stuff I wrote elsewhere: a dry summer on the Rio Grande

Here’s a picture of the Rio Grande, at Embudo, with water:

Rio Grande at Embduo, looking south, April 22, 2014

Rio Grande at Embudo, looking south, April 22, 2014

Here’s a newspaper story about the Rio Grande, at Albuquerque, without water:

Without good summer rains, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque could see its lowest sustained levels since the 1970s, water managers said Wednesday.

In the midst of the fourth consecutive year of extreme drought, agencies are scrambling to stretch limited supplies and looking hopefully at a National Weather Service forecast for good summer rains.

“We hope the National Weather Service prediction for an early monsoon is right,” said Mike Hamman, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s area manager, at a water operations briefing. “But hope is not a plan.”

The headline writer got carried away with the math. It was actually September and October of 1978, when we last had sustained sub-100 cubic feet per second (~3 cubic meters per second) flow in the Rio Grande at the Albuquerque gauge. So 36 years, not 40, but I’ll forgive the rounding error.

“the groundwater problem”

Water is energy, and in arid lands it rearranges humans and human ways  and human appetites around its flow. Groundwater is a nonrenewable source of such energy. These facts are the core of the impact when groundwater is developed in such places. Humans build their societies around consumption of fossil water long buried in the earth, and these societies, being based on a temporary resources, face the problem of being temporary themselves.

To ask what is the impact of developing groundwater in arid lands is simply to seek the price that must be paid for this unique human knack of influencing the availability of water. The answer is this: man builds water-rich societies in arid lands by living out of balance with his water supplies. He uses water faster than it can be replaced by rain. When this fact becomes obvious, people call it the groundwater problem.

Charles Bowden, Killing the Hidden Waters, 1977


Whose river is the Animas?

Jonathan Thompson takes High Country News readers to his home town of Durango for a reprise of a western saga we’ve seen before: who gets to define the Animas River around which his city was built?

[I]t’s somewhat luxurious, maybe even decadent, to be able to have a community-wide fight over whether a park has a boat ramp or not, isn’t it? For me, there’s a special sort of irony in it all. Over the past 30 years, the river has morphed into a hybrid of the rule-free playground my friends and I cherished, and the community green space my father and his colleagues had envisioned.

“As Durango has become a destination for tourists and for those seeking a change in lifestyle,” wrote David Wegner, in his comments on the park plan, “the value of the Animas River increased. In a way, we are a victim of our success.”

stuff I wrote elsewhere: with water sales and revenue down, Albuquerque eyes another rate hike

From the morning paper:

With revenue down as a result of dropping water sales, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board at its Wednesday evening meeting will consider a 5 percent rate increase beginning July 1. The average homeowner’s water bill would rise roughly $3 per month, according to a report to be presented to the utility’s board of directors.

For the water rate nerds in the audience, the rate hike is aimed at the base rate paid by everyone, regardless of consumption. This reverses a trend in recent rate hikes of hitting the largest users with the biggest rate hikes.


Kids on the Mexican side of the border, waving at delegation of Americans, San Luis Rio Colorado, March 28, 2014

Kids on the Mexican side of the border, waving at delegation of Americans, San Luis Rio Colorado, March 28, 2014

This is my favorite border picture from my trip last month to Arizona-California-Sonora-Baja.

You can see the old border fence on the right, one of those repurposed metal landing strip things, which as near as I can tell is where the actual border is. The big new fence is pulled back 50 yards or so from the real border, just out of the picture to the left, creating a no-man’s land in between where this magical invisible line separates those adorable preppy Mexican kids from me and the group of U.S. water managers I was tagging along with. We were all there to see the same thing (water flowing down the Colorado River, just out of the picture to the right) and we were all happy and smiling and loving it, but there was this invisible line between us.

I’ve been wanting to write about border issues, because they’re fascinating, but feeling a little sheepish because I’m such a newbie. Most of my energy in reporting on Minute 319 and the Colorado River environmental pulse flow has been focused on the Byzantine transboundary water law and policy questions, but there’s this whole other set of cultural issues associated with that invisible line, which I’m far from understanding, that are fascinating.

In the latest issue of Boom, Michael Dear writes about the feedback between lives on both sides that makes the borderlands uniquely separate, on either side, from their respective nations:

The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in the nations’ capitals. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties….

Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. After the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo settled the Mexican-American War, a series of binational “twin towns” sprang up along the line, developing identities that are sufficiently distinct as to warrant the collective title of a “third nation,” snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries.

Dear calls the western third of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands “Bajalta California”. William Vollman is talking about something different but conceptually overlapping when he draws the Imperial Valley in the United States and the Mexicali Valley in Mexico together into a region he calls simply “Imperial“, and then writes about with reckless abandon. For Vollman, it is all of a place, with “Northside” and “Southside” distinguishing location relative to the imaginary line. These kids, I think, live in Bajalta, or Southside Imperial, or both.

The grass does seem greener on the U.S. side of the border in this NASA Landsat image

The grass does seem greener on the U.S. side of the border in this NASA Landsat image, but Imperial and Mexicali are clearly one valley

It is impossible to understand the water piece of this story without understanding the borderness of the region – the way U.S. landowners led by Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, became the largest landowners in the Mexicali Valley, and the interplay of water power politics across the imaginary line. It is impossible to understand the 21st century extension of the story without understanding the way the U.S. Endangered Species Act failed to protect critters in Mexico when the Colorado River delta was dried up, largely by human water use on the U.S. side of the border. But at least I know how to approach the problem of making sense of those historical, legal and policy questions.

Making sense of the human dimension of borderness is another thing entirely. Earlier in my week in Bajalta, I’d come up to this same spot the above picture was taken, with a helpful Border Patrol agent as tour guide. There was a Mexican family standing right about the same spot as the kids in this picture, parents and a little kid who had come out to see the water. The Border Patrol guy went up to talk to them, and they exchanged pleasantries, each on their respective sides of the invisible line. They all knew right where the line was and what it meant. It’s going to take a little more time to make sense of that.

electricity and crow

This is our 21st spring in the house on Aliso Drive, the longest (by a significant margin) that I’ve lived in the same place. The utility pole in the back corner of our yard has been at the fringe of my perception that whole time. I never completely ignored it, but I never thought much about it until the last few years when I started compiling bird lists and, more recently, taking pictures of the birds in my backyard.

Birds tend to sit on the pole and the lines attached to it. I’ve never given its functional details much thought, but today I counted 28 separate wires coming to and from the pole, which distributes electricity, telephone, cable television and Internet connectivity to three houses. Why so many?

Here is a picture of an American crow, taking flight after a brief perch on the top of the pole:

Crow taking flight from perch on telephone pole, April 2014,  by John Fleck

Crow taking flight from perch on telephone pole, April 2014, by John Fleck

This might be the second in an accidental series of photos of electricity and things. I notice power lines far more in my pictures than I do directly. This has been an intriguing side effect of my new interest in photography – the things I didn’t notice that have been there all the time. Previously:

Down the Landsat rabbit hole, Albuquerque edition

Now that I’ve figured out how to easily download NASA Landsat imagery, (thanks, USGS!) I don’t think I’m going to get much else done this weekend. It’s an amazing conceptual tool for helping to think about how water moves through western North America. Here’s Albuquerque on April 13, with the colors tweaked to highlight growing plants. Finding the metro area’s golf courses is left as an exercise for the reader:

Albuquerque as seen from space, April 13, 2014, via NASA Landsat. Colors enhanced.

Albuquerque as seen from space, April 13, 2014, via NASA Landsat. Colors enhanced.


Pulse flow, from outer space

I’ve apparently got more time on my hands than skill, but I figured out, somewhat crudely, how to downland LANDSAT maps and make some pictures. Here’s the largely dry bed of the Colorado River on February 27. Apologies for the large file size, but it should have enough resolution to click and zoom if you’re able:

Colorado River, US-Mexico border, Feb. 27, 2014

Colorado River, US-Mexico border, Feb. 27, 2014

The circled bit is the San Luis bridge. Here’s roughly the same field of view on Wednesday:

Colorado River, US-Mexico border, April 16, 2014

Colorado River, US-Mexico border, April 16, 2014

Still looks like there’s water at the San Luis bridge.