Senate Hearing on Bureau’s Colorado River Basin Study: Seeking a Common Factual Understanding

The Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing yesterday on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.  Seven witnesses extolled the virtues of the follow up to the Bureau’s study released last year.  The “elephants in the room” were recreational/environmental demands, agricultural water use, Indian water rights and supply augmentation. 

The Floor Show

The hearing opened with senatorial recognition of the critical role of water in the west.  Senator Udall stated “water makes the west as we know it possible.”  Senator Lee observed that water is “always a contentious and challenging issue.”  Senator Heinrich “Colorado River usage is the most important issues to those living in the western United States.”

To read full testimony, go to the Committee Website.  Here are my favorite snippets:

Commissioner Connor: “The period from 2000 to 2013 is shaping up to be the lowest 14-year period in the over 100-year historical record for the Colorado River.  Tree-ring reconstructions of streamflow indicate that the current 14-year period, which began in 2000, is one of the lowest in the Basin in over 1,200 years.”

Tanya Trujillo (Colorado River Board of California): “Continuing to build off the success of Minute No. 319 would result in additional basin-wide benefits.”

Don Ostler (Upper Colorado River Commission): “The study shows that the probability of a Compact driven curtailment of use, (or Compact call), is low for the Upper Basin over the 50 year study period …The most significant factor affecting this probability is the assumptions used to estimate future supply including global climate models.”

Darrly Vigil (Ten Tribes Partnership):  “Because the Ten Tribes have significant quantities of recognized water rights which will increase as their remaining rights are finally quantified, any study of water in the Basin must reasonably include the Ten Tribes.”

Taylor Hawes (The Nature Conservancy):  While the Basin study provided “ground breaking” consideration of flows for environmental and recreational purposes, “the Study was, in large part, limited by the water supply model used to perform the study.…  (T)he model can not tell us whether flow needs are being met at key locations, because it was not designed to assess flows.  Consequently, many key flow needs and solutions were left out of the studies.”

Kathleen Ferris (Arizona Municipal Water Users Association):  “We must explore all of our options, including augmentation, to ensure a balanced and sustainable approach to this complex issue.”

Reagan Waskom (Colorado Water Institute):  Survey and interview of farmers and ranchers using Colorado River water about how to address shortages “indicated a strong preference for water conservation and efficiency (77 percent); working towards public policy that supports keeping land and water in agriculture was ranked second highest at 75 percent.”

Challenges Ahead

The tenure of testimony and discussion was clear-eyed, professional and serious.  The Work-Groups established as the next step in the Colorado River Basin study have important work ahead.  Here is where the heavy lifting will occur:

  • Recreational/Environmental: The region’s $26 billion recreational economy with about 250,000 jobs and environmental flow goals will join the traditional list of objectives (power generation, agricultural and municipal demands).  As Ms. Hawes noted, the Bureau study showed “flow related values and resources would be likely negatively impacted in the future.”  The water supply/demand imbalance is probably greater than forecasted in the Bureau study.
  • Agricultural Water Use:  The “water conservation potential” of agriculture will be a forum for the issues raised in the Western Governor’s Association/Western States Water Council water transfer study released last year.  The projected decline in agriculture found in the Bureau study will prove politically controversial for rural communities.  The water supply/demand imbalance is probably greater than forecasted in the Bureau study. 
  • Indian Water Rights:  With the right to divert in excess of 2.9 million AF in the Basin (under court decrees and congressionally recognized settlements) and currently unresolved claims on the horizon, the development and use of these rights will have a significant impact on the water supply/demand balance in the Basin.  Again, the water supply/demand imbalance is probably greater than forecasted in the Bureau study.
  • Supply Augmentation:  Must be part of the mix.  Will desalination prove viable?   The most productive tool available will be Minute 319 and desalination projects.

During questioning by Senator Udall, a refreshing theme emerged.  When asked what “congress should do”, Ms. Ferris gave a compelling and refreshing answer: let the parties work on the problems and find solutions.  Let solutions find what role, if any, there is for the Beltway.  Ms. Hawes added if Basin interests can coordinate resource management with Mexico, “we can make it work here.”

Senator Udall appreciated the “back stop” role for Congress.  He pondered whether the best strategy was to let Ms. Ferris and Ms. Mulroy (Southern Nevada Water Authority) go into a room and solve the matter.  The hearing ended with a discussion of the need for political will.  Senator Udall said “with technology and political will, we will get where we need to be.”

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About Rodney T. Smith

Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D., President of Stratecon Inc.—an economics and strategic planning consulting firm—advises public and private sector water users on the acquisition, sale and leasing of water rights and water supplies in the western U.S. He is routinely involved in economic valuation of water rights, water investments, and negotiation of water acquisition and transportation agreements and has served as an expert witness in the economic valuation of groundwater resources, disputes over the economic interpretation of water contracts, economics of water conservation and water use practices, and the socio-economic impacts of land fallowing. For more information, see