Back in the days when the Salton Sea was rising

back when the Salton Sea was rising

A friend shared this, from the Sandia Lab News, circa 1955:

New Dyke Will Give Salton Sea Test Base Protection Against Rapidly Rising Water

The steadily rising water level of the Salton Sea in southern California is presenting a problem for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in seeking to safeguard test facilities operated by Sandia Corporation on the shores of the Sea.

Details here.

Is it too early to be optimistic about this year’s Rio Grande flow?


But that’s not stopping me!

The Jan. 1 forecasts, courtesy of Angus Goodbody of the NRCS, for flows at Otowi (the head of New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley) and San Marcial (the tail) are for “normal” flows, where “normal” is defined now by the median of flows from 1991-2020.

Courtesy NRCS

The reason it’s definitely too early to be optimistic is that it’s just January! The remaining months in the winter snow accumulation season will either be wet, or they will be dry, and that will make all the difference. As Anne Marken, Water Operations Division Manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, explained to the district’s board at yesterday afternoon’s meeting, “There’s a lot of winter left”.

There are a couple of good signs, though.

First, soil moisture in the headwaters region is substantially better than the previous two years, when dry soils and shallow aquifers took a big cut of the snowmelt before it ever got to the rivers. This is in part a result of a better 2021 monsoon season. (Click on the picture for a link to NRCS’s cool (new?) data map thingies).

Second, it’s actually snowed. The snowpack is not great, and has been concentrated along the western edge of the basin’s upper reaches, but it’s a pretty good start.

But see Marken’s “lot of winter left” comment.

A note on the data:

For “normals” for this sort of analysis, the water management/forecast/climate community uses the mean and/or median over a 30-year window. This shifts every ten years, and for 2022 we now need to become accustomed to the 1991-2020 time window, shifted for this year’s forecasts from the 1981-2010 window we’ve been using.

In dropping the relatively wet 1980s in favor of the relatively drier teens, we’ve got a drier “normal” against which to compared.

NRCS is also shifting its normal forecasting, the numbers Goodbody publishes each month, from using the mean for the reported “normal” to the median. Statistics nerds will understand that the median better reflects the central tendency for skewed datasets like runoff, but I am not one of those people so thinking through the difference and applying it to my runoff intuitions makes my head hurt. Thankfully the NRCS’s Goodbody (I think of him as our “forecast data concierge”) shared a great new tool for comparing the two time periods and two different measures of central tendency.



Why I ride

my 2021 rides in the heart of Albuquerque

In September 2019, my friend Scot and I did one of our more memorable “what happens if we turn here” bicycle rides.

In our endless search for what I call “longcuts” – the safest route, rather than the shortest – we followed a concrete flood control channel called the North Pino Arroyo up through Albuquerque’s far northeast heights.

As long as it’s not raining, it’s a super safe route, because no cars!

It also came with fascinating side effect. Below grade, lined with neighborhood back fences, the ride deprived us of our usual geographical cues – as close to being “lost” as is possible in a city with a mountain looming to the east and a river to the west.

We emerged in a park at the arroyo’s uphill terminus, with a general sense of where we were, but only the vaguest of ideas as to the specifics. We have a “no iPhone maps” rule on our rides, so the only way to get our bearings was to keep riding.

It was delightful.

“To become completely lost,” Kevin Lynch wrote in his 1960 book The Image of the City, “is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city.”

I ride a lot, and I map all my rides. I’ve done that for years, since the first affordable, portable bike-mounted GPS gizmos became available. I used to ride a bunch of favorite roads and trails over and over, but in recent years, I’ve used the technology and a couple of cool web tools to think about where I haven’t ridden yet.

Map Games

2021 Albuquerque tiles ridden

One game, which goes by the name “tiling”, divides the world up into mappable tiles – think an entire globe covered with bingo squares. It’s based on Ben Lowe’s Veloviewer, one of a number of great indy web-based software platforms for this kind of stuff. (See Ride Every Tile for a window into the strange and wonderful world of tiling – my obsession is modest compared with some of the European tilers.)

The other game, which I began playing this year, uses Craig Durkin’s Wandrer. Wandrer ingests all your old GPS rides and gives you a map of roads you haven’t ridden. You can even download a map onto your bike GPS gizmo to see streets around you as you’re out riding.

This leads to a lot of cul-de-sacs and resulting dog-related adventures.

I’ve always been a bit wandery in my riding, and Veloviewer and Wandrer provide a fascinating structure around the thing. I’ll often plan a ride with a vague goal of an unridden tile and a map of unridden roads in the area. But I rarely end up doing what I intended. And why not? It’s a bike ride!

This year I’ve ridden:

  • 311 Veloviewer tiles, 103 Veloviewer that I’d never before visited
  • 5,044 miles, 572 on roads and trails I’d never before ridden

Why I ride

When I finally settled on setting the next book here in my “Middle Valley” rather than on the Lower Colorado River, one of the reasons on the “plus” side of the ledger was the ability to hop on my bike and ride to my “field area”. All this bike riding, what my friend Maria Lane labeled #geographybybike, involves the construction of intuitive maps of the landscape, hydrographic and human. The time from side yard bike shed to Rio Grande is 35 minutes – less if I need it.

Picking up new Veloviewer tiles and Wandrer miles creates a bit of a framework for expanding that mental map.

That’s true and all, but also maybe just a layer of excuse?

The neuroscientist and urbanist Robin Mazumder wrote a piece in 2019 that really captures why I ride. It’s about what psychologists call “flow”:

According to Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow involves the following elements:

  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.

It’s not uncommon for me to return from a ride and have Lissa say, “You were gone a long time!” And I know that I was, because I have a watch and a phone and a GPS gizmo that all have been telling me this the whole time, and as a safety measure I’m always attentive to keeping Lissa posted on when she should expect my return.

But it doesn’t feel like a long time. The unfolding of a bike ride, the endless series of decisions (“What happens if I turn here?”), a gloriously unplanned “loss of reflective self-consciousness”.

When I started to write this post, I had a vague destination in mind, involving our mental maps and the benefit cycling provides to mine.

As often happens, that’s not quite where I ended up.


urban water conservation

fallowed vineyard, Albuquerque, New Mexico, December 2021

My newest hobby – running down the water story for random patches of Albuquerque.

From Sunday’s bike ride, a fallowed vineyard, a bit more than an acre in size.

It’s at the base of the sand hills on the east side of the Rio Grande Valley, just down the hill from a Ford dealer.

Per OpenET, it hasn’t been irrigated since at least 2016 (that’s as far back as I can look currently).

Doesn’t look like it has access to ditch water (it’s uphill from the closest irrigation, the Alameda Lateral). The nearest well is a state-approved yard well across the street, drilled in 1967.

Healthy crop of tumbleweeds this year. Per county assessor records, that seems to have been sufficient to claim agricultural property tax break.

But here’s the best part:

The three closest streets are named “Vineyard”, “Muscatel”, and “Tokay” (an Anglicization of “Tokaji” – wines from a region called Tokaj in Hungary and Slovakia).

Clearly, further research needed.


the Barelas Bridge

1908 Sanborn map of Albuquerque. Courtesy Library of Congress

Lissa, an able book research field assistant (by which I mean she happily listens to my yammering, asks the best questions, and indulges the vital forays into the field to see stuff), joined me on a drive yesterday afternoon to the Barelas Bridge, one of seven Rio Grande crossings in the river’s Albuquerque reach.

There’s an odd little cluster of buildings on the bridge’s west end that look a little bit like an old roadside motel, but older and smaller and somehow more puzzling. Also, now, boarded up.

1931 Sanborn map of west end of Barelas Bridge, courtesy Library of Congress

The 1931 Sanborn map of Albuquerque (am I the only one who spends evenings lost in the Library of Congress collection of Sanborns?) describes it as a “tourist camp”. They began sprouting up along the nation’s developing network of “highways”, as auto tourists began spreading out across the country. I first ran across a reference to them in a lovely little bit of work by Van Citters Historic Preservation, a review of the area done as part of a Bernalillo County public works project:

[I]n the mid-1920s, as automobiles became more accessible to the American public and recreational travel grew, many small, private, locally owned “tourist camps” were being built on US 85 and 66 both on the outskirts of Albuquerque and along those corridors within town. Tourist camps typically a collection of stand-alone structures or rooms that would be rented for the night and often had communal bathrooms and kitchens (although the earliest tourist camps consisted of actual camp sites in public parks). Over time they became known as “tourist courts,” and after World War II they were typically under a single roof and began to look more like modern motels. In general, these camps operated well into the 1960s. They provided an increasing array of amenities, such as heat, electric fans, and private bathrooms and kitchens.

In 1931, the Sanborn maps identify six of them along the streets that made up the western approach to the Barelas Bridge, along with filling stations and an auto repair shop. By the 1940s, they dominated the area’s streetscape economy.

I’m down this rabbit hole because, for the new book, Bob Berrens and I are trying to run make sense of how Albuquerque as a community solved the many collective action problems posed by living on the floor of a river valley. Nothing unique to Albuquerque. To quote Steven Solomon:

How societies respond to the challenges presented by the changing hydraulic conditions of its environment using the technological and organizational tools of its times is quite simply, one of the central motive forces of history.

We’re mostly thinking about the challenges around that time period posed by the need for flood control and drainage, and to a lesser extent irrigation. Those will almost certainly be the primary focus of the book. But bridges! Such a fascinating collective action problem, in the time when the whole idea of collective governance at the city scale was being invented.

Barelas was an oft-used ford across the river until 1898, when the first bridge was built.

The 1908 Sanborn map of Albuquerque includes what at the time was the major Albuquerque crossing of the Rio Grande in the Albuquerque reach, simply labeled “County Bridge”.

It connected the villages of Atrisco on the river’s west side to the city’s downtown and, importantly, the yards of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad – the valley’s major employment center.

Santa Fe New Mexican, Sept. 5, 1907

At that time it was mostly wagons that used the bridge – and sheep – Bob found the excerpted newspaper story to the right, from the Santa Fe New Mexican. 23,500 sheep! (Lissa: “I wonder how many dogs that took.”)

But as the newspaper coverage of a 1912 washout made clear, the Barelas Bridge was a vital piece of community infrastructure.

The County Commission gave Herculano Garcia permission to operate a temporary ferry under the condition that he not charge more than 5 cents per passenger.

Alfalfa crops on the west side of the river sat, “spoiling on the ground” (ABQ Morning Journal, June 28, 1912) unable to get to market.

But most importantly, perhaps, for the city’s economy, railroad workers who lived on the Atrisco side of the river couldn’t get to work.

The back-and-forth over fixing the bridge, as with much of what was going on in Albuquerque at the time, suggests that providing the infrastructure needed for a growing city was the core collective action problem the community faced.

I’m still sorting out what happened next, but I think we’ve got a classic case here of other people’s money. It’s a theme in all these stories – as with much of the developing West, Albuquerque never quite could afford the stuff we needed to graduate to city-ness, so we turned to the federal treasury for help. More work needed here, but I think the key is the 1916 Federal Aid Post Road Act, which provided federal matching money for stuff like highways and bridges.

Not sure where all of this goes. I remain fascinated by bridges as an example of collective action problem-solving, though it’s orthogonal to the main “drainage and flood control and sorta irrigation a little bit” theme of the book.


New from Anne Castle and myself – a moment of both peril and opportunity on the Colorado River

Lake Mead, December 2021, by John Fleck

In the wake of a Colorado River Water Users Association meeting that was by turns exuberant (We got to see one another for the first time since the Before Times!) and stark (The reservoirs are nearly empty!), Anne Castle and I have a new paper out this week in a special issue of the journal Water with some suggestions for what needs to happen next.

Our key bits:

  • Hydrology matters. (Well duh!) We document how, repeatedly over the last two decades, dropping reservoirs have created openings for steps that are harder when the reservoirs are rising.
  • The state of perpetual negotiations on the Colorado River since the 1990s has led to a bunch of already-thought-out policy options – but they have costs and consequences, and are unlikely to be adopted until things get bad. (Scroll down to the “supplemental material” link – we’ve collected what we hope is a useful list of examples.)
  • One of the keys to past steps forward is the credible threat of federal intervention – “If y’all don’t come up with Plan A that you can live with, we’ll imposed a Plan B that you may not like.”

Our conclusion:

The past three decades of Colorado River basin-scale water management resemble the children’s game of “Red Light-Green Light.” When the child designated as the “traffic light” calls out “green light,” competitors are permitted to run forward toward the finish line. When the traffic light calls out “red light,” they must stop. Anyone who does not stop in time is sent back to the start.

In the Colorado River Basin, climate has played the role of a traffic light. When it delivers dry years, rapidly dropping reservoirs create a “green light” condition in which attention and concern may shift the river’s management from a condition to be monitored to a problem to be solved. The “red light” turns back on when a good snowpack delivers above-average flows to the reservoirs and refills depleted storage. The river game’s “green lights” and “red lights” create a classic opening and closing policy window, as described by Kingdon.

This phenomenon can be seen most clearly in the transition from inaction in the 1990s to action in the early 2000s. The river’s policy management community, fully aware of the possibility of future difficulties, discussed a range of potential policy actions to respond. However, full reservoirs created a “red light” condition. As the reservoirs dropped in the early 2000s, the light flashed “green,” a federal mandate was issued, and important, difficult policy steps were taken.

The hydrologic conditions of 2020 and 2021, together with dwindling water storage reserves, create a “green light” opportunity. However, unlike the common traffic signal, the green lights are brief when compared to the time requirements of negotiation. A favorable water year or changes in river decision makers could cause the light to suddenly turn red. State and federal water officials should seize this opening, cognizant of its likely limited duration, and cement new agreements that steer river operations in a more sustainable direction. Well-timed and explicit federal direction may be necessary to catalyze the already ongoing discussions. Failing to capitalize on the green light now means even more depleted reservoirs and a narrowing of available options for the future.

A huge thanks to Brian Richter for inviting our contribution to Water’s special issue on Advances in Water Scarcity and Conservation.

The paper is Fleck, J.; Castle, A. Green Light for Adaptive Policies on the Colorado River. Water 202214, 2.

The belly of the beast

Las Vegas Strip at 6 a.m.

Dude bought me breakfast this morning. Said I was gonna bring him gambling luck.

Being an early riser on the Las Vegas strip is weird.

I don’t claim any “healthy, wealthy, and wise” virtue here. My money came from privilege, and my early rising is a side-effect of the drugs I take to manage my brain. Both work well – it was a lovely morning, but the only breakfast you can get at 5:30 a.m. at Caesar’s Palace on the Las Vegas strip is bar food, “breakfast” for the overnight crowd.

Omar, from Tennessee, regaled me with tales that included a precise accounting of how much money he had won on each of his previous Las Vegas trips. He was buying a drink before heading off to gamble. He grabbed my check and handed cash to the bartender. The exchange seemed to make him happy.

Out the door of Caesar’s and onto the strip for a morning walk, the crews were dusting the escalators and doing what seemed like maintenance or testing or something of the Fountains of the Bellagio. One section at a time burst forth synchronized water and light, like a dancer’s morning exercises.

A guy digging through a trash can asked me what time it was, surprised when I told him it was 6 a.m., not 5. Overheard: three bleary guys walking down the street, one seeming to argue (from the snippet I caught) that you had to overcome the need to sleep because Vegas.

Two police cars and an ambulance roared up under lights and sirens, making a U-turn on the strip and settling in front of a casino with a French theme (you know, the one with an Eiffel Tower).

It could have been a scene from any city, except that this is not any city. The story will almost certainly be more interesting in the telling later by those involved.


“What happens if I turn here?”

Not quite sure where this was taken, I was a bit lost, to be honest.

The caption of the picture above is a bit of a fib, but it was true when I wrote it. I had to click through on the picture’s geotag to figure out that it was taken where the Sausal Drain connects to the Jaral Lateral near Belen in Valencia County, New Mexico. Not exactly lost, either – I knew I had river to the east and railroad tracks to the west, two substantive linear features on the landscape, guardrails to keep yesterday’s bike road going in a manageable direction.

site of curious dog incident

I’d been working my way down back roads and ditchbanks, turning down dead-end farm roads and getting chased by dogs, looking for a way to get to the river. OK, only one dog on this stretch of the ride, I’m sorry, this post has an unusually high density of fibbing, but it was big enough in net accounting terms to count plural.

I’m trying to get a feel for the landscape down there, to beef up my geographical intuitions about the places we’ll be writing about in the next book. An excuse for a bike ride! It’s work related! So I just parked my car in a Walmart parking lot and turned right. The route that unfolded over the next few hours delivered a classic Middle Rio Grande Valley experience – affluent country estates, lower-middle class homes on small lots, mobile homes, tiny irrigated fields and big farm parcels. And finally, a river.

This is a metaphor for the style of research that has served me well over the last umpty years of being a writer. “What happens if I turn here?” as an intellectual style works for me. There are tricks to deciding which turns to take, and how quickly to bail and turn around (ideally, before the big dog – I mean, I saw it there in the driveway, I don’t know what I was thinking).

But I sometimes feel sorry for my students who, for legitimate reasons, would like help establishing a bit more structure around their efforts. I’m not so good at that.

Big flows on central New Mexico Rio Grande as feds move water

an institutional hydrograph

We’re entering the end-of-year water accounting phase of the Rio Grande hydrograph in central New Mexico, with big flows coming out of the Rio Chama, the largest tributary in this stretch of our “big” river.

As I’ve written before, relatively higher December flows are a weird artifact of water management rules, which do accounting on an annual basis. In this case, it’s water the federal government stored in spring for use by New Mexico’s indigenous Pueblo farmers that was not used. The rules require the feds to send that water down to Elephant Butte reservoir before the end of the year. They’ve got about 14,000 acre feet to move.

This is also part of a plan to lower the levels at El Vado enough to begin some major dam repairs there next year.

This year, Reclamation is managing the flows for sediment and habitat along the Chama, blasting a big pulse Sunday out of El Vado Dam – an unusual 3,000 cfs down the stretch between El Vado and Abiquiu Dam. That’ll quickly taper this week, with the water released more slow out of Abiquiu.

The first of the pulse passed the Otowi gauge overnight, my friends at the state tell me we should expect to see higher flows through Albuquerque by the end of the week.

Entsminger and D’Antonio on how dry a future Colorado River the upcoming negotiations should consider

Daniel Rothberg yesterday published a very helpful Q and A with John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority that gets to the heart of one of the really important discussions now underway in the Colorado River Basin:

Rothberg: You mentioned not that long ago, testifying in Congress, that “the river community is far from a consensus about how dry of a future to plan for.” What are some of the differing opinions right now? And where are people on establishing that baseline of what the future looks like for the river?

Entsminger: I was on a panel at the University of Colorado Law School within the last six weeks or so. And a couple people on the panel were asked that question of how dry a future should we be planning for, and I said I thought an 11 million acre-feet annual flow of the river is probably a good place to start based upon what I’ve heard from folks like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall and other smart climate scientists.

But there were some folks on that panel that threw out a number of 13 to 14 million acre-feet, which, frankly, is quite a bit more water than the average of the last 20 years. So I think just from that exchange, you can see that there isn’t currently a consensus on what sort of worst-case scenario should we be planning for, as we negotiate operating guidelines for post-2026.

By way of context, we’ve had a ~12.5 million acre foot river for the past two decades, with climate change researchers (cue Brad Udall) suggesting we should expect lower flows in the future.

Entsminger didn’t name names in the Rothberg interview, but for completeness sake it is worth sharing in full the comment to which he is referring, given how it has echoed around the Colorado River Basin governance community in the last two months. I avoided writing about it at the time because, as the panel’s moderator, I wasn’t taking careful notes. But the video’s posted and I’ve had time to go back and give it a careful listen.

It came from New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio (the key bits from John D’s comments start here at around 16:40), in implicit response to the argument Entsminger and others have been making about the need to consider low-flow scenarios. Such low flow scenarios, D’Antonio said, would leave Upper Basin plans for new water uses above and beyond what they’re currently taking from the river “high and dry”:

13.5 million acre feet, 14 million acre feet is a little bit more realistic. I get it, it’s not there now. But it could be there.

At the Boulder conference, Entsminger made the argument (an argument with which I agree) that a range of planning scenarios is appropriate. In fact, he argued, 11 maf may not be dry enough, but it may be the biggest drop that we can realistically hope to get the political support needed to develop a plan for. To the extent that D’Antonio’s comments are representative of any broader Upper Basin sentiment, even 11 maf may be a heavy lift.