U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is in Colorado for the next three days to discuss drought, wildfires and to promote the Biden administration plan on infrastructure, which proposes funding to deal with extreme wildfires and the Western drought crisis.

Haaland began her visit by attending a roundtable on drought at Denver Water on Thursday morning. The roundtable included U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver, members of the Polis and Biden administrations and water district representatives. 

The Interior Department is helping lead a Biden-Harris administration’s Drought Relief Interagency Working Group, which is marshaling existing resources and working in partnership with state, local and Tribal governments to address the needs of communities suffering from drought-related impacts, according to a statement from the Interior Department.

That group, launched in April, is a collaboration between Interior and the Department of Agriculture, and is working to "identify and disburse immediate financial and technical assistance for impacted irrigators and Tribes. It is also developing longer-term measures to respond to climate change, including building more resilient communities and protecting the natural environment."

The concerns about drought ramped up last week, when the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would release more water from reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin to support power production at Lake Powell. Those reservoirs include Blue Mesa in Gunnison County and Navajo on the Colorado-New Mexico border. The lake is considered the "bank" for water for four states that make up the Upper Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. 

Haaland and Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at Interior, noted the impact of climate change and how the Biden administration is planning to address it. 

"Climate change is real," Trujillo said at a Thursday news conference. "We're seeing it throughout the West and here in Colorado. Part of our goal today was to hear from affected communities and water districts experiencing drought," as well as floods and landslides that she attributed to the changing climate.

One of the keys to success that the administration identified in addressing drought and improving resiliency is working with Congress on the infrastructure bill currently in negotiation. Trujillo has been in Colorado throughout this week, meeting with local communities and stakeholders. 

DeGette complimented the collaboration between local, state and federal officials on water.

"What we heard today is the same alarm we're hearing throughout the West," she said. Naturally-occurring drought and climate change has put Colorado and the West in a desperate situation, one that will take collaboration between the partners to address. "It's important to have national leadership from the Biden administration to address the very real and looming issue of climate change. We're seeing those issues now, and need to act now to stave off the greatest threats."

She also called for passage of a bill she's sponsoring that seeks to preserve a million acres of land in Colorado, as well as the infrastructure bill, which includes water projects, to help address the crisis. Degette's bill, the Colorado Wilderness Act, has cleared the House, largely along party lines, and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Haaland, who previously represented the 1st Congressional District of New Mexico in the U.S. House, said as a New Mexican, "I know how much climate change impacts our communities, from extended fire seasons to intense drought and water shortages. I know how important the Colorado basin is to these discussions."

Everyone has a role to use water wisely and manage those resources, she said. She also noted the working group's effort to support farmers, tribes and communities with drought issues, including immediate financial and technical assistance for irrigators and Indian tribes. More long-term, the group is also looking for ways to respond to climate changes, such as boosting community resiliency, the ability to use existing resources to recover from adverse situations.

She touted Biden's infrastructure plan as well as the bill being negotiated in the Senate, which she said would address funding for the Western drought crises through investment in water efficiency, recycling and tribal water settlements and dam safety.

In the Biden administration budget proposal for 2022, Haaland said, there's $54 million for the Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSMART program, which provides grants to modernize water infrastructure. Grants to Colorado between 2016 and 2019 have focused on watershed health.

In response to questions about the situation at Lake Powell, Trujillo said they are working with the upper basin states and Bureau of Reclamation staff. "We have seen hydrologic projections that are worse than we anticipated," she said.

Fortunately, Interior had worked with the states on drought contingency plans, and could incorporate some of the actions from those plans. All seven states supported the actions taken by the Bureau, Trujillo said.

"This is something we prepared for, but we will need a lot of help and a lot of partners to think about the next steps," she said.

Trujillo responded to questions on how those actions play into the upcoming renegotiations of 2007 interim guidelines on water shortages in the Colorado River basin states. Those guidelines are set to expire in 2026. Fortunately, she said, there is a solid framework to build on, as well as drought contingency plans, and they're looking to expand the tools that could be relied on to deal with drought.

"If we're seeing less water coming in, we're going to have to be thinking about using less water, recycling more water, [and] water-sharing agreements," she said. 

David Raff, the chief engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, said they have an "all-in" strategy, funding projects to develop water supply and demand at a 50/50 cost share. The Bureau identifies adaptation strategies, such as new water supply projects, new storage and new ways of using groundwater banking, which diverts floodwaters into an aquifer for later use.

Jim Lochhead of Denver Water added that they are investing in watershed and forest health, in partnership with the federal government.

"This idea of collaboration is important," both for what happens in the headwaters of the Colorado as well as the lower basin states, he said. "We are working collaboratively" but should work even more closely.

Lochhead also said he supported the release into Lake Powell, but noted there were a number of considerations involved prior to the release, such as the Endangered Species Act and recreational use.

"You can't just rush a bunch of water into Lake Powell, it has to be managed carefully for those interests," he said. "To start now is a wise decision and gets us started toward what we thought we would never have to do."

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board within the state Department of Natural Resources, also noted current efforts to examine demand management. That's a plan for temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in the consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin.

All four Upper Basin states have to agree to participate in such a plan in order for it to move forward; none have yet agreed to it. The deadline for making that determination is 2026, but it could be done sooner than that, and the current situation has added a sense of urgency, she said. 

Haaland also addressed non-water issues, such as a Senate committee vote on Thursday to forward the nomination of Tracy Stone-Manning as director of the Bureau of Land Management, which is based in Grand Junction. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee deadlocked on a 10-10 vote, but that means the confirmation vote now goes to the full Senate. 

Republicans have criticized Stone-Manning's links to a 1989 environmental sabotage case.

Manning has a wealth of experience and knowledge, Haaland said, on issues around public lands. "We have full faith she will put her nose to the grindstone" as soon as she's confirmed by the Senate. Her service in these issues over the last 30 years has allowed her to build credibility, Haaland said.

The Department of the Interior also is playing a role in the recent controversy over Indian boarding schools, including two in Colorado. Her department has announced a federal boarding school initiative, with a plan to be proposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We want to make sure families get the information they've wanted for decades. We will work to identify every single boarding school in the country and assisting local communities, which will involve a lot of tribal consultation. It's a priority for our department right now." 

Haaland now heads to Grand Junction; on Friday she will discuss wildfires and on Saturday will participate in a community forum in Ridgway on the outdoor recreation economy. The topic of the BLM headquarters' move to the Western Slope is likely to come up in conversation.

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