Taking a LEAN approach with the Colorado Water Plan


I recently spent three days as part of a Lean Event in Denver, focusing on ways to “streamline” the water project approval process. The Colorado Water Plan calls for streamlining the approval process through Lean in Chapter 9.4. American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates were the two representatives for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in attendance.

When I first heard the phrase “Lean process” I, and I think many others, assumed it was a euphemism for “streamlining.” It is not. Lean is a management tool developed back in the 1950’s, first by Toyota, to identify and remove waste and inefficiencies in the manufacturing process. The focus is on the “value stream” for the customer, both the internal “customer” within the process and the ultimate customer, the consumer, or in our case, the public. It is a process that leads to Toyota’s phenomenal success, eventually becoming the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.

The Lean process has also been applied to service sector business and more recently, government agency processes. EPA, Denver Water, and the Colorado State Land Board have all started applying Lean to their operations. Now the State wants to turn the Lean focus on how water supply projects are processed through a gauntlet of Federal, State, and local agencies.

The idea is to find ways to save both time and money, for the project proponents, for the taxpayer, and also for those of us who scrutinize these projects for the damages they may cause to rivers and streams. Sometimes NEPA and other permitting paths can take decades and cost many millions of dollars. The general public and NGO’s like American Rivers often don’t see what a proposed project looks like until the official scoping begins, often months after the proponent and the government agencies have been firming up plans and ideas.

After scoping the proposed project disappears, sometimes for many years, into a “black hole” where the lead agency, a third party consultant and the project proponent work behind closed doors to create a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). When the DEIS finally comes out we get to see how the now fully developed alternatives look and how they may impact the river. The alternatives in the DEIS are developed over many years but we are limited to a short time period for review and to provide detailed and substantive comments.

After the DEIS comment period ends, the project disappears again into another “black hole”, again for years, until the Final EIS comes out. At this point we can only object to provisions, comments are not accepted. Finally a Record of Decision (ROD) made by the lead Federal agency comes out as the end of the NEPA process. After that, if we have serious issues with impacts and proposed mitigations, our only recourse is to sue. Add another few years and many thousands of dollars to the process.

This current NEPA process is cumbersome, time consuming and expensive. Making changes could be a good thing, so long as we don’t lose sight of what NEPA was created to do, protect the environment and the public interest.

We all agreed in the recent Lean Event that a lot of folks now excluded should be involved much earlier in the process. If NGO’s and local governments are involved early on the project proposal, Federal and State agencies could benefit from their different perspectives. The result would hopefully be a better informed and potentially improved project idea. It doesn’t mean that we will necessarily agree with or support a given project, but we can ask some important questions before it gets too far along. One such question will always be to ask what alternatives may make the project unnecessary.

Front loading the process, engaging all stakeholders early could save time and money, and could very well find solutions to water supply needs that water providers and government agencies hadn’t seen. Water is important for all of us, including the rivers. With growing demands and decreasing supply we need to start thinking outside of traditional roles and processes. We can no longer afford to be constant adversaries. We need to work together wherever we can. Creating a process with less waste and greater efficiency is one way we can do that. It doesn’t guarantee that we will all agree or that a project will automatically gain approvals, permits or immunity from lawsuits. But it could help, and American Rivers is committed to find as much common ground as we can.