hoover Dam was under construction, they ran into a problem: how could the concrete - 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete - be transported from the mixing stations on the canyon rim to the site before the concrete set?

The superintendent of construction, Frank Crowe, came up with the idea of transporting the concrete by cable ways over Black Canyon.

Great innovation. And we have the same opportunity for innovative solutions today.

The day of the huge project might be over, but we have no shortage of challenges. Our work has to satisfy multiple demands and interests - agricultural, environmental, municipal and industrial.

I mentioned the technological innovations in Reclamation's rehabilitation of Arrowrock Dam. Another good example is the rock weir structures that we've used in several projects - they integrate manmade structures with the natural environment. They also enable deliveries that respect water rights.

New storage projects will probably be looked to in the long run because of tough financial, social, and environmental hurdles.

But improved technology is helping us to conserve water. New technologies and improved conservation are helping to maintain consumption levels despite increased demands.

And innovations such as water banking can further improve the way we use our available supplies.

The challenges are different today, but I think that the 21st century is just as exciting a time for dam technology as the times of the great old construction projects.