Colorado River: Governing like a River Basin – An Interview with Bob Johnson
My experience is that the Bureau will respond if stakeholders or the general public express a desire to make input.
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: Bob Johnson.
You’ve talked about the importance of ensuring that people with an interest in Colorado River management are heard. What benefits flow from that?
The biggest benefit is that it gives an opportunity to get a good understanding of everyone’s concerns, and to consider their views in decision making. It can also help avoid conflict down the road, and that is good for everybody.
The Basin Study will be identifying potential options for changing water management on the Colorado River. Do you see a role for stakeholder involvement in helping implement those options?
Absolutely. It’s a very important part of the process, and I’m sure the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin States will work hard to get input from all parties. That could take the form of private consultation, like the Bureau did with environmental groups, Tribes, and Mexico in the case of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The Bureau could also create a broader public forum, a series of public meetings that are open to whoever wants to be involved. My experience is that the Bureau will respond if stakeholders or the general public express a desire to make input.
You’ve noted that there are a number of existing collaborative programs focusing on certain issues in local reaches of the Colorado River. What’s the potential for a larger collaborative effort to deal with water management at the basin scale?
I think the way to go about doing that is for stakeholders to work within the existing framework to establish good working relationships. How you go about doing that is as important as what you’re trying to do.
A couple of the environmental groups involved in the 2007 Interim Guidelines have done a good job of building the kind of relationships I’m talking about. Some of them have been actively attending and participating in Colorado River meetings and activities over the last ten years. They’ve established themselves as good partners to work with, even among people who don’t agree with them on many issues. And I believe they have made a difference in the decisions that have been made.
People who want broader collaboration would do well to follow that example. They could start on the less formal side, and focus on building the same kind of trust with the seven states and the Bureau. Ultimately a more formal stakeholder process might grow out of that. But it takes time.
What role do you think the Secretary of Interior can play in expanding stakeholder participation on the Colorado?
The Secretary has a strong track record of providing leadership in the Basin, and I think that needs to be recognized. The Secretary played a very successful role in incorporating the concerns of stakeholder groups into the final decision on the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and I assume that role would continue.
If stakeholder groups approach the Bureau and ask to be involved in the collaboration that’s being conducted as part of the Basin Study I think the Bureau will be responsive to that and I think the basin states will support it also. I’m not talking about an authoritative role in the formal decision making process, because there is a legal framework that provides for how the system is managed, and I don’t see that changing. But as far as making sure that everyone’s interests are heard and recognized, I think everyone sees the value of that, and my experience tells me that if people ask for that kind of process, it’s likely to happen.
Bob Johnson served for 33 years with the Bureau of Reclamation, including a two-year stint as Commissioner from 2007 to 2009. Prior to that, Bob served for 11 years as Regional Director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado region, overseeing the management and operation of the lower Colorado River. Since retiring from the Bureau in September 2009, Bob has been a partner in Water Consult, Engineering and Planning Consultants in Loveland, Colorado. Bob lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.