Speeches Archive

Colorado River Water Users Association

Remarks Delivered By:
Dirk Kempthorne, Interior Secretary

Colorado River Water Users Association 61st Annual Conference
Las Vegas, Nevada

December 15, 2006

Since I became Interior Secretary in May, I have had the opportunity to make many speeches before many audiences. I've spoken before conservation groups, recreation groups, and business groups. I was at Yorktown for the 225th Anniversary of the battle that won our independence. Last week, I was in Hawaii to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I've had this particular speech circled on my calendar as an especially important speech -- important because of the enormous positive impact that those of us in this room can have on the future well-being of an entire region of our country. You and I are entrusted with a national treasure, the Colorado River, and the decisions we make about this river affect the lives and future of millions of people.

If we are wise, future generations will benefit. If we are unwise, future generations will suffer. It is incumbent upon us to be wise.

This week much of the news in the Basin has focused on legislation passed by Congress last weekend directing the Department to proceed with the All-American Canal lining project and the development of additional regulatory storage known as the "Drop 2" reservoir along the All-American Canal.

We view both of these projects as important water conservation efforts designed to save precious and limited supplies of Colorado River water. Of particular importance, water saved by the All-American Canal lining project will - by Congressional direction - provide a critical component to settle the water rights claims of the San Luis Rey Tribes of California.

As we go forward with these projects, we'll also need to continue - and enhance - our cooperative efforts with Mexico on Colorado River issues.

We share more than a border. We face challenges to meet the growing demands of urban areas. We share environmental concerns. We share the need to stretch limited supplies of water. I look forward to continued dialogue with Mexico on these challenges and I would hope that stakeholders in the basin can be full participants in identifying pragmatic solutions that work for both nations.

Those who know me know I believe in a walk-around management style. You can't manage properly what you haven't seen. In the case of the Department of the Interior, that requires a lot of walking around. I discovered the lands and waters we oversee cover 18 time zones from the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Palau on the Pacific Rim.

They used to say the sun never set on the British Empire. I've found out literally that the sun never sets on the Department of the Interior.

In the past six months, I've logged thousands of miles in trains, planes and automobiles. I've discussed conservation issues with lobstermen and fishermen in Maine. I've traveled to the North Slope of Alaska and talked about energy development with native Alaskan villagers.

I have toured the Everglades, which is similar to the Colorado River in one respect -- we are trying to figure out how to rework and manage the 50-year-old plumbing to provide water to millions of people while conserving and restoring the natural ecosystem. There, too, we face the challenge of working with many government agencies, water users, and environmental groups.

I've been to the Blackfoot River in Montana and met the members of a huge and diverse coalition of landowners, non-profit groups, and state and federal agencies called the Blackfoot Challenge. Working together, they have developed a plan to conserve and restore the river valley and the quality of life of the residents during a period of intense development.

It is an example of the enormous good that can result when people embrace cooperation instead of litigation, negotiation instead of regulation.

One of the highlights of my recent travels was an aerial tour of the Colorado River in October. We started at the headwaters in the Rockies and flew almost the entire length of the river.

What an awesome force of nature the Colorado is. There are places where the river erupts in an explosion of water and granite. Where it carves through ancient canyons, boasting of its relentless power to conquer sheer rock faces and reshape the landscape through a thousand ages.

Where it settles down into quiet serenity, floating gently through deserts and past towering cliffs.

There is a sense of timelessness. A sense that the river was here eons before we were born and will be here eons after we are gone. A sense that we have an obligation to care for the river, even as we benefit from its water and its power. A sacred obligation.

At the same time, I was struck by the incredible ingenuity of those who have harnessed the power of the Colorado to provide water to millions of people.

Glen Canyon Dam. Hoover Dam. The engineering triumphs that make it possible for Colorado River water to flow over mountains to people and farms hundreds of miles away.

Historians lavish praise on the ancient Romans for building ingenious aqueducts that transported water over long distances to the cities of their empire. Two thousand years later, the American people have arguably taken the Romans' place as the greatest water engineers in history.

We have turned vast areas of otherwise uninhabitable land into places where people can live, work, and have full lives.

Just as the Colorado flows through different landscapes on its journey from the mountains to the sea, our relationship with the Colorado has passed through different eras in the past century.

The first era occurred when the Basin states signed the Colorado River Compact, one of the most remarkable negotiated agreements in American history.

The second was the engineering era, when we built the dams, canals and other infrastructure. We greatly expanded our capacity to put the river's power and water to productive use.

Now we have entered a third era - the era where progress on the river will not come through Herculean feats of engineering but through more effective management of the river's water.

From a legal and political standpoint, the difficulties we face in negotiating and constructing this future are arguably as daunting as the challenges faced by the engineers who harnessed the river. It will take more than perseverance to meet these challenges. It will take a determination that failure simply is not an option.

If we are to be successful, I believe we must adhere to four principles.

The first principle is that cooperation is better than litigation. History has taught us repeatedly that the line between a negotiated solution that works for everyone and a costly battle is a thin one. We must stay on the right side of that line.

As in most situations in life where there is conflict or potential conflict, there are no true winners unless everyone gets something and everyone gives up something.

If we stubbornly force courts and judges to make the decisions that we ourselves should be making in cooperation and partnership with each other, then the courts and judges will certainly declare a winner and a loser. But I am convinced the winner will enjoy only a pyrrhic victory - in which the cost of the battle exceeds the fruits of success.

There is no place where we need to embrace the spirit of cooperation more than with Indian water rights. The difficulty of litigating tribal claims is known to everyone in this room. Currently, we are negotiating 19 potential tribal water settlements nationwide. We stand ready to work with tribes in the basin to reach fair and comprehensive agreements that have the support of all affected parties, including the respective Congressional delegations.

The second principle is that we must continue to seek creative solutions to the challenges we face. The old adage is that "necessity is the mother of invention." That has been the case for more than 80 years on the Colorado River. It must continue to be true in this third era in which we seek to manage the river more effectively.

We have seen sterling examples of creative problem-solving in the recent years.

Faced with the need to manage the river for threatened and endangered fish and other wildlife, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and many other partners developed the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the Lower Colorado Basin Multi-species Conservation Program, and the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program.

As a result we are making progress towards recovery of endangered fish, while addressing the demand for water development to support growing western communities.

For example, in the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Fish and Wildlife Service has now consulted on nearly 1,400 water projects, using the Recovery Program as a reasonable and prudent alternative under the Endangered Species Act. This allows these projects to go forward while ensuring the conservation of the fish.

Likewise, faced with the uncertain impacts of managing the Glen Canyon Dam, we developed the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. We are marking the 10th anniversary of the program, which was at the time considered - and to a degree still is -- a cutting edge solution.

As an ancient Greek philosopher noted, you never step in the same river twice. Rivers are always changing. They are never exactly the same. We must manage them with that in mind.

The Interior agencies that are involved in this unique program - Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs - have continued to refine and advance the concept of adaptive management over the past decade.

As a result we now have an effective framework and process for the integration of dam operations, downstream resource protection and management, and monitoring and research. We also are able to better safeguard natural resources and improve recreational opportunities at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park.

Later this morning, Reclamation Commissioner Bob Johnson will discuss in more detail the latest activity involving the Adaptive Management Working Group. This Federal Advisory Committee will continue to play an important role in the Adaptive Management Program as Reclamation undertakes the next phase in this effort - a new Environmental Impact Statement on the development of a long-term experimental plan at Glen Canyon Dam. This work began last week in Phoenix and will continue for the next two years.

I believe it is vitally important to find the proper balance between the operation of Glen Canyon Dam and the requirements of downstream resources. The issues we study today will likely take many years to resolve and new concerns will surely arise as the years pass.

The work we set in motion right now will contribute to the ever-growing body of science and understanding. This, in turn, will improve Grand Canyon conditions while protecting the long-term benefits of both the dam and the Colorado River Storage Project.

Perhaps one of the best examples of innovative thinking is the Water 2025 initiative begun under my predecessor, Gale Norton, in partnership with many of you in this room. The initiative links state, tribal and local expertise with the resources of the federal government to make water go further.

It encourages voluntary water banks and other market-based measures and promotes the use of new technology for water conservation and efficiency. It also looks to remove institutional barriers to increase cooperation among federal, state, tribal and private organizations.

Water 2025 is not a magic wand that will suddenly produce millions of additional acre feet of water. Rather, it is a step-by-step cooperative approach to a long-term solution, with each grant and each project conserving anywhere from a few hundred acre feet to 50,000 acre feet a year.

In short, Water 2025 takes advantage of two of America's best attributes - our ingenuity and our willingness to work together to reach common goals. As history has proved over and over again, it is hard to beat that combination.

The third principle we must embrace is to again quote an old adage. "Hope for the best, but plan for the worst."

It was just two years ago that Bennett Raley addressed you in Las Vegas and gave you some dire news. At that time, Lake Powell was 117 feet below pool level. Under a worse case scenario, Raley warned that hydro-power production at Glen Canyon Dam could cease in 2006 and that Lake Powell could reach "dead pool" in 2007.

We had a wet year in 2005, so we avoided that worst-case scenario. But we shouldn't forget it.

Yesterday, before I left Washington, I signed the 2007 Annual Operating Plan, under which we will release 8.23 million acre feet from Lake Powell. But after a wet 2005, we are now suffering from drought conditions again. We don't know how long this drought will last.

It is, therefore, vitally important that we continue to make progress in developing the Shortage Guidelines.

I am pleased that we are on schedule to release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in February. I commend the seven Colorado River states for coming to a consensus last February. That was an extraordinary accomplishment. Just a couple of months earlier, it was 50-50 whether the states could reach an agreement. You made it happen. I commend all of you.

I urge you to keep the momentum going on the process so that we can have a final Environmental Impact Statement, signed, sealed and delivered by the end of next year.

This brings me to the fourth and final principle. I'm going to borrow a football analogy. Don't fumble in the Red Zone.

The Red Zone on a football field is the last 20 yards before you score a touchdown. Those are always the hardest yards to get. It always seems that the defense plays harder when it's backed up against the goal line. The worst thing you can do is to drive all the way down the field and then fumble the ball.

We face the same challenge with reaching agreement on water issues.

When I was governor of Idaho, we found ourselves in the Red Zone when we were trying to negotiate an end to a long and bitter dispute over water rights of the Nez Perce tribe on the Snake River - in fact this dispute had gone on for decades with enormous distrust on all sides.

The negotiations were incredibly difficult and often bitter. At various times, one party or another stormed out of the room in anger. I emphasized the need of all sides to take risks to secure long-term benefits, even over objections by their legal counsel that they might be setting a precedent that could be used against them in the future. We gradually made progress.

When we got to the Red Zone, I realized that the lawyers were doing what lawyers are supposed to do - defending the position of their clients. This sometimes got in the way of the breaking through the logjams.

So at times, I asked them to leave the negotiations so that the principals could chart a course. That changed the group dynamics. Ultimately we were able to reach the largest water rights settlement in the history of Idaho. We punched it across the goal line. Everyone came out a winner.

I noticed that at the press conference to announce the agreement, the parties were bantering with each other and laughing. We had traveled a long way together.

We need to do the same thing on the Colorado. We need to complete the Environmental Impact Statement process for the shortage guidelines. We need to complete the actions necessary to finalize the Arizona Settlements Act. We don't want to get to the Red Zone and fumble the ball.

In closing, let me note that I have had the honor of serving as the mayor of Boise. As a mayor, I got to know quite a bit about the dynamics that are at work in local neighborhoods, and particularly how conflict can arise among neighbors.

The Colorado River Basin is a neighborhood. As in Boise, neighbors don't always agree. As in Boise, struggles and conflicts in a neighborhood can be enormously divisive, especially when there is a limited resource that everyone needs. As mayor, part of my job was to get neighbors to look past their grievances and fears and embrace solutions that would work for everyone in the neighborhood.

So perhaps, in this regard, I view my role less as a water master of the Colorado River than as a mayor of the river. I hope to help you find the solutions that will benefit everyone in the Colorado River neighborhood.

Like any mayor, however, I will take whatever steps are needed to ensure the neighborhood runs properly -- but only if and when such steps become necessary.

While I will be thoroughly engaged in Colorado River issues, Assistant Secretary Mark Limbaugh and Commissioner Bob Johnson will continue to lead our efforts in the basin. They will be depending heavily on Rick Gold in the upper basin and Larry Walkoviak and Jayne Harkins in the lower basin to help find solutions that will benefit all those with an interest in the Colorado River.

I know you have worked with them for many years. They have a tremendous amount of experience working in this basin. I believe Bob Johnson, for instance, has been working on the Colorado River since about 1902. I know they will continue to do a great job.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, this is a critical time - perhaps even an historic time - in the Colorado Basin.

To quote what Herbert Hoover told the Basin States at the beginning of the negotiations that produced the 1922 Compact, "The sole role of the Federal government is to secure development of the Colorado River in the interest of all."

I look forward to working with you in the next two years to achieve this goal.

For More Information:

News Release on the Secretary's Speech