ACWA CONFERENCE: Commissioner Brenda Burman: “We are keeping our promises, and we are doing what we said we would do.  And we are not done.”

At the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) virtual conference last week, one of the keynote speakers was the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.  Commissioner Burman has more than 25 years of experience in water and natural resources, including previously serving as Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner for External and Intergovernmental Affairs and as the Department of Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science.  Commissioner Burman was nominated for her position by President Trump and confirmed by the US Senate in November of 2017, making her the 21st Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and the first woman to assume this post. 

In her keynote address, Commissioner Burman ran down the list of the Bureau’s accomplishments as well as what is in the works for the rest of 2020.

I’m proud to be here for President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt and to be here today to talk about the administration’s commitment to water supply and reliability in California,” began Commissioner Burman.  “A year ago, none of us would have imagined what we’d be going through to deliver safe water and power supplies this year.  We deliver together, our community, an essential service.”

At the Bureau of Reclamation, they have been on maximum telework but there are also many staff who are mission essential, so they have adopted staggered work schedules and followed other CDC guidelines to ensure that both the water supplies and employees are safe.  Staff is also out in the field, taking water samples, monitoring fish, and on construction sites.

We are making sure that we meet our mission to deliver water and power,” she said. 

Commissioner Burman spoke of her effort to highlight the employees that are on the front lines with a campaign #waterheroes, which you can find on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.  She also spoke of her pride of the Reclamation’s team working in California, naming numerous Reclamation staff which, if I tried to list them here, I would surely make a mess of it.

Back in 2018, President Trump signed a memo promoting the reliable supply and delivery of water in the West, and that gave us specific instructions,” she said.  “And we have been delivering.  From the first day, this administration has been committed to making California’s water supplies more reliable, and together with you, the water community, we have taken concrete steps to make water supply more reliable for fish, for farms, and for communities.”

The list of accomplishments …

Commissioner Burman then listed all the work that has been completed in recent years.

Biological opinions

One of the most exciting projects during my time as Commissioner was the work to modernize the operations of the Central Valley Project using the best available science,” she said.  “That work culminated in new biological opinions last year, which Reclamation accepted by signing the Record of Decision in February.  The long-time operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, two new biological opinions, a new operating plan – this all started back in 2016, but it was really 2019 where everyone came together.  Fish and Wildlife Service, NMFS, Reclamation, DWR, the state, and federal contractors.  We moved to use updated science and to use our new knowledge to protect species and to provide flexibility in the system when it is possible.

She then ran down the features of the new operations plan:

    • $1.5 billion in investments to support endangered fish over the next ten years.
    • Operations of Shasta to create a bigger cold water pool and to be more targeted in how that is used.
    • Real-time Delta operations, adaptive management, and Delta pumping operations updated by the latest science.
    • Significant investments in hatcheries, including approximately $50 million for a conservation hatchery in the Delta to assist in the recovery of Delta smelt and other species.
    • Accelerating work at Battle Creek to reintroduce winter run salmon.
    • The commitment to use the newest science and latest scientific thinking to ensure Reclamation’s updated operations are benefitting fish.

These operational changes and biological opinions will improve water supply reliability for millions of Californians, promotes agricultural and industrial prosperity, and protects wildlife and aquatic resources,” she said.

With respect to the state lawsuit, Commissioner Burman said she was disappointed that the state decided to sue.  “The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project are so intwined that operating under different rules just makes no sense.  Neither would I expect a lengthy legal battle could be the sound solution for a healthy Delta ecosystem.  The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project are key to the future of California and its economy.  Prudent, science-based management of the project is critical for the state’s economy, for our communities, and for the natural environment.  A true collaborative approach is the best path forward and I hope we can get there.”

Klamath project

It has been a devastating water year on the Klamath Project,” said Commissioner Burman.  “Together, Secretary Bernhardt and I visited a few weeks ago.  We met with water users, local leaders, tribes, and with the agencies, and we heard from all of those folks that something has to change.  Taking that in, we announced just yesterday a reinvestment in science in the Klamath.  So over 15 years ago, the National Academies of Sciences criticized some of our basic scientific information in the Klamath Basin, and they pointed out how we could do better.  We hadn’t made those reinvestments and its time we modernized our basic scientific information in the Klamath.”

Folsom operations

There is a new flood rule curve for Folsom Reservoir, the result of a pilot project with the Army Corps of Engineers, that uses modern forecasting methods to know when more water can be held in the system or when it should be released to make from for flood protection. 

The Army Corps with our partnership is also working to raise the dam and to invest in better temperature controls and that’s all going to give us more flexibility in the future,” she said.  “Also in the American River, we converted(?) early on and I’m very proud to say we have a better understanding and coordination of our American River operations with local water users and with stakeholders.”


Commissioner Burman noted that the San Joaquin River Restoration Program has been moving forward, construction has been progressing and they had a record number of fish return, which is a success for all the groups involved, she said.

On the Sacramento, we have had the highest listed fish returns we have seen in a decade or more,” she said.  “Unfortunately, poor ocean conditions meant that these fish are thiamine-deprived, so we work with the fish agencies and the hatcheries to move forward in the smartest way possible.”

She said another accomplishment for the federal teams in California is that Reclamation right now has the best relationship between water users and the Fish and Wildlife Service that they’ve had in a generation, something she attributed to Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conant and Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Paul Souza.

Oroville Dam

Commissioner Burman noted that FEMA covered $750 million of the emergency repairs for the Oroville Dam spillway.


More generally, we are actively implementing our WIIN Act authorities at the direction of Congress,” she said.  “That includes 90 CVP contract conversions which are mandated by the Act if a water district chooses to move forward.”

Recreation at Reclamation facilities

Commissioner Burman said that working within the governor’s rules, Reclamation has consistently worked to open access for recreation so families can get outside at facilities such as Lake Berryessa, New Melones, the wildlife refuges, and many other places.

Central Valley Project Cost Allocation Study

Commissioner Burman noted that last January, Reclamation released the Central Valley Project Cost Allocation Study which determines how to distribute costs of the project for the beneficiaries. 

It should have been done in the 1980s, but it’s very difficult, and prior teams had put it off again and again,” she said.  “But this California Reclamation team got it done this year.  It provides certainty for water and power contractors, and speaking of power, we have recently completed a power initiative to increase the value of our renewable hydropower resources.”

Colorado River 

The Colorado River has been in 50 years of drought, and at the end of 2018, there were fears of a real crisis. 

We thought we could be facing a real crisis.  But instead, the seven basin states, the tribes, the NGOs, Reclamation came together and with leadership from Metropolitan Water District, Coachella Valley, Palo Verde, the Colorado River Board of California, Audubon, so many others, we found creative ways to create new storage and to incentivize massive conservation to protect the Colorado River and the 40 million people who rely on it, and that’s on both sides of the US-Mexico border,” she said.  “It’s a remarkable achievement and we were able to sign those Drought Contingency Plans last spring, a year ago spring.”

But there is still much more to do …

I put this list together because I wanted to highlight that we are doing what we said we would do,” said Commissioner Burman.  “To borrow a phrase from the Colorado River, we are not done.  There is so much more to do, we are fully aware of that.  One of my highest priorities as commissioner is to invest in and modernize our water infrastructure.  We need that so we can have reliable water supplies in the future.  Reclamation just celebrated our 118th birthday last month.  What that means is in many cases, our infrastructure is 60, 80, 100 years old, and while it has been well maintained, the cost of maintenance is going up and modernizing our facilities has to be a priority.”

Central Valley conveyance

Friant Kern Canal: Reclamation is working with the Friant Water Authority to restore capacity to a 33-mile stretch of the Friant Kern Canal.  The canal delivers water to more than 1 million acres of farmland but has lost more than 50% of its original capacity due to land subsidence.  The feasibility report to fix the Friant Kern Canal was submitted to Congress on July 6 and they are looking to begin construction in early 2021.

Delta Mendota Canal:  Similarly, the Delta Mendota Canal is experiencing a 10% capacity loss due to subsidence.  This reduced capacity means less water can be moved, which translates to less storage in San Luis Reservoir.  An appraisal study is expected to be completed next month to restore 66 miles of canal. 

BF Sisk Dam (San Luis Reservoir)

Late last year, Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources announced plans to move forward on a $1 billion seismic upgrade of BF Sisk Dam and San Luis Reservoir, a joint federal-state project that provides more than 2 MAF of combined supplemental storage for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.  They have started exploratory blasting and construction is set to begin next summer.

At the same time, Reclamation is working with the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority to investigate raising the dam an additional 10 feet to create an extra 120,000 acre-feet of storage.  A draft EIS/EIR is anticipated to be released in August.

Raising Shasta Dam

Storage is a huge priority for the Department of the Interior, Commissioner Burman said, noting that on the Colorado River system, the reason they have survived the drought thus far is that they have four years – over 60 MAF of storage on the Colorado River system.  However, on the Sacramento River, which she said was a similar river in size, they can’t even store one year’s runoff, even combining storage from the State Water Project with that of the Central Valley Project.

It is clear that California needs more water storage, and expanding areas where there is existing storage just makes sense,” she said.  “That is why we continue to explore options for raising Shasta Dam by a modest 18 ½ feet.  This strategic cost-effective project will increase storage capacity by over 600,000 acre-feet.  It’s enough water to sustain 2 million people a year.  And it will improve water supply reliability, it will improve flood risk downstream, and it will improve Sacramento River temperatures downstream to benefit fish.”

New water storage

There are other storage studies to be completed this year under the WIIN Act, such as Sites Reservoir and the expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir.  South of Delta, Reclamation is working with Del Puerto Water District and the Exchange Contractors on a proposal to build Del Puerto Canyon reservoir, which would be an off-stream reservoir connected to the Delta Mendota Canal that could yield up to 60,000 acre-feet a year.  Reclamation is also working with Valley Water to investigate boosting Pacheco Reservoir’s operating capacity. 

For all of these projects, we expect to meet the WIIN deadline to have a feasibility report done this year,” she said.

Science program

The San Joaquin Restoration Program saw a record number of juvenile spring-run this year.  “Reclamation counted over 10,000 wild juvenile salmon compared to just over 400 last year,” Commissioner Reclamation said.  “Program biologists also had the rare opportunity to capture both green and white sturgeon and we have seen Pacific lamprey, so all of these are really great signs that restoration is working on the river.”

Whether it is the scientific work for the biological opinions, the great work of the Bay Delta Office and all the Cal Fed programs on habitat and restoration, or the CVPIA program, we are making significant investments in science and habitat across the state,” she continued.  “We’re working with the National Marine Fisheries Service, we’re working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, we’re working with partners and universities, and we continue to partner, fund, and bring collaborative actions to the table to improve conditions for fish and wildlife.  We said we would, and we’re doing it.”

Water Smart program

Commissioner Burman pointed out the Water Smart program, noting that this popular program within Reclamation leverages federal and non-federal funds to address water efficiency and reliability needs across the west. 

Over the last 4 years, Reclamation has provided $245 million to entities in California through the Water Smart program,” she said.  “We estimate that includes with all the non-federal matches, about $1.2 billion worth of programs in California.  A really incredible feat.  Congratulations to all our partners who are moving forward.”

She noted that Reclamation has three funding opportunities currently open under Water Smart and encouraged all to visit the website.  There are grants available for drought resiliency projects, Title 16 Water Reclamation and reuse projects, and water energy efficiency grants.

In conclusion …

We are so proud of what we are doing in California,” said Commissioner Burman.  “To summarize, Reclamation is out there.  The California team is on the ground.  You have an incredible Reclamation and federal team in California.  Take advantage of it.  We are modernizing our infrastructure, we are planning for much needed storage, we are making advances in science and restoration, we are expanding our partnerships through a variety of programs, and we are keeping our promises, and we are doing what we said we would do.  And we are not done.”

Q&A Highlights

Question: How do state and federal agencies move forward collaboratively to achieve the voluntary agreements?

We have tried many times so far.  I really have to compliment the water districts and the water community for coming forward and being willing to be there to talk about these issues, to talk about what’s possible, but also to bring their operational expertise, because it’s really easy to talk about how water can move around in California if you don’t actually be the operator who can move it around, or find that water supply in a critical year.  So I think it’s going to take courage and leadership, but we need to be able to come to the table and there needs to be some smart solutions on the table.  So Reclamation, we are prepared to talk about smart collaborative solutions and we have been for a number of years, so that’s our hope for moving forward.”

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