When it comes to water, concrete trumps common sense.
That was the take-home message Wednesday evening from Daniel P. Beard, former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who spoke at Old Town Farm in Albuquerque on his swing through New Mexico to promote his book, Deadbeat Dams.
Our political leaders “appear to be ostriches with their heads stuck in the bottom of empty reservoirs,” Beard proclaimed.
“We seem to have a need to build something – anything – even when the project makes no sense at all. ”
Here in New Mexico, Beard’s message couldn’t be timelier. The clock is ticking fast toward a November 23 deadline by which U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell must decide whether to green-light the development of a major diversion project on the Gila, New Mexico’s last undammed river.
Called a billion-dollar boondoggle by conservationists, a Gila diversion has been shown by studies to be unnecessary for water security, uneconomic by any reasonable accounting method, and unwanted by New Mexicans. No one has identified who would foot the project’s bill, even as state officials continue to give the project a thumbs up.
Beard is no outsider. In addition to serving as Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner in the Clinton Administration, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Water Resources, Staff Director of the House Interior Subcommittee on Water and Power, and from 2007 until 2010, as Chief Administrative Officer of the House of Representatives.
What gets Beard’s blood boiling about western water projects is precisely what conservative lawmakers should care about: fiscal irresponsibility.
Federal water subsidies, Beard said, constitute “a raid on (taxpayers) pocketbooks.” By eliminating them, “we will permanently alter our water world for the better.”
Beard’s message also comes as one of the most hard-fought collaborative restoration agreements ever achieved – the Klamath Basin Water Agreement – is at risk of collapsing, in large part due to federal lawmakers ideologically opposed to removing big dams.
The Klamath Basin encompasses more than 40,000 square kilometers of southern Oregon and northern California.
If Congress allows a December 31 deadline for enactment to expire, the agreement that took farmers, Indian tribes, government agencies, commercial fishing interests, environmentalists and other stakeholders a decade of hard work to achieve could evaporate.
Back in Albuquerque, it was a night for two courageous leaders to speak truth to power – the power held by the agencies they once led.
While Beard railed against the Bureau of Reclamation and called for its elimination, Norm Gaume, an engineer who headed New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) from 1997 to 2002, chided the commission for its secretive, back-room style of decision-making.
Gaume has repeatedly spoken out against the Gila diversion project and testified to the ISC in April 2014 that the proposed diversion would result in “a failed project that would produce little or no water” and be a “major waste of money, time, and effort.”
So what is it about big dams and diversions that’s so irresistible even when all the evidence suggests that these heavily subsidized water projects encourage waste, inefficiency and environmental destruction, and benefit a few at the expense of the many?
The answer, it seems, is embedded in the question.
As Beard made crystal clear last night, dams are built for political reasons, rarely economic ones.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.