Some thoughts on the bathtub ring and Lake Mead’s historic drop below 1,075

I’ve had my head down the last ten days reading and writing about 1940s and ’50s-era Los Angeles water management, and I look up to see that Lake Mead last week dropped below elevation 1,075, a level freighted with meaning. But what meaning, exactly? Drew Beckwith at Western Resource Advocates, in Caitlin McGlade’s story, wins for quotability:

“This is the check-engine light,” Beckwith said.

I agree. But rather than start with the usual imagery of the bathtub ring, let’s start with some engine diagnostics, courtesy of a talk the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Terry Fulp gave today as part of an on line series organized by the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science:

Colorado River water supply and use, courtesy USBR

Colorado River water supply and use, courtesy USBR

The green line is scary as hell, as is the gap between green and yellow. We’re using more water than the system seems capable of providing. But if we’re going to make sense of the decline in Lake Mead, we also have to think through why the yellow line, the line showing water use in the Colorado River Basin, is bending down.

The L.A. history stuff I’ve been working on for my book is a chapter about the development and evolution of water management institutions Southern California’s “West Basin” (beachy cities like Santa Monica and inland communities like Hawthorne and Inglewood). I’m using it for two reasons: first, it’s an example of a collective water management regime in a group of communities that successfully confronted shortage. The result was a transition from a rapidly dropping aquifer to an aquifer that was healthy enough to provide a drought buffer when later dry times hit. How did they do that? Secondly, I’m using it because it’s where Elinor Ostrom did her thesis, and a) she is awesome, and b) her thesis is a gold mine for a storyteller. (spoiler alert: squabbling mayors)

The basic message, seen time and again in arid western North America, is that people tend to speed recklessly toward the water supply cliff, but when they near it, they almost inevitably hit the brakes. It would be great if we weren’t so reckless in the speeding part, but that seems to be an inevitable result of historical contingency, the problem of path dependence, and human nature. Blame our historical selves if you must, but whatever. That’s done. The key here is the “hitting the brakes” part.

So what bent the yellow curve down?

The first thing is the undertold story of the reduction in California’s Colorado River allocation. Up until 2002, California regular was allocated more than 5 million acre feet of water from the river, for use in desert farming and urban/suburban communities. In 2002, it peaked at 5.3 maf. In 2003, that was cut to 4.4 maf. In response, Southern California showed remarkable adaptive capacity with conservation, conjunctive ground-surface water management, innovative ag-to-urban transfers and a bunch of other stuff. (Buy my book! As soon as I quit with all the blogging and write the damn thing!)

The second thing is just same old same old in the Upper Basin. As Mike Cohen likes to remind me, when you’re up at the headwaters part of the system without a big reservoir above you, when there’s less snow in the mountains above you, you use less water. “Shortage” is a normal part of variability. These people have the “adaptive capacity” already built in.

There are two common themes that emerge here. The first is a boundary condition: once the water gets scarce, people use less water. The second is the nature of the adaptive capacity, which is a bunch of fuzzy social and human and institutional stuff that you’ve got to be able to call on to either succeed or fail when the boundary condition whacks you upside the head and says, “Yo, less water this year!” It’s that adaptive capacity (the ability to pivot to conservation, or ag-urban transfers, or some such) that determines whether you succeed or fail.

The yellow line on Terry’s graph suggest we’re already stomping on the brakes, but yellow is still above green, meaning water use still exceeds supply. What can we learn from the stuff that’s already working to help us step on the brakes a bit harder?

With that out of the way, here’s the obligatory picture of the bathtub ring, with bonus ominous sky:

Hoover Dam, Lake Mead bathtub ring, February 23, 2015. Elevation 1088.97

Hoover Dam, Lake Mead bathtub ring, February 23, 2015. Elevation 1088.97, by John Fleck

Drought adaptive capacity, Kings County CA edition

In your latest reminder that California agriculture has shown some remarkable capacity to adapt to that state’s crushing drought, Todd Fitchette in Western Farm Press reports that total agricultural farm gate receipts in Kings County, in California’s drought-devastated southern Central Valley, were up 9 percent last year:

Kings County agricultural values advanced 9 percent from the previous year’s figure to over $2.47 billion, due primarily to strong commodity prices for dairy, tree nuts and processing tomatoes.


Your 1952 Aquifer Queen of Central Water Basin

Los Angeles water, management, circa 1952:

"WATER WARNING! - Bonnie Myers, 17, South Gate High School home-coming queen, has been named Aquifer Queen of Central Water Basin to help spotlight water problem. Wouldn't it be sad if shower water failed?" L.A. Times, Nov. 27, 1952

“WATER WARNING! – Bonnie Myers, 17, South Gate High School home-coming queen, has been named Aquifer Queen of Central Water Basin to help spotlight water problem. Wouldn’t it be sad if shower water failed?” L.A. Times, Nov. 27, 1952

There are many reasons for the diminishing underground water supply. Foremost among them, probably, is the vastly increased demand created by an unprecedented population influx and the constant press of industrial expansion.

But there are important contributory reasons.

Prolonged dry spells of little or no rain leave water-bearing aquifers aquifers unreplenished by nature. Flood control paving and river channels and extensive sewage drainage keeps runoff water from percolating through the ground back into the underground reservoir.

Arizona’s Colorado River zeitgeist

In this morning’s Arizona Star, Tucson journalist Tony Davis asks, “Is California trying to take our water?

In journalism, there’s a joke known as “Betteridge’s Law“: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

As Tony’s story strongly suggests, the notion making the rounds these days in some Arizona political circles that California is out to steal away a share of Arizona’s Colorado River water is crazy talk. No one in Arizona has presented any evidence beyond their state’s historic paranoia about their larger and more politically powerful neighbor’s alleged water ambitions. And all the experts Tony interviewed (disclosure: including me, I’m one of that now apparently) converged on a central conclusion. “That’s crazy talk.” We were mostly more polite, except for Pat Mulroy, who can be counted on to be impolite when the occasion warrants:

Talking like that is “a pathway to mutual destruction,” Mulroy said.

“+1″, as the kids on Slashdot used to say.

But here’s what’s interesting to me about this episode.

Colorado River Basin politics is hampered by a historic distinction between basin scale issues and individual state water politics. At the basin scale, those working on the Colorado River’s politics understand, as Mulroy points out in Tony’s blog sidebar thing, that a negotiated solution is the only way to deal with the basin’s problems, and that it’s likely involve shared sacrifice. That’s abundantly clear when I interview people working at the basin scale. But then each person in the room in those negotiations has to go home and sell whatever deal they come up with to a domestic politics that doesn’t want to hear about the need for shared sacrifice because it’s our water dammit and screw California. Arizona’s century-old fear that California wants to steal its water, as untrue as it seems to be in this situation, is a signature feature of that state’s domestic water politics.

This conflict between the inward-facing talk behind the mostly closed doors of basin-level discussions and the often very public domestic politics within each state seems to me the most likely path to having the whole thing blow up. Domestic political ferment like this, fomenting a sense of interstate water wars, increases the risk of such an explosion.

This is why I’m watching the Arizona situation with such keen interest. This episode, for better or worse, is goin’ in my book, especially Pat Mulroy’s “!!!!”.

Running out water – again with the governance

This Alex Breitler story reminds how running out of water is almost invariably as much a problem of governance as much as it is of drought:

MOUNTAIN HOUSE — Years before the first shovelful of earth was turned on this master-plan community near Tracy, developers and county officials knew that its sole source of water could someday be interrupted.

It wasn’t severe drought that they feared, necessarily, but the high level of state and federal scrutiny that surrounds any diversion of water from the delicate Delta.

Whatever the cause for their worry, it wasn’t enough to stop county officials from approving the developer’s plan for what eventually would be a community of 44,000 people. The approval came even after an earlier requirement to write a water shortage contingency plan was scrapped.

And in the following two decades, even after construction began, nothing was done to secure a second source of water.
So it is, some say, that Mountain House’s mad scramble to acquire emergency water last week shouldn’t have been such a surprise after all.


Public water, public spaces

UNM Duck Pond

UNM Duck Pond

My University of New Mexico office is a short walk from the campus Duck Pond, which though it was never an official name, we’ve come to capitalize. It’s a very important place.

I often come to campus on Saturdays to write, and on those Saturdays I generally take keyboard breaks to go for a walk. Invariably, there’s a wedding party or a quinceañera gathered for pictures. In two walks this afternoon I have counted five such gatherings. Sometimes it’s a Krazy Party Bus parked nearby, or a stretch limo. And always the happy people.

Weekdays, it’s surrounded by people sitting and eating and reading and kissing and doing all the things people do while being, by choice, next to water.

I am prepared, with no other evidence than this, to declare the Duck Pond and the green grounds that surround it an extraordinarily valuable use of our precious water. I spend a lot of time thinking about the valuation of water, both cultural and monetary.

It’s no Bellagio Fountains, but this seems to me like some seriously high-value water.

Lake Powell runoff update

On May 1, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center projected 3 million acre feet of runoff into Lake Powell from Aril 1 through the end of July. This was bad. Then it started raining.

On June 1, the forecast was increased to 5 million acre feet.

increased Colorado River runoff as a result of May-June storms

increased Colorado River runoff as a result of May-June storms

As of late last week, the estimate actual inflow was already 5 million acre feet, with more than a month to go. This is good.

I am a Californian. I am a Westerner. I proudly wear flip-flops.

In his dissent from the majority on today’s gay marriage ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weighed in on a central question confronting those of us in the western United States: Is California in The West?

California footwear?

California footwear?

The court, Scalia notes, contains “not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner. (California does not count.)”

If you live elsewhere, you will scratch your head, look at your map, and say “Huh?” But “The West” is a complicated place.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times (for those of you referring to your map, it’s over on the western part), Steve Lopez helps frame this:

We are so peculiar that Scalia put us in parentheses, like we had to be quarantined. (Is there any coincidence that the swing vote came from a California native, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy?)

We are west of the West, chiseled off the map and sent floating out to sea in our flip-flops and board shorts, an island of the lost and irrelevant.

For the record, I am a California native. I have a pair of office flip-flops, which I change into on hot summer days. I have two more pair at home, a main pair and a backup gardening pair that sit on the back porch, ready for me to slip into, that I might remember my California roots.

Albuquerque’s monsoon officially underway

By the powers invested in my by no one in particular, I hereby declare Albuquerque’s 2015 Monsoon Season underway.



The weather radar is showing blobs of color in the high country to the southwest, there are high clouds popping up above the mountains to the east of the city, but the real clue was how muggy it was as I rode my bike the five minutes it took me to drop off something with a friend over at the UNM School of Law.

It that’s mugginess that does the monsoon magic. Moist air gets lofted into the sky by daytime heating, big clouds happen, then they rain.

Some years ago, I wrote in the newspaper about some work by a University of New Mexico undergraduate named Patrick Higgins who concluded that three consecutive days of dewpoints at or above 47F (8.3C) were a reliable indicator that the summer monsoon was here.

Tuesday and Wednesday were above the Higgins Line, and today is on track to finish above 50. If true, and we really do get some rain out of the current pattern, it will be unusually early. Typically we don’t see a serious monsoonal pattern until about a week into July.

I do miss the opportunity to write for the newspaper at this particular time. Monitoring the approach of our summer rains was one of my most-beloved duties. I do not miss the pedantic emailers complaining that, well, I’ve been to India, this really isn’t a monsoon.

By the powers vested in my by no one in particular, I declare that it is.