“Sharing Water: What an Environmental Experiment in Mexico can Teach us About the Future of the Colorado River”

I’m excited to be giving a talk on the Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow Sept. 8 at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. If you’re in the neighborhood, please come by, say “hi”, and, if possible, ask questions when I explain things poorly. The talk is a snapshot of a work in progress, so no doubt a great deal of it will be explained poorly, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

The pulse flow last spring – a first-ever release of water down the desiccated Colorado River Delta’s main channel solely for environmental purposes – was a powerful symbol. For that reason alone, it was insanely cool, and it’s easy to explain and share the excitement. In a place where a river used to go to die, the Río Colorado came back to life. I’ll have pretty pictures of water flowing across a dry landscape.

A bunch of social capital standing in and around the water they helped put in the desiccated Colorado River channel near San Luis. March 27, 2014, John Fleck photo

A bunch of social capital standing in and around the water they helped put in the desiccated Colorado River channel near San Luis. March 27, 2014, John Fleck photo

But there’s something more obscure but also, I think, far more important that happened that’s proving much more difficult to articulate. At the risk of driving too fast and getting out in front of my headlights, I’m going to try to explain the nature and importance of the “social capital” that made this happen, and why I think the notion of social capital is critical to whether we succeed or fail in making a go of it as a society dependent on the increasingly scarce water of the Colorado River.

It’s illustrative of the problem that I have a hard time offering up a crisp definition of “social capital”, but here’s one I cribbed from someone else:

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.

Some years ago, I heard a talk by former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Bob Johnson about his efforts to mediate water battles in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins in the southeastern United States. He was dispatched by his federal bosses to try to help with the problems because of his experience overseeing interstate water management in the Colorado River basin. Here’s how I described the problem:

The ACT and ACF basins have far more unallocated water to play with in sorting out the conflicts. “They’ve got 60 million acre feet of excess water,” he said. “On the Colorado River, we’ve got zero.”

But as a direct result of that lack of water on the Colorado, we’ve got a rich legal framework – the Law of the River – and accompanying personal and institutional relationships to go with it. “We have 80 years of fighting and working together,” Johnson said to the audience of Colorado River Basin water officials.

By comparison, in the wet climate of the southeast, water officials had few relationships with their colleagues in other states, and few institutional structures through which they could deal with problems when they arose, Johnson argued. In other words, they have plenty of water, but lack the tools they need to approach the problem of sharing. Because they’ve never had to think of it that way.

Their problem was a lack of social capital, not a lack of water. And, as Elinor Ostrom pointed out:

[S]ocial capital is hard to construct through external interventions.

Minute 319, the U.S.-Mexico agreement that made the pulse flow happen, provides a window into this “social capital” in action. It involves:

  • institutions: U.S. and Mexican governments and the agencies within them, water management agencies on both sides of the border, environmental groups, research universities and end water users
  • relationships: Individuals representing these institutions who know one another in a web that has, over time, become invested with a significant reservoir of trust, even as each is representing their own community’s interests as best they. These relationships embody a significant shared understanding of the Colorado River Basin’s problems and the range of solutions that might be possible, and who might suffer and/or benefit from those solutions.
  • rules: A Byzantine array of compacts, treaties, laws and also more subtle norms that govern how all these institutions and people move water around the Colorado River system in a way that is intended to maximize some sort of ill-defined, constantly evolving utility.

All that combined in a deal that had something for everyone: money to upgrade Mexican irrigation infrastructure, water storage facilities for Mexico, conserved water for U.S. cities, an expanded understanding of the sharing of shortages for Mexico and the United States, and oh, by the way, a bit of water for the environment.

My shorthand for this, and the title of a seminar I’m giving Sept. 26 at UNM’s economics department, is “Solving the West’s water problems in a hotel bar”. The “hotel bar” thing is schtick, but has some substance behind it. The idea is people sitting around after a day of meetings wrestling with the problems, people who know one another’s desires, interests and needs, and saying, “Wait! What if we try doing it this way?”

The hotel bar stuff is very much necessary for dealing with Colorado River water problems going forward. But is it sufficient?

Testing Hoover Dam’s outflow jets

The San Diego Air And Space Museum posted some wonderful old aerial pictures of Hoover Dam on Flickr, and I’m hoping someone in the Inkstain posse can help me sort out the history. This image was taken by Colonel Orie W. Coyle, and appears to be a test of Hoover Dam’s outlet jets that I’m thinking must have been in the 1930s, as the then-Boulder Dam was first being filled:

Aerial View of Hoover Dam, Col. Coyle served with the Marines in WWI and worked for Douglas prior to his service in WWII, Col. Coyle served with the Marines in WWI and worked for Douglas prior to his service in WWII, courtesy SDASM

Aerial View of Hoover Dam, Col. Coyle served with the Marines in WWI and worked for Douglas prior to his service in WWII, Col. Coyle served with the Marines in WWI and worked for Douglas prior to his service in WWII, courtesy SDASM


It must have been quite a spectacle. You can see the road lined with cars. The UNLV library has some similar pictures including this one, which is dated “1934-1936″. Anyone know the story?

It’s not how much water you get, it’s what you do with it – Indiana edition

Indiana precipitiation, courtesy NCDC

Indiana precipitiation, courtesy NCDC


Indiana, where nine out of the past ten years have been wetter than the long term average, is talking about water shortages:

Water shortages are coming to Indiana unless the state implements policy changes, according to a recent prediction by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Data courtesy NCDC.

Resilience to drought, California tomato crop edition

From the USDA (pdf):

Contracted production of California processing tomatoes is forecast at a record high 14.0 million tons, averaging 48.61 tons per acre, according to a survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The current forecasted production is 17.6 percent above the 2013 crop.

Drought has been an issue for some crops, but apparently not tomato:

The extreme drought in California has forced growers to fallow land and cut back on the acreage for many crops, but the impact on tomato acreage appears to be limited. The projected harvested acreage of tomatoes is 288,000 acres, a 12.5 percent increase from 2013.

I’ll speculate that what we’ll see, once the final data on the California Drought of 2014 is in, that what water farmers had access to was shifted to high-value crops like almonds and vegetables, and the acreage drop will be in the low-value stuff.

Reclaimed water

reclaimed water, golf course, Ventana Canyon, Tucson, by John Fleck

reclaimed water, golf course, Ventana Canyon, Tucson, by John Fleck


I don’t know whether to view these signs all over Tucson’s golf courses proclaiming their use of “reclaimed” water as proud – “We’re water smart!” or defensive. But whenever the conversation veers toward water “reclamation”, always ask yourself where that water might have gone if you hadn’t, for example, put it on this golf course. As Tony Davis pointed out earlier this month, one place urban effluent might otherwise end up is in the desert riparian systems that have otherwise been deprived of water by the cities that have grown up around them.

Questions about the Gila Diversion

In the Colorado River Basin writ large, 14,000 acre feet of water is a very small rounding error – less than one tenth of one percent of the river’s flow. But the New Mexico discussion over the possibility of a diversion high in the watershed of the Gila River in New Mexico, raises fascinating questions about what could be one of the last big pieces of water-moving infrastructure in the basin. My colleague Lauren Villagran in the Albuquerque Journal’s Las Cruces bureau had an interesting piece in the morning paper (behind surveywall) looking at the drive to develop the water, even though we don’t know how much it will cost, who will pay for it, or how the water will be used:

“You would think that would get decided before it gets built, because you would think (the beneficiaries) would have to say they are willing to pay, especially if it’s a for-profit company,” said Norman Gaume, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission.

Mulroy: Lake Mead’s bathtub ring is not just Las Vegas’s problem

Former Southern Nevada water chief Pat Mulroy explains that, while Las Vegas is an easy rhetorical landing spot because it is right next door to Lake Mead, the dropping Colorado River reservoir is a basin wide issue:

What we are experiencing is not a Las Vegas problem — it is truly a regional problem that encompasses an area responsible for 27 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The entire piece is worth reading, and the comment thread is actually pretty good.

Colorado River Basin forecast for the winter of 2014-15: “meh”

Even with the fizzling El Niño forecast, the winter outlook for the United States released by the Climate Prediction Center yesterday looks awfully El Niño-like, with odds favoring wetter weather across the southern tier of states. But for the bulk of the Colorado River Basin’s water-producing region, which is in the central Rockies, the forecast looks like even odds of a wet or dry winter this year:

December-February outlook, Climate Prediction Center

December-February outlook, Climate Prediction Center

Drought and those yummy California almonds

Via Brett Walton:

Continuing a decades-long trend, California farmers will increase their almond acreage next year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

An estimated 48,000 acres of new almond orchards will be planted next year, an estimate based on a first-ever survey of nursery sales. The increase is roughly 40 percent higher than the 10-year average.

Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, which commissioned the survey, told Circle of Blue that the numbers reflect commitments made at least two years ago, when growers would have submitted orders to the nurseries.

“The report reflects decisions not made in the context of the current drought and current water availability,” Waycott said.