The unexpected history of Las Vegas and Hoover Dam

Folks in Nevada today are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Hoover Dam’s sort-of-semi-official power production.

Hoover Dam is such a dominant feature on the history of the west in the 20th century that it’s fun to contemplate what people thought about it before it happened. One of my fascinating side trips when I was researching my book was spent reading contemporary accounts from the vantage point of a nascent Las Vegas, a desert city built around some springs that was one of a hundred minor rail stops in the West until the 1920s:

The accident of Las Vegas’s geography, just miles away from the deep canyons of the Colorado River, was about to change that. The untouchable water was within reach, but the Las Vegas of the 1920s could not begin to grasp its implications.

“Action of 7 States Means Millions to Las Vegas,” the Las Vegas Age proclaimed on November 25, 1922, as it formally announced completion of the Colorado River Compact. The millions would come from building a dam that, thanks to “the Hand of Destiny,” would surely be built at the ideal dam sites in the canyons southeast of town. The Age
also trumpeted the importance of cheap power, which would help Las Vegas compete with big industrializing cities back East. If any thought was being given to the water supply a new dam might provide, the newspapers of the day did not mention it.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times, you can always begin to understand a city by considering its water – London falling at the point in the Thames estuary where it was first practical to land a boat headed upriver, for example, or New York as a port at the mouth of the Hudson. For Las Vegas it is clearly the Colorado, but in ways strange.

The leaders of Las Vegas imagined electricity to power factories and industry. Modern Las Vegas has made rather different uses of that power. They didn’t seem to think much at the time about the water at all.

Do US native communities’ water rights extend to groundwater?

In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.Ian James writes about a fascinating case now making its way through the California courts:

Lawyers for the Coachella Valley’s largest water districts and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians presented their arguments to a federal appeals court in a water rights case that could set a precedent for tribes across the country.

The case hinges on the question of whether the Agua Caliente tribe holds a federally granted “reserved right” to groundwater beneath its reservation in Palm Springs and surrounding areas.

This case connects two really interesting gaps in US water law.

The first is the connection, or lack thereof, between groundwater and surface water. The law varies from state to state, but in many places the two types of water are treated separately under the law, even though they are clearly connected hydrologically. (Abrahm Lustgarten explains the disconnect here.)

The second gap is our inability to live up to the legal promises made when native communities were relegated to “reservations”. The word here needs to be considered carefully. The US Supreme Court in 1908 ruled that when the land was set aside for those native communities – the word is “reserved” – along with that land was the implicit legal right to use the land. Because without water, land in the arid West is substantially less useful. As James explains:

In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.

The case in question here involves the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs. The implications stretch across Indian Country.

Webinar tomorrow with Sharon Megdal, Jay Lund, and me

The  folks at the Security and Sustainability Forum are doing a webinar tomorrow around some of the issues in my book, about water governance, resilience, and sustainability. I am especially jazzed about the company – Sharon Megdal from the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center and Jay Lund from the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Science will be joining us.

It’s free, info on connecting is here.

In Indian Country, where pickle buckets count as water infrastructure

plumbing in Indian Country

plumbing in Indian Country

Kirk Yazzie, his wife and three children, ages 2 to 9, live in a one-room house in Thoreau that uses a solar-powered water pump that draws water from a cistern to a tap inside their home.Before the demonstration project started two months ago, Yazzie said he hauled water from St. Bonaventure’s well across town.

“I used to haul water in a car with five-gallon pickle buckets,” Yazzie said. The indoor tap, he said, “is a lot better than the buckets.”

That’s from Olivier Uyttebrouck’s story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal about efforts to bring indoor plumbing to homes in the Navajo homelands of western New Mexico.

In the United States as a whole, 2 percent of homes lack what the U.S. Census Bureau Counts as “complete plumbing facilities“:

  • Hot and cold running water
  • A flush toilet
  • A bathtub or shower

On the Navajo Nation, that number is 38 percent.

Elephant Butte Reservoir and climate change

Elephant Butte Reservoir

Elephant Butte Reservoir

temperatures, Northern New Mexico mountains

temperatures, Northern New Mexico mountains

Elephant Butte, one of the first big dams built by the then-Reclamation Service (now Bureau of Reclamation), is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

As the graph above shows, its reservoir ended the 2016 water year Sept. 30 at less than 7 percent full. The reservoir’s ups and downs through history show the great variability in New Mexico’s climate. But in recent years, New Mexico State University’s Phil King told Mónica Ortiz Uribe of public radio’s Fronteras Desk, something more seems to be going on as climate changes pushes up temperatures in the northern mountains that feed snowpack to the Rio Grande:

What’s become less reliable though, is the water supply behind the dam. Currently Elephant Butte Reservoir is less than 7 percent full.

“Obviously it would be nicer to celebrate the 100th anniversary with the water spilling over the spillway,” said Robert Fabian, a fourth generation farmer in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico.

Fabian rotates his crops year to year growing onions, cotton, chile and alfalfa.

“Most of my family came from Texas to partake in that Garden of Eden that was being created out here in the desert,” he said.

In the last century, that Garden of Eden has gone through both wet and dry cycles. The latest dry spell has hung on for 14 years, only now climate change is amplifying the effects of drought.

“I am quite concerned that this is not just one of the same old mood swings but a permanent shift toward a more arid climate,” said Phil King, a civil engineer and consultant for Elephant Butte Irrigation District.


  • Elephant Butte elevation from USBR
  • Temperatures from NCDC

The message from the Colorado Delta pulse flow: a little water can go a long way

There’s an important point I try to make when I’m out in public talking about the 2014 Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow: the amount of water used and the size of the landscape that got wet, compared to the once-vast delta, is tiny.

beaver dam at Laguna CILA site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

beaver dam at Laguna CILA site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

I get excited about the pulse flow, when water managers on both sides of the US-Mexico border in the spring of 2014 released water from Morelos Dam into the usually-dry delta. For those of us who were there, it was a life-changing experience. But at a bit more than 100,000 acre feet of water, it was less than 1 percent of the water that once flowed every year into the delta before we diverted the Colorado River’s water upstream for our farms and cities.

But in modern environmental habitat creation/restoration efforts, what happened then and in the two years since illustrates something that’s increasingly coming to dominate institutional discussions of returning water to the environment in the West’s arid landscape. Absent abandoning all those farms and cities – which we’re not going to do – we’re not going to return the rivers to the way they were. But the delta pulse flow experiment shows that even a small amount of water – “in the right spot and at the right time”, in the words of the University of Arizona’s Karl Flessa, one of the leaders of the pulse flow science team – can yield big results.

That’s the key message found in the International Boundary and Water Commission’s latest follow-up report, completed earlier this year and just now posted publicly (pdf). If you don’t want to wade through the full technical details, Mari Jensen at the University of Arizona wrote a nice summary of the findings:

Birdlife responded to the post-flood burgeoning of vegetation, and bird diversity is still higher than before, the monitoring team reports. Migratory waterbirds, nesting waterbirds and nesting riparian birds all increased in abundance.

Colorado River delta pulse flow map, courtesy IBWC

Colorado River delta pulse flow map, courtesy IBWC

One of the important things I think we seem to be learning in this experiment is that it may be more efficient, in terms of environmental benefit per unit water used, to move the water through irrigation systems and deliver it to targeted spots in the flood plain that way rather than running it straight down the river channel. One of the most important habitat restoration areas is the Laguna Grande restoration site, near the bottom in the map on the right. You can get more water there if you run it through the irrigation canals rather than down the main river channel.

The flow down the main channel was too small to do much of the natural “scouring” that a real flowing river does. That scouring is essential for preparing habitat for the germination of riparian vegetation. So if you only have a little bit of water to work with, manual human scouring with heavy equipment to prepare habitat for the water’s arrival is going to be important. Key lesson.

These features of the experiment – delivery of water through the irrigation system and manual preparation of the land for the water’s arrival – lead to all sorts of interesting questions about what counts as “natural”, which is a conversation we need to have. But if your goal is measurable habitat improvement, birds and such, that seems to be the best way to do it.

I spent a bunch of time on the pulse flow in my new book, Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, because it was a storyteller’s dream:

Scientific data is scant, but locals say beavers were nearly completely gone from the region during the dry times that came with the closure of Glen Canyon Dam and the diversion of the river’s entire flow. But on the few occasions that the delta flooded, the beavers would reappear, perhaps following the flow down from refuges upstream.

And so it was again, in the spring of 2014. A small flow of excess agricultural water flowed past willows through a human-built environmental restoration site. As soon as the water arrived, delivered through irrigation canals in an early phase of the river restoration efforts, beavers materialized out of the ecological mists, damming the little channel. They had found their way back.

I’ve worried that, in the excitement of my personal experience of it, I was overselling the pulse flow. But the data show benefits lingering, and they also show this central lesson – if we think carefully about how to deploy a bit of our scarce water for the environment, a little bit can go a long way.

Update: Audubon also has a nice writeup on the results.


Climate change in the Colorado River Basin

Discussions about climate change and water supply in the western United States risk getting bogged down in pursuit of uncertainties. Those uncertainties are real, but there’s a bunch that we already know, and it’s sufficient to help us form policy responses, according to a new summary paper from the Colorado River Research Group:

Assuming the current drought will end, and that the supply/demand problems in the basin will thus fade away, is both nai?ve and dangerous. A return to “normal” (i.e., 20th century) precipitation patterns would be unlikely to result in a return to normal levels of runoff, as steady warming will continue to erode streamflows. The “new normal” is variability and change, likely in directions that further stress the basin’s water resources. A risk management philosophy that assumes continued climate variability and change is the correct way forward, rather than an approach that views current conditions as something calling for a temporary coping strategy until normal conditions resume.

The question now is really more about policy than it is about science:

To ensure further progress, the research and water management communities need to improve efforts in coordination and mutual understanding, bringing political leaders into the loop to speed the implementation of solutions that are beyond the capability of scientists and managers alone.

New study suggests water conservation remains the cheapest alternative

A new study published last week by Heather Cooley and colleagues at the Pacific Institute concludes that water conservation remains the cheapest water supply alternative as compared to the big new sources widely discussed, things like storm water capture, desalination, and recycling/reuse:

Urban water conservation and efficiency are the most cost-effective ways to meet current and future water needs. Indeed, many residential and non-residential measures have a “negative cost,” which means that they save the customer more money over their lifetime than they cost to implement.

Here are the data, lined up side by side:

cost of alternative water sources

cost of alternative water sources

On Native water

Current public attention to efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their water supply by blocking construction of an oil pipeline has drawn attention to Native water rights issues. Anne Strainchamps at Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge had me on last week to talk about the broader issues.

One of my book’s key arguments involves a fundamental shortcoming of the rest of my book’s key argument – the question of who gets left out of the sometimes formal and sometimes informal governance structures through which we are sorting out our water management and allocation.

In particular, I argue, Native communities have been repeatedly left out of decision making. My example is the Navajo Nation, but this generalizes:

By virtue of having been here rst, the Navajo are, on paper, among the most water-rich people in the region. But if, as Smith said, water is gold out here, the Navajo Nation has had a hard time cashing in. For decades, the water-management community has paid lip service to honoring an obligation to the Navajo, but in practice the big, expensive, federally subsidized plumbing has channeled the water elsewhere.

I was, frankly, nervous going into the interview for two reasons. First, TTBOOK is widely syndicated – big audience – jitters. More importantly, I’m not Native. But I think it went well.

Greenhouse gases and southwest “megadrought”

Scientists have dubbed decades-long periods of aridity in southwestern North America “megadroughts“. We’ve had them in the past, and research has long pointed toward an increasing risk of them as the climate warms.

New research published last week by Cornell’s Toby Ault and colleagues has generated a wave of scary headlines – A Mega-Drought Is Coming to America’s Southwest, to cite but one – but co-author Ben Cook pointed out this morning that this paper is about more than a prediction of doom. The scientists modeled various greenhouse emissions scenarios and concluded, “An aggressive reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions cuts megadrought risks nearly in half.”

Here’s Ian James summarizing the key finding:

The researchers found that under a “business-as-usual” emissions scenario, the risk of a decades-long drought would be 90 percent in the southwestern U.S. if precipitation is unchanged. If there’s a modest increase in precipitation, the region would still face a 70 percent risk of a megadrought by the end of the 21 century. And if precipitation decreases under that warming scenario, the scientists estimated the risk at 99 percent.

If, however, humans reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and warming stays below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) in the region, the researchers calculated the chances of a southwestern megadrought this century would decrease to less than 66 percent. If emissions are reduced further, they said, the chances would go down even more.

“Mitigation matters quite a lot for keeping risks relatively low, or low compared to the alternative, which is to just continue down our current path,” Ault said in a telephone interview. At the same time, he said, the impacts of rising temperatures in exacerbating droughts will “force us to rethink our expectations for how much water is going to be available in the Southwest.”

From the perspective of the science-policy communications interface, this is an important finding, and it’s important that we communicate and think about it in the right way. Gloomy “megadrought dooms us” headlines can lead to fatalism. But if people feel empowered – Hey there’s something we can do to make ourselves safer and reduce risk! – progress is more likely.