New Mexico’s 2015 San Juan-Chama Project allocation goes up

Our remarkably rainy spring and summer in New Mexico and southern Colorado has increased the allocation of San Juan-Chama Project water, which brings some of New Mexico’s Colorado River Basin water to the central part of the state. After a bad start to the year, flows have been above average basically continuously since the first of May:

San Juan-Chama Project flows

San Juan-Chama Project flows

The mid-June allocation was just half of a normal year supply, but that’s been steadily rising, and now is up to 85 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. And that’s based on what we’ve got now. With the rainy season underway, that could continue rising, with 90 to 95 percent looking like a real possibility. That’s still a shortfall, for only the second time in the project’s 40 years history. But less of a shortfall, but by a significant margin, than water managers had feared.

The water provides supply to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Both cities have buffers so a shortfall in any one year doesn’t have an immediate effect.

For context for those in other parts of the “greater” Colorado River Basin (those places that use Colorado River water, whether they’re in the actual physical basin or not), the total San Juan-Chama Project allocation is less than 1 percent of the basin’s human water use. It’s one of those crazy-sounding projects we did back in the day to move water long distances from where the rivers are to where the people live, with three dams in San Juan Mountain headwaters in Colorado diverting water through 27 miles of concrete-lined tunnels beneath the continental divide.


Nine Colorado River Basin counties that use water for golf

For grins, here’s some data on golf water use for selected Colorado River Basin counties:


Percentage of water used on golf

Some notes:

  • Data source: USGS Water Use in the United States
  • People who fly into desert cities often look down out of the airplane on approach and comment on golf courses. I have nothing against golf. If I had swimming pool data, that would make a fun post too.
  • Counties are a super troublesome geographic unit of measure for water, because they lack uniformity. Like Jefferson County, Colorado, for example. That’s a weird county.
  • Percentages are a super troublesome measurement, because if you’ve got farming in your county (like, say, Maricopa and Bernalillo) that throws off the calculation by making golf look, in comparison, small.
  • I’ve got some reservations about the data. I left Clark County, NV (Las Vegas) off the chart because the numbers there just didn’t seem to jive with other data I have.
  • This is in no way comprehensive. I just picked some counties here that I’m interested in because I’ve always wanted to experiment with one of those “Ten BLANKS that BLANK” clickbait headlines.

Regulatory arbitrage and Arizona’s growing nuts

“Regulatory arbitrage” is the business practice of shifting one’s operations to exploit differences in regulatory regimes. This often involves a geographical change, such as moving a factory to a place where environmental regulations are less stringent.

That seems to be what’s going on in southeastern Arizona, where California nut farmers are moving into the San Simon Valley, planting pistachios and pecans, and pumping groundwater. From a great Tony Davis story discussing the trend:

Chima and Barton Heuler are California transplants who sit on opposite sides of the issue. They both moved their farming operations here because they were tired of seeing water transferred away from crops due to the drought. Chima says he was tired of excessive regulation in his former state.

Coase’s reservoirs: how transaction costs are emptying Lake Mead

Updating my Colorado River reservoir storage spreadsheet today to make a graph for a friend was a pretty discouraging exercise. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the system’s two massive reservoirs on which 9 states and a gazillion people and farm acres depend, are at their lowest combined level since 1967, when they were filling Powell for the first time:

Colorado River storage

Colorado River storage

I style myself as the optimist in the room. Staring dimly into the future, I think I can see what solutions to the West’s water problems might look like. My optimism comes from things like this, which appears on the agenda of tomorrow’s meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District board of directors. It’s an information item about an Arizona plan to conserve close to 100,000 acre feet of water this year, primarily by fallowing agricultural land in central Arizona:


This is water that will sit in Lake Mead, unused. It’s the kind of step that encourages me, but the details of what’s needed to carry it out help explain why Lake Mead is dropping faster than my optimism can keep it propped up.

It’s encouraging because it shows flexibility in the water use system. To slow or stop Lake Mead’s fall, we need to use less water by doing things like this. Central Arizona’s got an agricultural buffer to work with, imported Colorado River water pumped uphill via the Central Arizona Project. This agreement calls on some of that buffer.

But the friction here is discouraging. This is not as simple as just saving water. Dustin Garrick’s fascinating new book, Water Allocation in Rivers Under Pressure, goes a long way toward articulating what I’ve only been seeing dimly as I watch this process. Garrick’s work takes a deep look at the “transaction costs” of moving water around and, more importantly, in making the institutional changes (the changes in governance structures and rules) needed to change the way we move water around. (The “Coase” of the headline is economist Ronald Coase, whose work on transaction costs is incredibly important here if you wanna go full wonk on this stuff.) One of the key takeaways from Garrick’s book is that it’s not enough to point to how the rules are all messed up and Lake Mead is dropping as a result. We’ve got to really understand why the rules are hard to change. Those are transaction costs.

We’ve got a mechanism here that’s relatively straightforward on the water conservation side – fallow land in Arizona, leave water in Lake Mead. But the bureaucratic side is a nightmare of transaction costs. Load up the full document linked above and scroll down, and you’ll see that in order for Arizona to get credit for this arrangement under the Colorado River’s formal water accounting system, the agreement needs 16 signatures.

Sixteen signatures is a lot of transaction costs.

Imperial Valley, 1938: “a million parched acres awaiting for irrigation”

From the newly released archive of British Movietone newsreels, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in October 1938 hits the button to open the gates on Imperial Dam, diverting the first Colorado River water into the All-American Canal and on its way to irrigate the farms of the Imperial Valley:


The newsreel makes it sound as though the parched desert had never before seen water, but that is untrue. The dam and canal simplified delivery of water the Imperial Valley, but irrigation had been underway there for decades. In 1934, there were 245,117 acres of farmland in Imperial County, according to the Census of Agriculture. In 1939, that had risen to 274,808. Alfalfa was a dominant crop, with 114,164 acres yielding 2.99 tons per acre. (2012 production was 7.4 tons per acre, according to latest ag census data. Like much of agriculture, productivity has risen.)

Even then, this was vegetable and melon farming country. In 1939, 56,728 acres were reported in various vegetable and related crops, nearly half of that in carrots, cantaloupes, muskmelons, and the like.

Gila River water governance gizmo built. Sort of.

New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission yesterday formally approved the creation of a “New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity,” a governance gizmo needed to move forward with a proposal to divert Colorado River tributary water from the Gila River in New Mexico:

Interstate Stream Commission members have approved a resolution designating a 14-member unit to design and build the Gila River diversion project in southwestern New Mexico.

The resolution, OK’d during Wednesday’s commission meeting in Albuquerque, identifies the parties making up the so-called New Mexico CAP, or Central Arizona Project, entity. The creation of the unit was necessary to proceed with the project that provides for the annual diversion of water from the Gila River for use in Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties.

Parties making up the unit are the county commissions of Catron, Grant, Luna and Hildalgo; the governing bodies of the cities of Deming and Lordsburg and the village of Santa Clara; the Fort West Irrigation Association; the Gila Farm Irrigation Association; the Gila Hotsprings Irrigation Association; the Hidalgo Soil and Water Conservation District; the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Gila Irrigation Association.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about this project, the most important of which is that someone has to come up with gazillions of dollars in return for very little water. But there’s also reason to be skeptical on governance grounds.

All along, this project has been driven by the staff of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, a state agency. Now it is being handed off to what, at this point, is a thing of paper. One of the central points scholars who study water governance institutions have found is that building good ones is really hard, taking a concerted effort that is most effective when it grows out of repeated interactions among the communities that live within the boundaries to be governed (see here, here, and here). This process has not played out that way, which means that the “New Mexico CAP Entity” is not made up of people and entities that have done the heavy lifting needed to develop the levels of trust, reciprocity, and shared understanding of the region’s resource issues that will be required to make this thing work.

This would be different if the project had been driven all along by the people and entities now tasked with carrying it forward. You can’t just slap down some governance and expect it to succeed at a problem like this.

Flooding alfalfa to *save* water?

Alfalfa, east side Phoenix, February 2015, by John Fleck

Alfalfa, east side Phoenix, February 2015, by John Fleck

University of California researchers have a novel idea: what if we dump more water on alfalfa and use that to recharge aquifers?

Over a six-week period in February, March and April, Dahlke oversaw a test in Siskiyou County in which 140 acre-feet of water were applied to 10 acres of alfalfa. That’s well over twice the amount of irrigation water the field typically gets in an entire year.

“It was just pouring into the ground,” Dahlke said.

The water percolated readily into the earth and the groundwater table in the vicinity of the farm rose quickly. Just as important: by June the alfalfa field that had been watered so heavily was just as healthy as a control plot. Alfalfa is known to “drown” if watered very heavily in summer months, but it appears that the winter dormancy of alfalfa is helping the crop to tolerate saturated soils for some time. Field trials near the UC Davis campus have corroborated the Siskiyou County results, Dahlke said, though additional tests in more soil types and warmer climates (e.g. the southern Central Valley) are needed.

The premise: recharge is good if you have the chance, but land set aside exclusively for the purpose is at a premium. But there’s plenty of alfalfa land where you could try this.

One more example of the adaptive capacity offered by the queen of forages.

Ten amazing weeks in the Colorado River Basin

On the first of May, the official forecast for the 2015 water year on the Colorado River was 6.4 million acre feet. The July mid-month forecast is up to 10.2 million acre feet (pdf).

That’s been enough to prevent the need for a Lower Basin shortage declaration (which would have forced water curtailment in Arizona) in 2016, and very likely now in 2017 as well. Lake Mead remains at record lows, and the deeper structural deficit, in which Lower Basin states are using more water than the system can provide over the long run, remain, but this has bought some breathing room.

One hopes it is well used.

Eat when you can

I joined the Albuquerque Journal in 1990 in what I now think of as “the golden age of journalism”. That’s shorthand for reliable access to expense account travel, but something more. If, as it often was, the story happened to be at a nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, or at an Air Force Base on the eastern plains, or a paleontological dig in the bootheel, a writer and a photographer would jump in a Ford Bronco and go. I do not, by this, mean luxurious or extravagant expense account travel. The Flume, the restaurant at the Stevens Inn in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is not an extravagant place. The extravagance was in the time, the freedom to go to places and spend time learning and thinking about them, a freedom that the culture and economics of the 21st century newspaper has constrained.

Richard Pipes, workin' it. Photo courtesy Randy Montoya

Richard Pipes, workin’ it. Photo courtesy Randy Montoya

Those writers who did these things at the Albuquerque Journal at that moment in history almost always did them with a photographer named Richard Pipes. For many years, Richard was the Journal’s road trip guy. The scheduling ritual was hilarious. If we wanted to plan a trip, we’d first check with the other road trip reporters to see who needed Richard when.

Richard was a pro, by which I mean two things. First, he always came back with the pictures we needed to tell our story. Second, he always knew where to eat, and always took responsibility for putting the meals on his company credit card. I was young and nervous about my place in the organization, and my place in the business of making news for readers. On both counts – getting the news, and justifying the expense reports – Richard gave me confidence.

Richard taught me some basic rules of journalism that have held me in good stead:

  • Eat when you can.
  • Pee when you can.
  • Always bring something to read.

But here is the most important thing I learned. When we got to a place, Richard would go through his ritual of assembling the camera gear – two camera bodies, more lenses, film (yes). Then there was a second phase of the ritual that I was slow to grasp but, once learned, became the most important thing Richard taught me. His eyes would dart around, looking for the first picture, and he wouldn’t relax until he was sure he had at least one thing in the camera that would work. Then he would settle, and we’d keep working for hours (sometimes days) in an easier rhythm. But he was never quite happy until that moment when he knew he had an image that would carry us if suddenly we had to stop working and go home. Once you’ve got that, you can always make it better, but you never come home empty handed.

Richard was one of many photographers I’ve worked with in my years as a journalist, relationships that I treasure. There is something about the bond of writer and photographer collaborating on a story, and I don’t mean to single out Richard’s skills here as a photojournalist. Richard’s place was special to me because he was at my side during a most important time in my life, teaching me and taking pictures for my stories and putting our dinner on the company card.

Richard died Sunday. Sad face.

updated 7/24/2015 with a nice picture Randy Montoya sent me of Richard working