Interview: Barry Wirth|
Barry Wirth is the primary regional spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation. He was interviewed on a point overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam, hence the frequent references in the dialogue to the location.
First of all, the Colorado River Compact. What is it and why does it
matter to this location we're in?
The Colorado River Compact, in my opinion, is basically the skeletal
process that brought order to chaos. You had seven fairly unruly states trying to deal with the Colorado River in its early years and the Compact allowed the states to divide the waters into the upper and lower Basin for the states to use. And, it provided the skeletal framework for about seventy-five years a very complex water law that followed. But, without that Compact, basically dividing the river in half - four upper Basin states getting a share, three lower Basin states getting a share, nothing would have been possible over the long run.
Now, the Compact rather than an end, really in many respects a beginning.
What is the importance of the Colorado River Storage Project?
The Colorado River Storage Project allowed the upper Basin states to develop water both for their own purposes and to guarantee that in lean water years, they could make deliveries to the lower Basin states. Essentially, what we created was water bank. We have long-term carry over storage in the upper Basin states in the form of Lake Powell and during periods of drought, drought that comes every cyclic period, we can deliver water to the lower Basin states and still allow the states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico to utilize their portion of the River. Under the terms of the contract, excuse me, under the terms of the Compact, the states have to guarantee delivering seventy-five million acre feet of water in any rolling ten-year period to the lower Basin states. If you have a drought at that particular point in time, you may not have enough water to use within your own state, like in Utah, and make that delivery to the lower Basin states. Well, having Lake Powell in place, we have water in storage that we can draw down during drought periods.
>Help the lay person understand why water management is so critical in an
In an arid region, you have such a very limited of water to work with, you
almost have to account for every single drop. In today's world, we not only have to account for water for agricultural purposes and for municipal and industrial purposes, we also have to account for water for environmental purposes. Managing every drop of water to get the broadest benefit out of that water is really important to us. Whether that water is in place for
endangered species and their habitat, whether the water is destined an agricultural use or a city, we just have a limited amount of water to work with and we have such a population density in the southwest, we really have to manage it carefully.
To look at the immense size of Lake Powell, the immense amount of water
that is stored, it seems you're storing far more water than you could ever use.
If you have to deliver 8.32 million acre feet of water every year to the
lower Basin, most of that for the three lower Basin states and 750,000 acre feet for the Republic of Mexico under the terms of the treaty, you have to have quite a bit of water in storage if you have a three or a four or five year drought. Take for instance the late 1980's. We went from an El Nino period in the early to mid 80's to a drought period, almost like flipping a switch on and off. That water was vitally important during the late 1980's to make those deliveries on downstream. It takes alot of water. And, you just can't get by with an insignificant amount.
Droughts may be rather rare, but they do seem to reappear with frequency
here in the Southwest.
We had drought in the 1930's, we had drought in the 50's, we had drought
in the 70's, we had a very severe drought in the 1980's. The pattern doesn't go radically up and down. It seems to extend over a period of several years, going up and coming back down. The beauty of Lake Powell is if you have somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-seven million acre feet of water in storage, you can weather that for five year drought period by drawing down as you need each year. Uh, in the late 1980's, I don't remember how many feet we brought that reservoir down, but it came down a substantial amount and then it spent much of the early 1990's refilling and by the mid 1990's, it was essentially full and that's where it stands right now today. But, sure, sure shooting you're going to predict somewhere in the not too far future there' going to be another drought and it'll start coming back down, ever so slowly, but it'll come down over a period of years.
Let's consider the standpoint of agriculture because, in the reasons for the construction of the storage project dams, one was the discussion that we need to service agriculture. So, let me ask you if this dam is such a great success, where are the farms?
There's no water that's pumped directly out of this reservoir with the
exception of water going into Page, Arizona and to the Navajo generating station for cooling purposes. Essentially, this water is held in a water reserve account. Lake Powell is basically a bank full of water to draw on when we need it for drought. This is no like say, a municipal reservoir where you fill it up, draw water off to irrigate lawns, draw water off to run a factory, draw water off for cities to use in their drinking fountains. This reservoir is specifically here to provide that long-term bank of water. And, while it's in place, it generates alot of additional benefits, four hundred million dollars a year in recreation values. We generate quite a substantial amount of electricity as water passes through the dam. So, we're getting benefit out of it, but it's not the same type of benefit as you might think of with the reservoir adjacent to a city that is essentially your water supply for that town.
Inside the dam yesterday, I saw that over the years 1.5 billion dollars had
been earned through electricity sales. One can't help notice what seems to be an incongruity if this is such a good hydroelectric generation facility, why is there a massive coal-fired power plant on the other side of town?
There's a huge amount of people in the southwest United States. The
power goes for somewhat different purposes. Coal fired power plants provide base load power plant. It takes a long time to bring a coal fired plant up to whatever speed you want it. So, it provides the power that is kind of needed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week varying a little bit each way. Hydroelectric power has the ability to come up a little bit quicker when you need more power, you back off a little bit, when you need a little less. It's called peaking power. Now, at Glen Canyon Dam, in the last few years, we have admittedly reduced the amount of peaking power benefit because of environmental considerations. But, there's a big demand for
power in the southwest United States running from California all the way to Nebraska in the midwest and it all gets put to good use. It, it's generated in a little different way, um, and used just a little bit differently. One of the things that for instance Glen Canyon's power does is it provides, a certain amount of power to agricultural uses in the upper Basin states, it provides power to publicly owned municipal power systems throughout the upper Basin states. For instance, in the state of Utah, the city of Murray gets power from Glen Canyon power the city Bountiful does, some of the rural cities in Colorado do. The power goes into what's called the public power system. Rural electric cooperatives get power from Glen Canyon. The overall power usage, the pattern of the way we generated the power has changed over the last few years. But the volumes of power haven't necessarily changed.
Let's talk about the spot that we're in. What criteria had to be met for the Bureau of Reclamation to say, we have found an appropriate place for a
substantial storage project?
Well, you had to have a location capable of storing water. In other
words, you had to have a large canyon or reservoir basin. You had to have a supply of rock or aggregate to make the concrete to, to fill the dam. You had to have the water supply to fill the reservoir. Glen Canyon from the aspect fitting the need for a reservoir site was an excellent location. There were several sites that were under consideration for the dam and that debate is a matter for historians to sort all out. The key for the Bureau of Reclamation is in today's world, how do we manage this facility behind us and do the best job we can in accordance with all the laws and the needs of society and the environment. The reasons for building here versus building
somewhere else, we're talking decisions now, occasions that were made forty- five years ago by congress and the American people and I suspect the historians will have a field day for many years debating whether this was the right place or the wrong place. Technically, this is an excellent dam
location. The rock is good, the foundation is good, the abutments are good, the water supply is there, the material necessary to build the dam was in place. So, from our perspective, this was an excellent location. Should it have been built here? Should it have been built somewhere else? I can't answer that question. That was a decision congress made and we built it and we operate it.
We're looking at a fifty year change of time and it seems to indicate, and I'm sure you can appreciate from your perspective how the entire process, maybe the very agency of reclamation, has in fact changed over that period of time.
The Bureau of Reclamation has undergone one of the most amazing changes of any agency of the federal government. We truly have gone from an agency who's entire perspective and objective was to develop water resources, develop them for what was called beneficial purposes, which basically is consumptive uses of water. In the last period of years, starting probably in the early to mid 80's, and definitely continuing into the 1990's, the
Bureau of Reclamation is evolved in an agency who's objective is stewardship of a water resource. That stewardship means making that water available for the traditional consumptive uses, but also factoring into the process the very distinct environmental responsibility we have. We are one of the largest habitat managers for endangered species on the planet, amazingly enough. All of this water running down the river below us right now has a factor of environmental concerns in the management equation and (inaudible) we've evolved from an agency who had an objective of building structures like this to an agency who's objective is how can we best manage those
facilities. The facilities cannot go away. We've got to have the developed water resource. We've got to have the hydro power resource, we've got to have the recreation value that regional economies depend upon. We have to have a better way of managing all of that for some measure of environmental sensitivity. In today's world, we would have located this dam through a process that would have been significantly different.
Help me understand that.
Well, first of all, this is a hypothetical question, because basically, all the usable dam sites have been developed and all the water has been developed-- that's an interesting hypothetical question the dams have been built and we're not building more dams. Not just philosophically are we not building more dams, but projects of this magnitude, there just isn't the
water left to develop and the sites left to, to physically develop. But, from a philosophically perspective, and I think it plays into the management of today's facilities, we would look at a site in terms of what habitat exists, what endangered species are present, if any, how would we mitigate the loss of wetlands, how would we physically site the dam in the least obtrusive way. There's a lot of factors that basically lead to a wider environmental footprint on the landscape. But, you cannot have a developed and managed resource without some physical impact. So, the key is finding a way to make that development the most environmentally compatible, meet the
base necessities, the baseline necessities for society, and not carry it one step too far from an environmental viewpoint.
In your informed opinion, if the needs still existed and the resource still existed and needed to be managed, could a project such as the Glen Canyon Dam be built in the late twentieth century with the regulations, congressional mandates that exist?
I don't know. I really honestly don't know. Congress would probably be very hesitant both from a cost viewpoint and an environmental viewpoint, but then at the same time, congress would have to wrestle with the issue of, by not building the facility, what have you done to meet the needs of an emerging society? And you probably would have much more severe restriction in place relative to what other uses and populations can exist in the southwest United States. But, the inverse is the situation. The people came, the people moved to the cities, the people moved to the southwest, industry is flocking to the southwest and they need an infrastructure to support that. And, in the absence of, of managing that growth in other way; we manage growth through the resource of water and through power. I think that over time, we're going to have to come to grips with the fact that we've got to better extend that water supply that we've developed, the water supply behind this dam through management and conservation practices because there isn't anymore water to develop and there aren't anymore dam sites to develop, but the people keep coming. So, the theoretical question of would congress allow us to build a dam here today, probably really turns into the real life question that congress and the administration and the states governments and the local governments all have to share in and that is how are we going to extend this water supply, maximize it and still provide an environmental benefit at the same time.
How would you characterize the role of water in the west? John Wesley
Powell predicted it would be the key to everything, key to the future of this section of the country.
Water is the lifeblood of the west. It's been said over and over and over, in the state of Colorado, in the state capitol, it says something, there's an inscription on the wall, something to the effect of the story of the west is written in water and I think that is essentially true. Everywhere the west developed, it was adjacent to a water source. Whether it was well, whether it was a river, it's just, it's that simple. You can't have anymore people than you have water to support them.
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