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Commissioner Burman: The History of Collaboration in the Colorado Basin

From its roots at the turn of the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation has grown to be the nation’s largest water supplier and its second-largest supplier of hydroelectricity, playing a critical role in western agriculture and urban development. Under the leadership of Commissioner Brenda Burman, Reclamation has played a key role in moving forward collaboration in the Colorado River basin, particularly with the 2019 signing of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), an ambitious agreement designed to reduce risk on the Colorado River and sustain the river system into the future. In this interview, Commissioner Burman reflects on the history of collaboration in the Colorado basin that paved the way for the DCP and the agreements of the future. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Brenda Burman: I have been interested in water and working in water my whole career. That goes all the way back to my time as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. I was immediately interested in the Southwest and how important water is to its history, communities, and environment. When I decided to go to law school, I knew I wanted to work in water and natural resources. 

I started off in private practice in Arizona. As a young attorney, I worked on tribal settlements. I learned so much from doing that. I learned how important water is to different communities and that you can only find success when all the neighbors and communities are working together. You really need to find a win for each of the communities and to establish certainty about their water supplies in order to move forward.

From there, I was hired by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona to be his water and energy lawyer. That was incredible work. Senator Kyl is a great leader in water and energy. It was impressive how he was able to bring people together, both in Arizona and in other states, to support what we wanted to get done. I then worked as deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and then as deputy assistant secretary of water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior about 15 years ago. 

After leaving federal service, I knew I wanted to stay in water, so I went to the Nature Conservancy and then worked for water districts in both Arizona and California. I was honored to be asked by the president to rejoin the federal government as the commissioner of Reclamation. Coming back to Reclamation is like coming home for me. I was happy to have another chance to work with the incredible, dedicated, results-driven, problem-solving women and men of the agency. Despite all the challenges we’ve faced in 2020, I am so proud of Reclamation and how it has remained focused on its mission, which is to deliver reliable water and power for the people of the American West. 

Hydro Leader: Why is the Colorado River basin different from other basins with regard to the collaborative partnerships that are its hallmark? 

Brenda Burman: When I look at the Colorado River, I see a history of collaboration and a history of success. It is a model for everyone who works on water supply issues across boundaries. The Colorado River passes through nine states and crosses an international border. That poses challenges for coming to agreements. You have state governments, tribal governments, two different countries, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), all with their own priorities and views. The Colorado River stands out because all those parties have been able to collaborate with each other, reach across boundaries, and come up with solutions that can hold. In many other basins, both in the United States and across the world, people are at war over their water supplies. In the United States, we tend to go to court for our water supplies. Many basins are controlled by judges who weren’t brought up to be water managers. 

Hydro Leader: Was there a particular event or events that changed the tenor of the relationships on the Colorado River basin from adversarial to collaborative? 

Brenda Burman: I think the leaders of the Colorado River basin, including the leaders of water districts, states, tribes, and NGOs, have found ways to communicate and compromise rather than taking the path toward litigation and conflict. They did that with hard work, week after week, month after month, year after year. The modern model of river management started in the 1990s, which was when the first few people were willing to reach out across state lines, looking for areas of agreement in which to move forward. From the early successes of those days, such as those involving the ability to store water in different states, the surplus guidelines, and the quantification settlement agreement with California, we’ve continued to build our trust in each other and to build on our successes. We’ve recognized for a couple of decades now that litigation is not the way to go. You lose control of your subject, and you spend enormous amounts of money that you could be investing in your water projects. I think we all got a little bit smarter and realized that the more you work with someone, the more you can trust them. The more you can trust them, the more you can build, try new things, and find successes. 

Brenda Burman speaks at the Drought Contingency Plan signing ceremony on May 20, 2019.

Hydro Leader: What challenges do you see as you move into negotiating the post‑2026 operational guidelines? 

Brenda Burman: I look at what we’ve faced before. Whether in the development of agreements with Mexico; Minutes 318, 319, and 323; or the development of the upper- and lower-basin Drought Contingency Plans, we have developed a culture of collaboration. Back in 2007, when we were putting together the guidelines, the atmosphere was much different. We had incredible drought years in the early parts of the 2000s. We’d lost half our storage, and the states were preparing to litigate with each other. Through that, the states made incredible efforts to try and come together. Reclamation was right with them. We came up with the 2007 operating guidelines. 

Those guidelines will finish in 2026. We also have agreements with Mexico that will end in 2026. We’ll have a lot to get done. What we have now that we didn’t have then is a history of success and relationships of trust. We’ve had the ability to work across international lines with Mexico and to work closely with the tribes, NGOs, and states. We are well positioned to start thinking about the future. 

We also know a lot more than we knew in 2007 because we’ve had a chance to operate according to those guidelines for 12 years. We put the DCPs in place just last year and have already seen how well they’re working. We are working on a look-back project right now. It’s called the 7D report, because it concerns section 7D of the 2007 guidelines. We will have a draft out shortly, and the final version is expected in mid-December. 

Hydro Leader: What should Colorado River water users and customers know about Reclamation’s stewardship of this historic river? 

Brenda Burman: Reclamation has been there for more than a century, working with our partners and acting as good stewards of the Colorado River basin. We do that in an unbiased, transparent, and inclusive manner. That’s what people should expect and demand from Reclamation for the next 100 years. 

Hydro Leader: Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

Brenda Burman: I would like to highlight the importance of President Trump’s recent Executive Order (EO) to Modernize America’s Water Resource Management and Water Infrastructure. This is a historic action that ensures that federal coordination on water policy is standard practice by formally establishing a water subcabinet. This EO brings together key policymakers who will coordinate actions to streamline the management of the Colorado River basin and bolster the resilience of our water infrastructure. 

Hydropower on the Colorado River is critical for the West and the Southwest. That has never been truer than in 2020. When California and so many other states were facing heat waves this summer, and when fires were ravaging California, Colorado, and other states, who was called on? It was Reclamation’s hydropower in the Pacific Northwest. That’s because hydropower is incredibly resilient and flexible. When we had to go into emergency operations to make sure that the grid could be stabilized, we were prepared. We had done our studies and knew how to do it. I want to give a big shout-out to all the folks who are making our power plants run, even during a global pandemic. They were there when the western grid needed them, making sure that people were protected and could turn their lights and faucets on. 

Brenda Burman is the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. For more about Reclamation, visit usbr.gov.