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Washington Environmental Youth Summit

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael L. Connor, Commissioner
National Geographic Society
June 27, 2013


Thank you, Bridget, for that very nice introduction. Thank you to the sponsors of this Washington Youth Summit on the Environment. The George Mason University, National Geographic, I know that National Zoos had a hand in this. It's a tremendous opportunity, from all accounts, from my looking at the agenda, and looking at what you're being exposed to and involved in this week, I can compare it with my agenda for the week. I can guarantee I'd much rather be in your shoes than in my shoes, at this point in time.

I also want to say congratulations to all of you. Obviously you've demonstrated, in addition to your interest in conservation, environmental issues, you've obviously exercised leadership to be nominated to be participants in this summit, and all that it entails. Congratulations to you, and of course, thank you for your interest in these issues, because they're just incredibly important.

They've been historically, they are now, and they will continue to be in the future of the resources that sustain our country. But also, that make up who we are and what we appreciate about our country, as well as providing the economic engine that drives our country.

We need leaders like you, we need interested folks like you and I very much appreciate the fact that you're taking time out from your summer to do this and have this opportunity.

I could say I have a 16 year old son and a 12 year old daughter, and my 16 year old, he's going to be a junior this coming year and I very much wish he was here participating in something like this. He's also got a lot of interests, environmental, natural resources issues. But apparently, this summer, he has a lot more interest in the fact that he's got a driver's ed class that's a prerequisite to his driver's license, what seems to be driving all of his activities this summer. Maybe next year.

This is the type of a program and opportunities that is exactly what President Obama has been trying to promote during his term in office. You may have heard about our America's Great Outdoors Initiative under President Obama. It's intended to, and his direction has been to all the cabinet officials within his administration to create a conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century and we've been undertaking that activity over the last four plus years, and something that's going to continue to be a priority for the administration.

One of the foundational elements of that is connecting youth to the outdoors, for many reasons. In this day and age, the electronics era, et cetera, it's good to balance those types of interests with being outdoors. Getting out into the environment, appreciating the natural beauty, and the resources that we have in this country.

Also, from a more parochial perspective, those of us who work at agencies, like myself, such as the Bureau of Reclamation, or the Department of the Interior, we're looking for young, talented folks with great ideas, who have a passion for the environment, and for natural resources issues.

Something like America's Great Outdoors is a way for us to not only expose the youth in this country to the type of issues that we deal with, but hopefully recruit you to work on these issues in the future. I want to be judicious with my time here, so we leave plenty of time for you all to have a question and answer session, if you so desire.

There are a couple of things I wanted to cover with you here today. I wanted to talk a little bit about my own career path, just in case that provides any insights to you, as what you're trying to do with respect to your education. Looking beyond high school and college, and some of the job opportunities that you may want to look at.

Then I want to touch on my present position, capacity, and work that into today's theme that you're dealing with. The mask of climate change in our future world. Because it's very much of a part of what we're trying to deal with at the Department of the Interior, and the agency that I run within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation. Then of course, I'm going to leave time for questions. First of all, my own career path. Let me ask a question to all of you. There's a number of ways you can participate in the area of environmental, natural resources, conservation, those types of issues. How many of you view yourselves as more on the technical side, either scientists or engineers, in dealing with those issues? That's a good percentage of you.

How about on the more policy oriented side of things? Lawyers, or analysts, et cetera? How many? A little bit fewer, but there are a significant number of you that are interested in that type of career path. I ask that question just to assure you, whatever your interests are, if you're only in on one side of the spectrum, there is plenty of opportunity in the natural resources and environmental world for both of those disciplines.

I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is very much dependent...It's in the southern part of New Mexico, it's in the desert. It has a very vibrant agricultural area because of water supplied by the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that I now run. It's also got a lot of public land around it, and mountains with nearby, adjacent forests.

Some of that, my interest is a result of where I grew up, but that's across the country. It may be an interest in, specifically, some of the western based resource agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, but all across the country, obviously, as you know, there are wonderful lands and natural resources to experience.

That's part of what got me interested, given the fact that the community I grew up with was so dependent upon those resources, as part of the economic fabric of that part of New Mexico. Also, in doing that, I've taken a career path that I don't think has been very directed towards any specific goal.

I am both an engineer, and by college degree, a bachelor of science of chemical engineering from New Mexico State. I did that for a while professionally. I worked as an engineer. I worked for GE, the General Electric Company, doing manufacturing work, and then actually working in their power generation services business for a while.

When I was working for GE, I was also running some of their environmental programs. Ultimately, I found myself getting a little tired of the fact that the lawyers in the company were always telling me what to do. I had to do what they told me, in order to keep the company compliant with the environmental laws that we were subject to.

I decided, "If you can't beat them, join them," and I went back to Law School at the University of Colorado, specializing in environmental and natural resources law. That was my entrée to the world I'm in right now, specifically, with respect to natural resources policy.

I would just note from that, my own experiences of going into engineering, figuring out something different that I wanted to do, I do think there are two career paths that you can go down. You can be very focused. I went into college thinking I was going to be a doctor, and pretty quickly decided that that wasn't going to be for me, and then changed to engineering, and ultimately subsequently to getting a degree in the law.

You can be very focused, and some of you probably are, and know exactly what profession you want to be in, and know the exact type of work that you want to do. I think that focus and direction is terrific, and it's bound to determine to make you successful in life, and help you achieve your goals.

For those of you that aren't so sure right now, I just want to assure you that the other option is to think about what you want to do, try different things. Fortunately, my folks were a little bit willing to let me wander around a little bit in college. Take a little bit more time than the basic four year time frame, and figure out what I wanted to do, and then even transition after that. I think as long as you're interested in what you do, you enjoy the subject matter and you work hard, and you're successful in whatever you're doing in the moment, that career opportunities will open up. Even if you didn't see them coming, or hadn't necessarily planned for them, or directed your career to achieve them.

I just want to assure you, do what you love. Do what you are passionate about, and opportunities will spring up if you work hard, and you'll have a wonderful career. I feel certainly that I've been lucky enough to do that.

Even once you're in a career such as the one that I've chosen, even within being a lawyer and coming out of law school, I joined the Department of the Interior. That's how I got started in, specifically, the type of resources issues that I'm involved in now.

I worked as an attorney, I worked on legal cases, but a few years into it, I decided that litigating issues about natural resource conflicts was not the best way to solve those natural resources conflicts. That's when, I think you heard in the introduction, I transitioned to running the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office during the Clinton Administration for Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Our goal was to settle Indian water rights claims.

From that timeframe I moved up to the US Senate where I worked as council to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. I was in charge of basically developing legislation that would also be geared toward problem solving. Even within my career path, I've chosen much more of a policy based approach than a legal based approach because of my desire to thinking that the best way to solve problems and resolve conflicts is through public policy, not necessarily litigation.

That leads me to where I am today as Commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation. How many of you know what the Bureau of Reclamation does? You've probably been educated a little bit. Not too many. I have a good friend who's a journalist back here in D.C., and as he referred to it, "You run a very obscure federal agency." I guess that's the case from the lack of hands being raised at this point in time.

The Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902 with the goal...The basis for the name was "Reclaiming the West." We still had wide open spaces in the West at that point in time, that to really make them economically productive to get people to move out and to be able to be successful in those wide open spaces required the access to water.

If you look east of the Mississippi River, obviously there's a fair amount of rainfall that sustain the agricultural industries that we have back east of the Mississippi River. You don't have that out West. You have a much more arid climate, and while you have plenty of rivers and stream systems, et cetera, usually they're feast or famine. What do you have? Early season, high runoff from the mountains.

Then you have late season, no water available. If you want to sustain crops and have the foundation for an agricultural economy, you've got to control the access to water. That's what the Bureau of Reclamation did.

We started by building...There have been a lot of this done, obviously, in the 1800s, but rivers in the West are notoriously temperamental, and you need incredible engineering to control them and to make water available from those stream systems. That's what the Bureau of Reclamation brought to the table, was resources and expertise to create dams, storage facilities, large diversion works to take water from where it was to where it could irrigate fields and create economies.

Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Shasta Dam. In total we've got 476 dams. Those are some of the most well known. We have 348 reservoirs across the West. We only exist in the 17 western states. Part of what we found out when we started to create those facilities is when you have dams and large storage of water, you can create hydroelectric power from those facilities and you can help pay for those facilities through creating electricity, selling it on the market, making it available to help promote other economies out in the West.

The Bureau of Reclamation has 58 power plants on those large facilities. We have the generating capacity of about 16,000 megawatts. On average we generate about 40 billion megawatt hours per year, which supplies about 3.5 million homes. Overall we're the 7th largest power utility in the country, and we're the largest water wholesaler.

That's what the Bureau of Reclamation does. That's what we did. That was our history and why we were created.

Today we still do all those things, but we do it with much more of sensitivity to the environment that we've altered through those dams, through those diversion works, et cetera. When you take water out of rivers, you affect those rivers and you affect the species that are dependent upon those rivers.

Today we are much more sensitive. We try and mitigate the impacts of our projects on those river systems. We try to restore a number of the river systems. We hire as many fish biologists today as we do engineers to maintain our facilities, so we've got a much broader mission and a much larger sense of responsibility to the environment. That's just an evolution over time that the values of the public change, so we federal agencies, government agencies, need to adapt at that same point in time.

That's the Bureau of Reclamation. That's what we do. It's not enough to sit here and say we're going to operate our facilities and we're going to continue to do business the way we've always done, and that segues to what it is that you all are focusing on today and what I understand is the theme of the day, which is the mask of climate change and the future world.

Part of what I view is my responsibility as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, and what all the leaders in the department of the interior, all the way up through the federal government as a whole led by President Obama, is to really look forward and determine not only what problems do we need to solve today, but our responsibilities as government officials to help prepare for the challenges that the country is going to face tomorrow.

From that standpoint, I think it's great that you're back here participating in this conference this week where climate change is a theme. It's just fortuitous that as the week you do that, the president decides and maybe in honor of your get together that he's going to roll out a climate action plan this week focused on cutting carbon pollution, the source of greenhouse gases, certainly a causation factor and increasing temperatures, preparing the United States for the impact of climate change, which is a lot of what I want to talk about real briefly, and then leading in international efforts to combat climate change.

With respect to what we do in the Bureau of Reclamation, those large water facilities, the hydropower we generate, the water that we provide to farms, the water that we provide for human consumption out West, all of that is changing and the nature of that resource is changing. Increasing temperatures cause more evaporation, results in the crops that we grow taking up more water.

Increasing temperatures results in less snow pack, more rainfall, and earlier runoff. The systems of storing water that we created, which are both the dams we have but also the natural snow pack, that's changing. It's impacting our ability to make water available.

Then we have the prospects of shifting precipitation patterns out West. The projections are that places like the Southwest, which are already very arid, are going to get worse in that timeframe, so we've got to adjust. We've got to look forward, we've got to use water more efficiently. We've got to plan to deal with these changes in the resource, and that's a big part of what we do.

One area that I want to particularly focus on, we've done some projections all across the board, in the various river basins that we operate in. We've done some reports that based on climate change, we expect the Colorado River basin, for example, which is already oversubscribed, it's got more demands on it than it can sustain in an average year.

Over time, over the next 50 years, with climate change, we view the increasing temperatures are going to result in the run off within the Colorado River system reducing by 8 to 9 percent over the next 50 years. You've got an oversubscribed river, that can't keep up with the demands that exist right now. Environmental, agricultural, cities and towns. We're going to reduce the water available over time by 8 to 9 percent.

In the Rio Grande basin in southern Colorado and New Mexico, we project a 12 to 13 percent reduction in available water. Other places, like the Columbia River system in the Pacific Northwest, we think are going to increase in available water supply.

But there's going to be less water late in summer seasons, which is going to result in less water for fish at times, when they migrate up the Columbia River. Less water when crops need it at the end of the summer, and so there's all these complications.

The Klamath River basin is one area that I know you've talked about in your time this week. That's a basin that, in particular, takes a lot of my time. You've probably heard during your discussions this week about the conflicts that exist in the Klamath River basin.

The Klamath River basin sustains hydro power generation by a private company, PacifiCorp, who owns four dams on the Klamath River. It has four federally recognized Indian tribes dependent on the fisheries resources within that basin. Has a large agricultural and ranching presence in that basin, dependent on the water supplies within the Klamath River basin.

Of course, it's got a commercial fishery that's historically been available. The Klamath River basin was the third largest fishery on the west coast, behind the Columbia and the Sacramento River system.

Before any of the dams were built, and any of the changes in the basin exist, it's been...Over the last even 12, 13 years, there's been a series of conflicts in the Klamath River basin, from a shut off to the agricultural water users, which caused almost violence in the basin. People resistant to getting their water shut off because of the needs of species.

The next year there was a major fish die off in the basin. In 2006, the commercial fishery was shut down. In 2010, we narrowly averted shutting down water users again, because of the drought. This year, we've got a situation where some water users are getting cut off, due to the priority system that exists with water rights.

Bottom line is, the Klamath is a perfect example where we can't continue to have things remain unchanged, because of those conflicts that cause unrest and uncertainty for all the residents in that basin.

Those folks on the ground in the Klamath basin, all of those different interests, the tribes, the agricultural communities, the power users, the states of California and Oregon. A number of them have got on the same page and come up with a series of agreements to resolve the conflicts in the Klamath basin, which could be premised on dam removal. A choice being made by the private company that owns those four dams.

It's a good, balanced set of agreements. We at the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Reclamation, have done a lot of scientific studies to evaluate whether dam removal would be in the public interest, whether it would restore the fisheries. We've done a lot of our work, but we need congressional authorization before we can proceed and make any decision.

Right now, there's a lot of debate about whether to move forward with those agreements. Dam removal is controversial in and of itself. What we at the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation feel is that we should be attuned to how local communities, and local folks, should want to try and deal with and solve their problems.

If it makes sense from a public policy standpoint, we should be supportive of those efforts, to help them resolve those problems. We're working through those issues in a dialog with the United States Congress right now. I'm not sure how it's going to get resolved, but I do know that there's an incredible amount of interest.

I just want to note, as I wrap up here, and transition to the Q and A part of this discussion, that these resources issues are not just minor issues that are behind the scenes. They're front and center in communities across the West, and across the country.

Overall, the media interest in the Klamath River basin in particular, given all those conflicts going on, given the level of dialog that's existing back here in Washington D.C, has been incredible.

In the past two weeks, these challenges and controversy have been covered by the media in 262 stories. 73 of those were broadcast, TV or other media broadcast, 10 were newspapers, two were in international mediums, and one was in a magazine. Although the majority of that interest was in the states of Oregon and California, in Washington D.C. alone, 17 of those news reports were here, in this area.

These resource issues, they're critically important for those local communities, given the impacts on their economic interests and their livelihoods. Their natural resources issues and conflicts capture the imagination of the country as a whole.

We're very tied to our land and water. For that reason, I think your interest and your participation, and your future contributions to resolving those conflicts, to helping us work through these issues, to help solve problems, address the impacts of climate change, is going to be incredibly valuable to this country.

I thank you again for your interest and your participation, and I very much appreciate being here with you today. Thanks.