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Things Have Changed in World of Water

By John Fleck
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Michael Connor, the New Mexican who took over as head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation three months ago, inherited an empire.
        It is an empire built by predecessors like the famed dam builder Floyd Dominy, the man who built Glen Canyon Dam.
        But when Connor went back to reread Dominy's story recently in preparation for a talk, he realized how different things are today.
        More than perhaps any other government agency, Reclamation shaped the West. The great dam builder of the 20th century, it is the agency behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.
        Those days are gone, Connor said in a recent interview. "There was a lot of good," he said, "and there was a lot of bad."
        In all, Reclamation has 472 dams, Connor noted in a talk Friday at the University of New Mexico School of Law. It is the nation's largest water wholesaler, serving 31 million people. Sixty percent of the nation's vegetables and 25 percent of its fruit and nuts are grown with Reclamation water, Connor said.
        And yet it is a troubled empire.
        The rivers it manages, already stretched by demands that frequently exceed supplies, appear likely to shrink as a result of climate change. Unresolved Native American claims to water make juggling supply and demand even harder.
        There was a time when Reclamation built its way out of the things it saw as problems, throwing up new dams as fast as the concrete could be poured, an agency with a reputation as a power unto itself.
        No more, Connor said in an interview. "That's not the role," he said. "We don't operate on our own."
        Instead, in his law school talk and a wide-ranging interview, Connor sketched out a picture of an agency that is more about getting water factions to the table to talk.
        It is a fitting approach for a water lawyer who came to the office with a reputation as a deal-making problem solver.
        As an aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., from 2001 until he was appointed by the Obama administration to head Reclamation, Connor helped arrange the settlement between the Navajo Nation, the state of New Mexico and the federal government over the Navajos' rights to water from the Colorado River.
        Born in Utah, Connor and his family moved to Las Cruces when he was 2. His mother was half Taos, though not an enrolled member of Taos Pueblo.
        Connor grew up in Las Cruces and went to New Mexico State University for engineering before heading to Colorado for law school.
        It was at law school that he was exposed to the issues surrounding water law, politics and policy, and he was hooked, he said in the interview.
        "It encompasses everything," Connor said.
        Before going to work for Bingaman, Connor worked in the U.S. Department of Interior, including a stint from 1998 to 2001 heading the agency's Indian Water Rights Office.
        Though Connor's work while in Bingaman's office focused most on the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins, he arrived at Reclamation in time to inherit the West's hottest water problem: California's Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta. With rising demand for water, a drought cutting into supply, and endangered species problems, California is in the midst of a water crisis.
        California, Connor told the law school audience, takes up three quarters of his time these days.
        But in the long run, the thing that keeps him up nights, he said, is worrying about how to solve Indian water rights claims.
        Federal law gives substantial water rights to Native American tribes, but exactly how much water each tribe is entitled to is often unresolved.
        A series of deals, like the one Connor helped broker with the Navajo Nation, have been made in which the tribes agree to a fixed amount of water in return for an agreement that the federal government help them with the infrastructure needed to put the water to use.
        The problem, Connor explained, is a $1 billion backlog in Indian water rights settlements for which the federal government does not have the money to pay its share.
        In addition, he said, there are another four or five settlement deals in the works that could add another $1.5 billion in costs.
        "It's a pretty daunting task," he said.
       



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