The western United States has experienced drought for many years. In fact, 2018 has been one of the worst drought years on record. With population levels estimated to double and even triple by 2050 in some western states, water supply issues continue to be a major concern. Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region has long dealt with drought, providing water through even the worst drought conditions, and it plans to do so for many years to come.
Tyler Young, writer for Municipal Water Leader, spoke with Upper Colorado Regional Director Brent Rhees about the region’s water supply future, current challenges, and potential outcomes for western irrigators
Tyler Young: Please tell us about your professional background and how you started with Reclamation.
Brent Rhees: I grew up in a little town in southeastern Idaho, Rexburg, which is surrounded by the traditional potato farms Idaho is famous for. Growing up, I had the opportunity to work on some of those farms, moving sprinkler pipe in the potato fields and driving trucks during potato harvests. Later, I had a summer job with Utah Power and Light, a public utility company that provided power to the potato farms. It was a great place to grow up; I benefited from an early exposure to agriculture, and I enjoy that type of lifestyle. I remember moving pipe; I earned 5 cents for each pipe length I moved across a potato field, and they were half-mile lines. It was a pretty good job to have. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like much, but having some money in my pocket at the end of the summer felt pretty good.
Rexburg is downstream from Teton Dam, which was built in the mid 1970s. On June 5, 1976, the dam failed. I was a college student in Rexburg at the time, and I was there the day the dam failed. That was my first real exposure to Reclamation. I remember standing on the roof of my father’s house, staring out at all the agricultural lands and seeing the water rolling across the countryside with tremendous energy. After that disaster, I saw Reclamation step up and step in to help rebuild the community.
I went on to study at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, where I got a degree in civil and environmental engineering. Around the time of my graduation, Reclamation was looking to hire 100 to 150 engineers. I interviewed in Logan and was lucky enough to be selected to work for Reclamation. I started in Denver, under the assistant commissioner of engineering and research. At the time, I was a young engineer, happy to have a job.
Denver was a little far away from home, so after about a year I decided to move back to Utah. I moved into a design group in a Reclamation office located in Utah. I spent the first third of my career in design and construction. I then had the opportunity to slide into a position that was based more around resource management, land management, environmental management, and facilities operations. The supervisor took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity that really opened doors for me later in my career.
Since then, I have served as deputy area manager, deputy regional director, and now regional director. Most of my career has been in the Upper Colorado Region, which is unique within Reclamation, because typically to become a regional director, you would have moved from office to office.
Tyler Young: How would you describe your management style?
Brent Rhees: I would like to think that I have a participation-oriented management style. I feel as though I have been successful at hiring good managers, and I put a lot of confidence and trust in them. I believe that management styles shift a bit depending on the situation. I do not feel like I am a micromanager, and I also do not feel that I am a command-and-control type of manager. This region works best with consensus-based management, and the way I try to manage is to try and get to yes as opposed to no. I try to be consistent in that way with my staff as well as with stakeholders and partners.
Tyler Young: What role does Reclamation play in the Upper Colorado Region, and how does your role fit into the overall mission of the bureau?
Brent Rhees: First, the name Upper Colorado Region is a bit of a misnomer. Our region covers large portions of Utah and New Mexico, the western part of Colorado, smaller portions of northeastern Arizona and west Texas, a little bit of southwestern Wyoming, and small portions of Idaho and Nevada. Second, if you consider watersheds we are responsible for the Upper Colorado River as well as the Rio Grande drainage from Colorado through New Mexico and down into El Paso, Texas. We also manage the Pecos River drainage through New Mexico and into the upper part of Texas. Finally, we have responsibilities within the Great Basin drainage on the western side of the Wasatch Front, tributaries that run into the Great Salt Lake, and Utah Lake. We place a lot of emphasis on the Upper Colorado River basin, but we can’t forget that we have a lot of other priorities outside that basin.
Let me touch specifically on the Colorado River basin. In the Lower Basin, the secretary of the interior has quite a different role than in the Upper Basin. The secretary is the watermaster in the Lower Basin, so Reclamation has the role of operating the facilities, delivering water directly to the water users, and receiving the calls directly from the facilities. In the Upper Basin, where I am the director, the secretary does not have the same role. We work collaboratively with the states, the water users, associations, and commissions to accomplish our mission.
Our role in the Upper Basin varies quite a bit. We have 61 large dams that are federal facilities. Our role is to manage those resources by working with water and power users to provide the benefits that they were originally promised. This ties directly into Reclamation’s mission: to deliver water and generate power in an environmentally and economically sound manner. Managing those facilities and each of the associated pipelines, canals, and powerplants all fits under the umbrella of the mission.
Tyler Young: Across the country, we have seen the importance of building partnerships with other industry leaders. How do you build and maintain those partnerships within your area?
Brent Rhees: Being in the Upper Colorado Region for as long as I have, I have been fortunate to get to know most of the people in the community. The water community here in the West is actually pretty small. You see the same people at each water conference. Over the last 40 or so years, I have had the opportunity to meet people and develop great relationships, and that really helps build a sense of trust. We all feel that we build trust by doing what we say we are going to do.
It is also important to meet new people and start building trust with them. Inevitably, there is turnover with stakeholders, water districts, and community leaders, and it is just as important to build a trust with them as with someone who has 30-plus years of experience. Either way, it takes time to build those relationships; it takes face-toface time, over-the-phone time, and good communication.
I think what it boils down to is this: Are you bringing value to the relationship? Do you do what you say you are going to do? Can you live up to your commitments? That is what I have tried to do, and I have also tried to instill that behavior in our leadership team. Live up to our commitments and focus on the customer. We work for the public; we are a part of the executive branch, and I think everyone here recognizes that our master is the taxpayer.
Tyler Young: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face when managing water in your region?
Brent Rhees: The biggest challenge on the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the Pecos is in the extended drought. We are in the 19th year of extreme drought. Drought like this puts increasing pressure on our facilities and the limited resources that we have.
Next, there are always funding challenges. Congress has been pretty good to us, but our funding needs keep growing. We have aging infrastructure issues—some of the projects in our region are over 100 years old. We had a real construction boom in the 1940s and 1950s and into the early 1960s. A lot of our facilities are of that generation. The aging of those facilities is a big challenge for us.
Additionally, there are changing dynamics. Some of the fastest-growing areas in the United States are within our region. A lot of folks want to come out west because of the lifestyle, which is agriculturally driven. People seem to like that. As more people move westward, however, the agricultural base is shifting to a more municipal services base. These changes place different kinds of demands on the resources and create different kinds of challenges.
Finally, another challenge that we are seeing, especially in the water management sector, is the aging workforce. A large percentage of our staff is eligible to retire right now, and in the next 5 years, aound 30–40 percent of our staff will be eligible to retire.
Tyler Young: What are some of the things you are doing to attract a younger workforce to the water industry?
Brent Rhees: That’s a good question. It is a challenge to find young people interested in working for a federal agency in the water industry, but Reclamation is a great place to work, and if I were just starting my career, I would look at Reclamation’s mission and consider the opportunities it offers for a fulfilling career. We have been fortunate to have hired some great young staff through internships and similar programs. We have also had success using presidential fellowships. In Salt Lake, we have a pretty good federal presence with Hill Air Force Base being just north of here, and we have been able to pull a lot of young talent from there. We are also fortunate to be surrounded by several universities and colleges that have provided us some pretty great young people. What we have going for us in the Upper Colorado Region is our mission and our location. People want to come here.
Tyler Young: How do you meet your region’s changing demands for improving vital water infrastructure and ensuring public safety?
Brent Rhees: I have a really great team of people who try to instill that culture of let’s get to a yes instead of a no. That doesn’t mean we will always agree, but we always will listen to the experts, who are often the water users themselves. Functionally, we have our safety of dams program, which is important in our region because we are in a high seismic zone. As we learn more about liquefaction and the stresses on structures, we use that information to look at our facilities to ensure that they are safe for the public and able to provide a reliable water supply. As a result of our dam safety program, we have modified a number of our dams in the Upper Colorado to enhance their resilience to seismic activity. We are continuously working to ensure that the 61 dams we have in the region will be reliable and safe for the next generation and the generation after that. Many of the modifications that we are making are to ensure that the features can sustain the large flood and seismic events that we can expect in our region.
Tyler Young: What message do you have for irrigators who rely on the water you supply to grow food and fiber for our nation?
Brent Rhees: Looking through the lens of the 19-year drought, we should consider where would we have been without Reclamation facilities. We would not have had the agriculture, and we would not have been able to provide supplemental water to the irrigators who grow food and resources in the West. We are not like California or Arizona, where farmers can grow vegetables, nuts, and fruits year-round; most of our agriculture in the Upper Basin is based on cattle, corn and alfalfa, and dairy, which require a lot of water.
The irrigators know the benefits of being near a reservoir, especially during times of drought. I see that as a Reclamation model that can be relied on. Looking forward, I see that we have a number of facilities that are 60, 80, 100 years old; we need those facilities to provide benefits for many years to come. In addition, we need to look for opportunities to become more efficient and enhance storage capacity, which may include providing additional storage, groundwater storage, or reuse technology. I would like to tell irrigators that if they stick with us, we will stick with them. Reclamation has been here for over 100 years, and we hope to be here for the next 100 years, providing benefits to irrigators.
There is a huge change in demand in the West. With the projected population growth, it is going to be a real challenge sharing all the resources in the next 50 years. Irrigators will face pressure; they will need to continue to provide food while maximizing water use efficiency.
I believe that Reclamation as a whole, and particularly the Upper Colorado Region, is well placed for the future. We inherited a great legacy, and we are always thinking about the kind of legacy that we are going to leave for the next generation. I think that we are in a great spot. We have terrific facilities. There may be the perception that Reclamation doesn’t build any more, but right now we are building a billion-dollar project to supply water from the San Juan River. It is hard to believe that there are residents in that area that have to haul water in their pickup trucks for daily consumption. By the end of 2020, we will begin delivering water. By 2024, we will have completed the project that will deliver Colorado River water for the region, which is a fantastic thing.