The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, created in 1902, is best known for building hundreds of dams, canals and powerplants in the West, including Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee—massive water projects that opened the arid region to large-scale settlement but that often destroyed prime salmon and trout habitat. But in recent decades, the Bureau’s mission has shifted to embrace an ambitious conservation and river restoration mission. Trout recently spoke with BOR commissioner Michael Connor. Some edited excerpts below:
Do you fish, and if so, any favorite places?
I love to fly fish—and I wish I had more time for it. I started fly fishing when I was at law school in Boulder, Colo. back in 1988. I learned on the Poudre River and often backpacked and fished in that area. When I worked on the Senate Natural Resources Committee for Sen. [Jeff] Bingaman and went back to New Mexico at lot, I’d go on the East Fork of the Jemez River, about 45 minutes from Albuquerque—a small stream but I probably had my best days up there. Back here in D.C., there is the Gunpowder River in northern Baltimore County. It’s a tough stream to fish, given the pressure it gets, but it’s a gorgeous place.
The California Delta is one place where competing water needs are being hashed out. It’s an extremely difficult problem, isn’t it?
In some places, these conflicts are more bitter and visible than in other places. The California Delta issues are front and center, given the magnitude of the communities involved—you’re talking about the water supply for 25-plus million Californians. This is where you see the increased demand for huge communities in Southern California, the Bay area. Then the agricultural production of the Central Valley is an important source of economic activity for the country also, given the level of production and high-value crops that come out of the Central Valley. At the same time, that estuary, the Bay Delta, is just one of the most important estuaries on the West Coast. We need to do a better job of ensuring that we do all we can to protect these salmon runs and the fish and wildlife that depend on that critical habitat.
How will we know we’re in a better position—what will it look like from a water management standpoint?
Because we’ll have some level of redundancy, we’ll have water-sharing agreements among parties, we’ll have done a better job of using all the resources we have to store water—underground storage as well as existing storage facilities. We just have to make use of all the tools we have to ensure that our ongoing crises and shortages don’t get to a point where they can’t be managed.
Does the Bureau’s planning and water management acknowledge the need for healthy streamflows in many stressed Western river basins, such as the Colorado?
We’re acknowledging the need as well as working to integrate that thinking into our planning efforts. Our WaterSmart program is designed to better measure the resource and better understand how it may change over time—for instance, how increasing atmospheric temperatures impact streamflows and aquatic species, and how we can improve the resiliency of our ecosystems. In some places that means improving access to higher-altitude tributaries and creeks. Ultimately, we’re looking at our WaterSmart basin studies program to develop some adaptive strategies and actions to deal with some of these changes we’re seeing.
Do you think there’s a growing awareness among affected communities in the West about the importance of healthy stream flows for ecosystems?
Yes, I think so. Whether it’s specifically for environmental purposes and protection of species or whether it’s because people view healthy rivers as part of the quality of life in their communities, I think there’s a better appreciation of the need for taking care of our river systems [and] restoring our streams. Let me mention Interior Secretary [Ken] Salazar’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which is trying to build upon that grassroots local appreciation for having access to their rivers, being able to recreate in those natural areas and having them as a magnet for being outdoors. That’s what America’s Great Outdoors Initiative is all about.
Talk about the important relationship between water and energy use. You’ve been out front calling for better management of this so-called “energy-water nexus” – why is it important?
It starts with an understanding that there is a lot of water use in energy production, and there’s a lot of energy use in the transport, treatment and delivery of water. There’s a natural link there. We can do some things to better improve the integration of energy and water policies. Overall, that’s important because we’re living in an era of increasing demand for scarce resources. Understanding the integration of energy and water use promotes overall sustainability. The Bureau of Reclamation is in the water delivery and power generation business, so I felt strongly that we should be taking the lead in this area.
Controversies about either new dam construction or large-scale transbasin diversions figure prominently on great trout rivers like the Bighorn, Teton and Green—what’s the Bureau’s role in assessing such projects and is the agency taking specific steps to ensure fishery and recreational needs are part of the long-term picture?
Because of the Bureau’s history and our involvement in a lot of the great river systems you mention, I think we have an understanding of what may work and what may lead to lots of conflict. As we work with water managers in the West who bring us new ideas about water infrastructure, we bring some expertise about what’s possible and what’s not possible. Those projects that go forward have to go through the whole compliance process with National Environmental Policy Act [and] the Endangered Species Act. We have to consider potential impacts to tribal and cultural resources, too. So there are a host of policies now in place that ensure that those other values are considered from the start. In today’s information era, you can’t do anything behind the scenes and under the radar screen. There’s an openness to the process. Usually, my sense is that water projects that don’t prove to be sustainable in the end never really get off the starting blocks. Those that do go forward have to undergo intense scrutiny.
You recently said at the Elwha Dam removal ceremony that you hoped that “in coming decades the Bureau of Reclamation is known as much for river restoration as we are for dam operations.” What river restoration projects are priorities for you?
I’ve come to appreciate in my tenure here how difficult these river-restoration projects are. Two that come to mind where we’re really starting from ground zero to try to restore a natural fishery–the Trinity River basin and San Joaquin River restoration program, both in California. We’re in both systems, trying to recreate habit, reconnect those rivers to the ocean and increase flows. We’ve been statutorily charged with doing nothing else but restoring those rivers and fish runs. There’s quite a learning curve we’ve gone through—it’s going to take a lot of engineering and environmental expertise. We are gaining that rapidly at the Bureau. It’s going to allow us to do more of that work. I’m glad to see that the value of restoring these rivers has been recognized.