Perhaps no other government entity has been more vital to the modernization and development of the western United States than the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. The dams, canals, and other water infrastructure projects built by Reclamation have allowed water to flow to arid areas in 17 western states, making agriculture and urban development possible. Reclamation projects have also provided vital hydroelectric power and flood protection to many communities. For Reclamation to continue to build on that legacy, it must have effective leadership, and that is what Commissioner Brenda Burman is providing. Commissioner Burman has a long career of working on water and energy issues and is committed to building and maintaining the water infrastructure that will help the West continue to grow. In her first interview since being sworn into office, Commissioner Burman sat down with Irrigation Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, to discuss how she became involved in water issues, how Reclamation is striving to become a truly effective partner with western water users, and how she plans to refocus Reclamation on the task of building projects that can deliver the water that western communities depend on for the present and for the future.
Commissioner Burman: When I was in school, I decided I wanted to do something related to natural resources, but I thought I wanted to work on maritime, ocean, and shipping issues. That changed when I worked in New Mexico one summer on a trail crew and then at the Grand Canyon. While working in those places, I started reading about the Southwest, the desert, and water issues. I later applied to law school, where I wrote my admittance essay on water law, and I have not lookedback. After law school, I worked in Wyoming for the Supreme Court, and the first case I worked on involved the water supply for a small town. From there, I worked for several years in private practice at a water and energy firm, Salmon, Lewis & Weldon, in Phoenix, Arizona, until a job on the Hill came open as a water and energy lawyer for Senator Jon Kyl. I have also had the opportunity to work for state agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Salt River Project.
Kris Polly: You are the 21st commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, and the first woman to hold that position. What are your thoughts on the historical significance of being commissioner?
Commissioner Burman: Reclamation has an amazing history. We have been in operation for 115 years, since President Teddy Roosevelt signed us into existence, and I think we have come a long way. We have built many projects, from the large, iconic ones like Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam, to smaller projects across all 17 western states. To me, being commissioner is about carrying on that legacy and making sure we are relevant, smart, useful, and able to provide a reliable water supply for the next 100 years.
Commissioner Burman: Our top priority is to deliver water reliably, not just for the present, but also for the future. There are a number of things we need to do in order to achieve that goal. First, we need to get back to building things, including projects to expand water storage across the West. The droughts in California, and those in many other places in the West, demonstrate that more storage is needed. Reclamation’s multipurpose water systems rely critically on storage in order to ensure that flows are delivered and hydropower is produced when needed.
Second, we need to work with all our customers and stakeholders to figure out the best way to finance those projects. We understand this is a different world in terms of federal money coming from Congress, so we need to examine creative ideas for bringing in funding, like public-private partnerships and loan guarantees. We are open to any other good ideas and are ready to work with those who can help us move projects forward. We are also not foregoing public-public partnerships that have made the West what it is today. We just need to look broadly for opportunities to fund essential infrastructure needs.
Third, we want to streamline projects, from how they are managed to the way we achieve environmental compliance. It takes much too long to get projects done, and that is not acceptable. Reclamation is looking at how to streamline the process, to actually get shovels in the ground and get things built. That applies to title transfer as well. We at Reclamation need to look at our relationship with our customers, and if we are not helping them, we need to get out of their way. We want our customers to tell us whether we are adding value to what they are doing, and if not, we need to work with them to step aside. Those who are operating the projects onsite are often the best equipped to manage them, and that is how it should be whenever possible.
Another major priority for us will be addressing the drought on the Colorado River, which has been going on for 18 years. A lot has been done by Reclamation, the seven basin states, Mexico, tribes, and nongovernmental organizations to keep that system reliable and stable, but there is still a lot more work to do, particularly in Arizona and California, over the next year to get to a viable drought contingency plan. The probabilities for shortage conditions are real, and we need to act now to implement a plan that minimizes those chances.
Finally, we are going to ensure that we have a culture of safety and respect at Reclamation. We cannot effectively serve our customers if we are not an upstanding organization on the inside. Safety is going to be one of my top priorities going forward. A workplace environment survey was done across the U.S. Department of the Interior last year, and it showed that we have a lot of issues to address. Secretary Zinke has been adamant about having a zero-tolerance policy for any type of harassment in the workplace. We have put together a task force with people across Reclamation, and by the end of January, we will report back to the secretary with ideas on how to make Reclamation a positive workplace for everyone.
Kris Polly: What is Reclamation’s role in western water, and what is the commissioner’s role?
Commissioner Burman: Reclamation is the premier water agency in the West, and we have a very significant role in western water. We have the ability to bring parties together, we have technical expertise that can help projects get done, and we have the ability to construct and complete projects. Reclamation can also harness other federal agencies to help get permitting done more efficiently. As for my role, I have been here 2 weeks and am just now getting to hear from my leadership team, customers, contractors, and stakeholders. I plan to do a lot of listening over the next couple months, and we will then start putting together our list of priorities based on what we hear from everyone.
Kris Polly: What are some of the goals you hope to achieve as commissioner?
Commissioner Burman: My overriding goals as commissioner are to deliver reliable water and power and to build projects. I think we have fallen behind on project development, and we cannot continue to deliver reliable water or power unless we are building new storage and new projects and rebuilding the projects we already have. Much of our infrastructure is over a century old and is aging rapidly, so we have to address that. I plan to be an infrastructure commissioner who gets projects built.
Kris Polly: What should every Reclamation contractor know about you?
Commissioner Burman: They should know that I am accessible and that Reclamation is going to be accessible to them. We are going to make ourselves more customer responsive and are going to look to the contractors and stakeholders to tell us how best to do that. My leadership team and I can provide direction internally, but we need to know what we can be doing better from the people who are on the ground. I am joining a great organization, but that organization needs to focus on our customers and contractors. We also need to focus on our main mission, which is not only to deliver water and generate power, but also to advocate for the delivery of water and power in the West. We want to add value to customers, and we want to know how we can best do that.