Finding solutions for water shortages on Colorado River
Amid nearly two decades of drought on the Colorado River, seven states that rely on its water signed an historic agreement in May 2019 to use less voluntarily to prevent the federal government from imposing mandatory cutbacks. The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation pushed the states and impacted water agencies to forge a voluntary agreement to prevent what would have been the first federally enforced restrictions on the river’s lower basin. In this interview conducted in July 2019, Burman, the first female Reclamation Commissioner, talks about how it all came together and what is next on the Colorado River. This interview originally ran in SOURCE Magazine Fall 2019 issue.
LIPINSKI: In a speech in Carson City, Nevada, just a year after the U.S. Reclamation Service was created, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon people across the nation to support federal investment in water development “because the interest of any part of this country is in the interest of all of it.” How has that legacy of finding water to make the arid lands of the West habitable evolved and what do you see as Reclamation’s mission today?
BURMAN: Teddy Roosevelt was a visionary leader who saw potential in the vast resources the American West had to offer our nation. He saw that the right investment in public infrastructure could support Western growth and prosperity. Today, Reclamation continues to serve communities by reducing flood risks; providing reliable water supplies for farms, families and wildlife; offering recreational opportunities in and around our reservoirs; and generating dependable, renewable hydropower.
Multipurpose water projects constructed and operated by Reclamation led to homesteading and promoted the economic development of the West. Since the initial authorizing legislation in 1902, Reclamation has constructed more than 600 dams and reservoirs including Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Grand Coulee on the Columbia River, and Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River.
Today, we are the largest wholesaler of water in the country. We bring water to more than 31 million people and provide one out of five Western farmers with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland that produce 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts.
Our mission has largely gone unchanged over the last 117 years. How we achieve our mission continues to evolve. In the early years, Reclamation’s main tools were the design, construction and operation of dams and canals to store and divert waters to put to beneficial use. With new Congressional authorities and technological advances, we have become an international leader in water conservation, water recycling and reuse, and safety. We have also found great success in managing competing needs of the West’s water resources through partnerships with our customers, states, and Native American tribes.
Reclamation will continue to innovate and grow our tool box to achieve our critical mission of managing, developing, and protecting water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.
LIPINSKI: The West’s economy and growth depends on availability of water. But nearly two decades of drought on the Colorado River have taken their toll. Recently the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River Basin agreed to a voluntary Drought Contingency Plan for how to manage future supply shortages. Reclamation, and you personally, played a key role in providing the incentive to do so. How do you expect its implementation to go?
BURMAN: The Colorado River is the single most important water resource in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. It irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland and serves approximately 40 million people in major metropolitan areas. The Colorado River Basin has experienced unprecedented drought: the driest 19-year period in our recorded history and one of the driest in the paleo record. Despite recent and welcome precipitation in the West, our agricultural communities, economy, and ecological resources remain vulnerable. It takes years to recover from this type of intense drought.
The Drought Contingency Plans, which we refer to as the DCPs, reduce the threat to all who rely on the Colorado River. Our main goal, starting the day after the DCPs were signed on May 20, is to move forward with implementation. That implementation is different for each state and each basin. For some, management strategies will focus on incentivizing additional water conservation. For both the upper and lower basin, the DCPs introduce additional operating flexibility.
Over Reclamation’s history, the challenges on the Colorado River have shown that the seven basin states have an incredible ability to come together with the federal government, tribes and the Republic of Mexico to find solutions to manage the common resource on which they all depend. The signing of the DCPs this year was a tremendous achievement for all involved and shows this region’s ability to come together to make tough decisions.
I am confident that implementation will provide further certainty for those that depend on the Colorado River and add another chapter in the history of collaborative management of our common resource.
LIPINSKI: Completing the Drought Contingency Plan is a big accomplishment. But it was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and additional negotiations will be needed to determine what will happen after 2027. What is your vision for how that process will work?
BURMAN: It’s important to remember that the DCP isn’t one agreement. It is a multi-faceted set of actions and agreements by the seven basin states and Mexico to address significant risks on the Colorado River system. The DCPs are an overlay to the 2007 guidelines for operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which extend to 2026. All of the parties came together to design voluntary, coordinated actions that could reduce the risk. These sets of agreements provide for immediate and simultaneous water saving actions by both the U.S. and Mexico.
My vision is to move forward with future negotiations based on actual operating experience gained through the DCP process. We are facing the current threats to the river but we still have a lot to learn. To move past 2026, we will face new challenges, but this basin has a track record of being able to find solutions to incredible challenges.
LIPINSKI: Any lessons learned from the DCP negotiations that may be helpful in this next round?
BURMAN: Deadlines matter. Reaching a consensus-based solution is the best approach. It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of steps to get to the finish line. My first action as Commissioner was to call on the basin states to finish their work to address a crisis on the Colorado River. We did it by setting timelines. The states, tribes, non-governmental organizations, Congress and the President all took action to protect the river and those who depend on it. Now it’s time to implement. We will learn a lot over the next few years as we implement DCP, and we will use that experience to inform the next steps.
LIPINSKI: You’ve worked on Western U.S. water issues for most of your career. It’s clearly a field you are passionate about. How has it changed since your career began?
BURMAN: Reclamation and all who benefit from our projects continue to reap the benefits of the actions of the bold leaders who preceded us. Westward expansion was so successful in the 20th century because many leaders before us were willing to tackle the impossible — creating thriving communities in areas that were dominated by drought and flood. Large amounts of storage on the Colorado River system were created through bold action, and we have been able to manage nearly two decades of drought while populations continue to grow because of those bold actions.
Constants that I have seen in the ever-evolving world of western water management are collaboration and a willingness to compromise. This will continue to be key as we move forward. We will need leaders with the ability to compromise and who have the boldness to invest in the next generation of infrastructure, technology, and financing mechanisms to serve the needs of the West for the next century.
LIPINSKI: Given the uncertainty of water supplies due to climate change impacts, water managers have proposed a variety of solutions. Which do you see as having the most chance for success?
BURMAN: Reclamation’s approach includes a combination of solutions — conservation programs like those in the DCP, groundwater storage and recovery which is already happening throughout the Southwest, surface water storage through improved management of existing and new storage projects, water reuse and recycling, and brackish water and sea water desalination. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to western water management. The solution is defined largely by the resources available to the impacted area. All of these strategies and others will be critical, as we continue to improve the management of our water resources to meet the needs of the West.
LIPINSKI: Can you tell us more about the role Reclamation plays in promoting innovation in water technologies or processes?
BURMAN: Reclamation provides grants through the Desalination and Water Purification Research Program. Through these programs, Reclamation offers funding for projects that identify and investigate opportunities to reclaim and reuse wastewaters and impaired ground and surface water in the 17 Western states and Hawaii. Through this program, funding is provided for the planning, design, and construction of water recycling and reuse projects in partnership with local government entities. Our goal is to increase water supplies by reducing cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts of treating impaired and otherwise unusable waters.
In addition, our Science and Technology Program is a Reclamation-wide competitive, merit-based applied research and development program. It focuses on innovative solutions for water and power challenges in the western U.S. for Reclamation water and facility managers and the stakeholders they serve. The program has contributed many of the tools and capabilities Reclamation and western water managers use today.
Since 2015, we have launched 20 prize competitions to spur innovation by engaging a non-traditional, national solver community, while complementing traditional research to target the most persistent challenges. This year, our prize competitions sought ideas to keep fish safe from water diversions and intakes and lower the cost of continuous streamflow monitoring, Through these competitions, citizens, businesses and others accelerate research and build a toolbox of strategies to tackle our toughest problems such as invasive aquatic species, weather forecasting and water purification.
LIPINSKI: What makes you optimistic about future water supply reliability in California and Nevada?
BURMAN: California and Nevada have shown an incredible amount of foresight in the investment in their water resources and continue to do so. So long as we are working together to make forward-looking investment in our water needs, I am confident we can continue to provide water to meet the needs of California, Nevada and the rest of the West into the future.
I am excited to lead an agency that plays such a key role in the management of the West’s most-precious resource. The future of western water management requires leaders who have the boldness to invest in our resources for the future and the creativity to work with diverse groups to find solutions, similar to how President Teddy Roosevelt and Congress did in the creation of the Reclamation Service.