Challenges of the Future in the Colorado River Basin


Denver, Colorado       April 12, 2013

Challenges of the Future in the Colorado River Basin

Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, US Department of the Interior, opened the Annual Water Law Symposium with her keynote address.  Castle focused on future challenges in the severely endangered Colorado River Basin ( “Basin”) and the importance of operational flexibility in managing the Basin.  She emphasized that only strategic collaboration of governments, people, and nations can achieve needed levels of flexibility and preserve the future of the Basin.  In her keynote address, Castle discussed four projects involving the management and conservation of the Basin: (1) Colorado River Supply and Demand Study (“Study”); (2) Minute 319 interpreting the 1944 US-Mexico Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande (“Water Treaty”); (3) Navajo Generating Station; and (4) Glen Canyon Dam.

As a part of a broader Basin study program, the Study evaluated existing infrastructure and supply and demand imbalances of the Basin.  Furthermore, the Study attempted to develop strategies for projecting future imbalances and moving forward to the water sustainability in the Basin.  Cooperation and partnership of the federal government, seven Basin states, ten Basin Native American tribes, and multiple governmental and non-governmental organizations was essential for completion of this three-year-long, comprehensive Study completed in January 2013.  The Study confirmed that with rapidly increasing water demands, environmental needs, and continuous droughts, Basin water supply remains at least static, and is possibly declining.  Having established a common technical foundation model, the Study offered an opportunity for thoughtful discussion through an open comment process.  It solicited ideas from general public on the ways to address the supply and demand imbalance in the Basin.  As a result, the Study received around 150 suggestions, yet all of the proposed solutions shared a common element: the total cost of implementing each of them would range between 3.5 and 6 billion dollars in 2060.  Wrapping up her discussion of the Study, Castle suggested that although the Study still needs to refine some areas and reduce uncertainties; the Study is “smart,” very detailed, should serve as a model for the future, and should serve as a tool for educating the public about the Basin.  She added that only broad support and collaborative efforts will result in concrete methods advancing the common goal: to give a healthy river to future generations.

The second Basin management development that Castle discussed was Minute 319 that interprets the Water Treaty.  The Water Treaty, inter alia, regulates utilization of waters of the Colorado River across international boundaries.  Pursuant to Minute 319, Mexico and the United States must share water shortages, as well as water surpluses.  Prior to Minute 319, the two countries shared water shortages only.  Sharing surpluses will allow for more reliability and predictability of water supply in the United States and Mexico.  Minute 319 also extended Minute 318 by allowing Mexico to defer its water rights and store its Colorado River allotment in Lake Mead without losing its rights to the allotment.  Such deferred delivery benefits both countries.  On the one hand, it enhances Mexico’s water security and storage capacity.  On the other hand, it increases the water levels of Lake Mead, ensuring predictable water storage levels for lower-Basin states.  Another important provision of Minute 319 authorized establishment of an Intentionally Created Mexican Allocation, which enabled Mexico to adjust its water delivery schedule to allow for later use.  Minute 319 also created a pilot program that provides water for planned environmental flows and a one-time high-volume pulse flow for the Colorado River delta.  The goal of this pilot program is to create new wetland habitat in the dry and damaged delta and establish a foundation for further restoration projects.  Castle emphasized that such productive collaboration between Mexico and the United States is especially remarkable in light of the fact that even US states often fail to cooperate with each other when it comes to water sustainability.  Castle called Minute 319 a “breakthrough” and a historical example of a three-year cooperation of the US and Mexican federal governments, seven US states, International Boundary and Water Commission, and many non-governmental organizations.

Moving on to her third topic, Castle discussed the Navajo Generating Station (“NGS”).  The need for additional energy generation in the Southwest became apparent in the 1960s.  However, the initial suggestion to build two hydroelectric dams did not pass through vigorous opposition from the National Park Service and environmental groups.  Instead, the compromise was to build NGS, a 2250-megawatt coal-fired power plant on territory of the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona.  NGS has become an important energy, income, and employment source for the region and the Navajo Tribe.  NGS-generated energy serves many purposes, including pumping Colorado River water for Arizona, Nevada, and California.  Revenues from selling energy surplus and mining coal on reservations lands return back to the Native American tribes.  In addition, NGS is one of the main sources of employment for several tribes.  However, the power plant is also the second largest source of nitrogen oxide (“NOx”), largely contributing to the notorious haze in the area.  NOx emissions have become increasingly concerning in light of NGS’s proximity to three wilderness parks, a national park, and several Native American tribes.  Furthermore, high levels of NOx emissions negatively affect the tourism industry, which has historically generated substantial income for the area as well.

Castle discussed the Glen Canyon Dam (“Dam”) as her final keynote address topic.  The Dam is a physical dividing point between upper and lower Basin water supplies on the Colorado River.  Basin restoration efforts involving the Dam include releasing water from the Dam and stimulating historically natural seasonal floods.  In the past, the Bureau of Reclamation had to complete an individual environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for each such release.  The process often resulted in irreversible delays, where water releases would not occur during optimal natural conditions.  Recently, the Bureau of Reclamation was able to receive an approval of a programmatic EIS that lists conditions when planned water releases are permissible.  This change allows for flexibility and ability to operate the Basin restoration program seamlessly.  Following the programmatic EIS, the Department of the Interior initiated the first high-volume release in November of 2012, and more similar releases are on the way.  The goal is to study whether repeated high-volume water releases can stimulate natural conditions, retain sediment, and stop extensive erosion of the Basin.  In addition, the Department of the Interior and approximately twenty cooperating agencies are currently working on the Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan for operation of the Dam.  Castle noted that she expects the release of the initial draft in the beginning of 2014.

In closing, Castle once again reiterated the scale of problems that the Basin is facing as a result of climate change, population growth, unquantified water rights for Native American reservations, interests of competing industries, and environmental dilemmas.  She praised the recognition that submitting Basin problems to the judiciary does not help to solve these problems – only mutual efforts and cooperation can lead the way to water sustainability and preserve the Basin for the generations to come.