Speeches Archive

Family Farm Alliance Address

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael L. Connor, Commissioner

The Family Farm Alliance's 25th Annual Conference
Las Vegas, Nevada

February 21, 2013

Video of Speech

Thank you, Dan. I'm not going to hold this thing, but I understand that I have to stick tight to the mic or else my voice will disappear. I appreciate the very kind introduction. I would just say, on the note that Dan mentioned with respect to me having to implement the laws that I helped draft, it's a lot more difficult than I thought, and it's probably a just revenge from some people's perspective that I'm having to do that.

It's one thing to come up with what you think are great ideas, but then having to take them and put them into practice, and find the resources to follow up on those ideas is a much tougher task than I ever envisioned. I have even more of a healthy respect for the folks of the Executive Branch than I ever did before, because it's a difficult set of circumstances we find ourselves in, particularly in this day and age. I'll get into that in a moment.

First of all, I just would like to say, teeing off of what Dan had mentioned, I think the relationship between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Family Farm Alliance is, quite frankly, one of the most important relationships that we have. It's got a long standing tradition, a strong relationship that's built from the ground up, and at the regional levels.

My goal and job has been to continue to foster that, to support it wholeheartedly, to try and ensure that the lines of communication are open between ourselves and our constituents and our customers, of which you are one of the most significant, if not the most significant. We will continue to try and foster that. We are open to constructive criticism. We're open to criticism whether we want to take it or not. Just know that we do respond to your messages, and the dialogue that we have with the Family Farm Alliance, and we're absolutely committed to continuing that effort. I'm happy to say I think this is four years in a row for me, finding a way to make it to the Family Farm Alliance conference.

I prefer to do it in this manner, in a speaking setting. Last year, because of scheduling conflicts, etc, I showed up the day before for the board meeting. What I found out was that the board meeting was a heck of a lot tougher than giving a speech, and it was a heck of a lot longer, too!

If nothing else, I'm trying to prove my intelligence by not making the same mistake twice. Just kidding. First of all, I'm giving the unfortunate message today. I'm going to allow all the regional directors to do the good stuff, and tell you about all the great things we're doing on the ground, and all the progress we're making.

Even in this difficult times, when I keep referring to "difficult times" let's be honest. The government these days is a little dysfunctional with respect to us getting the resources we need on the timescale, so we can do the appropriate planning so we can carry out our programs and policies in an efficient manner.

Nonetheless, I think we're still making great progress in a lot of areas, but I want to talk to you about some of those challenges and changes going on. Not all of it is bad, but certainly it's not the message that I would prefer to be here talking about.

Just to give you an idea, my first set of talking points here have to do with organizational changes and challenges. Obviously, with the start of a second term, there was bound to be changes going on at the highest levels of our leadership in the executive branch, and obviously Secretary Salazar has announced that he's leaving his role at the end of March.

We have a new nominee, Sally Jewell, who is going to start the confirmation process in earnest here. We look forward to a successful completion of that confirmation process, and the transition. I had the good fortune to meet with Sally about a week and a half ago, after she was announced as the nominee by the President. We had a quick meet and greet the next day at Interior, with the Secretary.

Obviously, she's very impressive, very smart, very personable, and very enthusiastic about the role that she'll be undertaking. I think it'll be a change that will be good, and we'll move forward and continue on with some of the strong programs we had.

Obviously, I just have to say that the last four years working for Ken Salazar have been a fantastic opportunity. His friendship, his support for the Bureau of Reclamation, his knowledge of these issues, have been a tremendous benefit to our programs, and I think to all of you, given his background. He brings a sensitivity and understanding to these issues, particularly his farming and ranching background in his family, that I think have really informed his leadership and his decision making, and his relationship with Reclamation.

It's been an outstanding opportunity, and I don't think anybody, if you saw the nomination announcement at the White House with the Secretary and Sally Jewell, the nominee there, you couldn't not be impressed with Sally Jewell's qualifications, and the President's confidence in her absolutely. You also couldn't help but take note of the strong personal relationship that exists between Secretary Salazar and President Obama.

I'm sure that none of us will fully understand how that benefited Interior and even the Bureau of Reclamation over the last four years. We will move forward, it'll all be good, we will do our best to continue on with the strong leadership in water programs that have been there over the last four years, and from that standpoint we're looking forward with optimism.

We've also had a lot of changes with respect to Reclamation's leadership over the last year. That's reflected in the panel that's in front of me right now. We had a number of changes last year, I think we talked about it at the conference, with Lorri Lee taking over the helm at the Pacific Northwest Region, and Terry Fulp taking over Lower Colorado Region.

We can't help but compete with ourselves every year, as far as the changes that we have ongoing. So now we have David Murillo, who is now our Regional Director of Mid Pacific Region. David, I think that goes out of the frying pan and into the fire, something along those lines.

I think it was with a great sacrifice on my part to direct David to take over the helm at Mid Pacific Region. It's obviously one of the most active positions and challenging positions in the Bureau of Reclamation, even coming from a Deputy Commissioner, Operations job in DC.

Filling in, as we rotated leadership, Lowell Pimley is our new Deputy Commissioner of Operations, there's Lowell over there. Many of you know Lowell, he was the director of the Technical Services Center in Denver.

We're very fortunate that Lowell has stepped up to the plate, and been willing to come back to DC and take on the onslaught of issues that happened his first week. We're not blaming Lowell for those issues, he just had a very active initial couple of weeks back there, and I think it's smoothing out. A lot having to do with how experienced and knowledgeable he comes into the position.

Finally, we have Don Glaser, who's also sitting out here. Don was the Regional Director Mid Pacific Region. Don is responsible for this rotation in our leadership at Reclamation. He insisted that he had a right to retire at the end of last year, and rather than having me make a spectacle of trying to hold onto him, we negotiated a mutually beneficial situation where we had a position open at the TSC.

With Lowell coming back to DC, Don has now stepped into that position in Denver. He's working very closely with Mike Gabaldon and the other leadership in Denver to manage the TSC, as well as take over a lot of responsibilities and high profile issues that we're working on, such as the bay delta conservation plan.

That's the roster of leadership changes that we have going on. The overall goal is to continue to strive to develop new leadership at the Bureau of Reclamation, but particularly at this time and this juncture, continuity of experienced leadership was a premium from my perspective. That was the thinking behind the changes that we made early this year.

Moving on to the next set of talking points, which are not very exciting, and not necessarily the ones that I'm most enthusiastic about talking about, is budget and sequestration. First of all, I think there's this ongoing set of difficult circumstances that we're dealing with, with the lack of certainty and the ability to plan long term, given some of the challenges that we're facing.

Right now, with respect to our 2013 budget, we don't have a final full year budget for 2013. We have a continuing resolution that I think runs through March 27 at this point in time. Clearly, right now, we've been having to hold back on some of the programs that we run, such as the WaterSMART grant programs.

Notwithstanding the tremendous progress and the accomplishments of the WaterSMART program, particularly the grant program, where we've managed to create, facilitate additional supply over the West over the last three years to the tune of about 600,000 acre/feet of water. We're having to hold back on that program at this point in time, to see what the lay of the land is with respect to the resources we'll have available for 2013.

We're doing that in other areas too, as we've got to judiciously manage our budget resources so that we don't over extend ourselves depending on what happens on Capitol Hill. Obviously, in association with that, we have sequestration, which is primarily a reality that we're going to be confronting as of March 1, unless Congress acts to change course with existing law that's in place right now.

We will undergo sequestration as of March 1, so whatever resources we do have for 2013, we expect that we'll have an across the board reduction in those resources through sequestration. We're anticipating, at this point in time, that it'll be a five percent reduction straight across the board, in all of our policies and programs. We're still working through our full implementation plans. Notice that I'm going to take a much smoother drink of water than...Never mind.

That was just a joke. We'll still work through those plans, but nonetheless, no matter what our final operating plan is, as we come out in dealing with sequestration, we're going to have to once again take a look and manage some recession of the things that we thought we were going to be able to do. We're going to have to delay things like maintenance type activities. We're going to have to look at those programs where we're committed, to take actions and delay some of those actions, slow down some of the progress we're making.

We're going to have some programs where we're on track to keep up with certain commitments from an environmental compliance standpoint, from the grant program standpoint, and probably not have the resources that we thought we were going to have. We're going to have to delay some actions that we were expecting to take.

I think the message right now is we'll work with you, at the regional level, at the local area office level, at the national level, to highlight what those changes are going to be, specifically. There will be impacts, and we'll manage our way through 2013 as best we can, unless there's some new direction.

A lot of it also depends on what we get as far as a final 2013 overall budget, and action has to be taken to avoid that shutdown situation by March 27. If the sequestration extends into 2014, there will be even more significant impacts at that point in time.

In the light of that, the tightening up the premium on efficiency, on running our organizations as best as we can, we're still pursuing a lot of actions from an administrative standpoint to reduce the cost, to improve our own efficiencies.

Some of those have to do with the transition, I wanted to talk a little bit about to give you a heads up, a transition to a Financial Business and Management System FBMS. Some of you may have heard of this, this is really down in the weeds, but it will have some...Not necessarily impact, but it will have some changes to the way we do business that you all just need to be aware of.

We continue our efforts with IT, information technology transition, which doesn't really affect you as much as you might hear us grousing about it at times, but that's also expected to yield administrative savings. We have a campaign to cut waste, where we're trying to reduce travel, make use of other mechanisms of communications, reducing a lot of other expenses that we've historically built into our budgets.

Part of that, I just mentioned to let you know that we're not just about cutting programs and on the ground activities. We recognize the budget challenges. There's no disagreement overall as the need to deal seriously with the deficit situation.

Certainly the viewpoint from the administration is that sequestration is a bad policy idea, but nonetheless we are working very aggressively, in a lot of different areas, to do our part to address the deficit situation, and to be much more efficient in how we manage our programs, and carry out our policies.

The heads up on FBMS, just a little background, and I think this will be more a communications item at the local and regional level. FBMS is basically an integrated software program that's going to replace 80 legacy business, accounting and financial systems that we have across the Department of the Interior. We're standardizing operations within Interior as a whole.

I think, ultimately, what you're going to see is we're going to be standardizing business practices to some extent, we're going to have improved security and internal controls over our spending activity, we're going to have a better ability to track costs. I think that's going to be beneficial for those of you who continue to ask questions about what costs we incur as part of doing business, and I think the data that we input into the system will have better integrity, and be more precise overall.

I think, ultimately, it's going to affect, in some ways, our cost structure. I think it'll affect it in a positive manner, that's at least the goal. It will change how we report information to a lot of you, so as we go through this process and fully transition and implement FBMS, it's something that we anticipate by the end of this year that it'll be fully implemented, we'll be reaching out and informing you how that changes your interactions with the Bureau of Reclamation. I just wanted to make sure we give a heads up at this point in time on that front.

We're also continuing to look at other improvements to existing policies and programs that we have. I think one that I wanted to specifically highlight is one that we had a lot of dialogue last year, when I was in the board meeting for hours and hours last year. The Directive and Standards, the Reclamation Manual provisions we had related to water transfer policies.

We went through a process where we had a lot of workshops interaction with many of you in this room. We made a substantial number of changes to those D and Ss as a result of those workshops and that dialog. It is my intent to move forward with those new policies within the next several months.

I'm still getting briefed on all the changes that we've made. I think they're very responsive to a lot of the concerns that were raised. I think we're in a good position now to move forward with those directive and standards in a way that more correctly keeps in tune with our statutory authorities, that is improvement from the policy perspective, that hears your concerns and looks forward and not backward in implementing those policies, which I think is very appropriate.

I think what we need to do now is to make sure that we communicate where we are in what I anticipate to be the final directive and standards, communicate those all to all have a little bit more dialog as a wrap up and make sure we're on the same page, and then we'll go forward a couple months out. I talked to Tom Donnelly this morning. I think we'll get this out well before the next NWRA meeting. Have a dialog there, see if we need some follow up dialog, and then move forward from that standpoint.

This has probably been one of the most unexciting talks that I've given down in the weeds with those kinds of issues, but it really is substantially taking up a great amount of my time these days in trying to deal with those management challenges that we have in front of us right now. I just want to assure you and wrap up before I turn it over to our fine team of regional directors here that the goal is ultimately to continue to deliver on the programs and the services that we all view as highly valuable, the Bureau of Reclamation's role in the Western US.

I think, from that value standpoint, I'm glad to see that we're both telling the story of the value that the Bureau of Reclamation has, not just us, but in partnership with all of you, the value that we bring to the economy of the West. We are all starting to tell that story. Once again, we've been doing this Economic Contributions Report out of the Department of the Interior that Secretary Salazar has taken the lead on. I think our last accounting, as of July, 2012, we continue to refine how we look at our programs.

But ultimately, the value of the water, energy and the recreational services that are provided by the Bureau of Reclamation are about $19.4 billion per year. The economic output associated with that water, that energy and those recreational services are about $46 billion per year, by our accounting. That sustains about 312,000 jobs on an annual basis, across the West. I'm happy to see, based on the Family Farms Alliance's trying to put together that same information year report that came out last year, I think that demonstrate the value to the economy, the economic contribution associated with irrigated agriculture is about $128 billion per year.

I think that's beyond just our programs, but I think we're telling a similar story about the need to ensure that ultimately we keep water and energy available, in particular on a reliable basis so that we can sustain that economy, and that we can provide a strong foundation for future economic growth. I just want to wrap by saying we had, in my short meet and greet that the assistant secretaries and the Bureau directors had with Sally Jewell last week, we were all given a minute to summarize what it is that our programs entail.

My quick summary was to stress that I think ultimately, the water, power, recreational, environmental services that we provide, we think that that provides that strong foundation for the economy, current and future economic growth. That is what I view a primary purpose of the Bureau of Reclamation, and that I categorize it in four areas that we're trying to operate, just so you know what we're looking at.

First and foremost, we've got to operate those projects for which we're responsible for. That means we have to take care of the infrastructure, that means we need to deal with the operational issues that come up on a yearly basis.

Whether they be drought related, whether they be environmental compliance, ESA issues, our goal is to continue to work through those problems, ensure that that infrastructure is taken care of so we can operate those projects and provide that reliability and certainty that we're looking for.

Two, we want to be leaders in addressing the changes and the challenges that we're facing in the West with respect to water resources whether it's extended drought or climate change or increasing competing demands for the resources.

What we're trying to do through our water smart programs, through basin studies, through working with you on a daily basis, is to make sure we're not just operating for today, but we're planning for tomorrow, and we're implementing the improvements that need to be in partnership with states, with you all on the ground.

We don't necessarily lead that effort, and we know you don't want us to be directing that effort, but we feel like you want us to be strong partners in that effort, and that's our goal. Finally, we want to continue to build new infrastructure, because we've got a lot of engineers here, and they just like to build stuff.

So do I, and it's important to a lot of places where we need to reconstruct, but also bring new water supplies where they haven't been before. Last, we want to be aggressive participants in the President's All of the Above energy strategy. I think we've made a lot of progress in bringing clarity to about how we can develop new hydro power resources on our facilities. We've also done a pretty good job on bringing new generating capacity through turbine upgrades, through lease of power privileges, through bringing on new units at our existing facilities. Hopefully, we're going to really take off with respect to little head hydro power opportunities and do it in a way that works, from the water user's perspective.

That's our goal. That's our vision. I'm going to turn it over now to our regional directors to fill in the details of the great stuff they're doing on the grounds.