Reclamation is signaling potential for a big drop in Lake Mead over the next several years

Eric Kuhn points out some pretty striking numbers in the latest monthly Bureau of Reclamation Colorado River projections – a million-plus acre foot drop in expected flows on the river as we head into winter. Because of the river’s rules for coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, this translates into a big loss in Lake Mead next year – a 8 foot drop as compared to the numbers just a month ago.

Perhaps more importantly is the way this hydrology spills into 2022, with a clear chance that Mead could drop to elevation 1,060 by the end of the 2021-22 water year. The last time Mead was that low was April 1937, when it was first being filled.

Nov. 15, 2020 soil moisture, courtesy Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

The culprit seems to be low soil moisture heading into winter, which takes first cut at the water as snow melts come spring. It’s still early days in terms of winter forecasting, but with a dry summer the crappy soil moisture is already baked into the preliminary numbers Reclamation uses for its monthly “24-month study”.

We have lots of time between now and when we actually have authoritative numbers rather than just scary blog posts based on preliminary forecast numbers. But if the current numbers hold, the drop in Mead would push river system 2022 operations into the next tier of mandatory Lower Basin water use cuts under the river’s 2007 “Interim Guidelines” and supplemental Drought Contingency Plan.

Those mandatory cuts are not a huge deal at this point. (but see update below) Lower Colorado River Basin water users have pretty consistently been making voluntary cuts as big as the mandatory reductions in that next tier. This is a success story – Lower Basin water users have taken the steps over the last few years to prepare for this sort of bad hydrology. But it sure feels a lot better to be doing it voluntarily, ahead of a dropping Lake Mead, rather than to be seeing that bathtub ring grow.

Update: Several correspondents, in my inbox and on the Twitters, have suggested I should not be so sanguine about the ease with which Central Arizona water users will be able to absorb the 1,075 shortages, especially the Pinal County farmers who accepted big subsidies in 2004 in return for taking on the risks that they now face. See here for my views on this, and be sure to read the comments there for the smart people who disagree with my take.

A piece of Albuquerque water history: City Well #4

On Apple Lane in Albuquerque’s Duranes neighborhood, City Well #4

Scot spotted it first, a pipe sticking up a few feet above the ground, a square locked box on top of it, behind a low fence on Apple Lane in Albuquerque’s Duranes neighborhood: City Well #4.

It was here on Jan. 31, 1957, that what we might think of as the first groundwater measurement of Albuquerque’s modern water management era was made. The depth to groundwater was 15.54 feet (measured, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, to the nearest hundredth of a foot). By early June, it had dropped more than 10 feet as the water supply wells in the surrounding Duranes field did their work to meet rising city water demands.

In a pandemic, masked Sunday bike rides with my friend Scot are one of the only human contacts left outside my immediate family and fucking Zoom calls, and after coming very close to pulling the plug on the rides, we set out this morning on a treasure hunt.

Here was the treasure:

Putting together some slides for a lecture last week, I’d noticed in the most recent report from Andre Ritchie and Amy Galanter of the USGS on Albuquerque groundwater monitoring a handful of wells with data going back to a single year – 1957. “What’s up with that?” I wondered.

A handy label confirmed that we had, in fact, found City Well #3. Southwest Corner, Los Poblanos Fields, Albuquerque

Four wells, helpfully labeled City Well #1, City Well #2, City Well #3, and City Well #4, were drilled that year across the floor of Albuquerque’s North Valley.

I’ve no doubt people were measuring groundwater here in some fashion before this time, but these four wells mark a turning point. One of the things I try to pay attention to, and encourage my students to pay attention to, is the question of why a particular piece of data is being collected. Data collection carries costs, and there’s intellectual profit in thinking about who collected it, and why. So I did some Googling, Scot helped with the old newspaper research (he has serious skills in that regard) and I stuffed a couple of folded sheets of paper into my pocket with maps giving the rough location of each of the wells.

The mid-1950s were a critical time in Albuquerque’s water history. In the 1940s, the population of Bernalillo County (the greater Albuquerque area) had doubled, and in the 1950s, it nearly doubled again.

Newspaper stories from the period show a fear of running out of water, and trumpet the community’s success in drilling new wells. My favorite was a May 1954 headline bragging about pumping 38 million gallons in a single day – a record. “Despite the heavy use – which is perilously near the 40 million gallon daily capacity of the system – water officials said they received no complaints of low pressure,” the Albuquerque Tribune reported.

Soon, the Tribune reported, the new Duranes Well Field would add another 20 million gallon per day capacity, with a new reservoir and the ability to pump water up to the growing neighborhoods on the mesa to the east.

The tank you see in the background behind City Well #3 in the picture at the top of the post is the Duranes Reservoir, completed in 1954 to hold water pumped from the new field. As street name, Apple Lane, suggests, the field where it was built had once been an orchard. The old Duranes Acequia, one of the early irrigation ditches, still skirts the north end of the reservoir property.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about all the new wells. In November 1956, the state’s top water regulator, Steve Reynolds, issued an order attempting to curb the city’s voracious groundwater pumping.

Since the 1930s, New Mexico had been a leader in recognizing the connection between groundwater and surface water – that when you pump from the ground, you end up depleting the flows of nearby rivers.

But to trigger the law, the state engineer had to issue an order, which is what Reynolds, cheeky bastard that he was, did in November 1956. Messy litigation ensued, with Albuquerque claiming that “as the successor to the Pueblo de Alburquerque y San Francisco Xavier, founded not later than 1706, it had the absolute right to the use of all waters, both ground and surface within its limits, for the use and benefit of its inhabitants”, to quote from the New Mexico Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in the case of Albuquerque v. Reynolds. Which Albuquerque lost.

We found all four of the 1957 wells – #3 at the southwest corner of Los Poblanos Fields, #2 where Sandia Rd. NW dead-ends into the railroad tracks, and #1 in the parking lot of Kasdorf Mfg., which makes “genuine walnut products for the awards and recognition industry”.

#2 was my favorite. What happened in the years after Albuquerque lost the lawsuit in 1962 is a story for another day, or maybe another book, but suffice to say that the water levels in #2 dropped for another 40-plus years before things finally turned around. Since 2008, it’s begun to rebound, rising 20 feet.

Sandia Rd. NW, where the well continues its service today, was one of the early streets in the area to turn over from the marginal farming once done there to suburban neighborhood. It sits today on the property line between a house and an apartment complex, a piece of Albuquerque history kept company by a trash bin, two old couches, and two discarded mattresses.

City Well #2, Sandia Rd. NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico

“City Psychiatrist Defies Edict on Water Wells”

Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 4, 1957

My new favorite water policy newspaper headline, courtesy Better Burque, a wizard of old newspaper research down a rabbit hole with me looking at Albuquerque water policy circa 1957.

The psychiatrist, John W. Myers, also operated Sandia Gardens Nursery. New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds was trying to put the brakes on new water well drilling. Myers argued it wasn’t a new well.

The best part of this story? 6700 Edith NE in Albuquerque’s North Valley, where the nursery and well were located is now home to the U.S. Geological Survey team that monitors Albuquerque’s groundwater.

Luke Runyon on the West’s three great zombie water projects

Luke Runyon published a nice piece earlier this week on setbacks to three of the Colorado River Basin’s three great zombie water projects:

2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.

Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.

All three projects – a new diversion on the Gila in New Mexico, Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline, and the Las Vegas rural groundwater project – have looked to me as if they’ve been dead for a long time. They all provide super expensive water for communities that don’t really seem to need it.

Pretending you’re still pursuing them while never actually building them avoids the political liability of killing them while also avoiding the actual staggering cost of building them.

Las Vegas and New Mexico seemed this year close to actually killing their zombies, but as Luke points out they’re not quite dead yet.

The Lake Powell Pipeline seems most likely to prove my zombie project prognostication wrong.

The Colorado River Basin’s Tanya Trujillo named to Biden Interior transition team

Tanya Trujillo, August 2019, on her first day as a member of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. Photo by John Fleck

I was delighted to see my friend Tanya Trujillo’s name on the incoming Biden Administration Department of the Interior transition team list released yesterday.

Tanya’s a New Mexican, former chief counsel to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and current member of the commission. She served as a legislative aide to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, in Interior in the Officer of Water and Science, and as executive director of the Colorado River Board of California.

Importantly for me, she’s the first person who ever really sat down and tried to explain the Colorado River’s crazy “Law of the River” rules to me, many years ago in a memorable gathering of New Mexico’s water management brain trust on the back patio at the Albuquerque Journal. If memory serves, Estevan López and the late Bill Hume were also in attendance, but Tanya did most of the talking, including a memorable explanation of the meaning of Article III(d)’s infamous “will not cause … to be depleted” Lee Ferry delivery language.

Tanya’s been cheerfully and patiently explaining the Colorado River to  me ever since, and I couldn’t be happier to see her steady hand among those helping guide the next steps at Interior.



Tensions around a wastewater reclamation collaboration in Southern California

There’s some fascinating tension around a proposed wastewater reclamation collaboration in Southern California.

The project, if it goes forward, would provide some 150 million gallons per day (~170,000 acre feet per year) of treated effluent. Water now being discharged into the ocean would instead be available for aquifer recharge within Southern California.

There are a number of technical and environmental questions, most notably the project’s cost effectiveness, to be analyzed before the so-called “Regional Recycled Water Program” goes forward. But there’s a really interesting set of institutional threshold questions to be resolved as well, which are lurking in agenda items at this week’s Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board meeting.

Whose Project Should This Be? Local or Regional?

This is a perfect case study for concepts we’ve been discussing in our crazy Zoom session classes this fall with students in the UNM Water Resources Program. The question – where do you draw the boundary(ies) around a water resources problem, and its potential solution.

The preliminary discussions about this project have drawn the boundaries quite broadly. Pilot-scale work has been done through a partnership between Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 2 and the Metropolitan Water District. Under this model, should the project go forward, the water produced would become a regional supply, alongside water from the Colorado River Aqueduct and State Water Project, which Met provides as a wholesaler to its 26 member agencies.

That’s an institutional model that draws broad boundaries around the project.

Whether that’s the right model, though, is subject to some debate among Metropolitan’s member agencies. The San Diego County Water Authority, for example, seems to favor a more “local control” sort of model, where individual member agencies build their own projects, using the water themselves, rather than having Met build big regional projects, sharing water (and costs) among all.

Should This Be an Interstate Project?

But there is a proposal on the table that would drawn the boundaries even more broadly. In May, Met and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas, Nevada’s big regional water wholesaler, a sort of Met equivalent there) signed a letter of intent that opened the door to SNWA’s possible participation in the Southern California Project. In return for picking up some of the cost, SNWA would get a share of the water. (You wouldn’t actually pipe the water to Las Vegas, that would be crazy expensive, it’s much easier to just do an accounting swap.)

Readers of my work will know that I love deals like this – water bargaining, or sharing, or whatever you call it, collaboration across boundaries. But according to a letter sent over the weekend, San Diego is not so enamored of the idea: “We oppose potential exchange of Colorado River water with other states,” wrote SDCWA board member Michael Hogan on behalf of the agency’s board.

What Happens Next

This is still early days for this project – more study needed, as we academics like to say. But based on Hogan’s letter, there might be some lively discussion at this week’s MWD board meeting about where the boundaries should be drawn.

Election night pizza

Five plus years on from my career spent in newsrooms, I mostly don’t miss it, except when I do.

The great joy of a newsroom was the intensity of being in the midst of All the Things. A newsroom, at least the ones I worked in, was a boisterous place, with chatter about whatever the thing is that we were working on. Those things were, by construction, “important”, else why would we be working on them?

The accelerating buzz as 6 p.m. deadlines approached, the chatter quieted, the tensing stares at computer screens as deadline approached, was a blast. I hated it the first time I really lived through it those deadline moments, as a young intern at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner back in the 1980s. And yet I stuck around newsrooms for the next thirty years.

They were a cauldron of stress, something I only fully grasped when I finally walked away from it. It’s hard to describe the calm that settled over me, quite literally the day I walked out for the last time. I’d carefully constructed my departure to leave open a chance that I might return to a newsroom after I finished the book I’d left to write. But as the peace of the next morning settled over me, sitting quietly in my university office to work on my book, the thought of return to a newsroom never crossed my mind, and has not done since.

And yet I pined today when my old newsroom friend Astrid Galvan mentioned election night pizza. Everyone worked election night, and we’d gather around 6-ish for a meeting to go over all the assignments and then eat pizza. Early in my career I was one of the foot soldiers of journalism dispatched to some gawd-awful hotel ballroom to chase candidate quotes, trying to get a word with the loser in State House District Umpty. Later, I spent evenings in the newsroom crunching numbers for the many vote tables we’d publish in the Wednesday morning paper, shuttling back and forth to the reporters writing on deadline, pushing up against wave after wave of deadline through the evening until sometime well after midnight we’d push out the final edition.

By the time I left journalism five years ago, I was getting old for that game. I don’t miss the stress. But I do miss the pizza, the urgency of deadline, and the sense of shared purpose.




Climate change and the water policy funnel

Climate change, as I’ve often heard Brad Udall point out, is water change. By that, Brad means that the effect of a changing climate on people and ecosystems is most clearly felt through changes in how much water there is.

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot as I work on three related projects – one in class with UNM Water Resources Program students, and two collaborations on papers with students and colleagues – that look at the implications of declining river flows on the Lower Colorado River.

In trying to model the impact of climate change on a particular piece of the environment (perhaps the Colorado River Delta or the Salton Sea) or some human community (Las Vegas, for example, or agriculture in the Imperial Valley) we want to model the impact of a reduction in available supply of water. So we model the baseline – how much water we have now – versus some sort of climate change projection of reduced flow. Brad’s “Twentyfirst Century hot drought” paper, with Jonathan Overpeck, offers some numbers. We should expect a 20 to 30 percent reduction in flow by mid century, they found, maybe 35 – 55 percent by the end of the 21st century.

I’m not saying these are the right numbers, but they’re reasonable and citable numbers that we can plug into the models my colleagues are developing to say “What if?”

It’s not wrong to do it that way, but it avoids by simplification one of the central climate change impact questions, because in reality the impact of climate change’s “water change” won’t play out that way. Reduced flow in the Colorado River is funneled through a bunch of upstream dams and diversions, which are managed according to a set of rules.

Those rules in effect act as a funnel through which the impact of climate change flows. If climate change reduces the flow in the Colorado River by 20 percent, does everyone share in those reduction equally? Do some users see a 40 percent reduction, while others see a 10 percent reduction? Do the farmers in Imperial have a senior right, meaning they won’t lose any water? Does the environment take an even bigger hit, or do we decide the environment has suffered enough and impose bigger cuts on farms and cities?

Partly this is in part about contested interpretations of existing rules, and in part about negotiating new rules. This is where the interesting climate change questions lie for me right now – in the water policy funnel.

On a bike, fighting through the pandemic fog, with Silver Surfer’s help

Fall colors, Rio Grande, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 2020

I barely have anything to say, so I ride my bike.

Last Thursday, I rode through my 5,000th mile of 2020, something I’ve never done before. Like much of 2020, there will need be an asterisk next to this accomplishment, but it felt good to take the morning off and ride. Cycling has become my refuge – masked, helmeted, clad in my construction worker reflective vest, with my crazy flashing lights and computer data collection systems. In the fog of the pandemic – I don’t have the disease itself, just the grey cloud of life that surrounds it – I have been largely unable to write beyond the most perfunctory of work. I “don’t have the brain share”, is my shorthand. To ride creates an inexorable structure for the mind to follow.

“And I shall be true to my trust, for as long as I live.”

So in the days leading up to Thursday’s ride I carefully mapped a route, picked up the necessary miles ahead of time, so I could pass my 5,000th mile on Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge over the Rio Grande, my favorite of favorite spots. I came close, mile 4,999.9 at my river overlook, so far within the margin of error of the data as to be indistinguishable from my arbitrary arithmetic goal.

The route included my favorite bits of the city – both secret tunnels beneath the railroad tracks (one going, one coming), the stretch of gravel levee along the river’s west side, long stretches of old Route 66, the “Bandidos’ park” for one of Albuquerque’s great city views.

On the way home, I paid a visit that’s become a ritual nearly every ride since early summer – a visit to the Silver Surfer. The creation of @irotism and @release1201, Silver Surfer showed up in late June or early July, filling plywood space left by the boarding of downtown Albuquerque windows.

In our time of need, Silver Surfer has become a ritual comfort. I don’t really know Silver Surfer beyond the downtown paintings and a bit of reading on Wikipedia, but I imagine something helpful every time I visit.

My miles haven’t lifted the fog, but rather have created a safe space within it.

What do we mean at the UNM Water Resources Program by “interdisciplinary”

One of the ongoing struggles for me as an academic outsider working in a university is mastering the language. In the course of a recent discussion of the term “interdisciplinary” (the UNM Water Resources Program is “interdisciplinary”) I ran across this language I put in a program report I wrote last year in which I attempted to understand disentangle the terminology:


The program is, by construct, “interdisciplinary,” interpreted broadly. There are a number of different definitions and labels for this concept:

  • “Multidisciplinary” – researchers from more than one discipline bringing their separate disciplinary perspectives to a problem, each retaining their own disciplinary focus,
  • “Interdisciplinary” – the use of an innovative blend of more than one disciplinary focus, creating a synthetic approach to a problem,
  • “Transdisciplinary” – the incorporation of non-academics along with academics in a research effort, bringing a more practical problem-based focused to the integration across disciplines.

While the University of New Mexico Water Resources program embraces the label of “interdisciplinarity,” and does work that most closely matches “transdisciplinary” as defined above, it is agnostic about the details of the labeling, comfortably doing work that matches many different flavors of work across disciplines, in and out of the academy.

This remains for me a helpful framework for thinking about what we do. The bit above even had a footnote!