Should the Bureau of Reclamation be abolished?

Former Reclamation Commissioner Daniel Beard tells how defunct water policy, and the bureau itself, contribute to drought.

 

Last month, Clinton-era Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Daniel Beard published a book calling for the abolishment of his own former agency. Deadbeat Dams: Why we should abolish the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and tear down Glen Canyon Dam also makes a case for the eradication of defunct dams. But dam removal and the obliteration of a longstanding federal agency are only two of Beard’s many suggestions for dealing with persistent drought. HCN recently spoke with Beard about his book and how water policy should evolve in anticipation of climate change.

High Country News  What do you mean by “Deadbeat Dams?”

Daniel Beard  A deadbeat is somebody who deliberately avoids paying their bills, a loafer and a sponger who wrings others dry. A lot of federal facilities are deadbeats. There are dams that are costing us money, destroying river systems, drying up wetlands, killing fish runs. When a dam no longer performs a function that is needed, we should remove it. If a facility is blocking passage of a valuable fish run, and no one’s using it or it’s crumbling, we ought to remove it.

The decision to build a dam is not a technical decision or an engineering decision or an economic decision. Politics is at the heart of every decision that’s made about Western water. But our political institutions make mistakes, or time passes, and the decision that was made 50 or 100 years ago is no longer relevant.

Glen Canyon Dam is one of many 'deadbeat dams,' for which Beard argues removal. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Mark Byzewski.
HCN  So dams can be obsolete, harmful and costly. But your book focuses on drought solutions. How do dams contribute to water shortage?

DB  They distract us. We’re mesmerized by the construction of new facilities, as if it's going to solve a problem, and it’s not. The only way we’re going to meet future needs is to promote water conservation, reuse and efficiency improvement. Building a dam is a lot sexier than implementing a toilet rebate program, but the reality is, in an awful lot of communities, that toilet rebate program is going to have a bigger impact than any reservoir.

It also depends on who's got water behind the dam. Water that's behind dams in many cases helps extend the water supply system we have. But if you're not getting any of that water, it doesn’t help you a great deal.

In the book I refer to the “water nobility,” people who are spread across the 17 Western states who receive water from federal dams. They’ve enabled and worked with a cadre of politicians and lawyers and lobbyists and engineers. The taxpayers built dams and provided them subsidized water, and they were grateful recipients of a federal program. But they've come to think of these benefits as an entitlement, and, in my view, they’ve bamboozled politicians into thinking they should continue to receive federal funds in perpetuity and maintain permanent control of the West.

The biggest player in the West is the Westlands Water District, near Fresno: 600 farming operations, the largest irrigation district in America. They’ve been working overtime trying to get legislation to force water to be delivered to them, or give them compensation. This is only one irrigation district in one state. Why on Earth the taxpayers at the federal level ought to be supplying them with water and money is beyond me. And the short answer is: They're doing it because they have the political connections and the political power to be able to do it. So I also use the phrase “deadbeats” because, in my view, deadbeats control Western water policy.

HCN  Dam removal is one of 10 solutions you offer in your book for dealing with drought. What are some others?

DB  The number one thing we have to do is stop delivering subsidized water, from federal facilities or otherwise. We deliver water that costs a dollar to develop and we sell it for pennies, and all that does is promote excessive use and causes us to waste and misallocate billions of gallons of water. The second thing we should do is eliminate the Bureau of Reclamation. Those two things would be game changers, because they would force everybody to look at things differently.

HCN  How does the Bureau of Reclamation enable wasteful attitudes toward water?

DB  They never question the water nobility, they never look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, can’t do that.” The Bureau of Reclamation looks upon them as their clients, doing everything that the nobility says. The bureau works for the taxpayers, and it ought to be making the best decisions in the interest of all Americans, not just the narrow group of people who are receiving subsidies. I took the job with the bureau because I wanted to change things. I wanted to make it a leader in solving water problems in the West. But after watching them for 35 years, I’ve finally woken up and realized the bureau just isn’t capable of it. 

Daniel P. Beard served as Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from 1993 to 1995. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. government.
HCN  Why not?

DB  They leave decisions in the hands of members of Congress. As much as members of Congress try, they just can’t avoid playing the game of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” We need to create an independent commission. The Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Enclosure Commission has been making recommendations to close military bases and shipyards for the last 20 years, and it’s saved hundreds of billions of dollars and, frankly, made our military much stronger and better. They have been able to make the tough decisions to close the Philadelphia shipyards and the Boston shipyards, which would have never been closed had those decisions played out in the Congress.

With the Bureau of Reclamation, only 2 percent of their budget this year is going to water re-use projects, which is crazy. It just doesn’t make sense in the middle of a drought. We ought to be promoting all kinds of water re-use projects, because it’s the fastest and cheapest way that we can have a meaningful impact on water supply problems in the West. But a lot of politicians are still running around saying the climate isn’t changing. Of course, the answer to that is, “Oh, yes, it is.” It is, and everybody who’s looked at it can agree, and it’s going to have tremendous impacts on the way we manage water in the West, going forward.

HCN  How should water management itself change?

DB  The first thing we should do is price water realistically. It isn’t a free good anymore. If you look at the water consumption figures from communities across the West, the communities with the lowest consumption per capita are those with realistic pricing. They charge people for water. If you charge people nothing, I can guarantee you they’ll waste the water.

The second thing you need to do is help communities make a commitment to conservation through toilet rebates, taking sod out, plugging leaks, or addressing leakage in your system. The mayor of Los Angeles, for example, has recently made a decision to try to reduce imports of water over a 25-year period of time—to solve Los Angeles' water problems in Los Angeles as opposed to going to the Colorado River or to Northern California. Las Vegas has been very successful in reducing its consumption of water through a whole host of approaches: looking for leaks, compliance officers who drive around looking for sprinklers that are throwing water into the gutter or people who are using water in the wrong way. Two-thirds of water consumption in every household is water that’s used outside. So eliminating sod and changing our approach to the kind of yards we have is a terribly important action.

Once you add up all these actions, they will have significant impact on water consumption throughout the West. 

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern at High Country News.