2020 – as dry as a tumbleweed metaphor in a bad western. But compost!

Red – the roads not yet ridden, courtesy Wandrer

“Well, you have your compost!” – L. Heineman

The Man from Tumbleweeds (1940) - IMDb

We got 5.88 inches of rain this year at the “official” Albuquerque airport weather station, which for perspective is essentially a one-in-six dry year based on over a century of records. But we got 7.05 inches at our house. Plus, as Lissa pointed out, I have my compost.

Yes, my compost. This morning I found a plate of peels Lissa had lovingly preserved from her evening tangerine snack.


It has become a neighborhood project. I converted an old stock tank we’d been using as a pond, and my neighbors Alison and Larry contributed a compost tumbler they weren’t using and bags of leaves (“We’ll leave them under the trees on the south side of the yard if you want any,” Alison texted. Of course I wanted them.)

Leaves go in the tank, and after a starter of leaves the tumbler gets the kitchen scraps (the better to protect them from what might be a backyard squirrel, lurking in the night).

After twirling the tumbler, I always peer in and take stock of the little crawly things doing their compost duties, a tiny ecosystem, a little miracle. The life force, an old friend once told me with a tone of Catholic reverence, is strong.

As you know, some bad stuff happened in 2020. I’ve got nothing much to add there, beyond the fact that Mom didn’t die. “There are things which are within our power,” Epictetus wrote, “and things which are beyond our power.”

Kewa Station, March 1, 2020

In retrospect, I can see the collapse already beginning in March, when my friend Scot and I rode the Railrunner, New Mexico’s commuter train, up to the Kewa station two thirds of the way to Santa Fe, with our bikes. We’ve an informal rule that we don’t put our bikes in a car and drive to a place to ride – gotta ride out the door. But we’d been experimenting with public transportation as a range extender – first Albuquerque city buses, then the train.

Scot’s a bike touring veteran, but the 50 miles back from Kewa (plus the 4 1/2 from my house to the station to catch the train) had been a stretch goal for me.

I don’t specifically remember tumbleweeds, but the station had a tumbleweed-blowing-across-the-highway western movie feel. Train pulled off, lone auto picking up a rider pulled away, and we had the whole place to ourselves – colonizers on Kewa land.

There was a stop at the irrigation diversion dam at Angostura, and this being the Time Before there was a taco stop in Bernalillo. It would be another two weeks before last tacos – two weeks etched in memory – a crazy quick weekend at Hoover Dam to film a documentary, that last Thursday meeting with my students, the awkward start of a spring break that never ended, melting into one endless Zoom class.

The thing within my power

In the manner of Epictetus, the bike has become the thing within my power, and I have in response ridden it a lot.

As I have written before, I’m no longer zoomy. At 61 years of age, I ride now for place – #geographybybike, as my friend Maria Lane (an actual geographer) dubbed it. This year that has been 6,396 miles, slowly, an hour-and-a-half a day on average, almost entirely in and around Albuquerque. That is, for me, a crazy lot of miles, far more than I’ve ever ridden in a year.

Early on, as the pandemic shrank my world, the riding was frenetic. With so little within my control, I obsessed over the tools I needed to mount more water bottle cages on my bike, poring over the maps and my old GPS ride archives in search of the places I had not been. Epictetus overkill. With the taco truck option epidemiologically foreclosed, I’d coordinate with Lissa to make her magical quesadillas, looping home for a lunch break before heading back out for more miles. That compressed the geography further, kept me closer to home even for the longest of rides.

Closer to home, a comfortable tether.

By summer the frenzy had calmed, and I settled into a rhythm – ride most very day, with a not-quite-so-long Sunday ride, a tentative return to riding with Scot and lunching at the taco trucks.

This fall I discovered the wonderful Wandrer, a tool that allows you to upload all your old GPS traces, building a map of the roads you haven’t yet ridden. I’ve GPS’ed every ride since 2007-08-ish, and was delighted to find all the roads yet to ride.

I have, in other words, found a comfort in the things within my power – lines on a map which only I can draw, one pedal stroke at a time. Compost in the garden.

I didn’t mean to write a blog post about bicycling. As I start to work on a new book, I’ve offered my collaborator, by way of explanation of process, what has long been an amazingly useful metaphor:

You’re standing at the edge of a mountain stream, too wide to jump, too cold to comfortably wade. It’s strewn with rocks, and you start across, one rock at a time, hoping you can imagine a route a few hops ahead, but unsure of the exact path. That’s the way writing is for me, mostly joy, sometimes I fall in and get really cold and wet.

I started today with my morning weather data, then Lissa suggested compost. So I hopped onto the first rock, then, the second.

2020 bike riding had been in the back of my mind – or to follow the metaphor, a jumble of rocks midstream. Epictetus has been a handy rock since the first time I read him 40 years ago. (I was surprised to run a search and find I’ve never used him before.) There’s a pile of rocks over to the left that you may read about eventually, involving Lake Mead’s elevation and total Lower Colorado River Basin water use, etc. Another pile to the right that involves path dependence and the institutions of water management. Not touching that one – I’m sure to fall in.

Census of Agriculture

Metaphors do the most useful work as they are breaking down. The stones aren’t so much laid out in the stream in front of you – they’re things you find, tossing them ahead to make it easier to cross the stream.

As near as we can see the path across the stream at this point, the new book will be about the Rio Grande and the making of modern Albuquerque. It’ll probably talk about sheep, and a remarkable guy named Max.

I’ll be finishing my time as University of New Mexico Water Resources Program director this summer, to free up more time for said book. I hope to still have a role at the university, working with water students and faculty, perhaps teaching, and wandering ’round the Duck Pond on sunny post-pandemic afternoons. (Plus I’m writing a book, university library privileges, amiright?)

And Scot and I have already been poring over the maps for tomorrow’s New Year’s Day ride, new lines on a blank 2021.

No taco trucks, but Lissa made oatmeal cookies.

2020 in a nutshell (I did at one point, when the weather was warm, figure out how to mount four water bottles on the frame)






The circuitous path to Max Gutierrez’s grave

Max Gutierrez Sr., 1887-1952

It at some point may become necessary, and valuable, to backtrack and trace the path that led us to Max Gutierrez’s grave last Sunday.

It was my friend Scot who found Max’s grave, which is appropriate because it was Scot who found Max. Scot had already found what he thought might be Max’s house, on Griegos Road in what we now call Albuquerque’s North Valley. A little abandoned irrigation ditch ran behind the house which we might never have spotted if not for Scot’s cheerful obsession with Google maps satellite view.

Scot, who loves to read old newspapers, found Max after I tossed out a question about what farmers were thinking back in the 1920s about the future of agriculture in the Albuquerque valley as the modern institutions of flood control, drainage, and irrigation were being created. In Scot’s reading, Max’s name kept showing up.

We’d already been planning a Sunday bike ride to see Max’s old neighborhood when Scot emailed early Sunday morning to add a stop to our itinerary – Mount Calvary Cemetery in the old Santa Barbara neighborhood, where his sleuthing had unearthed what looked like Max’s grave.

Scot’s research skills are a thing to behold. “This internet has all kinds of stuff,” he said.

“It was said that Ofimiano used a cane”

Albuquerque Morning Journal, Wed. Jan. 15, 1919

The histories of Albuquerque generally barely mention Max, which is a shame. The steady stream of old newspaper clippings Scot has been sending suggest a character worthy of note. Here’s one example, in which Max, a Republican, takes to bed after an affray with his brother Ofimiano, a Democrat, on the occasion of Max’s 1919 Bernalillo County Commission election victory. Ofimiano seems to have been the losing candidate.

You just can’t make up shit this good.

The old 1918 survey maps of the Rio Grande Valley show an alfalfa field behind what we think was Max’s house, and thanks to research by my friend Bob – the third member of what has become Team Max – we know that Max’s occupation was variously listed in old census records as “farmer” and “rancher”, and in addition to his political career he also seems to have served for a time as a sheriff’s deputy.

Alfalfa has long been our dominant crop, and Bob thinks Max was likely running sheep on the mesa’s that flank the Rio Grande Valley here. (There also is some evidence of Max running cattle near Cuba, New Mexico, and of gunplay involving Max’s brother-in-law, and a dog. See above about not being able to make up shit this good. Max is a worthy subject.)

My life in the Time of Pandemic

Max Gutierrez sits at the convergence of two friendships that have been central to my pandemic life. Now nine months in, my world has collapsed onto my own family, especially Lissa; teaching; long bike rides with Scot wandering the valley floor looking at old ditches and feeling the shape of the city; and long talks with Bob, mostly walking around our park or sitting on Bob’s porch, trying to make sense of the history of farming and water and Albuquerque’s urban form.

These things take time. We have time, to slow down and work things out.

“little ditch”

In our bike ride planning emails, Scot had asked me to try to run down the name of the abandoned ditch behind Max’s house on Griegos. My old Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District maps identify it as a piece of the old Barelas Ditch – also known, per the map’s metadata, as “little ditch”. More work on this point is needed, but the 1918 map seems to show it running southeast across the valley floor, across a blanket of irrigated land, turning south through what is now the light industrial/warehouse district a block west of the cemetery where Max is buried.

The story of this ditch may matter. Bob (it’s great to have smart friends with research skills) has found what seems to be evidence that Max at one time owned a number of pieces of property scattered along the general path of the Barelas Ditch.

the Los Chavez riot

To the extent that Albuquerque histories mention Max at all, it is generally in the telling of the story of what the newspapers of the time called “the Los Chavez riot”. It’s a key plot point in our Chinatown/Owens Valley narrative, as Hispanic farmers stood down the heavy equipment of the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district in these tellings represents the push toward modernity, digging new drainage ditches that forever reshaped the old acequia irrigation of the valley. Like Chinatown and the Owens Valley, much of the modern telling has a suspicious ring as the story is pressed into the service of the morality plays imposed on the past by our modern minds. But Max for sure comes off as a heroic character, leading the litigation aimed at stopping the district and trooping down from Albuquerque to Los Chavez the day of the “riot”.

The Albuquerque Journal of June 4, 1930, describes the sweeping extent of the charges leveled against Max and his fellow travelers:

The defendants are charged with conspiracy to alienate the confidence of Indians of the Pueblos from the government as a result of speeches and talks they are alleged to have had with the pueblos of Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Isleta, Sandia, and San Felipe.

There remain questions in our minds about which side had guns the day of the Los Chavez riot. Further research needed.

The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City

Some years ago, when I was invited to write an introductory essay for a water-themed issue of the Natural Resource Journal, I wrote this:

“Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream,” Herman Melville wrote in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “There is magic in it.” It is always down – simple gravity and fluid mechanics mean water occupies a landscape’s lowest spot. It is also instructive. To learn about a new place, I’ve found, you can always start with its water.

And so I find myself, as I ponder my next book, in conversation with two smart friends about Max and the history of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande.

The Pandemic and the Magic Masking Tape

On air

Some time around the middle of March, 2020, I found the above sign in a quick clip art search, printed it, and stuck it up with a piece of yellow masking tape on the door of my office at home before our first Zoom class. Or maybe my first Zoom lecture recording, I don’t remember which. It was a nod to my old radio days.

When class was over, I carefully peeled the tape from the door and flipped it over – same piece of yellow masking tape, like so:

Off air

In the 8 months since, every time I’ve gone to Zoom class, or a meeting, or gotten on a phone call, or taped a lecture, I’ve flipped the sign over and closed the door. Every time I’m done, I’ve opened the door, and flipped the sign back. Eight months, of how many Zooms and phone calls each and every day. How many hundreds of times have I flipped that sign back and forth?

I’ve spent a good deal of time of late trying to get back to my March 2020 brain and recall how I thought about the pandemic and future life then. Seeing the pandemic coming, but only dimly, I’d been buying extra pasta, rice, and beans every time I went to the store, because it was the only thing I could think to do. I thought a lot about food supply chains. I could not possibly have imagined a life without walking over to the market after dinner to pick up those one or two things that we sorta needed.

“Need anything from Smith’s?” I would ask Lissa, expectantly, in the Time Before.

I loved that walk to the market. I could not possibly have imagined that eight months later I would not have returned to that routine.

I could not possibly have imagined teaching and learning at such remove from our students, nor could I have imagined how resourceful and exuberantly resilient those students would be as they learn in spite of the adversity.

And I could not possibly have imagined that piece of yellow masking tape would last.

Reclamation is signaling potential for a big drop in Lake Mead over the next several years

Eric Kuhn points out some pretty striking numbers in the latest monthly Bureau of Reclamation Colorado River projections – a million-plus acre foot drop in expected flows on the river as we head into winter. Because of the river’s rules for coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, this translates into a big loss in Lake Mead next year – a 8 foot drop as compared to the numbers just a month ago.

Perhaps more importantly is the way this hydrology spills into 2022, with a clear chance that Mead could drop to elevation 1,060 by the end of the 2021-22 water year. The last time Mead was that low was April 1937, when it was first being filled.

Nov. 15, 2020 soil moisture, courtesy Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

The culprit seems to be low soil moisture heading into winter, which takes first cut at the water as snow melts come spring. It’s still early days in terms of winter forecasting, but with a dry summer the crappy soil moisture is already baked into the preliminary numbers Reclamation uses for its monthly “24-month study”.

We have lots of time between now and when we actually have authoritative numbers rather than just scary blog posts based on preliminary forecast numbers. But if the current numbers hold, the drop in Mead would push river system 2022 operations into the next tier of mandatory Lower Basin water use cuts under the river’s 2007 “Interim Guidelines” and supplemental Drought Contingency Plan.

Those mandatory cuts are not a huge deal at this point. (but see update below) Lower Colorado River Basin water users have pretty consistently been making voluntary cuts as big as the mandatory reductions in that next tier. This is a success story – Lower Basin water users have taken the steps over the last few years to prepare for this sort of bad hydrology. But it sure feels a lot better to be doing it voluntarily, ahead of a dropping Lake Mead, rather than to be seeing that bathtub ring grow.

Update: Several correspondents, in my inbox and on the Twitters, have suggested I should not be so sanguine about the ease with which Central Arizona water users will be able to absorb the 1,075 shortages, especially the Pinal County farmers who accepted big subsidies in 2004 in return for taking on the risks that they now face. See here for my views on this, and be sure to read the comments there for the smart people who disagree with my take.

A piece of Albuquerque water history: City Well #4

On Apple Lane in Albuquerque’s Duranes neighborhood, City Well #4

Scot spotted it first, a pipe sticking up a few feet above the ground, a square locked box on top of it, behind a low fence on Apple Lane in Albuquerque’s Duranes neighborhood: City Well #4.

It was here on Jan. 31, 1957, that what we might think of as the first groundwater measurement of Albuquerque’s modern water management era was made. The depth to groundwater was 15.54 feet (measured, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, to the nearest hundredth of a foot). By early June, it had dropped more than 10 feet as the water supply wells in the surrounding Duranes field did their work to meet rising city water demands.

In a pandemic, masked Sunday bike rides with my friend Scot are one of the only human contacts left outside my immediate family and fucking Zoom calls, and after coming very close to pulling the plug on the rides, we set out this morning on a treasure hunt.

Here was the treasure:

Putting together some slides for a lecture last week, I’d noticed in the most recent report from Andre Ritchie and Amy Galanter of the USGS on Albuquerque groundwater monitoring a handful of wells with data going back to a single year – 1957. “What’s up with that?” I wondered.

A handy label confirmed that we had, in fact, found City Well #3. Southwest Corner, Los Poblanos Fields, Albuquerque

Four wells, helpfully labeled City Well #1, City Well #2, City Well #3, and City Well #4, were drilled that year across the floor of Albuquerque’s North Valley.

I’ve no doubt people were measuring groundwater here in some fashion before this time, but these four wells mark a turning point. One of the things I try to pay attention to, and encourage my students to pay attention to, is the question of why a particular piece of data is being collected. Data collection carries costs, and there’s intellectual profit in thinking about who collected it, and why. So I did some Googling, Scot helped with the old newspaper research (he has serious skills in that regard) and I stuffed a couple of folded sheets of paper into my pocket with maps giving the rough location of each of the wells.

The mid-1950s were a critical time in Albuquerque’s water history. In the 1940s, the population of Bernalillo County (the greater Albuquerque area) had doubled, and in the 1950s, it nearly doubled again.

Newspaper stories from the period show a fear of running out of water, and trumpet the community’s success in drilling new wells. My favorite was a May 1954 headline bragging about pumping 38 million gallons in a single day – a record. “Despite the heavy use – which is perilously near the 40 million gallon daily capacity of the system – water officials said they received no complaints of low pressure,” the Albuquerque Tribune reported.

Soon, the Tribune reported, the new Duranes Well Field would add another 20 million gallon per day capacity, with a new reservoir and the ability to pump water up to the growing neighborhoods on the mesa to the east.

The tank you see in the background behind City Well #3 in the picture at the top of the post is the Duranes Reservoir, completed in 1954 to hold water pumped from the new field. As street name, Apple Lane, suggests, the field where it was built had once been an orchard. The old Duranes Acequia, one of the early irrigation ditches, still skirts the north end of the reservoir property.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about all the new wells. In November 1956, the state’s top water regulator, Steve Reynolds, issued an order attempting to curb the city’s voracious groundwater pumping.

Since the 1930s, New Mexico had been a leader in recognizing the connection between groundwater and surface water – that when you pump from the ground, you end up depleting the flows of nearby rivers.

But to trigger the law, the state engineer had to issue an order, which is what Reynolds, cheeky bastard that he was, did in November 1956. Messy litigation ensued, with Albuquerque claiming that “as the successor to the Pueblo de Alburquerque y San Francisco Xavier, founded not later than 1706, it had the absolute right to the use of all waters, both ground and surface within its limits, for the use and benefit of its inhabitants”, to quote from the New Mexico Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in the case of Albuquerque v. Reynolds. Which Albuquerque lost.

We found all four of the 1957 wells – #3 at the southwest corner of Los Poblanos Fields, #2 where Sandia Rd. NW dead-ends into the railroad tracks, and #1 in the parking lot of Kasdorf Mfg., which makes “genuine walnut products for the awards and recognition industry”.

#2 was my favorite. What happened in the years after Albuquerque lost the lawsuit in 1962 is a story for another day, or maybe another book, but suffice to say that the water levels in #2 dropped for another 40-plus years before things finally turned around. Since 2008, it’s begun to rebound, rising 20 feet.

Sandia Rd. NW, where the well continues its service today, was one of the early streets in the area to turn over from the marginal farming once done there to suburban neighborhood. It sits today on the property line between a house and an apartment complex, a piece of Albuquerque history kept company by a trash bin, two old couches, and two discarded mattresses.

City Well #2, Sandia Rd. NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico

“City Psychiatrist Defies Edict on Water Wells”

Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 4, 1957

My new favorite water policy newspaper headline, courtesy Better Burque, a wizard of old newspaper research down a rabbit hole with me looking at Albuquerque water policy circa 1957.

The psychiatrist, John W. Myers, also operated Sandia Gardens Nursery. New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds was trying to put the brakes on new water well drilling. Myers argued it wasn’t a new well.

The best part of this story? 6700 Edith NE in Albuquerque’s North Valley, where the nursery and well were located is now home to the U.S. Geological Survey team that monitors Albuquerque’s groundwater.

Luke Runyon on the West’s three great zombie water projects

Luke Runyon published a nice piece earlier this week on setbacks to three of the Colorado River Basin’s three great zombie water projects:

2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.

Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.

All three projects – a new diversion on the Gila in New Mexico, Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline, and the Las Vegas rural groundwater project – have looked to me as if they’ve been dead for a long time. They all provide super expensive water for communities that don’t really seem to need it.

Pretending you’re still pursuing them while never actually building them avoids the political liability of killing them while also avoiding the actual staggering cost of building them.

Las Vegas and New Mexico seemed this year close to actually killing their zombies, but as Luke points out they’re not quite dead yet.

The Lake Powell Pipeline seems most likely to prove my zombie project prognostication wrong.

The Colorado River Basin’s Tanya Trujillo named to Biden Interior transition team

Tanya Trujillo, August 2019, on her first day as a member of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. Photo by John Fleck

I was delighted to see my friend Tanya Trujillo’s name on the incoming Biden Administration Department of the Interior transition team list released yesterday.

Tanya’s a New Mexican, former chief counsel to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and current member of the commission. She served as a legislative aide to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, in Interior in the Officer of Water and Science, and as executive director of the Colorado River Board of California.

Importantly for me, she’s the first person who ever really sat down and tried to explain the Colorado River’s crazy “Law of the River” rules to me, many years ago in a memorable gathering of New Mexico’s water management brain trust on the back patio at the Albuquerque Journal. If memory serves, Estevan López and the late Bill Hume were also in attendance, but Tanya did most of the talking, including a memorable explanation of the meaning of Article III(d)’s infamous “will not cause … to be depleted” Lee Ferry delivery language.

Tanya’s been cheerfully and patiently explaining the Colorado River to  me ever since, and I couldn’t be happier to see her steady hand among those helping guide the next steps at Interior.



Tensions around a wastewater reclamation collaboration in Southern California

There’s some fascinating tension around a proposed wastewater reclamation collaboration in Southern California.

The project, if it goes forward, would provide some 150 million gallons per day (~170,000 acre feet per year) of treated effluent. Water now being discharged into the ocean would instead be available for aquifer recharge within Southern California.

There are a number of technical and environmental questions, most notably the project’s cost effectiveness, to be analyzed before the so-called “Regional Recycled Water Program” goes forward. But there’s a really interesting set of institutional threshold questions to be resolved as well, which are lurking in agenda items at this week’s Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board meeting.

Whose Project Should This Be? Local or Regional?

This is a perfect case study for concepts we’ve been discussing in our crazy Zoom session classes this fall with students in the UNM Water Resources Program. The question – where do you draw the boundary(ies) around a water resources problem, and its potential solution.

The preliminary discussions about this project have drawn the boundaries quite broadly. Pilot-scale work has been done through a partnership between Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 2 and the Metropolitan Water District. Under this model, should the project go forward, the water produced would become a regional supply, alongside water from the Colorado River Aqueduct and State Water Project, which Met provides as a wholesaler to its 26 member agencies.

That’s an institutional model that draws broad boundaries around the project.

Whether that’s the right model, though, is subject to some debate among Metropolitan’s member agencies. The San Diego County Water Authority, for example, seems to favor a more “local control” sort of model, where individual member agencies build their own projects, using the water themselves, rather than having Met build big regional projects, sharing water (and costs) among all.

Should This Be an Interstate Project?

But there is a proposal on the table that would drawn the boundaries even more broadly. In May, Met and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas, Nevada’s big regional water wholesaler, a sort of Met equivalent there) signed a letter of intent that opened the door to SNWA’s possible participation in the Southern California Project. In return for picking up some of the cost, SNWA would get a share of the water. (You wouldn’t actually pipe the water to Las Vegas, that would be crazy expensive, it’s much easier to just do an accounting swap.)

Readers of my work will know that I love deals like this – water bargaining, or sharing, or whatever you call it, collaboration across boundaries. But according to a letter sent over the weekend, San Diego is not so enamored of the idea: “We oppose potential exchange of Colorado River water with other states,” wrote SDCWA board member Michael Hogan on behalf of the agency’s board.

What Happens Next

This is still early days for this project – more study needed, as we academics like to say. But based on Hogan’s letter, there might be some lively discussion at this week’s MWD board meeting about where the boundaries should be drawn.