Speeches Archive

Colorado River Water Users Association

Remarks Delivered By:
Estevan López, Commissioner

2016 CRWUA Annual Conference
Las Vegas, Nevada

December 16, 2016

Good morning, everyone.

And thank you very much for that very kind introduction.

I want to start by simply acknowledging how good it is to be back here at CRWUA.Although, I will also say that it's kind of bittersweet. I expected this will be my last CRWUA as Commissioner, and that's been a great ride, and it's great to see so many friends.

This group is a big group of friends. But the other the thing that makes it bittersweet is in the last couple of years, as you just heard, there's been an incredible amount of work by the states, by the water users, by us with Mexico, to do what we have to do to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this drought continues.

We've made and thought of some amazing innovations, I believe, that once enacted will provide us some tools that people will figure out how to use to really help sustain this river system, but we're not there yet.

That's the bittersweet part.

I began attending CRWUA over a decade ago as a representative for the State of New Mexico, and truly I have so many friends here, and I thank all of you for your friendship.

And amongst those friends, it was great, it has been great over the last few days to have seen and had several of our past Federal leaders present.

Secretary Salazar, I'm not sure if he's still here but he certainly has been around for the last couple of days.

Anne Castle.

The past Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Jennifer Gimbel.

So, it's been great to have them recognize the importance of the work that they did and they kicked off, and trying to see it through to a completion as well.

So, what I hoped to talk to you about today is I want to briefly summarize some of what I think has happened in the river system during the Obama Administration, and then focus in on the last couple of years, and the work that's going on, and where it stands, and what remains to be done.

So, you've already seen some of this and as I won't get into a lot of detail, but during the last 8 years, we've seen an increase or a continuation and an improvement of collaboration with Mexico under Minutes 316, 317, 318, and 319.

The 2007 guidelines, interim guidelines, for coordinate reservoir operations between Mead and Powell have become what appears to be routine.

Everybody now understands how that works and it's working.

There's been a great deal of work of science and just learning about the system as a whole.

In the Glen Canyon program, we have an adaptive management program that continues to do good science. We have a high flow experiment protocol that has certainly taught us a lot about and all of those things we've learned have been put together into what was signed yesterday by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the long-term experimental and management plan, after five years of hard work to get that EIS done.

And in this whole process, we've also greatly improved, I believe, our relationships with the tribes. In the context of the Glen Canyon, the tribes have raised issues about how we control non-native fishes, and we try to be sensitive to their concerns.

They've expressed concerns about their archaeological patrimony. We tried to do things to protect those things as well.

One of the tools that we've used extensively throughout the west over the last eight years has been the WaterSMART program.

Through that and through Title 16, we've expanded the availability of water with a lot of conservation. Our conservation efforts have netted 1.14 million acre feet and that's not a one time savings.

Those investments have made that 1.14 million acre feet available year in and year out.

Title XVI, Water Reclamation Reuse program, we've funded two-thirds of a billion dollars in Federal funding and that has leveraged non-Federal funding of more than 3.3 billion dollars for improvements.

We've given out $135,000,000 in grants since 2010.

We have conducted or started 25 basin studies and completed 12 of those.

And notably, the very first basin study, which is perhaps the most complex to date, was for the Colorado River.

That report, Reclamation, along with USGS, created a report on the just the overall Water Smart program and that was released yesterday as well. I encourage all of you if you're interested in more of the detail about how the program has worked, I encourage you to look in our website and see how that has worked.

Also right now is the 10 year anniversary of the Lower Colorado MSCP, the Multi Species Conservation Program.

And that I think is proving to be very successful in what was intended to do.

And the Upper Colorado River Recovery Implementation program in San Juan, Recovery Implementation Program, those two programs are working very well as well.

A lot of our effort even during that entire time has been responding to an ongoing drought.

In 2007, we put in place interim guidelines for coordinator operations for the two reservoirs with the thought that we recognize that there was a risk of going into severe shortages and we put in place certain programs that would allow us to reduce that risk to what we thought was a manageable level.

But the drought has continued, and as we assess that risk today, in 2013 we reassessed that risk, and because we were starting at a much lower reservoir level then we started in 2007, there's continuing years of drought now.

The risk had increased nearly four-fold in those last past 10 years, so there was a recognition we had to do more.

The lower basin states created a pilot, well actually, this was not a lower basin state, but rather than throughout the Colorado River, there was a creation of a pilot system conservation program where various water users contributed money that we also contributed to, to acquire water and keep it in Mead as system water.

That has been successful both in the lower basin and in the upper basin.

And in 2014, the lower basin states signed an MOU that would create additional system conservation as well. That MOU was not binding, persay. It was aspirational, but it has served a good purpose.

But in spite of all those things, the drought has continued and we find ourselves in a precarious situation. In 2007, we were in the eighth year of a drought and that was the lowest eight year period in recorded history. Mead and Powell combined storage was at 47%, about 24.4 million acre feet.

And now, we're in the 17th year of drought, it's the 17th, the driest 17-year period in recorded history, and based on paleo records, it is amongst the driest 17 year periods in the last twelve hundred years. Mead and Powell today are a combined storage about 43%.

If you look at the picture that's up behind us, this is a picture of Lake Mead with the bathtub ring of white that's basically the salts are left behind.

The top line basically shows where Lake Mead was full and you can see where the water level is today.

This is a great picture. That, the height of that bathtub ring is about 140 feet, about a 15 story building so you can see how much of that's gone down.

But notably, in the first five years of this drought, most of that happened, and because of some of the actions that we've taken since then, we've somewhat stabilized the situation but not completely.

If we had another five years just like 2000 to 2005, we would be in very dire straits right now. So that's kind of the backdrop that why we're working so hard on all this.

So, in the upper basin, the upper basin is working on a contingency plan. It's got three elements, it continues with a modification to try and increase snow fall and precipitation in the upper basin, in the watershed of the upper basin in the mountains.

It contemplates extended drought operations of the upper reservoirs to move water from those upper reservoirs down into Lake Powell if the power pool is at risk.

The power generation out of Lake Powell funds a lot of really important aspects of what we do, including solidity control and some of the endangered fish programs, but a lot of other things as well.

And finally, the upper basin drought contingency plan seeks to build the individual states capacity to administer water rights in the event that they have to do so.

In the lower basin, the drought contingency plan doubles the reductions that were put in place under the 2007 guidelines, and by doing so, it cuts the risk in half.

But again, I'll emphasize that those risks have risen since 2007. From that elevated risk, this doubling of reductions cuts that risk in half.

So, I'll summarize some of the compliments of it, of the terms that are being discussed.

First, reductions or contributions start earlier.

In 2007, the 2007 guidelines contemplated that if Lake Mead elevation ever dropped to 1075, that's where reductions would start. Well, the 2007 guidelines have worked in one regard. We came right down to just within a foot or two of 1075 but we haven't gone below that and been in shortage. In large part because of ICS that was created, intentionally created surplus with the U.S., and by intentionally creating Mexican allocation.

Those that wanted was intentionally stored and left in Mead, has prevented us from going into shortage in several the last few years.

So, under the DCP, contributions, reductions would start earlier by Nevada and Arizona at elevation 1090.

So, we're below that elevation now. So once that DCP is put in place, those reductions start.

Actually, I think if the DCP is put in place in 2017, the reductions would start in calendar year 2018, because the elevation triggers are based off of the August 24-month study.

Importantly, California participates as well. California, if the reservoir continues to decline and declines to elevation of 1045, California begins to contribute. And California's contributions continue to escalate as the reservoir continues to drop.

The DCP removes disincentives from the creation of ICS. While the 2007 guidelines created the opportunity for ICS it/we inadvertently left some incentives in there.

That water under the 2007 guidelines, if somebody creates ICS, that water could be, in essence, stranded in Lake Mead once we get down below elevation 1075.

So we try to deal with that and the DCP.

We added flexibility to the use of the ICS.

There's a commitment by lower basin states to protect elevation 1020, so there's a definite elevation that the states have said.

We will do everything necessary, along with Interior, to make sure that if the water level is dropping too close to 1020, we will consult and do everything necessary to protect that elevation.

The reality is that we're always consulting. We put things in agreements about consulting at certain time point. We're constantly talking about how the river is operating.

And so in total, if the reservoir continues to drop all the way to elevation 1025, because of the increased reductions by Arizona and Nevada and the contributions by California, those combined reductions in contributions total, and 100,000 of water savings by Reclamation, those total 1.2 million acre feet.

We've heard about the structural deficit being something about 1.2 million acre feet. This wasn't, this isn't designed necessarily to solve the structural deficit, but it certainly gives us a mechanism of perhaps doing just that. Although, the reservoir is likely to stabilize at a lower level than we would like to see it. But at least it stabilizes.

Absent that, if things continued, we'll have a very real possibility that the reservoir continues to go down at a rate that we really can't catch up with, and eventually it could get to a situation where even the most senior users water supply would be at risk.

So the DCP in essence provides an emergency brake. It provides us a mechanism by which to slow things down. It provides us a parachute rather than just dropping through.

So, there's the elements of a DCP in the upper basin and lower basin both, and I think a very robust DCP. However, neither the upper basin nor the lower basin are ready to enact or sign-on to those plans.

Reviews are continuing by either the states or the agencies.

There's a lot of work going on between the upper basin and lower basin, to coordinate the timing of those, and also to coordinate on if there's legislation, if there's Federal legislation that's needed to enact elements of these, there needs to be careful coordination between the two basins on that aspect as well.

So, there is no expectation that we will get that done by January 20th when the transition. However, things are tee'd up and I think it's imperative that work continue, continue to go on as we transition.

One key element, I've noted how Arizona takes the biggest hit on this. They're the junior users on the system.

They take the biggest hit and they take it immediately once this happen. And they start getting reductions immediately because we're down below elevation 1090, but as I've mentioned a couple of times, we're right above the next year that would be 1075.

And the cuts of those two first years for Arizona would amount to over half a million acre feet per year. That is a huge hit on their water supply.

So, they are rightly concerned about mitigating those impacts and they have developed and are developing with us a, what they're calling a DCP Plus program. It's a complimentary program to DCP.

An alternative name that's also being referred to on occasion is Maintain 1075. They're trying to do things to keep the reservoir elevation above 1075. They can manage that first tier but it gets much more difficult once they fall into the second tier, so they're gonna do aggressive action to try and keep things above 1075.

In total what they're talking about is keeping something on the order of about one in a quarter million acre feet, putting that much water into Mead in the first three years in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

And that would be done by compensating persistent conservation water, some uncompensated system conservation water, some creation of ICS by certain entities, and also the first year of reductions at 1090.

Those all combined would put over about million and a quarter of acre feet of water into the reservoir, significantly reducing the risks that we fall below 1075 in those first three years.

Just to summarize what those risks are, in 2018, absent that effort, the risk of falling below 1075 would be 55% in 2018.

If we start doing this DCP Plus effort, that risk is reduced from 55% down to 15%. In 2019, that risk is reduced from 57% to 35%. And in 2020, it's reduced from 60% down to 35%.

That's by doing DCP Plus.

If California or Nevada do anything else to create additional ICS, that further reduces the risk.

But importantly, and this is a time sensitive issue in my mind, the water that's available to be put into Lake Mead in 2017, that has to be tied up now. That has to be tied up now.

So, we're working very hard with Arizona and Arizona water users to try and finalize an agreement here in the next month, so that we can begin doing that, tying that up.

And, obviously, the intent of this DCP Plus is to provide a mechanism that will allow Arizona water users to be able to sign onto the broader DCP.

So, while we're working very hard to tie up this DCP Plus water, now and next month, the work on DCP has to continue, otherwise it doesn't make any sense for the contributions that is the compensated system water, when we compensate for it if we can't get to that last step.

So, the work needs to continue posthaste, once in early in the next administration.

Hopefully, if we're able to finish the DCP Plus agreement, that will provide an anchor and an incentive to keep things moving on DCP Plus, or DCP broadly.

Finally, there's Minute 32X and you've already heard from the two commissioners about Minute 32X.

I'll just briefly summarize.

You got a better summary from from their presentations, but it extends many of the provisions of Minute 319, shortage sharing, surplus sharing, environmental elements, salinity at work and so forth, that allows for, continues to allow for additional investments, and system efficiencies in Mexico.

Those system efficiencies in Mexico, it contemplates investment by U.S. entities in Mexico in exchange for some of the water that's created, but the longer term the water that continues to be a generated by those improvements, those remain with Mexico for the long haul, improves Mexico's position for the long haul, makes their system more sustainable as well.

And as you've heard, it also contemplates, it continues the shortage sharing that's currently in Minute 319, but it contemplates that once the lower basin gets its work done and finishes work on DCP, it would, Mexico would automatically ratchet up its contributions and what it's calling a Scarcity plan.

So, that's additional water that would be saved and left in Mead. It would go further towards dealing with the structural deficit issue.

It truly does make a significant difference in the long-term sustainability if this drought continues. And importantly, it's structured, that contingency is structured such that this agreement can stand alone. And it has immediate utility.

It doesn't need to wait for people to finish the DCP. The iron is hot. We need to strike.

Certainly there's the possibility that, and I've heard arguments saying that well, why rush? Why rush?

We have time in the new administration. Certainly that could continue but I'll just highlight one particular risk and this happens at every transition.

You have new leadership coming into Department of the Interior. Secretary of Interior will likely be confirmed rather quickly. A Commissioner of Reclamation generally takes considerably longer.

I think of when Mike Conner was confirmed it took something like six months. And he was a known quantity to the committee that confirmed him.

That was a pretty quick process.

If it takes six months or a year for a commissioner to get confirmed, and we wait that long, a lot of the opportunity that, now is before us could have unraveled. Things might not be in the same situation. It's highly likely that the opportunity would not improve but there's a lot of ways it could certainly decrease.

That's why I think it's important to do something now.

As Commissioner Salmón said, there is no reason that we can't. Well, there's an awful lot of work to be done. That's honest and I think that our partners in the states have said, they are interested in continuing to do that work. They're supportive of that, but I ask all of you to really redouble your efforts. This is too important for the basin.

So I'll stop on that, but if I want to finish my presentation with just acknowledging what an honor it has been to serve as a Commissioner of Reclamation.

This is been the greatest job I've ever had. The opportunities and the challenges have been amazing, but thankfully, I have an amazing team. Reclamation and Interior, our employees are second to none. They're dedicated. They're smart. They do what has to be done. They have a "can do" attitude, and they get things done.

I'm honored to been allowed to work with them, to lead that group, and I'm honored to have been able to work with all of you.

Thank you.