I should have written a book about pizza cheese

A colleague notes an interesting bit of business in Dan Boyd’s story in this morning’s newspaper about the state of New Mexico’s “closing fund”, a state government goody bag to help fund economic development:

The most recent project to be allocated closing fund dollars is the expansion of a Southwest Cheese Co. factory in Clovis.

data source: USDA

data source: USDA

My book-in-the-making includes a riff on “burgers and pizza cheese,” because a significant fraction of the water we use for agriculture in the western United States goes to alfalfa and other forage for animals, and a significant fraction of that goes to dairies, and a significant fraction of that goes to the production of pizza cheese. Per capita U.S. consumption of Mozarella (mmm, pizza) has increased ten-fold since 1970 to 11 pounds per year. In the early 2000s Mozarella caught up with perennial favorite cheddar. For a few years it was neck-and-neck, but Mozarella ended the clear winner.

So when we as a state fund an eastern New Mexico cheese plant as a tool of economic development, we are funding the topmost rung of a ladder that is based on farmland devoted to alfalfa and other yummy cow food. It’s the alfalfa->dairy->pizza cheese supply chain.


Myths of rising water demand

I’m not sure what Nebraska attorney David Cookson was up to in this recent talk in Kearney. He seems to be trying to scare the crap out of Nebraskans about water wars risk, of Californians and rich Wall Street money hounds coming after his state’s water. Whatever, this statement, at the heart of his argument, is flat wrong:

“The demand for water never goes down. Ever,” he said.

Here’s the water use trend data, from the U.S. Geologic Survey:

U.S. water use

U.S. water use

There’s a frustrating linguistic confusion that I need to sort out between “use” and “demand”, which have both technical and plain English meanings that don’t always line up and hide conceptual difficulties. But by whatever word you choose, water use/demand across every sector of the U.S. economy – irrigation, municipal, power plant cooling – has gone down.

Water scarcity in U.S. Indian Country

When we talk about water scarcity in the western United States, it’s usually a conversation couched in acre feet of water and groundwater regulation and the Lake Mead bathtub ring and gallons per capita per day. But a dive into the data as I was cleaning up one of the chapters in my book-to-be reminded me that any conversation about water scarcity needs to start with whether we’ve got plumbing at all.

I’d been writing about water in Native American communities in the Colorado River Basin, and looking at Census Bureau data tables on who does and does not have indoor plumbing. But it didn’t really pop out until I plotted it up in a map:



Apache County in Arizona and McKinley County in New Mexico are, by far, the most water-scarce communities (by this measure) among populous areas in the Lower 48 states. This is the heart of the Navajo Nation, a native community that has struggled for years to win rights to the water implied by the promise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1908 Winters decision. One in three homes in Apache County, nearly 11,000 of them, don’t have the full suite of toilet, hot and cold running water, and a shower or bathtub. Another 7,000 homes in McKinley County (27 percent) are lacking. I’ve written about this before, in stories about efforts to leverage the right to water under the U.S. legal system to an opportunity to actually bring plumbing to these distressed communities:

The public health implications for the communities that lack running water are enormous, Robertson pointed out. A 2007 federal study, noting that a wide variety of diseases are common without access to clean water, put the health care savings of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project at $435 million over 20 years. “There is a clear connection between sanitation facilities (water and sewerage) and Indian health,” the study concluded.

Some caveats about the data: I’ve left Alaska off (most of the highest rates of homes without plumbing are rural Alaska counties, but I don’t know enough about rural Alaska and native issues there to sort them out). My cutoff for “most populous” is arbitrary, but McKinley and Apache counties have far more homes without plumbing than those Alaska counties, or anywhere else in the nation for that matter. Shannon County in South Dakota, the Oglala Lakota reservation, has a 24 percent lack-of-plumbing rate. The county on the Texas-New Mexico border that looks dark on the map is Loving County. Almost no one lives there. Terrell County on the U.S.-Mexico border, west of Big Bend, has a 27 percent lack-of-plumbing rate, but hardly anyone lives there either.

There are only a couple of counties in the eastern U.S., all in western Pennsylvania, that have low rates of indoor plumbing, especially Forest and Potter counties. I think that’s Amish country?

There’s also a lengthy and fascinating discussion here about the methodological sensitivity involved when Census Bureau surveyors come calling to ask people about their plumbing: “Asking explicitly about flush toilets has resulted in negative attention from the public.”


A legend in the making: Albuquerque Tumbleweed Snowman 2015

Seen on my bike ride this morning, Albuquerque’s Tumbleweed Snowman in preparation in the back lot behind the flood control authority offices and workshop:

Tumbleweed Snowman under construction, November 2015

Tumbleweed Snowman under construction, November 2015

Tumbleweed Snowman history

Some years ago I got the help of retiring Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority engineer John Kelly to trace the history of the snowman, which by tradition is emplaced along Interstate 40 just east of the I25 interchange on the Monday after Thanksgiving:

Kelly was there at the start back in 1995 when a group of the agency’s executives cooked up the idea of a tumbleweed snowman out behind their main office between Menaul and the interstate.

“Some things are worth doing for fun,” Kelly explained.

Tuesday, Kelly pulled up in a pickup truck on his last day on the job, bearing a sack of burritos for the crew’s mid-morning break and eyeing the snowman’s rising three-lobed physique.

Spray-painted white, three tumbleweeds are assembled atop a steel frame that Moya and his colleagues have refined over the years. A sturdy steel hat with “AMAFCA” on the front sits atop his head as he greets drivers speeding past on the interstate.

Legend has it that Larry Trujillo, the flood control authority’s maintenance supervisor, looked at Kelly like he was crazy when the idea first surfaced 15 years ago.

Trujillo, sitting in an office Tuesday morning overlooking the yard where the snowman assembly was under way, did not dispute the legend. But he seems to have softened over the years, now that he has grandchildren: “They say, ‘Grandpa, grandpa, we see your snowman!'”

On this date in water history: Arizona governor, state senator, fisticuffs over the Colorado River

87 years ago today in Colorado River water management history, water apparently was for fightin’ over:

Butte Montana Standard November 27, 1928, page one



Affair Outcome of Argument Between Governor and Senator on River


Gov. Hunt Declares Blow Received from Opponent Was “Purely Accidental”

PHOENIX, Ariz., Nov. 26 – Police were called to the Arizona state capital late today when Gov. W. P. Hunt was engaged in a brief fist fight by State Senator Fred Colter. The governor was struck one or two blows by Colter as the climax of an argument in the capitol lobby. Interference by J.S. Strode, secretary of the governor, ended the affair.

The affair, witnesses said, was the outcome of an argument between Hunt, Colter and several legislators on the question of the Colorado river state commission, to which Senator Colter is opposed.

Arizonans have always taken their water very seriously.

A grim forecast for Colorado River Basin ag under climate change

Surface-water supply reductions (relative to current agricultural surface-water use) range from 20 percent to more than 75 percent across areas of the Mountain, Pacific, and Plains regions in 2080. The most severe declines occur in the middle and lower Colorado River Basin under virtually all scenarios, while other river systems with headwaters in the central Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range are affected to varying degrees depending on the scenario. In general, surface-water supply impacts for irrigated agriculture under climate change are increasingly severe over time, with the most significant impacts occurring after 2050. These reductions are calculated based on climate conditions averaged over a 20-year window; they do not reflect the magnitude of supply reduction that could occur under multiyear drought conditions.

And a visual aid:

Marshall et al., Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Adaptation in the U.S. Fieldcrop Sector, USDA, November 2015

Marshall et al., Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Adaptation in the U.S. Fieldcrop Sector, USDA, November 2015

Don’t expect groundwater to save Colorado Basin ag:

Reductions in groundwater availability

Reductions in groundwater availability

That’s from Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Adaptation in the U.S. Fieldcrop Sector, by Elizabeth Marshall, Marcel Aillery, Scott Malcolm, and Ryan Williams, USDA Economic Research Report No. (ERR-201) 119 pp, November 2015

Gila River diversion decision: “Reply hazy. Try again.”

The Magic Eight Ball predicts Interior's Gila decision: "Signs Point to Yes". Image CC via CRASH:candy

The Magic Eight Ball predicts Interior’s Gila decision: “Signs Point to Yes”. Image CC via CRASH:candy

Brett Walton’s Circle of Blue update on the Interior Department’s upcoming Gila River diversion decision suggests we should expect a “yes” from Secretary Jewell tomorrow on a decision to proceed with a lot of inconclusive studies of the super-expensive project that will almost certainly never be built but that will be an intense environmental and water management distraction in New Mexico for years to come.

The decision simply represents a bureaucratic milestone – the approval of a “New Mexico unit” to the Central Arizona Project that could eventually be the institutional vehicle to divert water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico. It’s a bureaucratic ratchet: “no” tomorrow would kill the diversion, but “yes” doesn’t ensure that it is built. And Walton’s Magic Eight Ball suggests that “signs point to yes”:

Statements from the Interior Department indicate that Jewell will approve the New Mexico unit and proceed with an environmental review that is required under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.

This could take decades a really long time:

According to the project’s authorizing statue, a final decision would be made between 2019 and 2030.

The closest thing we have to serious benefit/cost analyses of this project, done by the federal government ( the recently released Value Planning – Final Report: New Mexico Unit, see also last year’s Appraisal Level Report on the AWSA Tier-2 Proposals and Other Diversion & Storage Configurations) suggests building a diversion and storage for water taken from the Gila would be staggeringly expensive and staggeringly not cost effective, with costs from $700 million to $1.05 billion and substantially less in benefits. Since New Mexico will have to pay most of the cost (Brett’s story gives a good rundown of the limited federal money available) and my impoverished state struggles to find money for far less expensive water projects with far clearer benefits (see this NM Legislative Finance committee report – pdf – for an overview of that problem), you can see where this is headed. However the rest of the policy and politics debates play out, New Mexico is never going to have the money to build this. For now this is a discussion in isolation – Gila project, yes or no? – but as we face decisions as a state, it will inevitably be stacked up against other water infrastructure spending, and it will not stack up well.

My prediction: We’ll have a wonderful, energetic, impassioned fight for years. Come 2030, we’ll still have a Gila Diversion Project, live on the books, with little chance in reality of being built. Lawyers and consultants will prosper. But a great deal of human water management capital that could have been more productively spent dealing with our water needs and environmental problems will have been squandered.

The Magic Eight Ball toy offered up 20 different possible answers to the weighty questions my friends and I would pose as kids in the 1960s. My favorite: “Reply hazy. Try again.”

We always did.