Estevan gets his picture on the wall

In March, President Obama nominated New Mexican Estevan López, who at the time was head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, to head the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was a big deal in a number of ways, not least of which was that, in replacing Mike Connor, López would be the second New Mexican in a row to head this incredibly important water agency. But then, as happens with things that require Congressional action these days, the nomination languished, leaving the Bureau and New Mexico water management in limbo.

Finally in October, López went back to Washington to serve as “principal deputy” at Reclamation, a position that didn’t require any congressional action. He was for all purposes running the agency, in all but title. But with Congressional action such a dicey game these days, it seemed entirely possible that he would serve out his term, running the agency and doing all the work, without ever actually getting the formal title or, as a friend put it, “getting his picture on the wall.”

So I was happy to see the tweets out of Reclamation today after his name was included earlier in the week on a list of what were described as “non-controversial nominations” to which the Senate gave its assent. If you know Estevan, you’ll recognize the grin in the second picture:

Estevan López being sworn in as Commissioner of Reclamation

Estevan López being sworn in as Commissioner of Reclamation

Estevan López, smiling after being sworn in as Comissioner of Reclamation

Estevan López, smiling after being sworn in as Comissioner of Reclamation

So now he gets his picture on the wall.

Using less water, Queensland edition

“The average daily water consumption across the south east in November 2014 was 190 litres per person per day. This is a stark contrast to consumption levels before the millennium drought, when the region’s residents were using an average of 330 litres per person per day.”

That’s Queensland, Australia. To translate to U.S. measures, that’s down from 87 gallons per person per day to about 50. By comparison, Albuquerque (which I frequently cite as a success story) is currently at about 135 gallons per person per day, down from some 250 in the mid-1990s.

We can do this.

As Lake Mead drops, Las Vegas plays the long game

Even with the release of extra water from upstream reservoirs, Lake Mead outside Las Vegas is forecast to continue dropping in 2015 and into 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s latest monthly “24-Month Study” (pdf). At this point, as Lake Mead drifts deeper into record emptiness, it goes without saying that the big reservoir, the key to supply water for urban-suburban Nevada, Arizona and Southern California, along with the vast agricultural empires of the southwestern deserts, is heading into record territories.

Storage in Lakes Mead and Powell. Data source: USBR, graph by John Fleck

Storage in Lakes Mead and Powell. Data source: USBR, graph by John Fleck

But for the record, the current forecast end-of-water-year level for Sept. 30, 2015, is 1,075.32 feet above sea level, which would be a record low for the end of a water year. Forecasting into 2016 should be taken as little more than median flow arm-waving, but for the record, 2016’s 1,070.64 would be, yup, another record. The forecasted drops would happen even with an anticipated release of surplus water from upstream, according to the Bureau’s analysis.

Faced with serious risks if dropping reservoir levels continue, the board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority last week voted in favor of spending another $650 million to build a new pumping plant capable of sucking water out of the reservoir at very low levels. Brett Walton reported the details:

The water authority’s two existing intakes will be exposed to desert air if the lake’s elevation drops below 1,000 feet above sea level. A third intake is currently under construction, but it would require a separate pumping station — like the one that the committee recommended — to operate at the lowest water levels, those below the 1,000-foot mark.

This is not Las Vegas expecting Lake Mead to drop that far, but rather buying some extremely expensive insurance against an enormous downside risk. To senior managers at SNWA, that risk has to appear in the realm of possibility. Since 1998, Mead’s elevation has dropped 133 feet. The 1,000-foot mark – the point at which a major U.S. city’s water supply is gone – is just another 81 feet away.

Source data

Stuff I wrote elsewhere about deceptive bird sex

The best part of doing this story was standing by the Rio Grande at dusk with Chris Witt, watching the sandhill cranes fly in to roost. The birds were great, but the really extraordinary part was watching Chris watch them – eyes flitting, counting, listening and hearing.

As they flew by, they announced their presence with the characteristic honking that has become the serenade of winter on New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande, and Witt offered a play-by-play of his rising count. That one was a lesser sandhill crane, smaller than the others with a peg-like beak. Those others the larger greaters, and listen to that high-pitched whistle heard amid the deep honking coming from the Y-shaped formation, the distinctive cry of a juvenile keeping up with mom and dad.

There’s also some stuff about birds being deceptive to get mates, which is maybe a sex angle so you should click?


Coming, not quite so soon: Beyond the Water Wars

So the folks at Island Press will be publishing my book, tentatively titled Beyond the Water Wars, about the problems facing the Colorado River Basin and how we might fix them. I couldn’t be happier.

Its basic themes will be familiar to readers of this blog – the end of the age of fat reservoirs and full canals, of vast suburban lawns and alfalfa fields stretching as far as the eye can see; the growing but uncertain shift away from legal confrontation, toward collaborative arrangements to share; the risks of the system crashing if we fail to pull off that shift.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

We don’t have a firm schedule yet, but it looks like publication is a couple of years away. (Very different from the publication pace of my newspaper life.)

I’m excited to work with Island Press. The people I’ve been dealing with in developing the project have been extraordinarily smart about helping me think through how I might turn my sometimes mushy ideas into a readable and therefore useful book. Now it’s on me to write that book. A lot of it will be based on work I’ve done over a number of years, and I plan to spend the next year doing a lot of fresh research and reporting. (Alfalfa fields, stranded boat ramps, suburban fountains. Road trips!)

I can still vividly remember standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon as a little boy (I think I was five), looking down in awe at the river below. If you’ve been there, you understand that you get only glimpses, tiny bits of the brown ribbon peeking into view, a river obviously there (witness the gaping hole it created) but elusively out of a little kid’s view.

Years later when I boated the Grand Canyon, I realized that it’s the same way looking up from the river. Often you can’t see the rim, can’t see out of the marvelous canyon you’re in. (Metaphor alert.)

I’ve been on and around and thinking about the river ever since, and have wanted to write about it since I was grown enough to want to write about things. But I don’t think I understood what the story was until the spring of 2010, when Jennifer McCloskey, then of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma office, sent me off driving down the levee road behind the Bureau’s Yuma headquarters. A couple of miles downstream from her office, what’s left of the river hits Morelos Dam and the Colorado River ends. By that time I was already deep into the politics and policy side of the thing, trying to make sense of what we had done and might do with the Colorado. But nothing quite prepared me for seeing this river I’d been so obsessed with my whole life simply stop.

First Colorado delta pulse flow science findings

Pulse Flow, courtesy IBWC

Pulse Flow, courtesy IBWC

The International Boundary and Water Commission today released its initial science report (pdf) on this spring’s Colorado River pulse flow. A few key bits:

  • When you add water, stuff grows. Satellite imagery in June ’14 compared to a year earlier showed a 36 percent increase in the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. The NDVI increased in all but one area (the area where vegetation was cleared to prepare for flooding and new plant germination, which makes sense).
  • Cottonwoods liked it. Tamarisks loved it. In the 4,522 acres of channel and flood plain inundated by surface water, cottonwoods seedlings seemed to take hold in the “Reach 1″ and “Reach 4″ sections of the pulse flow area (see map). Non-native tamarisk did well everywhere. What happens next depends on the availability of soil moisture fed by groundwater. More study, more time needed.
  • Birds seem to be liking the habitat restoration areas. That also makes sense. I’d like them if I were a bird.
  • The water table rose, but the rise was really focused in the river channel area between the levees.

A digression that’s important: When I was giving a talk about the pulse flow this fall, a cranky member of the audience took issue with my enthusiasm for all this, pointing to Aldo Leopold’s “green lagoons”, the two million acres that used to be the delta. This was 4,522 acres. As we discuss and describe this very promising experiment at the interface of water management and environmental restoration, it’s important to keep the scales in mind.

“Why do I care about water policy?”

David Zetland really cares about water policy, and he wants you to think better about it:


I confess that I’m not a fan of the “educate the general public” model of water policy problem solving, which might seem odd given my profession as a journalist. That’s an “educate the general public” job, right? But my years in the business have convinced me that what we really need is a set of policies that are robust to the fact that the general public mostly won’t be educated about most things. There are too many things. Way too many things. And they’re all hard.

But I still think that what David’s doing here is worth trying. Because a corollary of my belief is that the right subset of the “general public” can be sufficient to make some headway on hard problems. And to move in that direction, we need to experiment, a lot, in different ways to get through to people.

So, a water calendar? Hmm, that just might help.

David’s Kickstarter to fund the experiment is here.