Speech: Remarks prepared for the Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting

Last edited 09/29/2021

Las Vegas, Nevada

Thank you.

I want to recognize Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle. I have known Anne for years, and she is a terrific leader who brings thoughtful, pragmatic solutions to the table. Her years of experience on water issues in the West have made her a natural leader on the many Colorado River water issues we collectively face. I appreciate her leadership at Interior in making sure the United States provides a sensible, coherent voice on Colorado River issues.

I also appreciate Mike Connor and his knowledge and common-sense leadership of the Bureau of Reclamation. Mike has done exceptional work for the Department of the Interior. Mike is a true problem-solver who has the uncanny ability to cut through the weeds to identify solutions that work for all parties. He's a great asset to the Department and we are lucky to have a public servant like him working on our behalf.

It is great to see so many familiar faces in the audience. I have worked with you as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Attorney General, and U.S. Senator and now as your Secretary of the Interior. Coming to the Colorado River Water Users Association conference feels a lot like home, far away from the partisan bickering of Washington, D.C. Here we see each other not as Republicans and Democrats, but as comrades in arms in addressing the difficult challenges on the Colorado River.

When President Obama asked me to become Secretary of the Interior, he asked that I work to help people and communities – urban and rural – to solve problems regardless of whether those communities were blue, red or purple.

At the Department of the Interior, we have the awesome task of serving as custodian of America's cultural heritage and its natural resources. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Colorado River. From the headwaters of the river in Rocky Mountain National Park, to the border with Mexico, we are stewards of 11 national parks, 7 national wildlife refuges, and millions of acres of land in trust for Native American tribes. The water projects operated by the Bureau of Reclamation provide drinking water for 25 million people and irrigation for the entire southwest. Our responsibilities on the Colorado River are far reaching and cut across the issues that all of you are involved in.

I grew up in the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, not far from the New Mexico border. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To the west are the San Juans. And our land was crossed by tributaries of the great Rio Grande. For five generations, my family has farmed and ranched the same lands, relying on the waters of the river to sustain our way of life. For my parents, and for their parents and their grandparents, water was the lifeblood of our community.

And, like so many communities, when the waters would run low or dry up, we faced hard times and frequent water wars. That is why as I have often flown over the Colorado River and Lake Mead, and see Lake Mead at its lowest level in its history and further declining in elevation, I fear the hardships and conflict that could arise.

As I speak to you today, the Colorado River is facing a record drought. The period between 2000 to 2010 has been the driest 11-year period in the 102-year historical record for the Colorado River Basin. Moreover, scientists who examined tree-ring data estimate that this period is one of the driest in the Basin in over 1,000 years.

And there are no clear signs of an end to this drought. The countless communities that rely on the river to sustain them are being forced to make tough choices at a time with few obvious solutions in sight.

Moreover, as we enter our second decade of drought conditions, another reality complicates the picture: climate change and its emerging challenges—challenges that we are only just beginning to understand-- may dwarf in complexity the issues that the Basin States have faced so far. Some estimates have identified a risk of a 20-30 percent decline in available water supplies in this Basin due to climate change.

Those of you in this room know how those who came before us divided the water of the Colorado River and overestimated the average yield. And with record droughts and the reality of climate change further shrinking available water supplies, we will have to work together like never before to solve these water challenges. In that regard, I pledge to you the full cooperation of the Department of the Interior.

As we chart the future, we can turn around and go back to the ways of river management of the past, where it was too often every state for itself, and every stakeholder only looking out for him or herself. We can re-create the water wars of the last century.

Or we can continue to move forward together down the road of long-term, cooperative river management in which the seven Basin States, the federal government, and the many other stakeholders partner to find creative solutions to tough problems.

Although it may not be the easy road, I think I can safely speak for most everyone here when I say that the road of cooperation is the right one to take.

We must choose consensus over controversy.

We must pick collaboration with each other over clobbering one another.

We must build a water policy that is inclusive of all interests – urban, agriculture, tribal, recreational, and environmental – and where all parties recognize that the other has an equal stake in keeping the river healthy.

If we succeed in this - and I'm confident that we can – we will find a way to transform the challenges of today into opportunities for tomorrow.

As many of you know, I am not a newcomer to this issue.

When I was Director of Natural Resources for Colorado in the 90's, California was experiencing drought conditions. I served as Colorado's representative to help initiate a 7-state consensus process to deal with concerns that California was using the Colorado River in excess of its allocation.

The successful effort to deal with what many thought to be an intractable problem took hard work. I visited all seven state capitals and participated in countless meetings. But out of those meetings we developed a commitment to shared problem solving. My successors forged solutions – and avoided multi-state litigation.

As they built relationships among the Basin's leaders, they also built consensus around the ways to address California's use of the Colorado River.

Twenty years later – and facing a not-so different situation – I think we can use some of the same tools to tackle the problems of today.

This includes respecting the Law of the River as the cornerstone of our work.

This means understanding the importance of face-to-face meetings and strong relationships built on respect and trust.

And it means balancing what's best for one party in the short-term with what's best for the Colorado River Basin in the long-term.

We are already employing some of these tactics in our work at the Department of the Interior.

With our new WaterSMART program, we are working with stakeholders to build a sustainable water supply through various grant programs. We are performing a national water census – the first one done since 1978 – which will enable us to rely on facts and up-to-date science when it comes to making important decisions.

In the Lower Colorado Region, we are more than halfway through a one-year pilot project at the Yuma Desalting Plant, one of the world's largest reverse osmosis desalination plants. I was in Yuma a few weeks ago to check on the operation. It is a success.

At the halfway point, the plant had already recovered more than 16,000 acre-feet of water, which were included in water deliveries to Mexico and helped reduce the demand on Lake Mead.

We anticipate that the test run of the Yuma Desalting Plant will conclude this spring under-budget and ahead-of-schedule, with nearly 30,000 acre-feet of water recovered.

The Yuma Desalting plant serves as an excellent example of how we can build upon the successes of interstate and bi-national agreements to meet our water needs both now and in the future.

Not far from Yuma is another project made possible through shared funding and expertise. The Brock Reservoir – located just north of the All-American Canal - is in initial operation. The reservoir is already saving water during its testing phase and is designed to save tens of thousands of acre-feet of water each year through its operations, further reducing the draw on Lake Mead.

Collaboration is also enabling us to turn our attention to the important environmental issues on the Colorado River. To date, the Lower Colorado River Multi Species Conservation Program has stocked nearly 150,000 endangered razorback sucker and bonytail fish into the Colorado River system. It has restored 255 acres of valuable marsh and backwater habitat. It has planted more than 1000 acres of cottonwood-willow and mesquite and provides continuing research and monitoring of the 26 species that rely on the river system.

And the Upper Colorado Recovery Program is making major strides in protecting the four endangered fish on the Upper Colorado through significant habitat improvements.

In the Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon Dam, we are also making important progress.

Thanks to Anne Castle, who spoke to you about this administration priority at last year's conference, we have reinvigorated the Adaptive Management Program for the Glen Canyon Dam.

First, we are developing a protocol for conducting additional high-flow experiments at Glen Canyon Dam over a ten-year period beginning in 2011. In a few days we will release a draft environmental assessment that analyzes the effects of implementing this protocol and your review and input of this draft will be valuable as we move forward.

Second, we listened to Tribal concerns regarding cultural impacts of fish management in areas considered sacred by a number of Tribes. Following government-to-government consultation, we are working to balance our respect for the cultural and religious tribal concerns, while also meeting our obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

We are committed to working collaboratively to address the complex issue of control and removal of non-native fish in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. A draft environmental assessment is being developed to evaluate a wide range of possible actions that could reduce the predation on endangered fish in the river, and the assessment will be released in the next few days to cooperating agencies for their review.

Third, we've made an extraordinary amount of progress in moving forward on the development of qualitative goals – called “Desired Future Conditions” for the Glen Canyon Program. We believe that development of these targets and milestones is both overdue and essential to the success of this program.

All Glen Canyon stakeholders should have an understanding of where the program is headed, and we should have targets against which to measure our performance.

Fourth, we are developing a long-term experimental and management plan for Glen Canyon Dam. We must build upon what we have learned from the experimentation and the enormous body of science obtained under the Adaptive Management Program during the past 15 years.

Beginning in early 2011, Interior will work with the Adaptive Management Program stakeholders to develop a flexible plan to allow for future adaptation as we move forward.

Collaboration has been the key to all of these Glen Canyon milestones.

Finally, when I met with the representatives of the seven basin states in Phoenix this October, we spoke of the ongoing work to develop a bi-national cooperative program with Mexico on the Colorado River.

Although we are doing much on the domestic front to address changing water supplies and to prepare for low-reservoir conditions, we must also find ways in which Mexico and the United States can continue to advance our water management efforts.

Since then, together with the U.S. and Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission, we have been working closely with our counterparts in Mexico to develop a structure that honors our 1944 water treaty while also encouraging fair and responsible water-sharing.

Today, we are close to reaching an important agreement with Mexico. I am traveling to Mexico City this weekend to discuss these Colorado River matters, as well as other natural resource topics of interest to both countries.

As most of you know – and perhaps as many of you personally felt – a major earthquake hit the Mexicali Valley in northern Baja California last April. The earthquake resulted in a loss of life and and injuries as well as badly damaged roads, buildings, canals and other irrigation infrastructure. The damage will prevent Mexico from being able to fully use its Colorado River supply.

Knowing this, are working together as neighbors and partners to find a solution whereby Mexico would be able to defer delivery – temporarily – of a portion of its Colorado River water as its canals and pipelines are repaired.

Finalizing an agreement on this arrangement is very important. Not only are we able to collaborate with Mexico as good neighbors should, but we are also having candid discussions on a number of issues that are critical to our collective interest in long-term operations on the Colorado River, including ways to address potential shortages, cooperating on new water supplies, and protecting our environment.

We want to build on the progress and momentum created this year to secure a comprehensive agreement for binational cooperation on the Colorado River that will address the ongoing challenges in the basin, including drought and climate change.

To conclude, the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin are immense in size and scope.

And all of us in this room know that there is no simple solution, no silver bullet, to resolve our looming water management issues.

But I am optimistic about our future together.

I have witnessed firsthand the recent trajectory of water management on the Colorado River. Where once there were only battles, there now is a structural framework for collaborative solutions. Where other river basins are mired in conflict, the Colorado River Basin serves as a working model for multi-state cooperation.

Perhaps that's because collaboration is the way of the West. To survive out here, settlers had to work together. To raise a barn, you needed the helping hands of your neighbors. To build a ditch to irrigate your crops, you needed the partnership of other farmers. When fires or droughts threatened communities, folks had to band together.

So, just as the Colorado River binds our communities, so too does the power of cooperation. We know it will take an ‘all hands on deck' approach to keep our river healthy today and for the generations to come.

Thank you for all your dedication and partnership to contribute to thoughtful and comprehensive solutions.

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