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The Q&A: Collins K. Balcombe

In this week's Q&A, we interview Collins K. Balcombe, the supervisory programs coordinator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Collins K. Balcombe is the supervisory programs coordinator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Collins K. Balcombe is the supervisory programs coordinator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is typically thought of as an agency involved in water projects in states west of Texas. Where does the bureau operate in Texas and how many existing projects do you have?

Collins K. Balcombe: Reclamation currently owns three projects in Texas. The first project is the Canadian River Project in the Texas Panhandle. The project includes the Sanford Dam and Lake Meredith reservoir, which provides municipal and industrial water to several communities in the region, including Amarillo and Lubbock.

The second project is the San Angelo project, and this includes Twin Buttes Dam and reservoir, which provides municipal and industrial water to the city of San Angelo as well as agricultural supplies to the Tom Green County Water Control No. 1 District.

The third project is the Nueces River Project in South Texas, which includes Choke Canyon Dam and reservoir, and this project provides municipal and industrial water to the city of Corpus Christi and Nueces River Authority.

It’s important to mention that although [the U.S. Bureau of] Reclamation holds the title and has ownership of the dam and the surrounding land, we also have a contract with local non-federal entities who run the day-to-day operations and maintenance activities, although we still provide safety oversight and do inspections. These local entitles also have the responsibility to ultimately treat and convey the water to the customers. We also contract out land management activities to local entitles. And this is for all the land that’s federally owned surrounding the reservoirs.

Those are the three projects, but I think it’s also important to mention that our activities in Texas extend well beyond the three dams and reservoirs. For more than a decade now, we’ve been collaborating with the Texas Water Development Board, primarily through research and planning, to help advance innovative water technologies and reduce the technical, financial and regulatory barriers to strategies such as water reuse of desalination.

Beyond our work with the state, we also have several programs where non-federal entities can compete for federal assistance. Most of these are actually within our umbrella of what’s called a Water Smart Program. Through this program, we provide cost-share funding and expertise to support activities that target different phases of project development.

Trib+Water: Are bureau projects typically agricultural water supply projects?

Balcombe: It depends on where you live. In California, the answer is definitely yes. In Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the area that our office covers, the answer is no. We actually provide municipal and industrial water for the most part, but generally speaking, yes, as an agency, most of the water we deliver goes to agriculture.

However, we’re the largest municipal water provider in the country and we provide water to about 30 million people. We’re also the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western U.S., with about 53 power plants. This generates 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually to 3.5 million households, producing about $1 billion in revenue per year.

Trib+Water: How is the bureau's mission different this century from what we think of as the Cadillac Desert period (1940s-1990s)?

Balcombe: I think it’s safe to say that for the time being, the days of the federal government building large dams and reservoirs appear to be over. In the mid-20th century we had the will of an entire nation to settle and reclaim the arid west and similarly, we witnessed and experienced catastrophic floods that destroyed property and lives. A tremendous amount of federal resources was brought to bear to make the west inhabitable, protect life and property against floods and to develop the national economy. At that time, that meant utilizing American money and ingenuity to impound many of the major river basins in the west.

Today, our primary focus is making sure our existing projects are operated and maintained appropriately and that they continue to provide the benefits that they were authorized and constructed to provide. This means ensuring our facilities are safe, that aging infrastructure is rehabilitated or replaced, that water supplies are protected and that we continue to manage the competing water supplies and meet our contractual obligations.

This is partly driven by another key factor that’s different today, which is financial capability. Funding the capital costs of many infrastructure projects is a big deal and I think the government recognizes that there are a lot more financing options for non-federal entities today than there were 50 years ago.

In looking toward the future, I think another key difference is that today, Reclamation possesses a more holistic approach to water supply planning and management. We recognize that if our agency is to help secure the long-term reliability of water supplies across the west, we’re going to need to tackle those from different angles. Another key piece to this holistic approach is better managing of data and information, and this includes thing like developing better weather forecasting and modeling tools, as well as making the data more user friendly and accessible to the public.

As a whole, this holistic approach to water planning and management that exists today didn’t really exist 50 to 60 years ago. I’ll sum up by saying one of the things we do have in common is the ingenuity and it’s the same level of ingenuity it took to construct these reservoirs and settle the west that’s arguably being brought to bear today, but dealing with the contemporary water supply issues of the 21st century.

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