WATCH: Sen. Kelly Chairs Senate Hearing on Drought with Arizona Focus 

In case you missed it, yesterday, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly chaired his first Senate Environment and Public Works Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing to examine the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers role in water management and drought risk reduction efforts.  

Sen. Kelly focused his remarks on the Army Corps’ role in ongoing drought mitigation efforts in Arizona. Witnesses included Stephen Roe Lewis, the Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, and Leslie Meyers, Chief Water Executive and Associate General Manager of Water Resources, Salt River Project. 

“The name of the game here in the Western United States is long-term system conservation and efficiencies,” said Sen. Kelly during his opening remarks. “Those efficiencies will limit water loss and promote better conservation. The Bureau of Reclamation is making some investments to support these projects. But this must be a whole government effort. That includes the Army Corps of Engineers. And that’s why I worked hard this last year and were able to secure key provisions to help address these water supply challenges.” 

Click here to watch the hearing. See below for a complete transcript of Sen. Kelly’s remarks.  

Sen. Kelly chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing

Senator Kelly’s Introduction of the hearing: 

Sen. Kelly: The Subcommittee will come to order. And I want to welcome everyone to the first hearing of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee for the 118th Congress. This is my first hearing chairing this Committee. And I want to thank my colleague who will be with us shortly, Senator Cramer, for his partnership and assistance leading up to this hearing. And I look forward to our future work together. And I also want to thank Senator Cramer’s staff—I think they’re here—and the EPW Committee staff for their assistance in making today’s hearing a reality. And I had the opportunity to say this to each of them right before the hearing gaveled in, but I also want to, again, say thank you to all of our witnesses for joining us today and taking part in this important discussion. 

The topic of today’s hearing is an important one: understanding how the Army Corps of Engineers has been successful at responding to emerging water management challenges, like drought risks in the western United States or increased flooding in the Midwest, and how the Corps can be a better partner in responding to these challenges. For Arizona, the most prominent challenge that we face today—and one I talk about on this Committee all the time—is drought. Arizona, and the entire western United States, is in the midst of a two-decade long drought.  

And this has put incredible strain on watersheds throughout the West. In Arizona, this strain is seen most prominently along the Colorado River, but it’s by no means the only impacted watershed.  

Now, we had an unseasonably wet winter this year. And we got great snowpack in the Rockies. And this means we’ve got better than usual runoff and all that’s good news. I mean, it really is. But we know from experience that wet winters are often followed by dry winters the next year. So we need to continue to prepare for this. 

Congress has already acted to take emergency actions to respond to the drought in the West. I secured $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for the Bureau of Reclamation to respond to drought conditions along the Colorado River. And already, the Bureau of Reclamation has used that funding to conserve nearly 500,000 acre feet of water on the Colorado River through some short-term water reduction agreements. And I will also note that the Gila River Indian Community and Governor Lewis stepped up here and made one of the most significant contributions in this process, agreeing to leave 125,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead. And this helps us stop the bleeding. 

But we know that more is needed. The name of the game here in the Western United States is long-term system conservation and efficiencies. Those efficiencies will limit water loss and promote better conservation. The Bureau of Reclamation is making some investments to support these projects. 

But this must be a whole government effort. That includes the Army Corps of Engineers. And that’s why I worked hard in last year’s WRDA [Water Resources Development Act] to secure key provisions to help address these water supply challenges. And this included a number of things like providing new authorities to the Army Corps to respond to drought risk to reauthorizing the tribal partnership program for 10 years. It also included requiring the Corps to study ways to better support managed aquifer recharge efforts, and examining how installing natural features at federal reservoirs can improve storage capacity.  

And I want to give Senator Cramer some credit for his work to establish a Western Water cooperative Committee in WRDA, which is going to foster more collaboration between states when addressing supply challenges in the western United States. And I look forward to hearing more from our witnesses today about how these programs and provisions are being implemented. And I also hope that we can explore what more needs to be done. 

For example, do the flood control curves established by the Army Corps, which govern how much water can be retained in all federal reservoirs for drinking water or flood control, does it make sense, given the changing hydrology in the western United States? Do those curves still make sense? Or should we modify them? 

At a time when we don’t have time or water, we don’t have either to waste. Is the Corps able to move quickly enough to support needed infrastructure investments in the western United States? And what more can and should the Corps be doing to address invasive plant species in these rivers and in these watersheds? So I look forward to discussing all of these questions and more with our witnesses today.  

I’m going to start with some introductions, and depending on the timing, we’ll see where we go next, because I’d like to hear from Senator Cramer for his opening remarks and some further introductions. So, let me first start with Governor Stephen Lewis. He’s currently serving his third term as Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, and previously as the community’s Lieutenant Governor. Governor Lewis was born in Sacaton, on the Gila of River Indian Community, he graduated from Arizona State University, like my younger daughter, Claire, and pursued graduate studies at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. 

And during his tenure leading the community, Governor Lewis has developed a track record for bringing innovative solutions to water challenges on the Community. He spearheaded the development of the community’s managed aquifer recharge sites, of which I visited on multiple occasions, and he restored the community’s riparian area. He’s also been a key collaborative partner in the ongoing negotiations around Colorado River conservation issues. Governor Lewis has also spearheaded education initiatives, collaborations with the Community’s veteran population and advocated for the protection of the Indian Child Welfare Act, both at home and nationally. Governor Lewis serves as Secretary for the National Congress of American Indians. He’s the president of ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute, and he’s on the executive board of the National Indian Gaming Association and is on the Board of Trustees for the Heard Museum in Phoenix.  

Leslie Meyers. Lesley is the Associate General Manager and chief Water Resources executive for the Salt River Project. Miss Myers joined SRP in 2022 and has more than 30 years of experience with water resources management in Arizona and the Southwest. Prior to joining SRP, Ms. Meyers served as the area manager for the Phoenix Area Office with the Bureau of Reclamation, Miss Meyers received her BS in civil engineering from Texas A&M University—an Aggie. Welcome. And is a registered professional engineer. 

Christy Plummer. Christie is the chief Conservation Officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership or TRCP. Ms. Plummer joined TRCP in 2016, and before she worked with Solar City, The Nature Conservancy, and the Conservation Fund on issues related to federal land and renewable energy policy. She worked for seven years on Capitol Hill, working for former Senators John Chafee and Bob Smith and was staff director for Senator Lincoln Chafee, when he was the Chair of the Fisheries, Wildlife and Water Subcommittee on this Committee. Miss Plummer has a BA in Biology and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA in environmental studies from Brown University.  

So with that, let me turn it over to Senator Cramer. I said all these great things about you [Senator Cramer] but you weren’t here. I want to turn it over to him for his opening statement, and also to introduce our remaining two witnesses. Senator Cramer. […]  

Senator Kelly’s exchange with Governor Lewis 

Sen. Kelly: I want to start with Governor Lewis, thank you for your opening statement and that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about, which is the lining of these canals. Some of this stuff you went through pretty quickly. So I want to kind of drill down and but first, let me say thank you for everything the Gila River Indian Community is doing in trying to mitigate this horrific drought we’ve been experiencing for 20 years. It really is going to take, it’s going to take all of us and the community stepping up in the way you have is much appreciated by the state of Arizona and myself and my office. You know the advantage we get from this is we’re going to save some water and we’re also going to generate some electricity. 

And you went through some of this already, but I want to make sure we get this correct for the record. So it’s going to be, my understanding is initially 1000 feet, lineal feet of solar panels covering these canals? And for that 1000 feet, what is the anticipated water savings per year in acre feet? 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: Thank you, Chairman. The Community expects that the project will conserve water, of course, that is lost to evaporation in thermoelectric energy usage. So it’s expected to conserve roughly eight acre feet of water annually. So that is combined to 5.4 from evaporation and 2.58 acre feet from thermoelectric energy usage. 

Sen. Kelly: And how many total megawatts will that lining of those 1000 lineal feet of canal generate? 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: It would equate to 1000 feet would produce one megawatt of energy.  

Sen. Kelly:One megawatt of energy. And what’s the total cost of the project? And what’s the federal versus non-federal? And can you go into a little bit more detail about why, I think in your opening statement, you said, if the Army Corps was to do this on their own, it would take longer and cost more? And could you give us an estimate of how much more it would cost? 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: Right, thank you. So the traditional cost share percentage, Chairman, is a 65% to 35% breakdown. And that’s for agricultural water supply, and of course, is in accordance with 33 USC subsection 2213C. This would include credits for LERDDs, of course, which stands for lands, easements, rights of way relocations and disposal. However, associated implementation guidance modifies the cost sharing agreement for tribes by applying a waiver of $665,000 to the non-federal share. So this will reduce, Chairman, the community’s cost share to 25% of the regular 35% share. So this reduction results in an estimated non- federal cost share of roughly around 6% of the estimated total project cost of $423,850. So the adjusted federal costs are around $6,320,000. 

Sen. Kelly:And what’s the opportunity? So how many miles of canals did you say there were? 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: That’s suitable for this project, 150 miles.  

Sen. Kelly:150 miles, so 6,000 feet or so in a mile. You could expand this by well over a couple orders of magnitude, potentially. And obviously, the cost would be in proportion. But my point is, I think there’s an opportunity to save significant amounts of water and generate significant electricity. 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: Yeah, Chairman, and, you know, this is a goal that, as a tribal leader, I set for our community to be one of the first net zero communities, especially in Arizona, and potentially to be a significant energy producer as well through this project. So we might be in competition with my good friend to the right of me from the Salt River Project. 

Sen. Kelly:And what was it you said there was a recommendation of a change to the statutory language? I’m going to go over here by about 30 seconds. If you could go over that again, and maybe be a little bit more specific. 

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis: Right. Right. So you know, so we’re realizing that the Corps lacks that—Senator, Chairman rather—that essential statutory authority to treat tribes as respected sovereign partners. So we’re looking at and we’re respectfully looking for Congress, the potential to significantly enhance the Corps ability to execute the TPP, Chairman, by granting the agency the ability to enter into those self-governance contracts with tribes, thereby respecting tribes’ inherent sovereign nature. […]  

Senator Kelly’s exchange with Leslie Meyers of the Salt River Project: 

Sen. Kelly: Ms. Myers, you discussed in your opening remarks, the work that SRP has done with the Corps to update flood control manuals, and I want to get a little bit into that a little bit more. So across all your reservoirs at SRP, how much storage capacity do you have to keep available for flood control management? And then can you explain how the Army Corps flood control manuals impact the river operations? 

Leslie Meyers: Thank you, Chairman Kelly. Of our seven reservoirs that we operate, only one has dedicated flood control space, and that’s Theodore Roosevelt Dam. There’s 550,000 acre feet of space flood control space in Theodore Roosevelt Dam. And that is operated pursuant to our water control manual with the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

Sen. Kelly:Beyond the Army Corps telling you through these flood control curves how much storage capacity you have to have for flood control, is there anything more that affects your operations? Or is it just, you know, having that number based on the existing curve? 

Leslie Meyers: Well, today we operate that the flood control manual dictates that we evacuate the space in Roosevelt Dam, which is the highest upstream dam on the Salt River in 20 days. Our flood control manual does allow for temporary deviations and we’ve been working with the—as do many other flood control manuals—we’ve been working with the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation to solidify that proposal. And our proposal is to use the bottom 20 percent of that space and extend that release period from 20 days to 120 days. And you know, in Arizona, especially for our spring runoff, which is what we had this year, some really intense spring storms, if we could extend the release period for 120 days into the summer, we could meet some really critical demand with that water supply.  

Sen. Kelly:How much water would that be?  

Leslie Meyers: About 109,000 acre feet annually.  

Sen. Kelly:You mentioned that in your opening, opening remarks. When was the last time the Army Corps did an update for one of its manuals? 

Leslie Meyers: So I can only speak for our manual, but I know that it’s not unusual for the core to go for many decades if there’s no substantive changes to the reservoir system and not update their manuals. Our manual was established in 1997. This is our first relook at that. 

Sen. Kelly:So it’s been over 25 years since that’s been updated. And with that 550,000 acre feet of available storage for flood control—meaning you could, if you need to, you could flow that amount of water and it’s not going to flood. How often have you, maybe, exceeded that? 

Leslie Meyers: This year actually the elevation rose to about six feet in the flood control space. The total is 24 feet, and that’s the highest elevation that we’ve been in in the flood control space in Roosevelt Dam. 

Sen. Kelly:So that’s 25 percent essentially, if you’re just thinking about linear feet.  

Leslie Meyers : Yes.  

Sen. Kelly: About 25 percent of what you have available for flood control you actually used going back how far? 

Leslie Meyers: To the 1990s. Now it is significant that the fifth largest city in the country is just downstream of this dam so there are significant benefits from the flood control space. 

Sen. Kelly:But do you feel now that you could modify that to be more favorable towards water storage, as opposed to flood control? 

Leslie Meyers: We certainly feel that this bottom 20 percent—the lowest five feet—is a good place to start. Our proposal is to do a five-year plan, and we can enter into flood control space up to three times during that. And we’ll get some really good data and information from that. And if it’s successful, we’ll move forward with a long-term modification to the water control manual. 

Sen. Kelly:And was that enabled by what we did in the 2020 WRDA? 

Leslie Meyers: Yes, sir. That did allow us—the Salt River Project—to work more closely with the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation on the reevaluation. 

Sen. Kelly: You feel like we’re moving in the right direction on this?  

Leslie Meyers: Yes, I do. […]