Postel on watching a river’s return

The first fingers of the Colorado Delta "pulse flow" creeping toward San Luis, March 25, 2014

The first fingers of the Colorado Delta “pulse flow” creeping toward San Luis, March 25, 2014, by John Fleck

Sandra Postel on the experience of watching water return to the Colorado’s sandy delta bed, again and again:

For me, some of the most powerful experiences have come from visiting the same location twice – before the river got there, and then again after its arrival.

One morning, we visited a dry, sun-baked, sand-filled channel that, more than anything else, evoked sorrow and loss. My main memory of that first stop at Reach 3 was of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California hydrology team’s pick-up truck getting stuck in the deep channel sands that the Colorado River had delivered there many years ago.

When we returned to the same spot a few days later, the river was running through it – and the landscape had been completely transformed.

We arrived at sunset, and the beauty was breathtaking. Could this possibly be the same place where the truck had gotten trapped? Why had we not brought a picnic dinner to enjoy by the river’s bank?

Mulroy joining Brookings

To Colorado Basin water nerds’ favorite question – What’s Pat up to? – we have an answer.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, former Las Vegas water czar Pat Mulroy is joining the Brookings Mountain West project:

Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, said the shrinking Colorado River is one of the most critical issues facing the Western U.S., as it threatens the water supply to Las Vegas and dozens of other cities.

Without a stable supply of water, large portions of the country’s economy, including much of its agricultural sector, would be threatened, with future growth in the region crippled.

Brookings Mountain West began fundraising to hire a water expert before it knew Mulroy was available as part of a plan to direct more resources to studying water issues. When Mulroy announced she was retiring, she immediately became a perfect fit for the job, Lang said.

“She seemed like the most qualified person in the country to hire,” he said.

Mountain West is a partnership between the Brookings Institution and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, with a focus on the future economy of the intermountain west region. (Here’s a piece I did on some of their work back in 2008.)

In addition to the Brookings-UNLV project, Mulroy will be affiliated with the Desert Research Insitute in Reno, according to the Sun.

Alvarado Dr., Holbrook, Ariz.

Alvarado Dr., Holbrook, Ariz., March 2014, by John Fleck

Alvarado Dr., Holbrook, Ariz., March 2014, by John Fleck

This isn’t just old west ruin porn. There’s actually a water policy question here. This is in Holbrook, Ariz. There’s a big, expensive new levee protecting this neighborhood from the Little Colorado River. These properties back onto the levee. How do they decide whose property warrants protection?

A weird dry stretch

Here’s a statistical oddity. Through April 14, we’ve measured 0.4 inches (10 mm) of precipitation at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque gauge in 2014, about 23 percent of the long term mean. This is the seventh straight year that Albuquerque has been below average through April 14. 2007 is the last calendar year in Albuquerque that got off to a wet start:

Albuquerque precip through April 14

Albuquerque precip through April 14

There’s nothing special about April 14 other than the fact that today’s the day I happened to write this blog post (I’ve been watching this phenomenon for weeks). In fact, if you plot things out to the end of June, we’re on track to have the seventh consecutive year that the first six months of the calendar year were drier than average (the line of little black boxes is this year – the black box indicates days for which we do not have data):

through June

through June

Here’s hoping we break the string.

AMACRQ: Colorado River Use Bar Graph

A couple of weeks back, I made a quickie bar graph to provide some context for the amount of water involved in the Colorado River Delta pulse flow. It was half-assed. A reader asked for more: “Would love it more if it included other things, like Las Vegas consumption, MWD consumption, UB pasture irrigation, and so on…. Nothing like a bar graph to put things in perspective.”

In response, today we launch a new feature here on Inkstain: Ask Me A Colorado River Question.

The main point here is that the environmental pulse flow, as significant as it is, involves a relatively small amount of water.

Lower Colorado Diversions

Lower Colorado Diversions


As you can see, I didn’t go quite as far as my reader asked. This is only Lower Colorado River Basin diversions – Lake Mead on down. Other notes on the data:

  • It’s only diversions greater than 100,000 acre feet. That captures 97 percent of the water use, and made typing in data a lot easer.
  • 100,000 acre feet ~ 123 million cubic meters in the rest of the world, apologies for our wacky US water measures
  • For the Central Arizona Project, I estimated the ag-urban split based on data here and the presumption that all the Indian water was M&I. That’s probably wrong, so the ag-urban split is probably wrong, but the overall bar size is what matters.
  • For the Mexico numbers, I presumed 81 percent of the water diverted is agricultural, which is a commonly used number, but I haven’t chased down its origin yet.
  • The numbers came from the USBR’s 2013 consumptive use report (pdf here)
  • My spreadsheet with the numbers is here

Margaret Bowman on the Colorado Basin solution space

From an interesting talk last month by Margaret Bowman on a vision of what the Colorado River Basin solution space might look like (pdf of talk text here):

[T]he region’s agricultural industry will be modernized with more efficient irrigation technologies. This modernization will not only increase the productivity of agriculture, but will also result in a surplus of water that farmers can voluntarily sell or lease to cities and for river flows.

… [C]ities manage their water supplies smartly, with improved efficiency and recycling technologies. Residents transform their landscaping to look like the beautiful arid western landscape where they reside, rather than eastern green grass communities. With these changes, cities are resilient to unpredictable weather, and not rendered bankrupt due to expensive and environmentally damaging Rube Goldberg plans to pipe water in from faraway lands.

… [T]he iconic rivers of the basin remain healthy and resilient. As a result, the region’s $26 billon recreation and tourism industry continues to grow, and residents looking for a high quality of life are attracted to the region to work. Fish and wildlife are healthy, and as a result the region is not subjected to divisive and expensive endangered species act fights.

And finally … federal and state agencies, water utilities, farmers and ranchers, tribes and conservationists all work together to adapt our system of managing water so that energy can be spent on sharing water most effectively rather than litigating old disputes. With this more fluid market for sharing water (pardon the pun), private capital is attracted into investing in the region’s water solutions. Added to federal and state funding, these private investments can finance the infrastructure improvements needed to effectuate these changes.

The talk’s about 15 minutes and is worth a listen:


The National Environmental Policy Act in western water

The National Environmental Policy Act – NEPA – is a weird bird. It’s one of the earliest of a suite of U.S. environmental laws that took shape in the 1960s and ’70s as environmental values grew into a substantive element of our nation’s politics.

Hoover Dam, Oct. 20, 2010

USBR’s Hoover Dam, Oct. 20, 2010

It doesn’t actually protect anything, but it does require the U.S. government to analyze the environmental impacts of the actions it takes before it takes them. It’s a sort of “eyes open” statute:

The courts have always said that NEPA does not dictate results, only process, leaving agencies free to make environmentally harmful decisions.

That’s University of New Mexico law professor Reed Benson, who makes an intriguing argument for an expanded role for NEPA in western water management. Specifically, he thinks the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s current approach to NEPA implementation misses an opportunity.

The Bureau, which manages dams and water distribution in the western United States, unquestionably has significant environmental impacts. But the Bureau’s position (supported, apparently, by the courts) is that ongoing operations are not and should not be subject to environmental review under NEPA. Again, Benson:

The volume and timing of water storage and release affects water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife both above and below the dam. With these kinds of impacts, one might think that federal dam operations would be subject to environmental reviews under NEPA, just as federal land management activities are. But in fact, Reclamation rarely does NEPA reviews of “routine” dam operations, despite the serious impacts on downstream rivers.

Benson thinks that represents a missed opportunity:

NEPA reviews certainly will not resolve all the environmental problems associated with Reclamation’s dam operations. But I do think the NEPA process has value in the context of long-term operations plans, requiring the agency to generate alternatives, involve the public, and develop ways to mitigate impacts. In a West where the climate is changing, water uses are changing, and values are changing, I believe NEPA can help Reclamation make better decisions about the future of its projects.

If you’re interested in western water management, I recommend Reed’s full piece.


tossing out of the light

the night the lights went out at Isotopes stadium, opening night, 2014

the night the lights went out at Isotopes stadium, opening night, 2014

I’ve quoted before Don DeLillo’s great description of how, at a night baseball game, under the lights, “the players seem completely separate from the night around them.”

Isotopes home opener, April 2014

Isotopes home opener, April 2014

At our Albuquerque Isotopes’ home opener this evening, the players’ home whites seemed impossibly white, the grass seemed impossibly green, the sky behind the lights impossibly inky black. In the third inning, the left field lights went out, the players left the field, but to stay loose a couple came out and tossed, one in the light, the other in the shadows, not quite separate this time from the night around him.

I’ve always loved the way baseball usually draws your eye to the main thing – pitch, swing, hit, catch, throw – but then rewards the glance elsewhere, and when it gets complicated, the way you have to watch the outfielder sprinting for the fly ball while simultaneously watching the runners – are they holding? The third base coach is waving them in! Did the throw miss the cutoff man?

It was a pitcher’s game until it wasn’t, when the ‘Topes scored five in the eighth. A bases loaded triple that capped it was one  of those “where do I look?” plays, a deep fly, an outfielder sprinting, baserunners on the move, a third base coach directing traffic (when in doubt, watch the third base coach). By then, some of the impossibly white jerseys were stained infield red, and the home team won.


Via Nature podcast, Alex Witze on the grand pulse flow experiment

If I’d done the geek stuff right, hit the play button below to hear a really nice piece by Alex Witze of Nature magazine from the Colorado River delta pulse flow. (I know, it’s a magazine, this is audio. Brave new world and all.) If I haven’t done the geek stuff right, you can probably also find it here.


And here’s a picture from the San Luis beach party you can hear at the end of Alex’s piece:

San Luis beach party, photo by John Fleck, March 27, 2014

San Luis beach party, photo by John Fleck, March 27, 2014