Sunday, January 6, 2013

Can Reclamation Change its Ways?

There has been lots of chatter in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the recently released Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).  This really is a ground-breaking study in many ways: it enshrines the likelihood that climate change is likely to have an impact on water supplies in the basin in the future; it acknowledges that the lower basin is already out of kilter in the supply vs. demand equation, and is highly dependent on deliveries of excess water from the upper basin to continue meeting that demand; and probably biggest of all, it largely acknowledges that the era of large public works projects to address water needs is probably over.

If you're familiar with the history of BOR you know how important that last point is.  If you're not you should really read Rivers of Empire, by Donald Worster, or Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner.  In a recent editorial in the Arizona Republic, Robert Glennon (a former professor of mine in law school) and Peter Culp (a former student of Glennon's) say that:
For a century, the Bureau of Reclamation worked to build an unrivaled network of water infrastructure. With this study, that same agency has embraced a very different task: helping the West to find a path to sustainability in the midst of growing scarcity.         
The Bureau of Reclamation's call to action ... is for more cooperation and collaboration, and a broadened dialogue that engages the Colorado River's stakeholders to embrace a modern river management philosophy that works to serve the needs of the basin's people and its ecosystems.
A recent article by Brian Richter, of the Nature Conservancy, praises the open and inclusive process that produced the report:
(T)he Bureau’s new study of the Colorado basin reveals that the cream can still rise to the top when exposed to the open air.  By inviting input from all interested parties and prioritizing those ideas using a fair and objective review, the Bureau is helping to set a new standard for water planning. 
 He also talks at length about the potential for conservation in both the agricultural and municipal sectors to result in additional water flowing to the Colorado delta in Mexico.  Now, if the Colorado delta were located in this country, rather than in Mexico I have my doubts that it would have been allowed to reach the incredibly sorry state it is currently in.  The recent agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, dealing primarily with the effect of water shortages in the river on deliveries to Mexico, also included some benefits to the Delta.  This should be an important outgrowth of future management efforts on the river; and because any action taken by BOR will be subject to federal environmental laws (NEPA, ESA) future efforts by BOR to implement the recommendations in the study should result in some incremental benefit to the delta.

But all this discussion of the study and the praise for BOR gives me some pause when considering the type of recommendations from this study that appear likely to be implemented over the next 30 years.  I can't help but wonder whether BOR is the appropriate entity to implement these changes, has the institutional capacity to make these sorts of changes, and most importantly would provide the most efficient solutions to the problems faced in the Basin.

There are certainly two sides to this as the history of BOR shows.  While there are clear benefits to having BOR implement programs that closely involve them in the management of water resources in the West, including de facto control over the administration of some water rights, there are also some negative aspects to that involvement.  Reclamation projects have historically come with significant subsidies from the federal government - i.e. taxpayers in Maine and Florida helping to finance water infrastructure in California and Arizona.  A significant portion of this infrastructure likely would not have been built if paid for entirely by the direct benficiaries.

But accepting that subisidy required accepting a large and ongoing role for BOR in water management in your state, in addition to leading to the applicability of the aforementioned federal environmental laws to those actions.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing and having the state take over the project wouldn't eliminate the involvement of federal environmental laws - there will almost certainly be some sort of federal involvement in any large project if for no other reason than the preponderance of public land in the West, where such projects are often constructed.  But because federal projects are BIG on process, they can take what seems an interminably long time to implement.  Again, not necessarily a bad thing but if you're on a tight schedule - look elsewhere.

So the question that may need to be asked by the basin states is: How much do we want BOR involved in implementing the recommended changes that will be needed to help the Basin stay in balance with supply and demand of water?  It's not a trivial matter.  BOR is full of very bright people who know as much or more about water management than almost anyone else around.  But that high level of knowledge can also make a bureaucrat into a bit of an autocrat - they know what's best and you should clearly decide to accept it.  The way that this study was conducted provides some promising precedent that BOR has accepted that this will be a collaborative process.

I'm a big fan of locally-developed and locally-implemented solutions to resource allocation challenges.  But that may not be appropriate to solutions for a multi-state river basin.  But it seems likely that some solutions will be more applicable to smaller geographic areas - agricultural conservation programs will often be implemented within a given irrigation district, municipal conservation programs will have similar provider-specific application.  BOR can provide expertise to local areas to ease implementation of the programs.  Where specific solutions involve transfer of water rights that are part of the federal water project, BOR will have to be involved.

But in my experience BOR can often be more of an impediment to local solutions than an enabler.  There will need to be some changes to their policies to prevent this from occurring (or at least to dispel this perception).  If BOR really is trying to change it's stripes and become a facilitator for wholistic, sustainable water policies I think their participation should be welcome.  As long as they know when to step aside and let the local partners take over.  This report shows that we are clearly in a new era for water management in the West (arguably began with the 2007 Shortage Sharing agreement).  It will take some time before we know if we are on the right track and there will undoubtedly be some hiccups along the way.  But I think we are headed in the right direction.

edited 1/9/13 to add link to Brian Richter article and minor clarifying edits.

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