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The Colorado River in the Era of Cooperation

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael L. Connor, Commissioner
Natural Resource Law Conference
University of Colorado at Boulder
June 09, 2011


The topic of my talk, The Colorado River in the Era of Cooperation, reflects what I think are the recent successes we have and hopefully the future successes that I hope we are trying to accomplish over the next couple of years.

But, to tell you the truth, up until last week I wasn't really sure what the broader message was that I wanted to give as part of this talk.

I was happy to come here and talk about the various initiatives we have ongoing with the partnerships we have with the seven basin states and the stakeholders in the basin. And I guarantee that between the recent successes and the hopes for the future, I could take a large amount of time just going through that.

But last week, however, I think two experiences brought into context for me something special about the Colorado River and something unspecial about other places.

So, last Wednesday I was in Tijuana for a bi-national meeting with many of the folks in this room, to continue our ongoing discussions with Mexico and build upon the tremendous successes we had last year. We, and by "we" I mean the diverse interests represented at the meeting, certainly want to further cooperative actions that will benefit both countries. There are some tough issues, but there is also no doubt in my mind, that the preferred means to address them, is through constructive engagement and active dialogue.

On Thursday morning, however, after taking a red-eye flight back from San Diego, from that very beautiful setting in Tijuana and those great discussions, I testified before the House Water and Power Subcommittee on H.R. 1837, the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act. It's a bill that purports to address California's ongoing water crisis by, among other things, preempting California's historic 2009 bipartisan legislation, which established a balanced approach to addressing the serious water and environmental issues in the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River Bay Delta region.

Two, it would waive application of the Endangered Species Act by ignoring current science in favor of a 1994 opinion of the Bay Delta Accord to define the operating conditions for federal and state projects taking water from the Bay Delta. And, three, it repeals a carefully-crafted settlement on the San Joaquin that ended 18 years of litigation. And once implemented, would restore a self-sustaining salmon fishery, while promoting sound and predictable water management in the San Joaquin River.

Needless to say, this bill is not about cooperation. Nor is it about balance. It's about choosing winners and losers and dictating results from Washington, D.C. So why do I mention that experience at this Colorado River Conference? Well, I had the pleasure last December of listening to Pat Mulroy address the Association of California Water Agencies. She gave an absolutely terrific speech, as she always does. I'm sorry that I missed her presentation last night.

And one of the key points she made was that the Colorado River and the Bay Delta are connected by the 25 million people in Southern California that rely on both systems for their water supply. So what happens in one area influences what happens in other areas. And we know that's true with respect to water supply.

Since 2000, when Southern California, California overall, committed to living within its Colorado River allocation of 4.4 million acre feet. The net result was increased reliance on exportation of water from the Bay Delta region. My broader concern is that the issues in California's Bay Delta region will have implications beyond just water supply for Southern California and the rest of the Colorado River region.

The policy approach taken in H.R. 1837 is the attempt to use raw political power to resolve water disputes in a one-sided manner. It is a trend completely at odds with the approach being taken in the Colorado River over the last 15 plus years. From that standpoint, it should be wholly rejected less others in Washington, D.C. think that a one-sided approach that defies the collective will as well as completely ignoring state sovereignty should be the basis for the next era of federal water policies. I don't believe that's appropriate.

Open and inclusive dialogue, as painful as it is at times, is the best approach to real and, more important, lasting solutions to even the most difficult of water issues. So let me focus on the Colorado River Basin and what's been accomplished over the last decade and a half as well as what we hope to accomplish in the next several years.

As everyone knows, it's not as if cooperation is easy in Colorado River Basin. As Mark Reisner noted in Cadillac Desert, "The Colorado River's modern notoriety stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons, but from the fact that it is the most legislative, most debated and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry and more significant economy dependent on it than any other comparable river in the world."

I think "most debated" still applies, however, "most litigated", I'm going to shift the title now to the Bay Delta region. And that shift is a credit to a lot of the people in this room. So why is it most debated? Maybe it's just inertia. Maybe that's the way it's always been. But as Pat Tyrrell, in one of our early meetings after we came in office, I think didn't warn us he advised us that there is no Colorado River issue too small for the basin states to debate.

I think, but I'm not going to attribute it, because I don't have 100 percent memory, but I think Pat said "to whine about" but we're going to elevate it to debate.

Seriously, a quick review of the interests dependant on the river make it clear why there's such a higher interest. Colorado River provides the water for irrigation for more than 4 million acres of land in the U.S. and Mexico and the municipal and industrial supply for approximately 30 million people in the basin, supplies irrigation and domestic water for 15 Native American tribes; it runs through several hydroelectric plants and generates more than 6 billion kilowatt hours of energy annually. It provides unparalleled water-based recreation opportunities, including seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreational areas and five national parks. And, of course, it provides increasingly important critical fish and wildlife habitat.

To better understand and quantify the interests at stake, Reclamation recently evaluated the economic value of its program and its mission. In the Colorado River Basin alone, we estimate that the value of our program is approximately $4.4 billion annually. That's hydro-power we generate, the irrigation water, the M&I water and the recreation benefits. Those programs contribute over $7.2 billion in annual economic output. And they support almost 51,000 jobs on an annual basis. And, let me make it clear, that's a very conservative estimate. That doesn't take on all of the spin-off and industrial outlet that's available because of the water and power Reclamation provides.

Specific to the river, the Secretary of the Interior is vested with the responsibility for managing the use of the mainstream waters in the lower Colorado River Basin. And he carries out the responsibilities consistent with that sacred tablet of documents, agreements, treaties, statutes, et cetera, known as the law of the river. In carrying out those responsibilities for the Secretary, Reclamation's goals are to promote certainty and sustainability in Colorado River operations.

Most important to these goals are creating a set of tools that provide much-needed flexibility in managing the erratic flows in the river and ultimately provide for the long-term predictability for all water uses in the basin. Flexibility and predictability are fundamental to good water management.

As I mentioned, there's been great success over the past 15 years in developing important new management tools. In 1999, Reclamation collaborated with the lower basin states on the off stream storage rule, which allowed Colorado River water from one state to be stored off-stream in another state for future recovery. To date, approximately 700,000 acre feet has been stored under this rule.

In January 2001, the department published the interim surface criteria, which also provided the framework for California's 4.4 plan, which led to the 2003 quantification settlement agreement among Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The QSA quantifies each party's share of California's apportionment of Colorado River water facility transfers among the parties. The QSA also provides a framework for several other agreements that were executed concurrently among these and other California parties to implement other conversation actions and to allocate that conserved water. The QSA water transfers will continue for 75 years and they are, quite frankly, central and, most important, to California's efforts to live within its 4.4 million acre feet apportionment under the Colorado River compact.

But, of course, perhaps the most historic achievement over the past 15 years was the agreement among the seven states on the 2007 Colorado River interim guidelines, for lower basin shortages and coordinated operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In addition to providing coordinated operations between the two reservoirs, the interim guidelines define, for the first time how water shortages in the lower basin would be allocated based on Lake Mead elevation. The interim guidelines also implemented the important intentionally-created surplus mechanism, which allows lower basin water users to take extraordinary actions to conserve water and store that water in Lake Mead for future recovery. The ICS mechanism of the interim guidelines has proven quite useful. It led to collaboration between Reclamation, Metropolitan Water District, CAWCD and the Southern Nevada Water Authority in building Brock Reservoir, just north of the All-American Canal and west of the Coachella Canal.

Construction of this $172 million reservoir was funded by non-federal partners in return for ICS credit. This regulating reservoir stores 8000 acre feet, and we are projecting that it will allow us to save an average of 70,000 acre feet that otherwise would flow to Mexico and not be available for use within the United States.

Shifting to the environment, as all of you know, increasing sensitivity and desire to address long-neglected environmental needs has become a major factor in addressing the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River resource. Three great examples of federal and state agencies working cooperatively to resolve difficult endangered species issues are located in the basin, including the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program; the San Juan River Basin recovery implementation program and, of course, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program . These three programs are coordinated, comprehensive, long-term multi-agency efforts to conserve and work towards the recovery of endangered species and protect and maintain the wildlife habitat on the Colorado River. They are producing tangible results; results that should yield broad environmental benefits for years to come.

Salinity is another environmental issue where a strong federal-state-local partnership has yielded significant results. By implementing cost-share projects and working through the Colorado River Basin Salinity Forum, salinity damages in the lower basin have been substantially reduced over time from an estimated $650 million per year, to these days about $350 million annually. Salinity concentrations at Imperial Dam have been reduced by approximately 136 parts per million.

The Grand Canyon, of course, is a significant consideration in our operations of Glen Canyon Dam. The 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act has moved the operation of Glen Canyon Dam in a more environmentally-sensitive direction, and brought a new list of stakeholders to the table. And that's a good thing.

An EIS was completed in 1995 on the operation of Glen Canyon Dam and a record decision signed in 1996. As a result of the Glen Canyon EIS, an adaptive management program was implemented to comply with requirements of the Grand Canyon Protection Act. Anne Castle, well known to most everybody in this room; and a more esteemed graduate of Colorado's Law School. Anne represents the Secretary of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group. Anne makes recommendations to the Secretary on dam operations and other related actions associated with the Glen Canyon dam.

To be frank, the collective set of issues associated with Glen Canyon dam operations: power production, sediment through the Grand Canyon, tribal/cultural interests, endangered species -- those have been among the toughest we've had to deal with during the Obama administration. Nonetheless Reclamation is committed to a set of ongoing actions to address those issues and is currently cooperating with the array of entities on two environmental assessments on Glen Canyon dam operations. An experimental protocol for high flow from Glen Canyon dam is expected to be done this summer. Similarly, we have an EA and a decision that we expect for non-native fish control which should also be out this summer.

Reclamation is also starting to work on an EIS involving long-term, experimental adaptive management plan that will increase scientific understanding of the eco-system below Glen Canyon Dam and continue the adaptive management program and the experiments have been successfully implemented to date. Reclamation and the National Park Service are co-leads on this long-term EIS. And all agencies and tribes involved in the two EAs on Glen Canyon Dam operations will be formally invited to be cooperating agencies. The LTEMP will be the first EIS on Glen Canyon dam since the 1996 record of decision and 1995 EIS. And those documents noted the major demarcation point where we started addressing the resource needs in conjunction with the project purposes. These ESA programs, the LTEMP and similar EIS efforts associated with operations at Flaming Gorge, Navajo and the Aspinall Unit are fundamental to our goals of certainty and sustainability on the river.

So that's an array of successes that I just outlined. But not withstanding those successes, it's simply not enough. It's simply not enough if we're to successfully navigate the future challenges that exist on the Colorado River.

I mentioned earlier that theres a precarious balance between supply and demand and that's going to get worse. Climate change, extended drought or even mega drought, as Jonathan Peck so aptly discussed in the Senate Energy Resources Committee Meeting that we were both participating on about a month ago. Those raised the prospect of further stressing the system and threatening the collaborative approach that has defined recent times. As everyone knows, the 11-year period encompassing water years 2000 through 2010 on the Colorado River were the driest such period on record; Lake Powell and Lake Mead both went from 95 percent capacity in 2000, to Powell reaching its historic low in 2005 at 33 percent of capacity and Mead reaching its historic low of 38 percent capacity in November of last year.

In that time, as you can imagine, every issue with the remote chance of affecting water supply in the Colorado River Basin was magnified in importance. But fortunately, we received a reprieve, at least for a year. Given historic precipitation in the upper basin we are projecting releasing at least twelve and a half million acre feet from Lake Powell during the 2011 water year. This will raise Lake Mead by 33 feet over its historic low so it reaches approximately 50 percent of capacity. Lake Powell will likely end the water year at about 71 percent of capacity.

There are, no doubt, a lot of serious issues associated with that much water --, particularly the flooding issues that we are now dealing on within the Colorado River Basin as well as elsewhere through the country. Nonetheless, this years reprieve is much needed; prior to this snowpack we received this year there was a serious possibility of declaring a shortage on the Colorado River basin in 2012 under the interim guidelines. That possibility has now been deferred until at least 2015 and perhaps beyond.

Future projections, however, necessitate that we make the best use of this reprieve. In late April, Reclamation released the first of its reports under the SECURE Water Act summarizing projected impacts of climate change in each of the eight major river basins in which Reclamation operations. In the Colorado River Basin, the information we provide is really building on a lot of previous reports; probably the most studied basin with respect to climate change certainly in the country, maybe in the world.

To summarize our findings, though, with respect to the Colorado River, the report projects, one, a five to six degree Fahrenheit temperature increase basin wide during the 21st century thats on top of the two degree Fahrenheit increase thats already occurred.

The second finding, precipitation increasing by 2.1 percent in the upper basin, but decreasing by 1.6 percent in the lower basin and the third significant finding mean annual runoff would decrease by an annual average of 8.5 percent basin-wide by 2050. In previous projections, in those studies I mentioned earlier, had demonstrated a range anywhere from 6 percent to 45 percent. These numbers, quite frankly, challenge the idea of certainty and sustainability.

So what are we doing in response? First, we need to drill down a little bit deeper and understand the implications better. This is the purpose of our basin studies program. The Colorado River Basin study was initiated in late 2009 as being conducted collaboratively with the seven basin states and other entities participating as part of the Secretary's WaterSMART initiative. The study will define current and future imbalances in water supply and demand in the basin over the next 50 years. It will then develop and analyze adaptation and mitigation strategies to resolve those imbalances.

The study contains four major phases: water supply assessment, water demand assessment, system reliability analysis and development and evaluation of opportunities for balancing supply and demand. The first phase of the study is released this week. Terry Fulp did an outstanding job in leading this effort. And he'll talk more about that later today. And hopefully, I didn't take too much of your thunder there Terry.

Two weeks ago I did a stakeholders meeting where I was supposed to present something and my deputy commissioners were supposed to present two other things and I completely forgot and presented the whole thing and they just looked at me like, you know "If you want to run the whole agency by yourself, you can do that, too."

In addition to the scientific work and planning in which we are engaged, we simply must continue to expand our engagement with parties that have significant interest in the Colorado River. We are doing this by continuing the Obama administration's active engagement on Indian Water Rights Settlements. The president has signed into law six such settlements since taking office, which is simply an unprecedented number given that short of a timeframe.

Two of those settlements, the Navajo/San Juan and White Mountain Apache will bring substantial benefits to those tribes, which is most important, and also will bring certainty to the other water users in the Colorado River Basin. Building upon that success, we are actively engaged with a number of Arizona parties and Senator Kyl on the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Settlement. Discussions are extremely active right now. I was in Phoenix yesterday getting briefed on that and it is certainly possible that legislation will be introduced in this first session of congress.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives does not appear to be as supportive of those important settlements. We are still waiting the details, but it appears that last week, while I was having fun in that Water and Power Subcommittee Hearing, the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee was eliminating the $51 million we requested in the FY 2012 budget to implement recently enacted settlements. If that's the case, implementation will start to fall woefully behind schedule.

So expanding our engagement brings me to our friends in Mexico. On many levels, Mexico is and will continue to be one of the most strategic, important partners to the United States. In the Colorado River Basin we have a very strong relationship and are working closely to prepare for the significant challenges that both countries face. Just in the last year, through delicate diplomacy and active discussions involving Reclamation, the states, other U.S. parties, the International Boundary and Water Commission signed three new Minutes with Mexico that increased cooperation across the international boundary in a manner that respects and is consistent with the framework of the 1944 treaty with the two countries.

Working through the IBWC and its Mexico-counterpart CILA, the Reclamation, CANAGUA and the Mexican and U.S. stakeholders have fostered a growing mutual trust with common goals for good water management. Minute 316 was the first agreement signed last year. It addressed our trial run of the Yuma Desalting Plant that successfully recycled 30,000 acre feet of agricultural runoff that would otherwise have not been put to use by either U.S. or Mexican water users. Recycling this water and sending to the river to be delivered to Mexico allowed us to conserve the same amount of water in Lake Mead, something of significant importance as we're approaching shortage conditions.

The YDP pilot run was jointly funded by Reclamation, Metropolitan, CAWCD and Southern Nevada Water Authority. An important aspect of the YDP trial run is recognizing the important environmental resources of the Cienega de Santa Clara in Mexico. The 30,000 acre feet of untreated water would have flowed to the Cienega de Santa Clara if not treated as part of the trial run. Working together, the U.S., Mexico and NGOs on both sides were able to arrange for water flows to the Cienega that replaced 30,000 acre feet of treated water.

The last agreement with Mexico, so far, was signed by the U.S. and Mexican commissioners in December of 2010. Minute 318 allows for the temporary delay in the delivery of water allotted Mexico under the 1944 treaty until repairs are made to infrastructure damaged by the April 2010 earthquake in the Mexicali valley. In total, Mexico may adjust its delivery schedule downwards from 2011 through 2013 by a total of up to 260,000 acre feet if it cannot use its full allotment due to damaged irrigation infrastructure as a result of the earthquake.

The water would be delivered to Mexico in subsequent years once repairs are made to its canals and Mario delivered a presentation last week in Tijuana and they are just doing terrific work in repairing those facilities and theyve made a lot of progress. I know theres a lot of work left to be done, but it was very impressive.

In Tijuana last week, Mexico announced that it will likely store around 70,000 acre feet of water this year, highlighting the value of Reclamation's storage infrastructure to both countries. The next step with Mexico is to discuss opportunities that can benefit both countries under a bi-national cooperative framework that was adopted in Minute 317, which was the second of the three minutes. Discussions are active, and much work is now being done to determine whether an agreement or series of agreements can be developed next year that will implement joint projects in Mexico and increase operational certainty for both countries under the 1944 treaty.

Being part of our discussions with Mexico has simply been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences during my tenure as commissioner. They have a terrific team of water leaders, as I mentioned earlier, Mario Lopez of CONAGUA is one of those leaders. And we certainly wouldnt have made the progress weve had without Mario; with Commissioner Salmon; and the other members of the Mexican water team.

I think we currently have the people in place and I believe the necessary trust to use the reprieve we've received from the drought to develop the new tools and implement projects that will ensure that both countries can successfully navigate the future of the Colorado River.

So let me close by saying that despite my coming over here with a laundry list of accomplishments that I just listed, it still amazes me and it's breathtaking in its scope. Nonetheless, I recognize that the framework for collaboration that has become the norm in the basin is going to be put to the test by the challenges that lay ahead. The tools and agreements in place in the Colorado River Basin will likely stand the test of time because of the broad support secured in their development. The people most affective in the basin have collectively taken charge and are defining their own future.

This is a much better model than the one being pushed by a small member of politically-powerful forces in the U.S. Congress as demonstrated by H.R. 1837. This is not the model for lasting solutions. Encouraging conflicts by undermining agreements already in place is not good public policy.

Trampling on state sovereignty, particularly in such a breathtaking and unprecedented manner, is not good public policy. Turning the clock back almost 20 years to rely on outdated science to guide actions today is not good public policy. Fortunately, none of that is being done in the Colorado River Basin. Trust, the ability to listen to others, and simple hard work have created the framework present and future successes. As a result, conflict is less likely and a prosperous future more likely. Reclamation will continue to strongly support that approach.

And we have a great team of leaders, as you all know our regional directors, Larry Walkoviak, Lorri Gray-Lee, Terry Fulp, our legal counsel, Bob Snow and an array of others who are here which I'm not going to be able to list. Jayne Harkins, I see. Jayne has been terrific in our discussions. I'll stop there. We're all committed to the approach that's being taken in this basin. Maybe we're following, maybe we're leading. I don't know, but we're participating and thats the most important thing to me.