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Halting the Megadrought: The Bureau of Reclamation Explained

June 25, 2021, 10:01 AM

The Biden administration recently announced its choice to lead the Bureau of Reclamation, the largest wholesaler of water in the U.S., during a time when Western states are struggling with drought, climate change, growth, and competing uses for an ever-dwindling supply of water.

The bureau must figure out how to balance municipal, agricultural, industrial, recreational, and environmental demands for water in the rapidly-growing region, which is locked in a 20-year megadrought that ranks among the worst in recorded history.

Here’s an explanation of the agency and what’s at stake:

1. What does the bureau do?

The Interior Department agency sells water to more than 31 million people. One out of five Western farmers gets irrigation water from the bureau.

It’s also the second-largest U.S. producer of hydroelectric power behind the Army Corps of Engineers. It operates reservoirs, canals, and other water infrastructure in 17 states and built more than 600 dams, including Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River and Grand Coulee on the Columbia.

The agency’s efforts have attracted criticism. In his influential 1986 book “Cadillac Desert,” author Marc Reisner said Reclamation’s development-driven policies contributed to “a vandalization of both our natural heritage and our economic future” in the West. Some critics have called for transferring its dams and other facilities to state and local governments or the private sector.

2. Why is it important in addressing the drought?

In the Southwest, the hardest-hit region, the seven states of the Colorado River Basin are implementing drought contingency plans and crafting a new management regime for the stressed, over-committed waterway. The bureau plays a crucial role in the process.

Reclamation completed in December an initial review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which help to manage shortages in the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California. The guidelines also help manage water in Lake Mead—the lower basin’s primary reservoir— as well as Lake Powell, the storage facility for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

The drought has caused Lake Mead to fall to 36% capacity, its lowest level since it started filling in 1934. Lake Powell is so low it threatens the upper basin states’ ability to send the amount of water to which the lower basin is entitled to use under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the cornerstone agreement of the Law of the River.

The 2007 Interim Guidelines will be in place until Dec. 31, 2025, when they’re to be replaced by new guidelines negotiated by the seven Colorado River Basin states. The bureau is overseeing the process of creating a new water management regime for the region.

The bureau also is reprogramming money within its budget to address the drought, Deputy Commissioner David Palumbo told a Senate panel earlier this month. He said the request to Congress to shift funds would contain “a significant focus on drought mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

3. Should it do more than manage dams and reservoirs?

Some say yes. High-altitude national forests in the upper basin states are the West’s most important reservoirs of water. They collect and shade the region’s mountain snow pack, letting the snow slowly and gradually melt and flow into streams, rivers and groundwater in the spring and early summer.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is proposing to turn the bureau’s focus to forests, groundwater, and other “natural” water infrastructure to address water shortages. Wyden has introduced the Water for Conservation and Farming Act (S. 953), that would add natural infrastructure to the bureau’s mission, including habitat restoration and watershed health projects.

Wyden said Thursday he’s hoping the bill can be included in larger infrastructure package in the near future.

Natural water infrastructure recharges aquifers, increases streamflow, and fills bureau-managed reservoirs to form the source of drinking water for millions of people across the West. Projects could include forest restoration and underground water storage, according to Congressional Research Service testimony.

4. Who might run the bureau?

The White House has nominated as commissioner M. Camille Calimlim Touton, whom Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) called “a master of the complicated issues of Western water policy.” The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hasn’t set a date for her confirmation hearing.

Touton was named deputy commissioner in January after working for congressional committees and as a deputy assistant secretary at Interior during the Obama administration. If confirmed, she would replace Brenda Burman, who will join the Central Arizona Project in July as executive strategy adviser and member of the irrigation senior management team.

Another key Biden administration decision influencing water was the nomination—and subsequent approval of— Tanya Trujillo to serve as principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for water and science.

With assistance from Kellie Lunney.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at; Bobby Magill at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at