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Spencer Chumbley for Al Jazeera America

Federal river master: 'No shortages yet' on Colorado River

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López says water levels haven't reached a crisis point

In “Running Dry,” Fault Lines travels down the Colorado to find out who really controls water in the West—and what, if anything, is being done to protect it. The film premieres on Monday, Aug. 24, at 10 p.m. Eastern time/7 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


The Colorado River, the life-sustaining waterway of the American West, supplies water to nearly 40 million people. But years of drought and over-consumption have endangered the river, as well as the communities who rely on it for their livelihoods.

Estevan López is commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for water management in the West. Fault Lines spoke to him about the laws that govern the Colorado River, as well as why—when it comes to conservation—the federal government’s powers may be limited. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:


Fault Lines: What’s the biggest challenge for the Bureau of Reclamation when it comes to managing water from the Colorado River?

López: I think part of the biggest challenges that we probably face on the Colorado River is that management is really decentralized. We have certain responsibilities and we manage a lot of the water infrastructure on the river, but we don't regulate and we don't control water rights, for example.

The states control water rights. Then they distribute those water rights amongst water districts, and at municipalities and at every level, there's different responsibilities that go with those management activities. So getting all of those management activities coordinated and headed in a common direction is certainly a big challenge.

And those challenges must be just massively intensified given the shortage of supply?                   

People are certainly paying very, very close attention to this thing. There's a lot of anxiety over the potential for shortages. But let me be clear, if we look simply at the lower Colorado River, there has been no shortages yet. We've done a lot of careful planning and we've set in place guidelines that would, say, at certain reservoir elevations—as the reservoir levels drop—Nevada and Arizona have agreed that they would take shortages and they've agreed on the amounts of shortages they would take. 

So there's a recognition by all water users that something needs to be done, that we need to be prepared for possible shortages. To be frank, while we've done a lot of good work in terms of getting ready to distribute the shortages if and when we get to those levels, it's not enough yet.

Is there a certain point at which, if the water in a reservoir like Lake Mead goes below that threshold, the Bureau will put in place federally mandated restrictions?                                                                                                          

Generally, as I mentioned earlier, Reclamation does not play a regulatory role in most of the basins that we serve. We are a water wholesaler. We have put in dams and canal systems, pipelines and the delivery infrastructure to deliver water in wholesale to the users. On the Lower Colorado River – that is from Lees Ferry [in northern Arizona] on down to the Mexican border – the Secretary of Interior is charged to be the river master. She does play a regulatory role in that instance, and she has delegated that authority to the Commissioner of Reclamation.

So there, we do play a regulatory role. And if there were a shortage, we would play a role in how that shortage was distributed. The agreement from 2007, the Coordinated Operations Agreement between Lakes Powell and Mead, is something that was entered on a voluntarily basis amongst all of the states that take water from the Colorado River Basin, the seven basin states. We defined certain elevations basically at which, if the water in Lake Mead gets down to those elevations, we figured that's a pretty good indication that we need to do something to slow this down. So the lower basin states agreed that Arizona and Nevada would take certain shortages at those levels to try and slow things down.

Well, I'm personally not in favor of rewriting the law of the river. Water rights, for better or worse, have in most cases been defined as property rights.

Estevan López

commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation

These are emergency measures that kick into place once those levels drop below certain points?

I don't want to say they're emergency measures. They are voluntarily agreed to proactive steps to try and stave off a real emergency. A real emergency might be reached if we were getting to levels within Lake Mead where the city of Las Vegas, for example, couldn't get the water it needs. At that point, something needs to be done about slowing things down. These shortages happen well before that.

So you don't think the current situation can be described as an emergency? Las Vegas is building a third pipeline into Lake Mead to get to water that's sunk too low for the existing pipes to access.

I think that there's been planning to keep things from becoming a crisis.  All of the things that we're describing, including Las Vegas taking proactive steps to lower its intake level, are proactive steps to avert an outright crisis. We need to do more, and we are doing more. We're doing system pilot conservation programs to try and keep more water in Mead, and in the Upper Basin, they're looking at how they can reoperate some of their reservoirs and whether they can actually administer the use of water in case water needs to be let go by them. All of these are things we're basically preparing for the eventuality that the drought continues.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in America, was created in 1935 by the construction of the Hoover Dam. It is currently at less than 40 percent of its capacity.
Hanaan Sarhan for Al Jazeera America

What kind of conditions would have to exist before you consider imposing mandatory restrictions?

If we thought that we were getting to critical situations, where we're withdrawing much more water than is coming into the reservoirs, and we don't see any hope of really keeping it from continuing to plummet—and those levels are continuing to plummet—other than us stepping in and saying, "You have to do something different." That would have to be where we would do it. We haven't defined a set place where that would happen right now.

But the conditions aren't like that now?

They're not.

You don't think that there's a need to take those kinds of steps?

I don't think so. I think we continue to work on a voluntarily basis, and we are making progress on it. I know that there's concern that, are we making progress quick enough? At present, I think that we are. If we continue for another year and we predict that there's going to be shortages coming up in another year, and there's not good cooperation amongst the states and so forth, we may have to step in and do something unilaterally. But that's not the best way the manage the system.

This certainly feels like a crisis. If you go to areas in the Lower Colorado Basin and you see the levels, and hear people talking about the scale of the problem, it definitely feels like there's a need for action now.

There's some need for action, you're absolutely right. But the best action that we can take is one that's a consensus action, where everybody agrees to do this.

But nobody's going to agree to volunteer for cutbacks.

Well, they have.  They've done that before.

But everyone's got their own interests, right, in terms of protecting their own allocation?

Yes, but you know, there's a lot of good reasons for everybody to think about, “Do we want to keep it out of a crisis?” And so far, those discussions haven't broken down, and I think we want to continue to foster them.

Estevan López, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, tells Fault Lines' Sebastian Walker that the best way to manage the allocation of the Colorado River is for states to work together on a voluntary basis.
Spencer Chumbley for Al Jazeera America

How soon do you think we should be starting to think about rewriting the law of the river and looking at some of those laws, which many say are now outdated?

Well, I'm personally not in favor of rewriting the law of the river. That's a huge undertaking and one that is fraught with a lot of difficulties and potential pitfalls. Water rights, for better or worse, have in most cases been defined as property rights.

But we're talking about the Colorado River. It's not property.

The right to use the water is a property though. That's the way it's defined in law.

Do you think there's something wrong with that?

I don't know whether it's right or wrong. That's the way it is. I mean, is it wrong that I'm able to own an acre of land? I don't know, maybe it is. But that's the way the law is.  So, underlying all of what you're asking me is: should we simply disrupt this whole system?  My answer to you is, no, we shouldn't.  I think we can deal with the issue without having to disrupt the whole system.  And I think we're dealing with the issue without disrupting the whole system.

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