Water markets: “a servant of sound governance, not the master”

Some useful insights from Dustin Garrick on water management lessons the western United States can learn from Australia:

Australia’s experience shows that water markets have an important role to play. But they are a servant of sound governance, not the master. Above all, markets are certainly not free, nor are they self-sustaining. Like a marriage, they take steady work to adjust as values change.

The full piece is worth a read.

California names someone to solve the Salton Sea mess

Imperial County 2014 land cover, via Cropscape

Imperial County 2014 land cover, via Cropscape

Just when I think I’ve got the Colorado River Basin’s problems all sorted out, I keep bumping up against this crazy Salton Sea thing.

This USDA Cropscape landcover map really nicely illustrates the geography of the thing. The brightly colored bits are the irrigated agriculture of the Imperial Irrigation District. Agricultural runoff flows to the northwest, into the Salton Sea, which occupies a sink, below sea level.

When inflow equals evaporation, the level of the sea is stable. If we succeed at conserving water, as we all agree needs to happen, the sea shrinks, exposing a dry lakebed and leading to all manner of bad things (air pollution, asthma) that disproportionately impact the relatively low income people who live around the sea, and also the affluent folks out in the palmy golf coursey hip music festivally communities of Coachella and Palm Springs to the west.

So, to sum up, solving the region’s water problems could wreak environmental havoc.

In 2003, the state of California as part of the tangle known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement promised cross my heart and hope to die to deal with the environmental piece if only the farm water managers would go ahead and do the water conservation. The state has thus far done pretty much doodley squat, which understandably makes the folks in Imperial, who have been keeping up their end of the conservation deal, unhappy.

This is a too-long introduction to today’s news, from Sammy Roth at the Desert Sun, that the state has appointed a Salton Sea czar with some Imperial roots and Salton Sea qualifications to try to right the governance ship:

Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday he has named Bruce Wilcox assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, a newly created position within California’s Natural Resources Agency. Wilcox currently oversees Salton Sea-related projects as the Imperial Irrigation District’s environmental manager.

Wilcox will coordinate the many local, state and federal agencies working to limit the public health and ecological disasters brewing in California’s largest lake. Similar appointments have helped the state address other complex, stubborn problems, said Keali’i Bright, deputy secretary for legislation at the Natural Resources Agency.



There is some irony in my daughter’s latest digital art project being written up in Slate. I know that. But proud dad’s gotta blog, right?

Hilarity generally ensues when Lissa and I try to explain Nora Reed’s digital art to members of our own generation:


Now Jacob Brogan at Slate has taken up the challenge on our behalf:

Something meta about a Slate piece on this

Something meta about a Slate piece on this

Brogan further explains:

Enter @thinkpiecebot, an automated Twitter account that embraces this paradox with a wink and a smile. Created by digital artist Nora Reed, @thinkpiecebot draws on a repertoire of typical provocative subjects—chemtrails, sexting, and pumpkin spice, for example. Reed told me that she has the bot randomly insert items from these lists into constructions such as “Is [SINGULAR THING] Why [GROUP] Can’t [VERB THING]?” The results—pitches for essays that never were but sometimes feel that they could be—are at once familiar and alienating, perfectly capturing the formulaic vacuity of so many Internet-age articles.

More here.

One in five chance of Colorado River shortage in 2017, 50-50 by 2018

That long, painful drip-drip-drip of “when will we have Lower Colorado River shortage?” has been pushed out again, with a new set of modeling runs from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation putting the odds at one in five in 2017 and 50-50 by 2018.

Hidden in that “one in five” next year is some good news. Things would be substantially worse (maybe a one in three chance of 2017 shortage) but for some conservation actions by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (the agency that runs the Central Arizona Project) and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas) that have the effect of leaving significant water in Lake Mead over the next year. Without those steps, the chances of shortage in 2017 would be substantially higher, according to the Bureau’s modeling team. This is good news, showing that the various system conservation efforts are beginning to have measurable impact. Here’s the full table of modeling results:

Chances of shortage, surplus, in the Colorado River as of August 2015, courtesy USBR

Chances of shortage, surplus, in the Colorado River as of August 2015, courtesy USBR

There’s another important caveat. The water conservation efforts modeled here only include those Arizona and Nevada water managers were sure enough about to include in their preliminary 2016 water use planning orders. There are more conservation efforts afoot that could further prop up Lake Mead, reducing the chance of shortfall. The scenarios here are conservative. But you also can see that under the current scenarios, the underlying risk remains – water use downstream of the big Colorado River reservoir remains higher than inflows. The system remains out of balance.

What does “Colorado River shortage” mean?

For details on what happens in “shortage”, see here. Basically, Arizona absorbs the major hit which will for some time bite primarily at the Central Arizona ag sector.

For some historical context, I’ve cleaned up my regular Mead-Powell historical storage graphic. Total storage in the two big Colorado River reservoirs will end the 2015 “water year” (the end September) at a historic low, lower than at any time since they began filling Powell in the 1960s:

Total storage in Lakes Mead and Powell

Total storage in Lakes Mead and Powell

But what are the chances of flooding?

If you really want to feel optimistic, look at the second to the last row. It shows a one in 50 chance that by 2019 we’ll have the reservoirs full enough for “Surplus – Flood Control”. That would be really bad for sales of my upcoming book, but maybe a second volume focused on flood control ops?

Water conservation = less water to move our poo

This is something we’ve seen in Albuquerque over the last two decades of remarkable municipal water conservation success: revenue shortfalls with the old business model of selling water and, ickier, a change in what my UNM colleague Bruce Thomson calls “turd mechanics”. Matt Stevens in the LA Times:

Shorter showers, more efficient toilets and other reductions in indoor water usage have meant less wastewater flowing through sewer pipes, sanitation officials say. With less flow to flush the solids down the system, those solids are collecting and can eventually damage pipes.

Cliff Dahm returns to Sacramento to help sort out the delta mess

I’ve begun putting scare quotes around “retirement” for some of my University of New Mexico water mentors. To that list, add Cliff Dahm, the ecologist and Inkstain brain trust member whose “retirement” party in May paved the way for this:

SACRAMENTO – Dr. Clifford Dahm, an internationally recognized expert in aquatic ecology, climatology, restoration biology, and a professor emeritus of biology at the University of New Mexico, was unanimously appointed by the Council on Thursday (Aug. 27) as Lead Scientist. In making the appointment, Council Chair Randy Fiorini said, “With his broad understanding of water-related science and his background as the former Lead Scientist for the CALFED BayDelta Science Program, Cliff will provide crucial knowledge and scientific leadership as we implement both the Delta Plan and the Delta Science Plan.”

The “Council” is the Delta Stewardship Council. This is familiar terrain for Cliff, who served as chief scientist from 2008 – 2012. Excellent choice, y’all.

Another Southern California ag to municipal water sharing deal takes shape

The Imperial Irrigation District’s board tomorrow will consider an expanded agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that would provide additional flexibility for water conservation in the big desert agricultural district and move water to meet near term drought response needs in the region’s coastal cities.

Imperial Valley farming, March 2014, by John Fleck

Imperial Valley farming, March 2014, by John Fleck

The deal uses the “Intentionally Created Surplus” framework established in the 2007 Colorado River operating rules. ICS was a major policy innovation designed to overcome the “use it or lose it” principles baked into the old “Law of the River” operating rules. It allows water users to conserve and bank water without losing it. But the rules as written in 2007 have the feel of an experimental program, with a lot of constraints. Imperial, the largest Colorado River water user with farms spread across more than 400,000 acres of desert adjoining the Salton Sea, has long wanted the ability to expand its ability to use the mechanism beyond the small amount of ICS they were permitted under the 2007 rules.

The new IID-MWD agreement would allow Imperial to do just that, expanding the amount of ICS it is permitted to do in part by “storing” conserved water in MWD’s system. This would have the practical effect of moving water over to Met this year, to help meet the current year’s extreme shortfalls, with the promise of water payback at a future date.

From IID Colorado River Resources Manager Tina Shields’ memo to the board, here are the basic terms of the deal (click on the embedded bit to see Shields’ full report and the agreement itself):


This might sound clumsy, but it’s a great example of how mutually beneficial agreements can be crafted to conserve and share water across institutional boundaries in this polycentric “no one’s in charge” Colorado River governance structure, and how it’s not as simple as just conserving water. You’ve got to get the institutional plumbing built, which is every bit as important as the physical plumbing.

It’s also an example of the iterative learning involved in these arrangements. Following the 2007 agreement that created ICS, people and institutions learned how to use it, and are now expanding its scope incrementally.

“How’s the book going?”

The book’s going well, thanks for asking. See below.

What motivates me

In my new gig as a university lecturer, my colleague and co-teacher Bob Berrens has the gray old faculty members (there are three of us) talk to the students on the opening day of class about what motivates us. It is the first in a series of courses in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program that, when combined with more technical work scattered across campus (hydrology, engineering, earth science, computer modeling and simulation, public policy, and the like) we hope will provide a foundation for these young people to go forth in the world and fix the messes our generation and those who came before us have created.

Here is the story I tell.

Pumping groundwater on the limotrophe: citrus farming on the U.S.-Mexico border, March 2014, by John Fleck

Pumping groundwater on the limotrophe: citrus farming on the U.S.-Mexico border between Yuma and San Luis, March 2014, by John Fleck

Whenever I go to a place, I invariably end up going down to the water. As humans, we drape our communities around the water, building cities at the point where the river can be crossed, or where we can draw water to drink and irrigate our crops, or flush our waste water back into the river to be carried away. For much of humanity’s history, boats were the most important means of transportation, so we clustered around the ocean, ports, and navigable rivers. And then, as we do, we outgrew those early decisions, with sometimes indelicate results. London’s “great stink” of the summer of 1858 showed the limitations of the Thames as a place to dump the growing city’s shit. San Luis Río Colorado, on the Arizona-Sonora border, shows what happens when we run a river dry. Outside Kettleman City in California, almond farmers are pumping so much water that the ground is sinking.

If you look at the water long enough, you can start to see, in the things that have grown up around it, a marvelously intricate set of feedback loops between the water and the people. In his book City Water, City Life, Carl Smith shows how our very notions of modern municipal governance and community in some sense grew out of the need to get clean water to city people, and safely carry away their shit.

And so I go down to the water, because of my belief that we can always begin to understand the human geography and history of a place by starting with the water.

Getting down to the water

Seven months ago I left a thirty year career as a newspaper journalist to write this book thing y’all keep hearing me yammer about. I’ve been working on it off and on for years, but I realized last December that the only way I could do it right was to remodel my life in such a way that Writing a Book was my only job.

Colorado River flowing beneath the I-10 bridge at Blythe, February 2015

Colorado River flowing beneath the I-10 bridge at Blythe, February 2015

And thus I found myself in the fading light of a February afternoon, after devouring a fast food burger and checking into a cheap motel in Blythe, California, driving east out of town to find my way down to the Colorado River.
This is metaphor, and a clumsy one. I literally have spent many years trying to get down to the water of the Colorado River – beneath the old railroad bridge in Yuma, on the rapids of the Grand Canyon, along the waterskiing mecca of Parker, beside the canals of Phoenix, in the farm fields of Wellton Mohawk, at the intakes of the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project here in my home town of Albuquerque. You see in my list the fundamental conceit of my notion of “the water” – the Colorado River as human construct. Fradkin was right when he called it a “a river no more”, if you grant his meaning of “river”. Fradkin, like me, put into the Colorado River at Blythe in a canoe. I called it “little more than a slow-moving lake”. Fradkin had harsher words. But viewed expansively, the Colorado River is a vast human construct today, as much about taking water out of the old river channel and doing new things with it, and for me “getting down to the water” requires embracing and trying to understand it in that way.

The last seven months have been a glorious opportunity to “get down to the water”, both literally in the chance to visit my beloved Colorado River in all its messy glory, and also metaphorically in the chance to talk to smart people and read more deeply than I ever had the chance to as I tried to digest and then share knowledge one newspaper story at a time. I’ve never had so much fun in my life, which is a high bar. I pride myself on being very good at having fun.

Blah, blah, blah, but how’s the book going?

Palo Verde Irrigation District canal, east end of Blythe

Palo Verde Irrigation District canal, of Blythe, by John Fleck

The occasion for all this self-indulgent thumb sucking is a milestone today, completion of the first draft of my book, Beyond the Water Wars. I’m a day early in hitting a self-imposed deadline. The manuscript’s not due until the end of the year, but I set myself this deadline – draft by the end of August – to give myself lots of time to clean things up. I met the milestone in part by cutting myself some serious slack – my definition of “completion” and “first draft” are loose. There are holes left that require more reporting, research, and thought, but they’re now clearly constrained. There’s a lot of muddy thinking yet to be clarified. And a lot of what I’m written bears some resemblance to the Thames of 1858, if you know what I mean.

But I can finally see the whole thing.

Writing a book turns out to be harder than I thought, because of the way my understanding has deepened and shifted as I worked. It is especially hard because one of my central premises, what I’ve called the “no one’s in charge-ness” of the Colorado River and the West’s water management, does not lend itself to narrative. The properties of emergence in complex adaptive systems, of which this is one, lack storylines in the same way that hierarchies and linear dynamics do. William Blomquist, in his superb (and frustratingly hard-to-find – thank you UNM interlibrary loan!) work on Southern California water management Dividing the Waters, bids us look closely as we think about contemporary water management at the question of whether we are seeing “diverse order” or merely chaos.

My book’s central premise draws on the definition of “resilience” I learned from my UNM colleague Melinda Harm Benson: the ability of a system to absorb a shock while retaining its basic structure and function. Here, this means the communities that have draped themselves around the Colorado River, and it poses a central dilemma. If the risk is that we have built too much of everything – too much Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque, too much Imperial, Maricopa County, and Yuma agriculture – for the water available, how might we retain those basic structures under the shock of drought and climate change and, therefore, less water?

As it slowly emerges from the muck, my book makes a narrative argument for “diverse order”, an adaptive capacity found in the messy, flexible governance that will allow us to get by on less water, and share. Wallace Stegner said it better:

One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.

It’s also telling stories about the river in its many forms. As the sage of the Lower Colorado once said, “We all have our stories about the river.”

In pursuit of resilience, it helps to be rich

“Resilience”, as defined by these folks, is a useful framework for understanding drought and water management. The goal is a system that can withstand shock and retain its basic structure and function. For example by that metric, as Charles Fishman has pointed out, California during the current drought has demonstrated resilience.

New Orleans and Katrina is a counter example, a resilience failure.

Writing in this week’s Nature, Erwann Michel-Kerjan points to something that’s quite important:

A ‘five capital’ — 5 C — metric is essential. Physical capital includes the indirect products of economic activity, such as infrastructure; financial capital assesses financial protection and diversity of income sources; human capital pertains to the education, skills and health of people; social capital accounts for social relationships, leadership and governance structure; and natural capital includes land productivity, water and biological resources and actions to sustain them.

If you look at California’s resilience successes and failures in this regard, you can see a pattern. Places like Monson, which Brett Walton wrote about last week, are poor. They lack resilience. Places like Southern California’s Inland Empire, as Fishman pointed out, have built resilience into their water management, but it hasn’t come cheap.


The Las Vegas water conservation model

Sammy Roth, a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, took a trip this month to Las Vegas to share with his California readers how they do the water conservation thing in urban Nevada:

When it comes to saving water, Sin City has the Coachella Valley beat.

Las Vegas can credit its water frugality to a combination of fines, rigorous enforcement, generous grass-removal incentives and aggressive education campaigns. Developers aren’t allowed to build homes with grass in the front yards, and golf courses pay huge penalties when they exceed their water budgets. Conservation ads have featured a man getting kicked in the groin for spraying too much water on his lawn.


The Las Vegas “decoupling”

I’ve shared this before, some of the data I’ve been accumulating during my book research, but it bears repeating – a really remarkable decoupling of water use from Las Vegas’s economic and population growth:


Las Vegas Colorado River water use

Roth makes a point that I’ve heard a lot in my conversations about the Las Vegas conservation success story – that the visceral experience of watching nearby Lake Mead drop has helped Las Vegas-area residents grasp their water risk:

For Las Vegas and its suburbs, drought is easy to visualize.

The city depends on nearby Lake Mead for the vast majority of its water supply, and over the last 15 years the reservoir’s water levels have been dropping. Images of the white “bathtub ring” around the lake’s edge, which shows how high the water used to be, have become synonymous with crippling drought in the Southwest.