Water, not for fighting over

While historically, water has been depicted as something that has driven a wedge between communities, “I think it should be something that ties our communities together,” Mueller said. “We all need it, we all depend on it, we all want it in one way or the other. If we can work together (on water) we’re much stronger.”

That’s Andy Mueller, the new director of the Colorado River District.

Hey Tucson, I’ll be yammering at the University of Arizona Thursday

Thursday at 4:

With another dry year setting in across the West, the challenges of meeting the water supply needs of a growing population while maintaining our rural communities and a healthy environment are again being thrown in sharp relief. The continuing decline of Lake Mead has become a symbol of deepening problems, but there are also less-noticed examples of success – in conserving water and sharing in times of scarcity – which we need to understand in order to craft solutions.

John Fleck – A former journalist with 30 years’ experience writing about water in the West. John Fleck joined the University of New Mexico faculty in 2017, where he directs the university’s Water Resources Program. He is the author of Water is For Fighting Over: and Other Myths About Water in the West, an account of the roots of the region’s water problems combined with an optimistic narrative about our growing success in solving them.

Refreshments will be served. (emphasis added)


“drought” – Philp on weather, water, and yesteryear’s language

Tom Philp had a great piece in Water Deeply last week about the language we use:

Water policy becoming a prisoner of its own limited vocabulary, particularly when it comes to the weather. Here is a case that “drought” and “normal” belong in the dustbin of history, for their overuse can lead to the wrong conversation. These words are not so sinister as to be banned from the dictionary. But they tend to miss the mark as to what seems to be happening with our weather this century.

I was thinking about this as I read my morning California Department of Water Resources daily news links:

Drought Headlines

“Drought” is becoming an increasingly unhelpful word, or, as Tom put it,

Meanwhile, we all watch the weather. We all wonder what about the future. And we converse about it in yesteryear’s language.

The Rio Grande forecast keeps getting worse

The preliminary Feb. 1 forecast for runoff on New Mexico’s rivers, out  this evening, is now projecting record or near-record low flows for the 2018 runoff season. It would take an epic wave of wet storms from here on out to bring the river to anything approaching a “normal” year, and no such epic wave is in the forecast.

The numbers:

  • Rio Grande at Otowi, 21 percent, with a one in ten chance on the wet side of getting up to 45 percent of average, and a one in ten chance of having as little as 6 percent of average.
  • Pecos above Santa Rosa, 11 percent of average (that’s not a worst case, that’s the midpoint of the forecast range)
  • Native water inflow into El Vado, on the Rio Chama – 24 percent

This is a crazy bad forecast.

Keeping Colorado’s Crystal River wet

Crystal River, Gunnison County, Colorado. Carol Highsmith, 2015, Courtesy Library of Congress

Sarah Tory had an interesting piece Friday about an effort to keep water in Colorado’s Crystal River, a tributary of the Roaring Fork (Carbondale area, or Aspen for those of a certain geographical bent). Tory’s piece does a good job of explaining the institutional complexities of an agreement that spans potentially both opportunities for exploiting shared values but also risks of conflicting interests among a rancher, the state water rights regime, county government, and an NGO (the Colorado Water Trust).

It’s an interesting case study because it doesn’t involve fallowing land or some other sort of water use reduction on the Cold Mountain Ranch, but rather a re-timing of the ranch’s seasonal water use to put some more water in the Crystal in August and September.

The new deal is the culmination of a multiyear effort to help boost streamflows in the Crystal River, which runs from the Elk Mountains above Marble to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.

During the drought of 2012, demand for water outpaced supply and the Crystal went dry, prompting the Water Trust to look for new sources of water for the river’s benefit.

Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an environmental instream flow right on the Crystal, the water right dates from 1975, far lower in priority than the major agricultural water rights on the Crystal – and thus is of little to no use when the river most needs water.

The folks involved in the project seem to have found a way to overcome some complex “use it or lose it” water rights problems associated with Colorado’s “doctrine of prior appropriation”. It’s an interesting example of the multi-faceted structure of these complex deals, seems hopeful, offers some great institutional learning, and makes me wonder about how examples like this can be scaled up.

The central challenge on the Colorado River

decoupling in the Colorado River Basin

I’ve been thinking about the central communication challenge as we face down yet another dry year amid the continued drumbeat of Upper Basin talk about finding new ways to take more water out of the Colorado River.

It goes back to something I wrote in my book:

Within the network of state and water-agency representatives working on Colorado River Basin problems, there is a clear recognition that eventually some sort of “grand bargain” will be needed that finds a way to reduce everyone’s water allocation. To keep the system from crashing, everyone will have to give something up. But each of the participants in that core network also understands the dilemma that follows: each must then go home and sell the deal in a domestic political environment that views the river’s paper water allocations as a God-given right.

I’m not sure that’s quite right in a couple of ways. First is the assertion of that the solution is some sort of “grand bargain”. In the two years since I handed off the manuscript for Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West to my editor Emily Turner at Island Press, I’ve come to a better understanding of the nature and value of incrementalism on the river – deals done from the bottom up, one irrigation district and municipality at a time, rather than the sort of top down solution the “grand bargain” phrase implies.

But my underlying point – that there is an understanding gap between people who work at the basin scale and those who use water at the local level – seems even more relevant to me today.

The Colorado is really just a 15 million acre foot a year river

The second weakness in that passage of the book is my assertion that everyone in “the network” really understands this dilemma – that the Colorado River Compact and the federal legislation and treaty that followed allocated 18 million feet of a 15 million acre foot river. I still want to think that everyone in that core group I describe in my book understands this, but there is a strong push from the people one layer removed in water governance – the city councils and irrigation district boards and state legislatures across the basin – to grab hold now of the water promised in the Law of the River. That provides a strong incentive for some of the people in the core network to avoid pursuit of grand bargains and honest recognition that it’s really just a 15 million acre foot river.

Decoupling is real

This problem is connected to a second, which has been the thing that most surprised me as I’ve traveled the West talking water since the book came out. People are often surprised by, and sometimes actually resistant to, the evidence for decoupling – the evidence that we’re actually using less water now, and that we’ve demonstrated communities’ ability to grow and thrive even as their supply of water has shrunk.

Repeat after me

Those of you who read my newspaper work over the years may have snapped to my schtick – saying the same thing over and over. I dressed it up in different outer garments, but my core messages were generally the same. I believe in the power of repetition.

So let me reiterate two points for emphasis:

  • The estimated natural flow at Lee Ferry on the Colorado River in the 21st century has been 12.4 million acre feet per year.
    • This is not an 18 million acre foot river.
  • Upper Basin water use in 2015, the most recent year for which we have data, was 3.7 million acre feet, the lowest since 1977. Lower Basin water use in 2017 (again the most recent year for which we have data, LB accounting is done more quickly) was 6.8 million acre feet, the lowest since 1987.
    • Decoupling is real.

Seems I may have buried the lead here, or “lede” as my annoying journalist friends insist on spelling it.

#tbt to that time New Mexico tried to demand a Gila River Compact

For today’s #tbt (Throwback Thursday), a return to the remarkable era of Steve Reynolds in New Mexico water management, and that time Reynolds tried to give New Mexico an effective veto over the Central Arizona Project.

Students in this year’s UNM Water Resources Program spring class are doing a case study this year on New Mexico’s bit of the Gila, a Colorado River tributary that begins with the meager snow that falls in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico. So I’ve been reading so I have smart and/or fun things to say during class. Mostly fun so far, the Gila’s complicated, I don’t feel smart yet.

Back in the mid-1960s, Arizona was trying to win congressional support for the legislation needed to build the Central Arizona Project, its big straw to suck water out of the Colorado for Phoenix, Tucson, and parts there around. That took support from New Mexico’s congressional delegation, in particular the powerful Clinton P. Anderson. Anderson turned to our then state engineer, Steve Reynolds, to draw up the specifics of our ask. Reynolds said we needed Hooker Dam, a dam on the Gila as it flows out of New Mexico that had been on the reclamation community’s grand wish lists since at least 1946.

He also demanded (I toyed with “asked for” in this sentence, buy hey, it was Steve Reynolds, I’m guessing “demanded” more accurately captures the flavor of 1960s-era Steve Reynolds water governance) that the Central Arizona Project not be built until New Mexico and Arizona had negotiated a Gila River Compact.

Mo Udall, Arizona’s 2nd District congressman and one of the state’s leads in the negotiations, was happy to put the Hooker Dam language in the proposed legislation, but the demand for a compact was full stop. Any compact would require the approval of the New Mexico legislature, which was a balance of power pill too hard for Arizona to swallow. “It is our belief that such a ‘veto power’ over Central Arizona Project construction by the New Mexico legislature would create for us problems which are almost insurmountable.”

We didn’t get a compact. And they never built Hooker Dam.

Here, via the Western Waters Digital Library, is Udall’s letter:

Udall to Reynolds, 1966, p. 1

Udall to Reynolds, 1966, p. 2