Hoover Dam, sinking

Fourteen years after Hoover Dam’s gates were closed, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found earth’s crust beneath the dam had sunk 4 inches because of the weight of its impounded water:

Courtesy USGS

Courtesy USGS

That’s from Geological Survey Circular 346, First Fourteen Years of Lake Mead, 1954 (pdf), ht Kyle House

“This is not a wet place.”

The University of Arizona’s Mike Crimmins:

But the real answer might be for Arizonans and other people of the southwest to adapt to living under drought conditions.

“We expect it to be a lot wetter than it is and it should be,” Crimmins said. “Just look around, the landscape tells the story. This is not a wet place. When it is wet we should just be thankful that it is and expect that most of the time it will be drier than our expectations.”

Importing California water

almonds, for sale in Costco, Albuquerque

almonds, for sale in Costco, Albuquerque

At Costco over the weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I snapped this iPhone picture of California almonds, lots of them. I was planning the joke even before I took it about imported California water, on sale here in the desert. Which is true. Takes a lot of California water to make these almonds.

But upon reflection, I realized that pretty much everything sold in Costco comes from somewhere else, and water was used in its production process. So it’s really a store full of imported water. The almond schtick is just an obvious case.

The Hard Path: moving water costs a lot

Brett Walton reports this morning on the initial cost estimates for a pipeline/canal thingie to move Missouri River water to western Kansas:

By all measures, it would be a mammoth undertaking. A 360-mile canal to move Missouri River water uphill across Kansas would cost $US 18 billion to build and $US 1 billion per year to operate, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers technical report. That figure includes power stations and pumping stations, but does not include the cost of a canal network to deliver water to individual farms. Design, administration, and interest on the loans would add another $US 10 billion.


We don’t get to decide nature’s boundaries

My Albuquerque Journal colleague Win Quigley, intrigued by the coyotes in his Albuquerque Country Club neighborhood, near downtown, visited with the Bosque Environmental Monitoring Program’s Dan Shaw and wrote this:

[C]onsider the country club neighborhood, Shaw said. Kit Carson Park and the country club golf course abut the irrigation ditch, which abuts Tingley Beach, which abuts the river ecosystem. The park and the golf course are lush and regularly watered. Just across a little bit of concrete, old lawns are still watered, trees are planted, gardens are tended.

“This is prime real estate for wildlife,” Shaw said. To a porcupine or a coyote, this urban neighborhood is merely part of the range, an extension of the bosque itself. “You guys are putting welcome mats out to critters who don’t honor boundaries.”

Dan’s Eco-tracking: On the Trail of Habitat Change (Barbara Guth Worlds of Wonder Science Series for Young Readers) is great.

New Mexico water policy and the problems of a part-time legislature

A few years back, I put on my “water beat reporter” hat and went to Santa Fe for the spring legislative session to track some bills that I found interesting. The newspaper has a team of skilled legislative specialists who I’ve always been able to lean on, but it was fun to bring my water beat background into that world and see how the two fit together.

New Mexico state capital building, courtesy New Mexico legislature

New Mexico state capital building, courtesy New Mexico legislature

I spent a lot of time in hearings, and hanging out in the hallways and lobbies (“lobbyists”!) and came away with the realization that we simply lack the institutional capacity for the huge range of questions that we ask our system of legislative governance to deal with.

This really hit home when I tried to arrange an interview near the end of the session with Peter Wirth, a smart Democratic senator from Santa Fe who was working on some of the water legislation that interested me. I met him in the hallway behind the Senate floor during an afternoon voting session for what may count as one of the strangest interviews of my life. We’d talk for a few minutes, and then be interrupted when the Senate clerks would stick their heads into the hallway and shout “Voting!”. And all the legislators in the hall would run back in to vote, then return to finish their conversations.

Over a half hour or 45 minutes of conversation, we must have been interrupted six or seven times while Wirth had to yank his attention away from our topic to some other bit of governance. Finally, Peter had to leave for good, because they were beginning to debate a complex state pension issue that required his full attention.

I wandered back upstairs to the press gallery, and looked on as Peter delivered a crisp, passionate, extremely thoughtful floor speech on the pension issue. He had pivoted without time to catch his breath from a deep and thoughtful discussion of water policy to a deep and thoughtful discussion of an entirely different question, which in turn was only one of many that we’ve asked Peter and his colleagues to cope with.

We don’t pay him for this. We don’t pay for staff to help him with this. Once I watched the ebb and flow of this for a two month session, I came away unsurprised that the institution is incapable of trying to rewrite 19th and 20th century water laws to meet 21st century problems. They have to wrestle with a budget, and difficult education questions, and energy policy, and environmental regulations, and (substitute here the thing that you really care about that they haven’t quite gotten their arms around). By my count there are already 31 pre-filed bills for the coming session that deal in some way with water. I’m a professional water nerd, paid (sorta) full time to work on this stuff, and I can’t keep all that straight. How can they?

People who agree with me about the problem suggest two overlapping solutions.

One is to pay legislators, so it is not solely the province of people with the privilege of taking a few months off now and then to do the public’s business. The second, which I think could be even more important, is to create paid legislative staff, so guys like Peter could, for example, have a water policy expert at their disposal. There is some existing paid staff structure, but it’s not enough, and it forces legislators to rely instead on lobbyists as a sort of informal technical support system. That is less than ideal.

Heath Haussamen has a great piece in New Mexico In Depth’s big new legislative package that gets at this problem:

Alan Webber, who made a career in the business world, noted the speed that society moves today. The conversation about reform must start with the premise that the world has changed, said Webber, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014.

“The speed of change is faster. The world of technology is faster,” he said. “Lots of things that seemed self-evident (when New Mexico became a state in 1912) are much more complicated. We really ought to equip ourselves with the legislative structure to deal with these problems, to get ahead of them.”

(And, as an aside, the whole NMID package is worth a look.)

Transparency and the Colorado River Compact

The negotiation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing the allocation of water from the West’s great river, and the ratification process that followed, was a politically delicate process.

Precisely how delicate is made clear in a fascinating exchange of letters 10 years after between Colorado attorney Delph Carpenter (the compact’s primary architect) and Norcutt Ely, who at the time was executive assistant to Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur.

The Compact Commission’s 27 sessions were largely closed affairs, though detailed minutes were kept. Ely wrote Carpenter in 1932 inquiring about their whereabouts:

Would you be good enough to tell me where I might find minutes of the meetings of the Colorado River Commission which led up to the execution of the Colorado River Compact.

Carpenter’s reply is fascinating. The minutes had been “carefully revised by the members from day to day”, Carpenter wrote, and then mimeographed with the idea of sending a set to each member of the Commission. But that never happened:

It was then thought best to delay forwarding the sets to the members until after The Compact should be ratified, owing to a turbulent political atmosphere then obtaining. It was thought prudent to delay the forwarding for fear they would become the source of political dispute.

Instead, they were stashed in a “small room” at the Commerce Department. Carpenter suggests several people who might know where they were, and that they be forwarded to the state representatives “before they become lost”.

Delph Carpenter to Northcutt Ely, April 13, 1932, courtesy Colorado State University Library

Delph Carpenter to Northcutt Ely, April 13, 1932, courtesy Colorado State University Library

 Thankfully, they were not lost. The University of Colorado has published them in full.

I found the Carpenter-Ely letters in the Colorado State University digital collection.

The West has always been, in part, a thing of our imagination

That corner in Winslow Arizona, the one with the pretty girl and the flatbed Ford? Actually happened in Flagstaff, the truck was a Toyota.:

Browne was traveling through Arizona when he began working on the song. But the scene about the corner and a girl in the Ford was written by Frey after Browne related an incident involving a girl, a Toyota pickup and the parking lot of a Der Wienerschnitzel.

“It was always Winslow,” Browne said in an interview…. “But the image of that girl driving a truck was an image that came from east.” To be precise, from East Flagstaff.

Aldo Leopold’s birthday

In honor of Aldo Leopold’s birthday, some jfleck abqjournal nostalgia with this old favorite from 2009, in which I tracked down a bird in the University of New Mexico’s research collection that Leopold “collected” back in 1919:

Aldo Leopold's Wilderness

Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness

Years ago, my parents gave me “Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness,” a slim volume of Leopold’s early writings.

In it is an account of a fall day — Nov. 23, 1919 — spent dove hunting near Tomé Hill. Pondering what the dove’s natural enemies might be, he described watching as a Sharp-shinned Hawk swooped down on “an apparently healthy grown dove in a cornfield.”

“I killed the hawk,” Leopold wrote, “and found the fresh blood and dove feathers on his claws, but could not find the dove.”

When I began my search for Leopold, I asked Witt and his colleagues at UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology whether they had any specimens in their vast research collection of plants and animals that might have been collected by Leopold himself.

Witt, who is the curator of birds, took me into the collections area and began rummaging through the drawers looking for a Sharp-shinned Hawk that, according to the museum’s computer database, had been collected by Leopold.

He pulled out drawer after drawer until he finally zeroed in on the bird he was interested in — dry, stuffed with cotton, it still had the sleek look of the lethal predator it had once been.

There was no name on the tag attached to the bird’s ankle, only this explanation of where and when it was collected: Tomé Hill, Nov. 23, 1919.

To what extent does water conservation reduce resilience?

If we don’t get things right, water conservation can actually make us less resilient in the face of variability and climate change, the University of Arizona’s Christopher Scott and colleagues argue in a recent paper. It’s the case for being wary of “demand hardening”, and it raises interesting questions about current Colorado River Basin conservation efforts:

[I]rrigation efficiency without caps on use – or limits to area expansion – may increase production (and productivity), but it undermines the resilience of basins under conditions of water scarcity. Eliminating slack in the system through stringent water conservation and allocation of savings to new uses can result in the “hardening” of demand that will entail crop loss or irrigated area restrictions under future conditions of water shortage. This is particularly true for the integrated management of water and land to meet ecological flow requirements under changing climate scenarios. Thus, a basin’s capacity to meet human and ecosystem water needs often follows a moving target.

The paper, which looks at the Imperial Valley and the Guadiana Basin shared by Spain and Portugal, argues that the key is to ensure that conserved water is really saved, not merely shifted to new uses (expanded agricultural or, in the case of Imperial, urban use):

Policy mechanisms to reserve surplus water in the reservoir or aquifer instead of expanding irrigation include regulated controls on irrigated area, price incentives, and provision of information to support farmer and irrigation district decision-making to better adapt to future contingencies…. Investing public resources to anticipate and offset the effects of water scarcity ex ante represents a more effective adaptive response to drought than ex post mitigation efforts.

Here are the questions this raises about the current Colorado River water conservation efforts now underway. The oldest and most well-developed effort, the shift of water from Imperial Valley to the cities of coastal California, seems vulnerable to the criticism Scott and colleagues are making. They call this “the sectoral paradox, in which savings are reallocated to alternative uses (e.g., water transferred from Imperial Valley to San Diego city).”

The two newest efforts, the basin-wide System Conservation Program and the Pilot Drought Response Actions program, seem aimed at meeting the criteria sketched out in Scott et al.’s conclusion – putting the surplus water in a reservoir, rather than devoting it to new uses.

In the Colorado River Basin, though, the line between putting water into a reservoir versus devoting it to a new use is fuzzy. The reason Lake Mead is empty is because of the previous expansion of new uses in excess of currently available supply, so in some sense water put in the reservoir now is just backfilling behind what are already too many new uses for the system to cope with. But the distinction’s still helpful, because we are where we are now, and Scott et al. offer a useful framework for looking at conservation efforts.

The paper is “Irrigation efficiency and water-policy implications for river basin resilience“, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1339-1348, 2014, doi:10.5194/hess-18-1339-2014