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Hard Choices: Adapting Policy and Management to Water Scarcity

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael L. Connor, Commissioner
University of New Mexico Water Conference
Albuquerque, New Mexico
August 28, 2012


The theme as I understand it, of the conference is "Hard Choices: Adapting Policy and Management to Water Scarcity." That's what I'm going to be addressing in my talk. I want to talk about how Reclamation's doing that in the big picture across the West. I want to talk about, specifically, some New Mexico issues.

Water scarcity is the issue that needs to be addressed. Quite frankly, it's always been central to the Bureau of Reclamation's mission. It's why we exist, because of the scarcity of the resource in the 17 western states. I would say that I think the challenges that we're facing today are unique and they are constantly evolving. Bottom line, I think my responsibility, as the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, is to insure that Reclamation's mission and priorities are evolving also and our priorities are changing to meet those challenges.

Those challenges you all know, but just to reiterate, we've got increasing populations across the west. We've got decreasing aquifers in large areas of the West. We have competing demands with new users who are recognizing their historical rights, like tribes and beginning to put those rights to use.

We have environmental needs that, in some areas, have been long neglected, which we need to address. We have a changing climate, and with that changing climate comes a changing hydrology.

Wherever you stand on those issues, it's really not a controversial issue for the Bureau of Reclamation as we try and address the needs based on the changing climate. Our water users, those with special interests see the changes on the ground and they expect us to work with them in trying to address those changes.

I think we've gotten great support from the Obama administration for Reclamation's programs and our priorities. Secretary Salazar has been stalwart in his support for Reclamation and his leadership on these issues. For that, I'm very grateful. It makes the job incrementally easier. It's not an easy job, but it makes it a little easier to have the resources you need to try and address these major challenges.

First, I want to just talk about the priorities for the Bureau of Reclamation very quickly overall. As an overarching message, it starts with our infrastructure. We have 476 dams. We have 348 reservoirs, capacity to store 245-million acre-feet of water. That allows us to irrigate over 10 million acres of land across the west and serve 31 million people with water.

We have 58 power plants. We have 15 gigawatts of generating capacity. We're the second largest hydropower producer in the country. That allows us to produce about 40 million megawatt hours of electricity per year.

The Department, under Secretary Salazar's leadership, has done a great job of trying to quantify the positive impact of a lot of these agencies within the Department of the Interior on the overall economy.

We did a July 2012 report at the Department of the Interior for the Bureau of Reclamation. We identified that the value of the water, the energy, and the recreational services we provide through our facilities is about equal to $19.4 billion per year.

The economic output associated with that water, energy and recreation opportunities is about $46 billion per year. Annually, we support about 312,000 jobs across the country, through our mission and through our projects and programs.

It's incredibly important. That is a priority. We invest in maintaining and rehabilitating that infrastructure. More importantly, I think, as we meet these changing needs across the west, is that we evolve in how we operate that infrastructure. We're making great strides across the west in dealing with our partners and having new operating agreements to meet new challenges.

(The) Colorado River Basin,(the) Columbia River Basin, even the California Bay Delta, the Central Valley project, we are working hand in hand with the states to try and get to a new operating regime to meet California's water challenges.

A second priority is our WaterSMART program. The SMART in WaterSMART stands for sustain and manage America's resources for tomorrow. It's our program to basically better understand the water resource challenges ahead of us and to expand and stretch the limited water resources that we have in the U.S.

We're charged with developing or adding to the supply of water, helping to facilitate our high-priority goal that we've been given by the administration. It's to facilitate a new supply for agricultural, municipal and environmental purposes about 730,000 acre-feet of new water supply by 2013. Through 2011, we were on track and facilitated an additional supply of about 488,000 acre-feet.

A third priority is ecosystem restoration. It equates to about 20 to 25 percent of our about billion-dollar, annual budget. We're spending at least $250 million a year towards the ecosystem restoration activity. It's the right thing to do. It's also part of our core mission. We have to do that if we're going to continue to deliver water and generate power with the reliability that we've done historically.

A fourth area is our renewable energy programs. We think in Reclamation we have a very active program to support the president's all-of-the-above energy strategy.

We've done several major assessments of our facilities. We've identified the opportunity to put into service an additional 225 to 250 megawatts of generating capacity through our facilities, whether it be our large dams that have the opportunities to have new hydro units put on them or our conduits and our canals, which have low-head hydro power opportunities.

We've also, over the last three years, licensed 30 megawatts of new power capacity in our facilities. Through turbine upgrades, we've added another hundred-plus megawatts of generating capacity.

A fifth and final priority that I'll mention is our commitment to strengthening tribal nations and rural communities.

Right now, in the Bureau of Reclamation, we've got $1.8 billion in projects that we need to implement to facilitate and resolve Indian water rights settlements across the west. Three of those are in New Mexico. We also have $1.3 billion in backlog rural water projects that we're actively working on, on an annual basis.

For many of those communities, particularly those Native American communities, it's the first time that they'll have running water accessible in their households. For some of those communities, it's because of declining aquifers and the reality that, for long term, their communities are relying on a declining resource.

Then finally, there are water quality issues across the west, which are impacting local supplies. Our rural water projects will help to address those situations.

We've got a broad set of priorities to meet the water scarcity challenges that exist across the west. I want to turn at this point in time and talk a little bit about the water scarcity challenge that exists in New Mexico and how we're trying to bring some of these programs to bear to work with our friends, the state, and our local communities to try and solve some of the problems that exist here.

In preparing for this talk, I just did a little homework over the weekend. I came across the Southwest Climate Outlet publication, which is a publication, I think, that comes out of the University of Arizona, but also New Mexico State is a partner in that overall effort.

It struck me, on the first page of that document. I'll just quote, read real quick, because I think it's a quick and good summary of where we are with respect to New Mexico issues.

"Water storage on the Rio Grande in New Mexico has plummeted amid a decade-long drought, forcing farmers and water managers to make up shortfalls using groundwater and other practices. On the Rio Grande, historically, the wellspring for more than five million people in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, coping with scarcity has become the new normal."

If you look further in that document, it further identifies that 85 percent of New Mexico is classified as being severe or extreme drought. Furthermore, New Mexico reservoir levels right now are at their lowest levels historically, particularly in the Rio Grande and in the Pecos River Basin. Elephant Butte's at eight percent capacity. Caballo's at six percent. El Vado, 19 percent, etc.

These are very significant challenges, driven by water scarcity that we've been experiencing in the Rio Grande Basin for quite some time. While there's been a couple of years over the last decade that have been higher than average precipitation, overall we're seeing a declining trend. Long term, the prediction, with respect to increasing temperatures and the impact that will have, is we're facing a long, hard road, particularly in the Rio Grande Basin in New Mexico.

We've got a job to do here, Reclamation, working with the state. I'd just like to assess how are we coping with these challenges, what are we doing? Quite frankly, I think it's a mixed bag.

On the positive side, we continue to have a very productive relationship with the state and a number of communities in many areas. Our WaterSMART program, we've long had a number of grants for conservation and efficiency projects here in New Mexico.

I think the program, when it started a number of years ago, Siskiyou was there. There were a number of projects in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District that I think that benefitted water operations in the Middle Rio Grande.

We also have initiated a couple of basin studies. This is our program to better understand supply, demand and balance in our watersheds, and to try and put together strategies to deal with that for the long term.

In the basin studies program in New Mexico we've got an active study going on in the Santa Fe River Watershed, partners over to the city and county of Santa Fe. We've also got a new basin study that's been initiated in the Pecos River Basin with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Office.

We're also doing a west-wide risk assessment in the Rio Grande Basin, which is a threshold analysis, which we hope to turn into a basin study here within the next couple years.

We've had a longstanding partnership with the City of Albuquerque on its water reuse system. Albuquerque has done a wonderful job of reuse and conservation. They've led that effort and we're proud to have been a partner with them.

Then finally, we continue to do research and develop new technologies for advanced water treatment. Tomorrow I'm going to go up to our national brackish groundwater desalination facility in Alamogordo. See, it's been probably about a year and a half since I've been up there last.

It's full now. We're doing a lot of great research. It's this terrific partnership with New Mexico State University. I'm a little fond of that.

I think, overall, we have ecosystem restoration challenges. We're making good headway in the Middle Rio Grande, the Pecos River Basin. We're being tested to the maximum limits given the drought that's ongoing right now. We're working hand in hand with the state and I hope that we will have a new, sustainable, long-term, biological opinion in the Middle Rio Grande by the end of this calendar year.

Finally, with respect to the tribal nations and communities, as I mentioned, we've got three active Indian Water Right Settlements that we're implementing affecting, positively, six tribes in New Mexico. We've got two rural water projects, one Northern New Mexico with the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and one Eastern New Mexico, with a number of communities out on the plains.

I think we're making good progress. I think we've got a great partnership in a lot of areas. We're investing a lot of dollars in New Mexico. That's being reciprocated with a lot of investment from the state and local communities. I think, though, if I'm going to talk about Reclamation's relationship with the state, I can't ignore the elephant in the room, for those of you who have been paying attention to the newspaper over the last month or so. There's been a lot of stories, a lot of reporting about the issues that exist in the Rio Grande project here in Southern New Mexico.

I think, quite frankly, that overall we've all lost our collective way in how we're dealing with those issues here in Southern New Mexico. Without a doubt, the drought and the low water levels that I mentioned earlier have exposed every issue that might have arisen to the surface that has been somewhat addressed or at least acknowledge in the operation of the Rio Grande project.

We can't gloss over those issues anymore. They've come to the forefront based on the low water levels that exist.

A lot of it, from our perspective, is that there's been a need to rely on increased groundwater pumping in this basin. That's affected the efficiency of water deliveries in the Rio Grande project. I think that's a source of, if not 100 percent, but a lot of the conflict that exists right now.

The United States, in light of that, has sought to protect the interest of the project and the ongoing adjudication of the Lower Rio Grande. That project serves Elephant Butte Irrigation District in El Paso County Water Improvement District Number One. They are our contractors.

We've also entered into an operations agreement with those same two entities to address those inefficiencies and to also incentivize the management of project water and the use of storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs. Both of those actions have resulted in strong objections from the state.

Quite frankly, I'm not sure with 100 percent certainty who's right or who's wrong in the debate about these issues. I'm not even sure, based on what I've seen, that either the state or the federal government or our contractors are right or wrong. Sometimes I think we're just talking past each other.

I do know that the U.S. actions here have been mischaracterized to some extent. We are not claiming all the groundwater in Southern New Mexico with the idea that we will export that groundwater to Texas.

The Bureau of Reclamation is not authorized to do that, and I can assure you in the eight years that I was in the U.S. Senate that New Mexico senators would have passed legislation to foreclose that opportunity had we been authorized to do that. That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to protect the project's interest.

I also know, as a fact, that litigation is highly unlikely to resolve the issues in a manner that we need them to be resolved to address these challenges. Let me give you a couple examples.

Judge Wechsler, in the Lower Rio Grande Adjudication, a couple weeks ago issued a ruling with respect to groundwater. He did acknowledge, pursuant to the state's motions in that proceeding, that the U.S. does not have a groundwater right per se.

He also highlighted the fact that there was no dispute as to the interactive relationship that exists between groundwater and surface water downstream of Elephant Butte. He also acknowledged the right of the project; that it is an inherent right to reuse project water including water that seeps back into the ground. That's an inherent component of our project operations.

Basically, expressly, I think the judge ruled in favor of the state. Indirectly, I think he recognized the principles behind our actions in the basin. Basically, I think it was Steve Hernandez who characterized it as we've kicked the can down the road. On the real resolution of these issues, I think that's exactly what's happened.

We've had a lot of litigation in that proceeding. I think we haven't yet begun to address those issues for the long term.

Another example is New Mexico's lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation in federal court challenging the 2008 operating agreement. Once again, I'm not sharp enough to know who's right or who's wrong in that proceeding.

I do know that if New Mexico is successful in setting aside that 2008 operating agreement, we've just traded that lawsuit for what is most likely going to be an original proceeding lawsuit brought by the State of Texas in the U.S. Supreme Court over the allocation of the Rio Grande.

Once again, my perspective on that is trading one lawsuit for another is not likely to allow us to address the issues the need to be addressed for the long term.

What needs to be done? I think fundamentally, we have to recognize our responsibility as water managers, particularly those of us in government service. Our job here is to try and solve problems for the long term and to get to actual solutions in the short term, just particularly given the challenge that we face in the Rio Grande Basin.

We've already had some very good discussions with my friends, Scott Verhines, a state engineer, and Estevan Lopez, the director of the Interstate Stream Commission. No offense to the lawyers, because I'm one, but we ought to disarm the lawyers, at least long enough to get a better understanding of the interactions between surface water and groundwater in the Lower Rio Grande Basin.

Which, I think will go a long way to helping us bring together the federal government, Bureau of Reclamation, the State of New Mexico and the districts with a stake in this basin, as well as the other communities on a path where we can agree how this project should be operated and how we can do it for the long term.

I think, ultimately, if we are successful in that, we're going to better be able to meet those challenges in a way that helps our collective future. We're going to do it much faster than we'd ever do through litigation. The solution will be one that will be sustainable. It won't be a Band-Aid. These are the lessons that we've learned in other places that have just been just as contentious as the issues here in the Rio Grande Basin.

In the Colorado River Basin, we've made remarkable progress amongst the seven basin states in coming up with operating agreements, including how we would allocate shortages, should we even ever reach that point in the Colorado River Basin.

Even in the very contentious California Bay Delta set of issues, which have been litigated to the nth degree over the last five, six years, we've set that litigation aside over the last year. We're sitting down, we're partners with the state. We're sitting down with the water users, NGOs, local communities, and trying to develop a new paradigm for water use out of the Bay Delta.

I believe we have a very good partnership here with New Mexico, overall. I think we've lost our way a little bit in the Lower Rio Grande. I'm confident, optimistic, that we can sit down with New Mexico's water managers, with the folks on the ground at the local level who have a stake in this, and develop a better way forward.

In conclusion, I'd just like to reiterate I appreciate the opportunity to talk about these issues. I also hope that I'll have the opportunity in future conferences here to talk about maybe a historic agreement that we've come together on in the Lower Rio Grande Basin, where we've set aside our legal positions, we've agreed to a paradigm for sound water management operations.

I think actually doing that is the hard choice that we need to make to address water scarcity in the state. Thank you very much.