New Mexico’s Rio Grande has lots of water in it right now

The Rio Grande through Albuquerque has been rising for the last week or so, and is now about to make a good-sized jump in flow as water managers push some extra flows from storage behind upstream dams to encourage our beleaguered silvery minnow to spawn. From a notice sent out this afternoon by Mary Carlson at the Bureau of Reclamation:

The release from El Vado to Abiquiu is currently at 2,000 cubic feet per second. That will double by Wednesday and then will begin dropping back down to about 2,000 cubic feet per second by Friday. It will remain at that level for a couple of weeks. This flow, which is beneficial to the ecosystem of the Rio Chama, includes the bypass of the inflow to El Vado Reservoir as well as the scheduled release of water stored with approval of the Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. This agreement allowed for the storage of close to 40,000 acre-feet of water in El Vado between May 2 and May 20….

The release from Abiquiu Reservoir is scheduled to rise to about 1,800 cubic feet per second by Wednesday and continue for approximately two weeks. The release from Cochiti Dam will be close to 3,300 for about two weeks. This flow will also benefit the entire ecosystem and is aimed at signaling the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow to spawn. Minnow numbers have been low in recent years as the drought has continued. However, a better spring runoff last year helped support a slight improvement in minnow abundance. Monitoring for silvery minnow eggs will be conducted throughout this operation.


Rivers of New Mexico

Albuquerque sewage outfall

Albuquerque sewage outfall

I ended up by happy accident on a morning bike ride yesterday at Albuquerque’s sewage treatment plant outfall, which is the largest Rio Grande tributary between the Rio Chama and the U.S.-Texas-Mexico border. It’s just a short run from the culvert you see to the river, which is immediately behind where I was standing when I took the picture. I’ve always wondered what would happen if, instead of a short rock-lined channel to the river, you let the water meander through the bosque. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, I try to get out to Las Vegas Wash, where treated wastewater makes for great bird habitat as it makes its run to Lake Mead.

the future of journalism has different names

A couple of my friends, journalists, have started a neat new side project:

The guys said they were from Puebla, a picturesque state in central Mexico whose colonial capital is a tourist gem — although much of the countryside is impoverished. Puebla has a long tradition of sending men and women north: There are so many poblano immigrants in New York that Spanish-language TV sometimes refers to the city as “Puebla York.” The guys told us they were lost. They needed to get to Arizona and didn’t know which way was north. We pointed them in the right direction. The oldest was 27; the youngest was 16.

Click for the pictures. I’ll wait.

It’s work that doesn’t quite fit into the newspaper where they work, but it’s worth sharing, and as I remodel my own career, I’m empathetic to the motivation – having something to say that doesn’t fit into the cubbyholes the existing media environment has to offer.

newspaper on driveway

newspaper on driveway

A lot of my friends are doing this. Consider Jeff Proctor’s work on the criminal justice system or Laura Paskus on climate change in New Mexico – both with a home at New Mexico In Depth. These two projects have a lot of the look and feel of traditional journalism, but they are deeper and more thoughtful than the beat reporting you’ll read in your local paper. This is not a knock on the beat reporters or the local newspaper. This is recognizing the intrinsic limitations and experimenting with a new avenue, a new form.

But also consider the work Scot Key is doing at Better Burque. I don’t know of anyone else in Albuquerque who’s writing deeply about pedestrian safety:

Pedestrian deaths are happening so often they largely aren’t even worth reporting.

The latest update from the UNM Geospatial and Population Studies Traffic Research Unit shows 24 pedestrian deaths in the first four months of 2016, a rate on par with the highest number of such deaths in recent years, 74, in 2014. Since 2010, 303 pedestrians have died on New Mexico roads.

Barela’s death, like many others here and around the country, happened in a low-income area with very poor road infrastructure. That low income folks walk more is common sense; that the roads in poor areas of town are the least hospitable to walkers is anything but.

Journalism? I don’t know, you tell me, or tell me why the label matters. Scot, who is a bicycling buddy, is a retired middle school teacher. What are the fundamental characteristics of teaching? Ideas->brains. What are the fundamental characteristics of journalism? Ideas->brains.

There are important implementation details. What are the ideas? Are they good ones – useful, beautiful, productive? This is a tricky bit. And then, what are the pathways to brains? Which brains do you want to reach?

I used to work for a company that printed my words on paper and threw them on tens of thousands of driveways. Scot was paid to stand in front of young people and talk to them for hours on end. Those were sweet gigs. If the pathways don’t exist, or stop working for us – ultimately I had things to say that didn’t work via the old paper-on-driveway path, I’ll let Scot speak for himself about his decision to leave teaching – how to build them? This also is a tricky bit.

But at root it’s the same basic task.

On the Great Lakes, a trans-basin diversion discussion

For those of us in the western United States accustomed to the large scale movement of water from one river basin to another via tunnels, pumps, and the like, the current discussion about water supplies for Waukesha, Wisconsin, is a fascinating case study.

As I write this, I’m drinking from a glass of Albuquerque tap water, a portion of which came through 26 miles of tunnels burrowing beneath the Continental Divide, bringing water from the Colorado River Basin (specifically the San Juan sub-basin) to the Rio Grande Basin. We do this stuff all the time out here. If you live in Colorado’s urbanizing Front Range communities, you probably get a portion of your water from across the Continental Divide. Likewise L.A. and San Diego. The Colorado River Compact even defined the “Colorado River Basin” as “all of the drainage area of the Colorado River System and all other territory within the United States of America to which the waters of the Colorado River System shall be beneficially applied.” (emphasis added) My glass of water is clearly beneficial (it being warm this afternoon in Albuquerque) so I’m in the basin!

Around the Great Lakes, they take a dim view of such generous terms for the definition of a watershed, with a 2008 binational compact “that, among other provisions, effectively bans water users outside of the Great Lakes Basin from withdrawing Great Lakes water.” That’s Circle of Blue’s Codi Kozacek in a piece last week talking about the lively discussions about whether Waukesha can “export” Great Lakes water to meet its municipal needs:

Waukesha, home to 70,000 people, is located 27 kilometers (17 miles) west of Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin. In its application for an exception, the city proposes to take an annual average of 38.2 million liters (10.1 million gallons) of water per day from Lake Michigan, transport it through a pipeline to the city, and pipe the treated wastewater back to the Root River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

The city of Waukesha is outside the basin, but the county in which it sits straddles the low divide that separates the Great Lakes Basin from the Mississippi River Basin (it’s awful flat up there). The fact that the county is partially in the basin is what makes it potentially eligible. Given how easily we move water vast distances from one watershed to the next out here in the West, their discussion is a fascinating contrast.

A drying trend forecast for the Southwest

Today’s long lead outlook from the Climate Prediction Center is enough to make a southwestern water manager long a second consecutive busted forecast*. With La Niña in the offing, the maps show creeping brown across the Four Corners states by August and not letting up until late spring of 2017:

Source: Climate Prediction Center

Source: Climate Prediction Center

* Last winter’s forecast, for a wet year down here, didn’t exactly come off as planned. I’m being glib here, not critical. The nature of probabilistic forecasting is that they will be “wrong” a significant portion of the time. It’d not a “prediction”.

In California environmental management, signs of hope

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

California’s response to the drought is even more nationally and globally significant than that. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

That’s Keith Schneider, former New York Times, now Circle of Blue, in the latest Boom. Not just water, Schneider’s arguing that we look at California to learn broad lessons of resilience:

More so than in any other state in the United States and nearly any region of the world, Californians have shown a capacity to recognize and reckon with deep drought, high heat, sea level rise, insect plagues, wildfire, and many more of our current, high-risk ecological realities. California is responding with targeted, sometimes statewide, but often smaller, local solutions to the problems facing every person on the planet. In this way, what we might call a California code is contributing to developing a new global operating system for the future.

Institutional Constraints to Water Management in New Mexico

Conference May 20 organized by my University of New Mexico water colleagues, especially Kerry Howe at UNM’s Center for Water and the Environment and Adrian Oglesby at the Utton Center:

The drought has eased somewhat in New Mexico but might be returning, and uncertainties regarding our future remain.  This 1-day conference will focus on federal and state institutions that manage and control our water supply, and the constraints that are imposed by physical realities and regulatory requirements.  Speakers and participants will explore alternative approaches to minimize these constraints to improve our overall water resource management.  The conference will feature opening remarks from Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham and presentations from several federal and state institutions.

Conference details here.

Optimism, problems journalism, and solutions journalism. And groundwater.

It is not hard to find and highlight problems. Solutions are more difficult stories to tell, because they often manifest themselves as things that just work, unnoticed by the very fact of their practical efficiency – “Problems scream, solutions whisper,” as a new friend working on “solutions journalism” recently told me.

Thus it is, for example, that we have seen journalism to the point of exhaustion regarding groundwater pumping in California’s Central Valley, but precious little about those groundwater basins in that state or elsewhere that have successfully self-regulated their groundwater pumping and stabilized their aquifers.

I frame the problem in a particular way because of my focus on water, but as Gregg Easterbrook writes in the New York Times, it generalizes:

Because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.

Important avocado news

OK, not really “news”, but I made you click, and this is the Internet, so let’s proceed:

Scientists believe the avocado, with its enormous wood-like seed, evolved to be eaten by enormous animals that lived thousands of years ago. One of these animals would chow down on some avocados and either leave partially-eaten fruit (and its seed) nearby, or the seed would pass all the way through the animal and be left behind in its waste.  Since those giant beasts are no longer with us, avocados are now dependent on human intervention to spread their seeds.

The important part is that a) it was news to me, and b) it’s about avocados! The source is Why Do Strawberries Have Their Seeds On The Outside? On which you should also click because it’s about strawberries!

Selling the Colorado River deal back home: Imperial, the Salton Sea and California’s hard road

For those following efforts to cobble together an expanded Colorado River water conservation deal (that’s all of you, right?) there are a couple of important issues to unpack in Ian James’ excellent interview published yesterday with Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. Imperial, the largest single water using agency on the Colorado, is farming 369,000 acres of desert land this year (source pdf) and is forecast to use 2.55 million acre feet of water in 2016 (source pdf). That is nearly four times the Colorado River water use currently forecast for metropolitan Southern California this year.

Wheat, right, and onions with a canal, Imperial Valley, March 2014

Wheat, right, and onions with a canal, Imperial Valley, March 2014

In other words, as measured by water use, Imperial is the major player here.

As currently structured (and this is very much a work in progress), an agreement among the states of Arizona, Nevada, and California would have California voluntarily reducing its take on the Colorado River if Lake Mead drops too low. But Californians are still sorting out the details of how allocations within California would be reduced. From James’ story:

IID and other water districts in California have been in talks about proposals to share in reductions in the amounts of water they receive from the Colorado River. Those negotiations among the state’s districts are taking place parallel to talks between representatives of Arizona, Nevada, California and the federal government.

These in-state talks, as I wrote last week, may be the hardest part of this deal-making. For Imperial, Kelley explained, a solution to the problems of the Salton Sea is crucial to any deal. Water conservation efforts in Imperial reduce flows to the sea, creating a host of environmental problem in the desert communities that surround it:

“There is no single agency with a greater stake in the river or one that could make a greater impact in propping up that plunging elevation (of Lake Mead) than IID,” Kelley said. “But IID’s participation can only come about if there is a going-forward road map at the Salton Sea.”

Kelley made a second incredibly important point in the James piece – the way important information about the current status of the California part of the deal was made public last month ago by folks in Arizona. There’s always been tension between Arizona and California over how to share the Colorado (there’s a chapter on this in my forthcoming book), and Kelley’s comments suggest concerns among at least some in California about the way Arizonans chose to make the deal public before Californians were ready:

The Arizona Department of Water Resources recently released a presentation describing some of the proposals, including potential cutbacks for each of the states – in California’s case, up to 8 percent of total water deliveries in one hypothetical scenario.

“These recent news reports out of Arizona have not been helpful to the process within California,” Kelley said. “They suggest that there’s a California commitment to specific volumes, and that is not the case.”

The politics within Arizona are crucial. That state’s historic resentment of California mean Arizona leaders trying to win support for the deal have to convince the domestic Arizona political audience that California will be saving water too. Arizona is going first here because that state’s legal structure requires legislative approval, and because Arizona as the junior water user has the most to lose if there is no deal. So I can see why a public rollout there has to be able to emphasize California’s contributions to the water conservation pool, as Arizona Department of Water Resources chief Tom Buschatzke wrote:

California would take reductions as well, but not before the lake has fallen to still lower levels. Current law states that California does not take reductions in deliveries until the Central Arizona Project completely dries up. Equity and fairness demand a different outcome.

The question raised by Kelley’s comments is whether Arizona, in being the one who revealed what’s going on internally within the California negotiations, has made it harder to reach a deal that is very much in Arizona’s interests.