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Reviewing reservoir operations in the North American West: an opportunity for adaptation


Storage reservoirs are an important part of the water infrastructure in both the USA and Canada. Their operations are important not only for water supply but also for downstream aquatic and riparian ecosystems. Public agencies operate some of the most important water supply reservoirs in both nations: the federal Bureau of Reclamation in the western USA and the provincial Alberta Environment and Parks in Canada’s South Saskatchewan River Basin. This paper examines legal and policy issues affecting potential changes in reservoir operations as an adaptation strategy in the western USA and southern Alberta and considers the two agencies’ policies and practices on reviewing dam operations. Although both agencies appear to recognize the potential value of reviewing and revising their reservoir operating plans, neither makes a practice of doing so. Thus, there is no program to review the operations of water supply projects; by contrast, hydropower project operations have been reviewed and revised in both nations. The two agencies have similar approaches even though federal laws and institutions are important for reservoir operations in the USA, but have little influence in Alberta. Whether federal or provincial, these agencies have operated their projects primarily to benefit local interests.

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  1. These states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

  2. In the early days of Prior Appropriation, users could obtain a water right with no government approval, simply by diverting water from its natural course and applying it to a beneficial use. Beginning in 1890, the western states began moving toward requiring a state-issued permit for all new water uses (similar to an Alberta license), and today, all the western states except Colorado require a permit for any significant new use of water.

  3. This agency has had several names over the years, but for the sake of clarity, this article always refers to it as AEP, even in describing the agency’s actions at a time when it had a different name.

  4. Hydropower generated at federal water projects is marketed by power marketing administrations located within the US Department of Energy: Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest and Western Area Power Administration in the other western states.

  5. The Colorado River Watershed includes parts of seven states, and the 1922 Colorado River Compact divides that watershed into an “Upper Basin” and a “Lower Basin” at a point on the Colorado River just below the Utah-Arizona state line (and just below Glen Canyon Dam). The Compact allocates a certain volume of water to the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada) each year, and nearly all of that water is released from Glen Canyon Dam over the course of the year. In addition, the Compact requires the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin to share equally the burden of supplying water owed to Mexico, and Glen Canyon Dam must also release the Upper Basin’s share of Mexico’s water (USBR 2010).

  6. The license itself only makes certain diversions subject to the “Instream Objective established for the reach of river between the diversion weir and Bassano Dam.” The license did not specify the level of that Instream Objective, but AEP would later tie it to the “80 percent habitat fish rule curve.”

  7. This unique operating regime for the Oldman River Dam grew out of political and legal opposition to the dam’s construction. The dispute reached the Supreme Court of Canada, which issued a nationally significant ruling on the federal government’s interests and responsibilities regarding the proposed project. Although the provincial government succeeded in completing the dam, the controversy led to an operating plan geared toward sustaining downstream riparian and aquatic ecosystems, as well as irrigation water supplies (Rood and Vandersteen 2010).

  8. Despite this policy, however, the Corps also does not regularly review and revise the “water control plans” for its projects (Benson 2017).

  9. USBR shared the lead with the National Park Service, because the latter agency is responsible for managing Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (the popular Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam) and Grand Canyon National Park. Tribal, state, and local government entities also participated as “cooperating agencies” in the review.

  10. This is true of the AEP’s larger water supply projects, except that the Oldman River Dam license does require a review of the dam’s operating strategy after 10 years.

  11. The absence of periodic review in this context raises a question: does any nation, or sub-national government, have a program of periodic review of water supply project operations? Further research might identify one or more jurisdictions that conduct such reviews and might produce useful lessons regarding the design and implementation of operations reviews for water supply reservoirs.

  12. AEP does have one federal obligation affecting project operations—ensuring compliance with the Master Agreement on Apportionment—that is parallel to the USBR’s responsibilities regarding interstate water compacts. As noted above, however, AEP has very rarely had to release water from its reservoirs solely for this purpose, so even this factor is less important in practice than it is for USBR.


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The author conducted research for this article during his service as Visiting Research Chair in Water and the Environment at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, AB, Canada. This position was funded through the Fulbright Scholars Program, and Professor Benson thanks Fulbright Canada and the University of Lethbridge for their support of his work in Alberta. He also thanks Stewart Rood and David Hill (both of the University of Lethbridge), David Percy (University of Alberta), and the natural resources law faculty at the University of Calgary (especially Nigel Bankes, Allan Ingleson, Arlene Kwasniak, Alistair Lucas, and Martin Olszynski) for all their invaluable assistance. Professor Benson also extends his most sincere thanks to all the Alberta water professionals and US federal officials who graciously shared their time, expertise, and insights with him.

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Correspondence to Reed D. Benson.

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Benson, R.D. Reviewing reservoir operations in the North American West: an opportunity for adaptation. Reg Environ Change 18, 1633–1643 (2018).

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  • Reservoir operations
  • Water management
  • Environmental flows
  • Climate adaptation
  • Alberta
  • United States