Colorado River: Governing like a River Basin – An Interview with Bill Rinne
Sometimes, it might look on the surface like people are completely deadlocked over a set of issues, but when you sit people down together and discuss specific interests it turns out the sides are not so far apart.
A lot of us have been thinking ahead to what will happen after the Bureau of Reclamation releases its final Colorado River Basin Study next year. The goals of the study are both laudable and ambitious: to analyze a full range of options and opportunities for bringing long-term water supply and demand into balance in a basin that faces a drier future due to climate change.
But assembling the broad-based political support it will take to get those options funded and implemented will be a challenging task. Many leaders have suggested that some process for engaging a diverse range of stakeholders from throughout the basin would be helpful in building that broad support.
We are releasing the new Carpe Diem West policy brief,Governing Like a River Basin: Options for Expanded Stakeholder Engagement in the Colorado River Basin. This brief analyzes examples of stakeholder processes in four large U.S. river basins facing long-term management challenges, and discusses what these approaches might look like on the Colorado.
We also get perspectives on stakeholder engagement from one of the most experienced and respected voices in the Colorado River water community: Bill Rinne.
What do you see as the potential advantages and disadvantages of creating more stakeholder collaboration in Colorado Basin water management?
I am a great believer in collaboration, for a couple of reasons. First, it can be very helpful in identifying the real issues. Sometimes, it might look on the surface like people are completely deadlocked over a set of issues, but when you sit people down together and discuss specific interests it turns out the sides are not so far apart. And working through that gives you a much better idea of what real solutions might look like.
The second thing is that you can get a lot of trust through collaboration. And it’s not something that gets pushed onto the stakeholders; instead, you can get the kind of buy-in that is the real goal and that lays the groundwork for solutions.
But I also know that collaboration requires you to take a great deal of time and effort to sit down with the parties and really understand their interests. And you have to be ready to give up some control—or at least perceived control—and trust the process. If you try to do it quickly or autocratically, you are not going to get the legitimacy you want from the outcome.
Many of the options being modeled in the Colorado Basin Study will be controversial, and would require some trade-offs among different stakeholder groups. What could be some of the elements of a process for bringing stakeholders together to work out such trade-offs?
Once a full array of options are identified through the basin study process, I think it might be productive to insert a step of convening some type of group to help filter and obtain the most viable options. This approach could start with a larger collaborative, whether formally or informally. If I were king for a day, I’d sit everyone down to look at the different options of the Basin Study, and talk about the potential of mixing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, to see if we might better meet the goals of a variety of stakeholders. Maybe by the time an approach like this is worked through enough trust and buy-in would be established among all the parties to greatly increase the support for implementing a given option through the Basin States or the Bureau of Reclamation.
One thing I think Carpe Diem West really got right in the report is the importance of thinking about all this now, so that it is possible to get things done later. And I’m not just talking about structural things, but also funding and political support—the things you can only get from buy-in on all sides.
Who would be some of the essential parties to have involved in such a stakeholder process?
In no particular order, I’d say you need to have the Department of the Interior and some of its constituent agencies—Reclamation, the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, because each of them has specific responsibilities and priorities in the Colorado River Basin associated with water management. You’d need the Basin States because of their role and jurisdiction in Colorado River water rights and management, and also some of the better-known environmental NGOs that have developed a presence in the basin.
I’d also make an effort to bring in municipal users from both the upper and lower basins—and not just the big cities, but smaller communities as well. The same with agricultural interests—right now, we tend to get the large irrigation districts involved, but I’d take a basin-wide look and try to find pockets of smaller ag communities, because some of their needs and interests are different. The Colorado River Basin Indian Tribes should be included as well. And while I don’t want to exclude Mexico, because of other ongoing processes I’m not sure it’s time to bring them into the Basin Study yet.
What I do believe is that the process is less likely to proceed to the implementation step if we don’t bring in a broad mix of stakeholders. I’d start as broad as possible, including using a lot of the people Carpe Diem West is working with now—people that really have a strong view on river management—and see what would happen from that.
Bill Rinne has a long and distinguished career in Colorado River water management, most recently as the Director of Surface Water Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority from 2006 to 2011. Prior to joining SNWA, Bill worked for 28 for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, including as Deputy Director of the Lower Colorado Region, as an area manager, as regional liaison in the Commissioner’s office, and as a fisheries biologist.
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