Bureau of Reclamation Banner

Remarks Prepared for Delivery to Colorado River Water Users Association

Remarks Delivered By:
Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary
U.S. Department of the Interior
Colorado River Water Users Association
Las Vegas, Nevada
December 17, 2008


Two years ago, when I first spoke to you, I described an aerial tour I took of the Colorado River just after taking office as Secretary. From its headwaters in the Rockies through the canyons and deserts, over the great reservoirs and majestic dams a journey across seven states and countless landscapes across a basin with millions of people, some of whom arrived recently and some whose ancestors stood on the shores of the river hundreds of years before Columbus. I was new to the Colorado River then. I was not, however, new to rivers or the battles that so often rage over their waters.

As Governor of Idaho, I had helped negotiate the largest water settlement in our state's history with the Nez Perce Tribe on the Snake River. I know first hand how hard it is not only to come to an agreement on a limited resource - but to find a way to make a lasting agreement in which everyone is a winner and no one a loser. When I first met with you, I noted that we were on a journey that was like the journey of the Colorado. A journey towards better management of the river. A journey towards cooperation. A journey towards a new era of partnership.

Fortunately, I inherited a strong federal team working on the Colorado River - people like Mark Limbaugh, a calm and thoughtful professional, as well as a certain Regional Director out in Boulder City, Nevada - named Bob Johnson. As our federal team prepared to attend this gathering in 2006, the question facing the basin was "would we complete the journey?" Or would we run aground on the shoals of acrimony and litigation?

I'm a big sports fan. I once had the honor of serving as mayor of Boise, and I love my Boise State Broncos. I'm sure you all know they are undefeated again this year. So I also chose a sports analogy. When I became Secretary of the Interior and water master of the Lower Colorado, I felt like a fresh quarterback whom the coach sent into the game in the fourth quarter with a tie score. We had the ball in the Red Zone, the last 20 yards before the goal line. Those are the hardest yards to get. Would we score or would we fumble the ball? I encouraged us to get the ball over the goal line. To punch it in. As I look back over the past two years, I am gratified to say that we got the ball into the end zone. The last few yards were tough, but we got it done. Each of you deserves the game ball.

A year ago, of course, I signed the Record of Decision implementing the seven-state agreement on future management of the Colorado, the most important seven-state agreement on the river since the original 1922 Compact It took an enormous amount of work over the years by the states, non-governmental groups who played such a vital role in the process, and other water users. Together, we made history with one stroke of the pen. We established new operational rules for coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, we put new guidelines in place for dealing with surpluses, and most importantly, dealing with scarcity, and we also addressed the ongoing drought by encouraging new initiatives for water conservation.

The agreement is more than a piece of paper, however. It is a testament to the spirit of cooperation and partnership to meet even the most difficult challenges. In the past year, through continued hard work, it has also become an on-the-ground reality. In October, for example, Bob Johnson and I attended the groundbreaking for the Drop 2 Reservoir - alongside the All American Canal. When we do a groundbreaking back in Washington, we normally use shovels. Out here in the West, however, we use something bigger. In many ways, the Drop 2 reservoir is a perfect symbol of the new spirit of cooperation on the Colorado. Here is a project located in California but paid for by Nevada - along with Arizona and California entities - that will eventually provide water to all three lower basin states. Behind the podium that day at the Drop 2 groundbreaking were the flags of the three states who were signatories of the deal - California, Nevada, and Arizona. To me, those flags symbolize the interstate cooperation for this important project.

As I mentioned last year, the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia are embroiled in a contentious conflict over the water they share. In fact some representatives from that region attended this conference this week. I believe the cooperation of the states on the Drop 2 project is a model other states could follow. My message to the Southeastern states remains: If the lower basin states of the Colorado can find a win-win solution to resolve water issues --- so can you.

Likewise, I was delighted to participate in last March's High Flow test at Glen Canyon Dam. It was an extraordinary experience to turn the valves and unleash such power. As I stood there - it reminded me of the exhaust from a space rocket. In fact, the thrust generated by releasing water from the bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam during the test was more than that generated by the booster rocket of a Titan IV missile. We lowered the lake level of Lake Powell and raised the level of Lake Mead by nearly two feet in just 60 hours. The test was an important experiment, designed to mimic the periodic floods that scour the riverbed, creating sandbars that may help provide important habitat for endangered fish. Our USGS scientists are hard at work analyzing the experiment, so that we can use the information gained from this experiment to help us in the future management of the river. It took the cooperation and partnership of many parties - including all seven basin states - to conduct this test as part of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. You all know full well that any state could have marched to the courthouse and tried to stop it. None did. Why? Because we listened to their concerns, worked together, and we were able to conduct a very important experiment under unique sediment conditions. Extraordinary. I applaud you. BY THE WAY - this beautiful photo of the high flow experiment was taken by John Keys from his private airplane as he flew away from the event. It was one of the last photos taken by John. I know you all join me in mourning the loss of this exceptional man and friend.

We also continued to make great progress this past year in honoring our commitment to both complete and implement Indian Water Rights Settlements in the West. Last December just before I left Washington to come here, I finalized the Arizona Water Rights Settlement. Decades of hard work resulted in the largest Indian Water Rights Settlement in U.S. history. In August, I signed an historic settlement agreement with the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, resolving decades of litigation over the tribe's water rights. The settlement brought to a close more than 150 years of conflict and struggle between the Soboba Band and its neighbors over the San Jacinto River Basin's limited water resources and provides a roadmap for sustainable water management in the river. By negotiating a settlement, rather than seeking a court-ordered remedy, the parties ensured all sides end up winners.

In addition, this fall, I joined Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Senator Ken Salazar, and tribal leaders to celebrate the progress we've made in completing the Animas-La Plata Project, which will fulfill tribal water rights dating back to 1868. The project is more than a source of water for the tribes. It will be an engine for economic development. We plan to start filling the Lake Nighthorse Reservoir next spring and complete the entire project in 2012 Once again, through partnership, we are achieving a win-win for tribes and for local municipalities and other water users.

In one month this administration will leave office and a new administration will come in. The moment my successor is sworn in, that individual will become the new water master of the lower Colorado, and I know that you will be ready to welcome the 50th Secretary of the Interior just as you have so warmly welcomed me. I am gratified that together we have laid a solid foundation on the Colorado River for the new team to build on: the California 4.4 Plan, the Arizona Water Settlement Act, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan, and finally last December's historic seven-state agreement. I would emphasize, however, that a foundation is merely a foundation. There is much work to be done. The future holds great challenges. The risk is always present that we will go back in time to the days of costly litigation and fruitless acrimony.

The most obvious challenge is the ongoing historic drought. Each year the drought continues, it strains at the seams of our partnership. It is one variable that we cannot control. So we must resolve to not let it stand in the way of progress on the river no matter how long or how bad it gets. One issue raised by the long drought is whether to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant. This is a plant that was built in the 1980's to meet water quality standards under our 1944 Treaty with Mexico. The plant has been run for only two short periods since it was built, but I believe it is a resource that cannot be overlooked during this time of extended drought. I recognize there are legitimate concerns about operating the plant and reducing the flow of water to the Cienega de Santa Clara, which is an environmental resource important to the country of Mexico, but I also believe the ultimate operation of this plant is something that must be considered. Some proponents might argue that we need to operate the plant regardless of the environmental impacts. Some opponents might counter that we should never operate the plant and that we cannot accept any environmental impact whatsoever. Surely, there is middle ground - perhaps reducing groundwater levels in the Yuma Valley or other ideas -- that all stakeholders working together can explore. I believe this facility needs an additional pilot period to help us determine what factor desalinization will play as part of the nation's 21st century solutions.

As we look to the future and work together to assure adequate water supplies, water users will also grapple with water quality issues. I applaud those communities along the river that are taking steps to address water quality. Both water quality and water supply may be affected by another issue we are facing in the basin--the unknown effects of climate change. Experts already project runoff in the Colorado basin to decline 15 percent during this century. That could be aggravated by climate change. I convened a Climate Change Task Force in 2007. Their reports set forth options to consider addressing effects of climate on water management.

Of course, there are a lot of scientific unknowns about climate change. The Department of the Interior is taking the lead in research. The U.S. Geological Survey recently held a workshop to design a new Climate Change Science Wildlife Center. The center will study how our climate has changed in the past and use this information to project future conditions. It will also help us understand how climate change will affect the landscape and wildlife.

We also need to find ways to improve cooperative efforts with Mexico on the Colorado. How do we meet agricultural, municipal and environmental water needs of both countries while respecting the fundamental allocations between our countries established by the 1944 Treaty? Last year, Mexico's Ambassador to the United States came to me and asked that together we try to change the tone and create better conditions for a dialogue for improved Colorado River cooperation. I also met with my counterpart, Secretary Elvira, and we had extremely positive discussions. These men are not only our neighbors, but honorable public servants working to improve U.S.-Mexico relations. We have initiated a dialogue -- under the auspices of the International Boundary and Water Commission -- to improve the exchange of information that could lead to future cooperation on the Colorado. I challenged you to bring to this dialogue the same spirit of innovation and partnership that has allowed us to make such progress among the seven states. Environmental groups, states, and water districts are all part of it. A broad range of experts are engaged.

Unfortunately, as we all know, tragedy struck this fall when IBWC Commissioners Carlos Marin and Arturo Herrera were killed while inspecting flooded areas of the Rio Grande Valley. Their passing will not end the dialogue, however. Earlier this week, I visited once again with Ambassador Sarukhan. I invited him to my office. We had a lengthy and productive dialogue about the importance of neighbors working together. We both agreed that we need to view our relations on the Colorado River as "Co-stakeholders" - neighbors who share a border - a region - and a river. He and I pledged on behalf of our governments to honor the work of Carlos and Arturo by continuing work to identify cooperative efforts that will ensure the sustainable management of the waters of the Colorado for future generations. I believe the next administration will honor our commitment and build on these efforts. The Ambassador and I both agreed that for progress to continue, the inclusion and cooperation of the Basin States is essential. I'm encouraged by reports that this week - as part of this gathering - the seven states are reinforcing their desire to work with Mexico to address the pressing Colorado River challenges we face. This is an important step, although many details remain. I plan to meet again with the Ambassador right after the first of the year and review ways that we can ensure that the momentum of cooperation continues during the next administration. You are on the right path. I'm hoping to read about your successes in the future.

Another area where we still have challenges ahead is in the Adaptive Management Program at Glen Canyon Dam. This Glen Canyon program is clearly one of the most important adaptive management-based efforts in the United States. It involves the operation of one of the most critical water storage and hydropower facilities in the nation and was established to help protect downstream resources in one of the world's most awesome wonders, the Grand Canyon. I recently visited Grand Canyon National Park with senior Department of the Interior career staff and gained a better appreciation for the complexity of the efforts to balance water delivery, hydropower production, endangered species conservation and national park protection. Knowing that adaptive management will play a critical role in our ongoing management and stewardship efforts, I identified some key principles that I believe should guide the Department's efforts in this program in coming years: First, we should recognize the extraordinary expertise that the U.S. Geological Survey has developed in the ongoing monitoring and research efforts devoted to the Adaptive Management Program. Having an independent, research-based group of scientists at the Survey take the lead in this effort was a decision made by then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt many years ago. I continue to believe it was -- and is -- the right decision. Second, as our scientists work to assess the results of the March 2008 high flow experiment, we will need to integrate those results with earlier tests performed in 1996 and 2004. I hope that we can develop better analytical and modeling tools as part of the adaptive management plan to support future decision-making by the Department. Third, we need to consider these type of high flow releases in the future. However, as the Department of the Interior considers the effectiveness of this type of action, we must carefully and respectfully consider the input of all stakeholder groups - including the views of the seven basin states. Fourth, we must continue to be guided by the principle of balancing competing interests and meeting the clear statutory responsibilities for endangered species, water delivery, protecting downstream resources and producing hydropower, all while recognizing the unique Native American interests in the Grand Canyon. We must continue to do our best to strike that proper balance - one that integrates all our statutory responsibilities.

Finally, as our efforts go forward, there is no question that the West needs - and will continue to need - affordable, clean, reliable power. Hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam is an important asset that shouldn't be further curtailed without a thorough assessment of the costs and benefits. Also, I'm pleased to report that our scientists continue to believe - among other factors - warmer water from Glen Canyon Dam has helped to improve the population of endangered fish in the Grand Canyon. The scientists and the fish may think the water is warmer, but when I jumped in the river in October, 56 degrees seemed pretty chilly.

Another area where much work remains unfinished relates to Indian Water Rights Settlements. My staff at Interior advises me that they have never seen more active Indian water rights settlements in various stages of potential resolution. As I look back now, I believe we are leaving an active and energized group of Indian water rights negotiations with settlements that are within reach. I strongly encourage all parties to be patient and stay at the table and settle these outstanding claims. Negotiated settlements will serve all our interests more than litigation and its potential for severe disruption of the state-managed water rights in the West. Overall, we need to find creative ways to address tribal claims, incorporate river management and environmental stewardship through water rights settlements. This should be a greater priority throughout the western United States in the future.

As I Look back on my tenure as Secretary, I will take with me many images and memories - one in particular reminds me of the work we have done here on the Colorado. It was at the signing of the Soboba settlement. A group of young Native Americans played and sang, and I sensed that their voices and drumbeats echoed through the centuries as they connected with the spirit of their ancestors and this beautiful land that is sacred to them. Tribal leaders, federal and local officials were joined together, listening to the drumbeat, ready to sign the agreement. Later in the fall I had this same experience at the Animas-La Plata dedication. I sensed that this was a symbol of all that we have come through together.

We have begun to overcome the acrimony of the past, to redress historic injustices, and to pioneer a path to the future that includes everyone who cherishes and depends upon the Colorado River. There is a verse from Ecclesiastes that reminds me of what we have experienced together. Better a handful with quietness Than both hands & grasping for the wind. The various negotiations on all of the projects and programs I've mentioned have been long and challenging as we have sought the path ahead. Everyone has given up something and everyone has gotten something. We have had to resist the urge to seek two handfuls. We have accepted one handful. But with it we have quietness&harmony&peace&No longer are we grasping for the wind. We are moving together in the 21st Century as neighbors and as partners. I am truly proud&I am truly honored&to be here with you one last time as Secretary of the Interior.

I again feel like a quarterback - one who is leaving the field after winning our big game. While my season is ending, there are many more seasons ahead for all of you & and you know what victory is. I will always be cheering for this team.