Speeches Archive

Colorado Water Congress

Remarks Delivered By:
Estevan López, Commissioner

Denver, Colorado

January 30, 2015

Good morning, and thank you Anne, for a very nice introduction. I want to start, first by thanking Anne for her years of service to the American public, and before that, to you here in Colorado. I think Anne did a tremendous service to our country.

I wasn't sure what to make of it when, after months of talking about me taking this job, I finally decided, "All right, I'm going to go out there and start in October." Then Anne left on September 29th. I think she had other reasons, and I think they were good reasons.

I also had the good fortune of the person who follows Anne in that position is also a Coloradoan, Jennifer Gimbel, and so I've got the good fortune of working with her and with Mike Connor, a fellow New Mexican. I think we've got a very strong team out there, still, and I'm really happy to be there.

I'm honored and privileged that President Obama and Secretary Jewell were willing to nominate me for this, and the Senate finally confirmed me. It seemed like forever to me, that process to get confirmed. Yesterday, when I walked in, it was amazing to just look around the room and realize how many of you I've had the pleasure of working with. It really felt like I was coming home. That was wonderful. Anne just told you quite a lot about myself. Let me tell you just a few other things. Last night, I was here and listened to former secretary Ken Salazar, and I was struck with some of the similarities, in at least our early upbringing.

I'm a native of New Mexico, northern New Mexico, at the southern end of the Sangre Cristo mountains, and I grew up in a small community, very small, rural, mostly ranching community, and from my earliest recollection I can remember being out with my dad, irrigating our pastures and working on our [inaudible 21:23] , our traditional ditches.

Even before that, I remember spending a tremendous amount of time in our little stream, the Rio Santa Barbara. I'd spend our entire summer out there just recreating in the river, fishing, and I didn't know what the word habitat meant back then, but I knew what habitat was. I say this because I think our backgrounds really shape how we think about the resource overall.

What I'm trying to express is, there's so many different values to water, and we all share in all of those values, to some extent or another. I think it really behooves us as we go through and work on these really difficult issues to not paint ourselves into some little pigeon hole, but rather remember all of the things that we value about this precious, precious resource.

My family, my wife Suzanne, and my daughter, Victoria, and my son, Juan, they remain in New Mexico. One of the considerations when I was thinking about taking on this challenge was, and I think I talked to Anne about this, I said, "Well, I'm not sure that I can do this. My son is still in high school, and there's a lot of things going on that aren't quite ready."

"I'm very close to retirement with the state of New Mexico. I don't really want to give that up yet." Anne and Mike wisely said, "You know, it's going to take a while." As it turned out, I was able to retire from the state of New Mexico, and my son graduated from high school and went on to college. Things worked out. The timing kind of worked out well.

I'm just really happy that my wife and my family supported my decision to go out there. They're still in New Mexico. My wife, I asked her if she wanted to come out there with me for a couple of years and she said, "No, you're going to be traveling all the time, and I'd rather be alone at home here where I know people than be alone at home out there where I know no one."

I think she's right. I think, to date, this is just an estimate, but I think I've been traveling about 60 percent of the time. I'm not complaining, because all of what I've been seeing, and all the folks I've been meeting, and the issues that I've been learning about are fascinating. I'm glad to be able to do it.

Anne mentioned my work on the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. I'll just mention that because of that previous work, and my representation of New Mexico on those compacts and so forth, I am recused from working on those issues for a year. At this point, it's more like eight months, but it's going by very, very quickly.

Then New Mexico also had some litigation on the Rio Grande that involved Reclamation, and in fact Colorado and Texas, and I will be recused from those aspects of this job for the duration of that litigation, or the duration of my tenure at Reclamation.

One final thing, just by way of introduction. As I went through this process, as I went through the process of nomination, the confirmation, and everything else, an awful lot of folks spoke up in support of my nomination and my confirmation. A lot of you are in here today. I want to thank you. I think that made a huge difference, so thank you.

Let me get to some of Interior's priorities, and how Reclamation fits into them. Secretary Jewell has articulated a number of priorities for the Department that I think are aligned really well with Reclamation's mission, and that we historically have really worked in those same veins. I'm going to talk about a few of them.

A few of the ones I want to talk about, Secretary Jewell has really emphasized the need to ensure that we have healthy watersheds, that we have sustainable and secure water supply and power, and that we're generating clean power where we can. She's also emphasized the fact that we should pursue these goals using the best available science, and looking at things from a landscape level, so that we're not just looking very narrowly about how we deal with these resources, but rather look at the breadth of impact of the actions and the policies and the projects that we take.

As I think about it, and I think many of you can attest to this, I think that's what Reclamation has done, historically. I think our emphasis, perhaps, has changed, but I think we've done that. For more than a hundred years, Reclamation has been working with folks like you, our partners on irrigation districts, on power suppliers, and so forth, to build infrastructure that will support a sustainable water supply and power supply.

As I think about the West, the West wouldn't be what it is today except but for Reclamation and the work that Reclamation did, and working with you, our partners. We've always worked with the best science that we had to make sure the infrastructure was sound. Again, our priorities have shifted over time.

There's a much greater emphasis today on the environment, and the impacts of our duties to the environment, but we continue to make investments that look towards not harming the environment, but ensuring that we have secure water and power as we go forward. We'll continue to do that.

I want to drill down just a little bit on a few areas. First, I want to talk about climate change, and the drought. I want to talk about some of our work here in Colorado, and then I want to talk a little bit about just some of the things that we're working on right now that will remain a priority for the remaining two years of this administration.

Beginning with climate change, we as water managers, we're going to be at the forefront of dealing with climate change. Most people have come to the conclusion that, "Yes, the climate is changing." There may still be arguments as to the causes. I don't think we as water managers need to tie ourselves in knots over what the cause is.

We have to be able to manage the increased variability, or we won't be doing our job. That's the bottom line. Again, as I look back on Reclamation and what we, collectively, have done, Reclamation with our partners, all of you, we've always kind of looked at variable supply. How do we manage that variable supply to make sure that the water's there when we need it?

That's why we built dams. That's why we move water from one place to another, and so forth. Now, what we're learning is, it's likely that we're going to have even wider variability of how we receive our supply. As much as we hate to talk about it, it may be that we get more of our supply in big and sometimes destructive storms, not unlike what we had in 2013.

We may have longer and more severe droughts, like much of the west is suffering through right now. We're going to have to think about how we can adapt, and how we can modify our management strategies to deal with those things. What's the consequence of this?

Looking at the Department of the Interior's 2013 economic analysis of the impacts of what we do, collectively, we and our partners, it's estimated that we generate something like $65 billion and a bit over 400,000 jobs per year by our activities in providing water and power. That's huge.

That's huge not only to us in the West, but that's huge to the entire country. That's not even talking specifically about so much of what we produce out here as a result of what we do. It highlights the importance of us continuing to figure out what sort of strategies we can put in place to make sure that we can face this changing climate, and continue to ensure that we have secure supplies of water and power.

Just last month, Reclamation released its Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. This is in line with President Obama's Climate Action Plan. I'm going to tell you a little bit about what our goals are, but before I get into that, I want to just let you know that next week, next Thursday, February 5th, we will be doing a webinar, and just putting out additional information about our Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.

That'll be February 5th at 1:00 Mountain Time. If you're interested in participating, you can find information on how to register on our website. I'd encourage all of you to look in on that one.

What our strategy is, first of all, it's a recognition that we are going to be at the forefront. As water managers, we're going to be at the forefront. We've got to address these issues directly. We can't pretend like they're not coming at us. We've got to deal with it.

We've got to work effectively with you, our partners, and with our stakeholders to make sure that you know what we're doing, that we know what you're doing, and that those activities complement one another. Our strategy really has four main goals. First, we want to increase water management flexibility.

This is right in line with what Anne just highlighted, the need for flexibility, and it was mentioned here by some of the other speakers this morning and a number of times yesterday afternoon. We need flexibility. Rigidity is not going to give us what we need in times of great change. We need to enhance our climate adaptation planning.

We're just now beginning to think about how to plan for climate adaptation. We don't understand it all that well. We know it's going on, but we don't really understand exactly where that trajectory is going to take us. I liken it, in my mind, to weather forecasting and so forth. I can remember back when I was a kid, we'd listen to weather forecasts, and it seemed like a pretty hit and miss proposition.

We'd hear, "Yeah, there's a big storm coming," and half the time, or probably greater than half the time, it didn't really pan out. We still have a lot of hit and miss today, but our weather forecasting has gotten a heck of a lot better than it was just a few years ago. I think these early climate adaptation or climate modeling and planning processes are similar.

We don't really understand it very well, but our understanding is going to grow exponentially, as we get into it and really dedicate ourselves to that effort. Our third goal is to improve infrastructure resiliency. If we're going to have more of our precipitation coming as water rather than snow, we're going to have to manage storage differently.

If more of our water is coming in the form of huge storms, again, we have to plan on how we will manage our infrastructure to allow us to adjust. Our final goal is to expand information sharing. Whatever we do is going to be more effective if you know what we're doing and can support it, and if we know what you're doing and can support what you're doing.

We have to share information. We have to share that information effectively and put it in place. We're committed to collaborating with you on these issues. We will be working with the states, with water users, municipalities, tribes, environmental organizations. In essence, all the stakeholders. All the stakeholders are basically all the people.

Everybody needs water. Everybody has a stake in this. Everybody needs to really think about what their role is going to be in this. Drought is closely related to climate change. Perhaps it's already a symptom of the climate change, or maybe it's not. I don't know.

Nevertheless, in the last few years, as you heard yesterday and I'm sure that you've heard throughout this conference, the drought has been incredibly tough. Across the West, it's just been breaking all sorts of records, and not the sorts of records that we want to be breaking. In California, they're into their fourth year of incredibly intense drought.

If you look at the drought maps right now, there's a big, red blotch where California used to be.

I think it's still under there, under that red blotch. In 2013, New Mexico was suffering. We were under that big, red blotch. That thing has faded out over New Mexico to some extent, but the reality is all of the reservoirs in the Rio Grande are still essentially empty.

Even though we've gotten some precipitation, that drought continues. On the Colorado River, the last 15 years have been dramatic. All you have to do is look at the lake levels, the history of lake levels in Mead and Powell to see the impacts of the drought over the last 15 years on the Colorado River system.

I was just talking to some of our staff this morning and asking them about snow pack in the Upper Basin. At least in the Colorado portion of the Upper Basin, I'm told that snow pack is about running close to average this time of year, but even if it's average for in the entire Upper Basin, we're still going to continue to lose ground.

The drought is dramatic. Southern Colorado continues to suffer through drought in the Rio Grande basin. We're working with our partners and with stakeholders to try and refocus some of our drought relief efforts. We want to try and do more drought contingency planning.

We want to think about how we're going to react in anticipation of these droughts coming on, rather than being in the crisis mode when they're upon us. Obviously, we still need to make sure that there's resources available for emergencies, but we want to focus most of our efforts on solutions that are going to have a lasting impact, not just be a short term little Band Aid.

We want to make sure that our efforts have a lasting impact. There's an awful lot of work that's going on, in terms of drought contingency planning. On the Colorado River, there's a huge amount of work going on. There's been some really good progress, and I think there was some discussion about this yesterday on the Pilot System Conservation Program.

That's the program where a number of municipalities, including Denver Water, have put up some money. Denver Water, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Central Arizona Water Conservancy District and Metropolitan have put up two million dollars apiece.

Reclamation has added three million to try and put in place some pilot projects to demonstrate how people could voluntarily save water and keep it in the reservoirs to bolster system supply, as a whole. There's been good progress in trying to implement those pilot programs, but as Deputy Secretary Connor said at CRWUA, "We've made good progress, but it's not enough."

We've got to get further along. If this crisis, if this drought doesn't let up, we could within two or three years be in really crisis mode. We don't have that luxury. We've got to act in advance of that. Let me talk a little bit about some of the things that Reclamation is doing here in Colorado.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that Lakewood is the site for many of our offices, including the Technical Services Center, a world class technical service center. While many of you may be customers of Reclamation, in a sense, as stakeholders, a lot of our employees are often your customers. There's a linkage, and we've got a vested interest in Denver and this area and Colorado, generally.

I mentioned a while ago the floods of September '13. Let me talk a little bit about the progress that's been made since then. As I understand it, most of the impacts on the Colorado Big Thompson project have been corrected. There was a lot of sediment impact to that project, and service was largely restored within six weeks.

We continue to work with the Colorado Department of Transportation at the Dille Diversion Dam site on Highway 34. We anticipate that that dam will be returned to service later this year. We have some additional good news. After years of work with our partners, we recently signed a record of a decision on the Windy Gap Firming Project.

That agreement will increase reliability of water supply for the communities on Colorado's Front Range, while taking into account the interests of folks on both sides of the mountain. It really affirms supply from a significant amount of supply, something like 26,000 acre feet. We have a number of lease of power privilege projects in Colorado, too.

These are projects where our partners, either someone that manages one of our facilities or somebody that wants to simply invest in our facilities, are able to invest their money to retro fit hydro power generation equipment into already existing dams or canals and generate hydro power for mutual benefit. That hydro power can often support local communities where the projects are built.

I'm told that we have three such these power plants in operation or under development. There's the Bob Trout Power Plant on Carter Lake Dam, number one, on the Colorado Big Thompson. Northern Water will also develop a project on Granby Dam. Then, we have Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs Utilities are developing a project on the Pueblo Dam, on the Fry Ark.

These are not huge projects, but it's all incremental power, and without having to build any additional dams or any additional hydraulic infrastructure. It's all clean power. Again, it's offsetting some of the climate change impacts. I think it's just another example of how we continue to try and be innovative about how we use our facilities to get more out of what the system has to offer.

Another area of focus for us has been infrastructure investment strategy. I think all of you know that much of our infrastructure throughout the West is over 50 years old. A lot of it is approaching 100 years old. Just last week, I visited some infrastructure that is over 100 years old.

All of this infrastructure continues to operate and continues to provide the services for which it was built, even after those long periods of time, because of careful investment strategies by us and by our partners. The financial burden is huge, if you just look at the overall need for maintenance and rehabilitation and so forth. It's huge.

We've gotten a lot of questions from Congress, as to what our overall picture is. They've demanded that we put together this information. We've started doing that. We've done that all along, but we've never come to Congress and said, "We need a couple of billion dollars to do all of this, all at once," because first of all, it's not realistic. We can't do all the work all at once.

Second, they can't fund all the work all at once. We've always taken this stage strategy in requesting this funding. Nevertheless, we are developing this information. We're putting it together in a form that will be responsive to their questions, so that they can get a big picture look at what the needs are, over time.

Hopefully, we can quit arguing about what the need is and rather focus our effort on prioritizing the investment strategies and making sure that the highest needs are dealt with first. In doing this, we know that there's not going to be enough federal money available. A lot of the burden is going to have to be borne by our partners, by you.

We will work with you to try and make sure that we make things as affordable as possible. We'll work on developing additional authorization, so that we can do these things in a way that's affordable and doesn't put an undue burden on anybody. We've got to continue to maintain all this infrastructure.

In doing this, we will continue to collaborate with you. We'll do this transparently and make sure that you know what we're up to, as we're going through it. I just encourage you, in that vein, to continue to work with our staff at our local, our area and regional offices. Make sure that there's close coordination between what you're doing and what they're doing.

Your needs, you know what they are. Make sure that we're in close coordination. I wasn't planning to be here until this morning, initially, and I had the good fortune of coming in yesterday afternoon. I heard the last two panels, and I'm really glad that I got to listen to them. In particular, I was really heartened to hear the panel on Minute 319 and subsequent minutes.

I thought Bob Snow and Mario Lopez Perez and Jennifer Pitt and Ted Kowalski did a great job of explaining all of what's going on there. I'm not going to try and revisit a lot of the information that they put out there. I liked the way Mario said. "We can do better." We can do better, and that's true for every single thing we do.

However good we're doing something, we can do better. We've just got to open ourselves to those possibilities. As I think about it, not only can we do better, but in the face of the challenges that we've got coming at us, we must do better. If we don't, we're not doing our jobs. We just met a couple of days ago with the states about beginning work on the next minute.

As we met, it became really apparent that the states, they've got a lot of stuff going on and a lot of stuff that we're asking them to do. The drought contingency planning, the basin study next steps and so forth. We're asking them, now, to join us in this effort to work on Minute 32X.

I know that everybody's feeling the burden of the really heavy workload, but as I think about it, all of these things, they're part of the same thing. It's all part of us thinking about how we're going to deal with our water situation 50 years from now, 80 years from now.

As much of a burden as it is, I think everybody recognizes that it's important, and everybody, I believe, is ready to roll up their sleeves and begin working. Let me finally just talk briefly to you about our budget. The President's FY16 budget will be unveiled next Monday, and Congress will begin holding hearings on that budget.

I think our first hearing is about two and a half weeks away. I'm going to be cramming for the next several weeks. We are going to be doing a roll out of this budget in Washington on Monday. We're going to Livestream it on the web at 1:00 Mountain Time. If you're interested in tuning and seeing what that budget holds, please join us.

You can go on our website, usbr.gov/live should get you to that Livestream, and you can see what we're rolling out. All of the information, all of our budget information will be posted on the website, so that you'll be able to look at that, as well. Either at the same time or shortly thereafter, we will also be announcing the spending plan for the remainder of fiscal year 2015.

That includes the almost $100 million of additional funding that was provided. As soon as we get that cleared, and it may be by Monday, we will be rolling that out, as well. At the same time, we've begun work on our 2017 budget.

I would encourage you, as you think of things that you think really are priorities that should be included, make sure that you talk to our area and regional offices and make sure that your issues are considered, as we go through.

As I come to a conclusion, let me and this, perhaps, is something that I should have done at the start of my talk, but I had a reason for doing it at the end I want the Reclamation employees to stand up, if you would. Thank you.

The reason I waited until the end is I wanted to know where they are, so when I start taking questions and I can't answer one...

As Anne mentioned, we've got some amazing people in public service. One of the things that I've come to realize. I've worked with Reclamation for my entire time that I was at the State of New Mexico. Everything that we did while I was at the Interstate Stream Commission, we interacted with Reclamation on.

I knew Reclamation had a good team. I didn't know how good a team we had. Now, as I'm there, I am constantly being impressed by the quality of the people that we have and the dedication of the people that we have. Thank you guys.

I'd encourage you to keep really open lines of communication with Reclamation staff. I want staff to keep really open lines of communication with all of you. I want staff to, inevitably, there will be conflict. I want us to tone conflict down and I want us to find solutions to the issues.

I think that's how we make progress. We want to work together with you, and "you" is all inclusive municipalities, irrigation districts, tribes, NGOs, recreaters, everybody has a stake in this.

We've got to learn how to make the best use. We've got to learn how to make every drop of water go the furthest that we can. I encourage all of you to help us find creative solutions. Thank you very much.