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DOI Dam Safety Coordinators Conference

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael Connor, Commissioner
DOI Dam Safety Coordinators Conference
Hotel Albuquerque, Albuquerque, NM
May 10, 2011


I tell people these days that it's a good thing that I don't live in New Mexico anymore, although I hope to fix that at some point in time some day. Because if I did live in New Mexico, I'm quite sure that I would be 300 pounds. I know where all the good restaurants are, and my wife would appreciate this. I would always single out saying home is the best place, but it's all those extraneous lunches and breakfasts, et cetera, in New Mexico that would do me in.

But I highly recommend, as I do when I do travel back here, that you take them in, and I'd be happy to discuss any of those and to learn from some of the locals maybe some places that I don't know about.

I'm very pleased to be here, being somewhat of a native son. I'm as close to a native son as you can get, having lived here since I was about 1, even though not being born here.

This is actually my second Department of the Interior safety of dams conference, and it's been a while. My first one -- I might not get it right -- I think it was 1995 was the first DOI safety of dams conference that I attended. And I think that one was in Port Angeles, Washington. It was '95 or '96.

I started my career in the Solicitor's Office. And when I got out of the Solicitor's Honors Program, I went to work in the Division of Indian Affairs, working on water rights issues and FERC relicensing issues that affected tribes. But also there were a few programmatic aspects to the job, and I had the irrigation program that I was responsible for providing legal advice to and the safety of dams program.

So since 1995, I think my responsibilities have grown significantly, and for that reason, if for no other, I'm doubly, triply -- whatever the proper exponential factor -- appreciative of all your efforts to maintain our facilities in safe operating condition, to ensure they are doing the job that they were designed to do, to ensure what I think most people would acknowledge is that their life has been extended beyond what people originally envisioned, and that's because of the great work you do. And it's very important that we continue to do that.

I know there was a presentation earlier today talking about the very high runoff that exists in the Upper Colorado River Basin and in Utah. I know that we're living and breathing dam safety from an operations standpoint and our flood control operations, even as we speak. Obviously, through the Great Plains region and in the Missouri River Basin and the Red River Valley, et cetera, those are -- and obviously, the Mississippi River system -- the Corps of Engineers is living and breathing that and making very tough decisions.

So none of this is easy stuff; know that your efforts are widely appreciated.

I want to talk a little bit more about a larger agenda that I think the dam safety program is part of, as well as, I think, the skills that you folks bring as part of that dam safety program.

And those requirements -- the engineering skills, the operational skills, the experiences, all those things -- they fit into a larger agenda, which dam safety I think is fundamental to, but I think we're not just about maintaining our dams and infrastructure these days. And really, I decided I would take that little different tact in my talk because I was reviewing the letter that I sent about five weeks ago to the United States Society on Dams, who are making a pitch and have put together a terrific proposal to host the International Commission on Large Dams meeting in 2013 in Seattle.

They put together a strong recommendation -- it's been like two decades, I guess, or over two decades since the U.S. has hosted that commission and their annual conference. So it's about time that we do so again.

The Pacific Northwest obviously offers a lot. Seattle itself from the meeting space, but also the whole array of dams and infrastructure that we have in the Pacific Northwest provides a great laboratory to people take in and share some great learning experiences, see the diversity of our infrastructure and different agencies that are responsible in the Pacific Northwest.

So we wanted to strongly -- we, the Bureau of Reclamation, wanted to strongly advocate for the U.S. hosting the annual meeting. And in the letter, I talked about -- I stated, "Developed and developing countries alike are facing sustainability and security concerns related to the responsible development and operation and maintenance of their water-related infrastructure."

So it's operating, maintaining that infrastructure. But it's about sustainability, in my view. And that's fundamental. We have a diverse array of programs and activities at the Bureau of Reclamation. But to me, I try -- and maybe it's the eight years on Capitol Hill and recognizing the limited attention span. I try and quickly and succinctly talk about our mission. And to me, it's about certainty and sustainability in the use of water resources.

Certainty that we can weather the highs and lows, particularly the lows. We can work through the very difficult legal issues that are associated by different competing claims, that we take care of our environmental responsibility and that we take care of our infrastructure. And so, that sustainability aspect is very important, and I think that's the long-term challenge.

And those challenges that we're facing today in the water resources management arena are multifaceted, and I don't need to tell you all. You all live it and breathe it every day. But it's a very dynamic place to work, in water resources management.

The challenges are, just from the different environment that we operate in these days, the West is becoming highly urbanized. So we have great population shifts. We have increasing populations, particularly in the Bureau of Reclamation service area of the western United States. We have ongoing drought. We have the prospects for mega drought.

I was in a hearing two weeks ago in Santa Fe that Senator Bingaman was holding as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, talking about climate change, drought. Climate change is obviously another game changer, from my perspective, in the area of water resources management.

We've got recognition of the need to mitigate and restore the environments that we've affected historically, and the list goes on and on about the challenges in water resources management. So I think fundamentally how we use this infrastructure that we have and how we modify that infrastructure, as well as just simply maintain it, is the challenge for the 21st century.

And I think as great as the achievements were in building this infrastructure -- and I was very lucky last year to be the Commissioner of Reclamation during the 75th anniversary of the completion of Hoover Dam. It was just pretty awe-inspiring being part of that whole celebration, which President Roosevelt showed up unexpectedly and talked about how important the construction of Hoover Dam was during that period of the Great Depression.

And working through some of the history associated with that, it was pretty awe-inspiring. The challenge in constructing that facility as well as, obviously, the sacrifice in building that facility, that so many workers gave their life as part of that overall construction project.

So, as great as that is, and there's no challenges that would surpass it, I think using this infrastructure and accommodating these challenges and responding to these challenges, and if we're successful in doing that, I think we'll be a success that's at least in the same magnitude as the construction of our huge infrastructure and those dams that we all know so well.

So, talking through priorities and overall mission and goals from a departmental standpoint, as well as a Bureau of Reclamation standpoint, I thought the way I would get into that is talk about the way I laid this out in our 2012 budget hearings. And this has been -- the spring is the time when I get -- when other people are celebrating spring, and I know you all are working hard with all the water and flood control operations, I guess some people are enjoying spring.

It's a time when I get dragged in front of all these congressional committees and held accountable for our budgets and the choices we've made or not made, et cetera. And I'm trying to put on our best picture about what we're trying to accomplish.

So it seems to me that's the right way to lay out the priorities that we have as far as Reclamation, as well as the priorities that we have as a department. And then try and highlight, from my perspective at least, how I think the dam safety mission fits into that and how I think these skills and experience that you all bring to the table fit into those high-priority areas.

So, in laying out the budget, what I basically do is talk about, in addition to the raw numbers, obviously, is six priority areas which I highlighted as far as my presentation. And we start off with a Reclamation priority, kind of fundamental to the budget itself, and that's maintaining our infrastructure in safe operating condition. And so, this gets at the heart of what you all are talking about in the fundamental aspects of the conference today.

We have about overall in budget authority that we seek on a year-to-year basis, it's about $1 billion, recognizing that it's a little tougher to get up to that $1 billion figure these days, given the tightness in the budgets. But it's about $1 billion.

This year, as part of our 2012 budget, we are allocating $407 million for operation and maintenance and rehabilitation activities. So, in all degree of things that we do, at least 41 percent of our budget -- quite frankly, a lot more because we get a lot of dollars from our customers and the power users, the water users directly. So we're off budget and use those funds to take care of these facilities.

But of our appropriated dollars, about 42 percent -- 41, 42 percent is going for that basic operation and maintaining and rehabilitation mission. Of that, $84 million in 2012 is allocated to dam safety. Site security programs are taking $26 million of the budget. And what we call RAX, which is replacements, additions, and extraordinary maintenance, accounts for $41 million of that of that $407 million figure.

So this takes care of the projects like the Folsom joint project, which for years has been the highest priority within Reclamation's program, taking care of the risk associated with Folsom Dam on the American River in California. We've got a lot of great efficiencies in working with the Corps of Engineers and a great partnership that I think is ultimately going to save a lot of money and allow us to efficiently deal with the risk factors associated with Folsom.

We have Red Willow Dam as part of that. Red Willow, I give it as an example because it's one of those unexpected priorities. We had certainly some issues associated with the integrity of that dam that came about I think in late 2009 or early 2010 that we needed to deal with. And so, it's rapidly come up into our priority area as we work through kind of our plan of action with respect to Red Willow.

Then we've got other infrastructure items that aren't part and parcel of the dam safety program. The Minidoka Spillway Project that we've got in Idaho, which has just been a spillway that we've been long concerned about, which the two irrigation districts that we work with up there have been long concerned about. We're finally going to get that project up and going at the latter part of this year.

And so, those are the things that we're working on with respect to our program. I know that the prioritization and setting aside part of your budget is certainly part of what the BIA does, and I know the other agencies do as part of their safety programs.

Interestingly enough, about during the budget hearings, I think the question I got asked the most about was the $84 million figure for dam safety. We have been over the last several years in the range of $95 million to $100 million for our dam safety program.

And so, people looked at the $84 million figure in our 2012 budget and were concerned that in dealing with reduced budgets, and we're 4 percent -- in our 2012 budget, we're 4 percent below where we were in the President's budget in 2011, and we're 8 percent below where we were in 2010 enacted. And so, there was concern that that was one of the places that we were looking to cut so we could fund other priorities.

Fortunately, that's not the case. We're trying to maintain a very strong dam safety program. It's one of the highest priorities, if not the highest priority. We've just been able to get some flexibility in our budget because of the Recovery Act dollars, we were able to get ahead of the schedule with respect to the Folsom joint project and use some of those dollars to take care of our fundamental infrastructure needs. That gave us some flexibility over the next few years.

So dam safety is going to continue. I had to make that case repeatedly during our hearings because that was a major focus.

And a lot of it was because -- and it came up several times -- once again, the New York Times had an article in February of this year talking about giving very high visibility to the fact that more than 4,400 dams nationwide of, as they outlined, 85,000 dams total were considered susceptible to failure. And so, there was a lot of discussion in the budget hearing from members of Congress on both the House and Senate side about those kinds of statistics and how we were dealing with those.

And so, I can assure you that, first of all, the dams that were spoken of in that New York Times articles were, fortunately, not Bureau of Reclamation dams. And then, but it does bring home the fact that people pay attention. People are concerned. There is life, property and certainly economic activity dependent upon the infrastructure we have in place.

Also I would just note, in addition to the dam safety program itself, the security issue was also a high level of discussion in those hearings. I think one of the hearings was immediately after there were press reports that some young man in Texas had been engaged or networking with some organizations viewed as terrorist organizations. In the list of infrastructure items that he'd been looking at, dams were one of the items that were on the list, part of what he had been looking at and gathering information on.

So that was foremost in everybody's mind. And quite frankly, in the wake of the recent events in the Middle East and Pakistan, the first question I got asked when coming in to work early that Monday morning was, "What are we doing as far as heightened security and awareness?" Certain activities could result as a result of the death of Osama bin Laden.

I think from that standpoint, we just ensure that all of our facilities are under heightened awareness moving forward. So, security, safety, those are a fundamental part of our mission. Maintaining infrastructure was what I led off with, with respect to priorities for the Bureau of Reclamation.

A second area is called WaterSMART. The SMART part is Sustain and Manage America's Resources for Tomorrow. So WaterSMART, from our perspective, is about expanding and stretching the limited water supplies that exist in the West. It's about efficiency. It's about understanding the challenges that we're facing, particularly in the area of climate change.

This is all wrapped up in our WaterSMART program, and it's that efficiency I want to talk about. There are a number of active areas across the West. You know, we've had numerous issues with respect to California's water supply that's centered around the Bay delta, which supplies the great majority of Californians and how the environmental issues, as well as a three-year drought, really called into question the sustainability of that system.

To deal with that, it's a whole comprehensive package of things that people are looking at. But certainly, additional storage is one of those items. In the area of limited budget resources and trying to maximize efficiency, one of the areas people are looking at is increasing capacity at existing dams, of increasing the height of those dams. So we have active storage studies going on in California with respect to Shasta Dam, where they're looking at enlarging Shasta as a fundamental measure to yield more water supply.

Los Vaqueros, which is a storage facility that's in the delta region, we just signed off on a record of decision that approved coordinated operations that will result in an increase in capacity in that dam and increase the yield of 60,000 acre-feet of water per year to central California's water supply as a result of enlargement of that existing facility. That all entails a very tricky engineering associated with how we go about enlarging existing dams.

Scoggins Dam, which I think people are talking about during the course of this conference, is another one of those issues where there are safety concerns because of seismic activity. But in the midst of trying to deal with that, there is obviously water supply needs, and enlargement of that facility or a replacement facility is part of the items that are on the discussion table for moving forward.

So WaterSMART, it's about conservation. It's about managing water differently. But it's about use of our infrastructure and enlarging some facilities.

Ecosystem restoration is the third priority area that I talked about in our budget discussions. Ecosystem restoration, it's no longer a side program. It never was a side program. It's part and parcel. It's fundamental to Reclamation's mission.

I raised the California Bay Delta experience. If we don't deal with the environmental issues associated with our water operations and our infrastructure, we're not going to deliver water. We're not going to generate power the way we used to historically, and that's just kind of, I think, a reality of the 21st century.

And so, ecosystem restoration is what we do. The good news is we do it in collaboration with those water users and power users whose interests are at stake. I think they realize that better than fighting about these issues, there are solutions out there. And those solutions really call into the need, the skills of those who work on dam safety.

First of all, we have modification to our facilities. We've got Red Bluff Diversion Dam, a huge diversion dam. It spans the Sacramento River, which, basically, we're going to take out of service to allow year-round access and migration for the different salmon species and other species that use the Sacramento River to get up into the tributaries.

So replacing Red Bluff is a monster undertaking of several hundred millions of dollars, and it involves a new pumping plant and fish screen facility on the Sacramento River. We're going to finish that next spring, about a year from now, and that's going to improve the environmental conditions.

That's going to bring certainty to those who formerly relied on Red Bluff Diversion Dam, and they're going to get water yields much higher than they historically had. People were fighting about the operation of the diversion dam itself.

Intake Diversion Dam in the Lower Yellowstone is currently being looked at for redesign for fish passage in that facility, to deal with the environmental issues. And then there's retrofitting Shasta Dam with temperature controls, which was a very tricky undertaking to do that correctly and doing it without impacting the overall structural integrity. And that's a successful project that is part and fundamental of our environmental objectives in the California Bay delta region and the Sacramento River.

Here, in New Mexico, I think you're going to go on Thursday and visit Cochiti Dam. Cochiti Dam has had a number of issues associated with seepage and other ongoing concerns, which I think are on a path to -- I think a lot of the seepage issues have been dealt with. I think there's a much closer partnership and collaboration between the Corps of Engineers and Cochiti Pueblo.

I think there are a lot of good things going on. At least when I was last dealing with these issues as staff to Senator Bingaman from New Mexico, there had been good progress and constant progress. But people are still looking at Cochiti and the need potentially to reoperate that facility in dealing with some of the environmental issues in the Middle Rio Grande.

That's a sensitive issue. That needs to be done in full partnership and coordination with Cochiti Pueblo, and I think people do have the -- understand that and are going to be looking at that, those set of issues.

Glen Canyon Dam is also a place where there's been a lot of reoperation to deal with, a whole host of issues -- endangered species issues, Grand Canyon, et cetera. So how we reoperate is something that we have to move forward in with respect to the context of our dam operations and the impact that reoperation has on those dams.

And then, finally, in the area of ecosystem restoration, the reality is that sometimes the costs of these facilities outweigh some of the benefits. And that's been the decision that was made with respect to the Elwha River, and those facilities I think are now slated, after years of planning, to begin the removal process in the fall of this year.

We are going through a similar analysis; no decision has yet been made, in the Klamath River. There are four dams in the main stem Klamath River that we are now going through a very rigorous secretarial determination process to analyze the cost of the associated activities, mitigation, et cetera, associated with removal of those facilities and the benefits that it will yield. To make a decision whether removal of those four facilities will actually help restore the fisheries that existed in the Klamath River historically, as well as be in the public interest, and there are a lot of factors associated with the public interest.

That decision is due to be made in the spring of 2012, and associated with that, there will be an Environmental Impact Statement that comes out later this year for draft review and then moving to a final EIS process. And that's a huge undertaking that the Denver -- the technical service center has been a leader in that effort, working with folks from California and Oregon.

It's a pretty significant review to decide whether or not to remove four dams. But that's part of what the challenges in the 21st century require.

Fourth area, our renewable energy agenda. Our renewable energy agenda, fortunately, includes sustainable hydropower as part of what we're trying to do as an administration with respect to renewable energy. We just released a report earlier this year that highlighted our review of our existing facilities, studied something to the tune of 530 sites, identified 70 sites that looked like from a cost-benefit standpoint would yield economic return and warranted further investigation about whether new hydropower facilities, new hydropower units at those existing facilities made sense.

Those 70 sites were in 14 States, and I think, if they all were developed, would add about 225 megawatts of power to our hydropower portfolio. But in doing that, in looking at those existing facilities, once again we come back to can they be integrated in a manner that's safe with respect to our existing facilities?

And an example is Clark Canyon Dam in Montana, an area that we've had a chance to, a very good opportunity with a very high cost-benefit ratio of adding an additional three megawatts to the generating capacity of our facilities. But it's taking -- the prerequisite is to undergo a very thorough risk analysis.

The design would call for pressurizing the outlet works on a facility that wasn't for that. And so, whether we can do that and maintain the structural integrity of that facility is going to be the determining factor on whether that project can move forward.

A fifth area is supporting tribal nations and what Reclamation does in the area of Indian water rights settlements. I just say that for those who say the era of dam building is over, what we're having to do with those communities that traditionally haven't had a reliable water supply is the fact that we have to have some kind of storage facilities in some of those situations.

We've completed the construction of Ridges Basin Dam as part of the downsized Animas La Plata Project. That facility is now constructed. That's a pretty significant-size dam.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe, its settlement was part of a collection of four settlements that the President signed into law in 2010. The Miner Flat Project for the White Mountain Apache Tribe is going to include a dam, which we are going to be responsible for building.

So, once again, it's not just maintaining in those situations. It's building new infrastructure, and everything that we've learned in that process is going to be applied to that.

And then, finally, I say this not only half jokingly, our sixth priority area that I talked about was youth employment. And I did make a misstatement in one of the hearings when prompted in the Q&A.

It was an interesting dialogue about the expertise that we have in the Bureau of Reclamation related to dam safety, the technical expertise, the engineering talent that we have, et cetera. And I think I was asked something about whether we were having a situation where a lot of those folks that make up that expertise were retirement age, and I think I referred, as I talked about earlier, to "aging infrastructure."

And I will never live that down, but I think it's appropriate to talk about an aging workforce, and that's just the reality of the situation. I would include myself as part of that. But we do have a lot of talent and experience that is in striking distance of retirement.

We also have a lot of talent that is recognized in both the private sector and by other agencies who want to make use of that expertise. So the reality is, as part of our youth initiative and as part of the Secretary's goals to just expose more and more youth to Interior's programs, to get them interested in a conservation-minded employment when they get out of college. Part of our need is to bring in young engineers while we've still got all of this talent, expertise, and train them.

Because this mission is going to continue for quite a long time in its new iteration is what I'm trying to describe, in addition to maintaining, to working with those facilities to meet all of these challenges.

So that brings us to this conference, which I think "Partnerships and Dam Safety" is the title. I was looking over the agenda and the diverse array of people here. Certainly, you are living and breathing that partnership aspect.

I think the tabletop exercise and the networking that that involves and the familiarity that you get with each other is part of the overall success we need, as we collectively in most every basin, we've got facilities and dams that are operated by different entities, different agencies -- State, local, and Federal. And we've just got to be in sync, comfortable in dealing with each other and on the same page.

And I think that's the real value of this conference. So I wish you success in carrying out the rest of the conference. I hope you enjoy the tour that you've got scheduled on Thursday.

Cochiti Dam, I think, as well as Santa Cruz Dam, are on the agenda. Those are facilities in beautiful locales. And of course, I'm probably biased, but you're very lucky to be here in New Mexico.

So most of all, I would like to thank you, though, for all your efforts. It's an incredibly important job. If we make mistakes, if we make misjudgments, there are immediate implications of that to life, property, and economic activity. And so, that's first and paramount about what we have to be thinking of. But the reality is that if we make mistakes or misjudgments, we also get sidetracked on all the things that happen in the aftermath of that.

And in addition to those very serious immediate impacts, we can't carry on this other agenda that's intended to really help communities and people throughout the West and across the Nation deal with these many challenges. So it's a huge responsibility. You all do it very well.

I thought -- as I was coming into this job, people would tell me, well, you're probably going to lose a lot of sleep because being ultimately responsible for the condition of these facilities. And I did think about that a lot.

But what I've known and experienced in my tenure at the Bureau of Reclamation is that there are dedicated, sharp, experienced people in charge of these facilities, and I'm sleeping pretty well these days.

So thank you for all your efforts. And of course, when we need to bring resources, when we need to advocate for this mission, I certainly intend to do that and continue that in the future, just as my predecessors did.

So thank you very much. If we have time, I'll let you guys be the judge of that, but I'm happy to answer some questions, too.