Cattle, groundwater and “ecological subsidy” in Northern Mexico

In his book Political Ecologies of Cattle Ranching in Northern Mexico, geographer Eric Perramond offers a fascinating description of the linkages among choice of cattle breed, farm and ranch practices and the resulting groundwater levels in the Río Sonora of northern Mexico, with irrigated farm fields once used to grow food for human inhabitants now providing an “ecological subsidy” for the increasingly meaty cattle raised on the surrounding ranches:

The large, meat-bearing cattle species now common in the Borderlands are a far cry from the rangy, tough criollo cattle that once roamed the deserts. Exotic, largely Euro-American crossbreeds, real hybrids, now lumber across rangelands of northern Mexico. Forage scarcity on the ranges has been “bred,” created by the adoption of these resource-hungry breeds.

This then maps to water use in the farmed valley lands:

The irrigated floodplain of the Río Sonora, once planted in staple food crops and a diverse mix of vegetables and specialty plants, now grows almost entirely alfalfa in both planting seasons.”

Wet subsidizes dry and water tables drop, Perramond writes: “These are hybrid animals, hybrid landscapes, and hybrid livelihoods in the truest sense of the word.”

A mediocre Colorado River Basin forecast

The Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook, published this morning, is another “meh” for the Colorado River Basin. The good news is that odds favor wet for the southerly part of the basin, especially Arizona and New Mexico. The “meh” part is that the low country doesn’t contribute much of the river’s overall supply. Most of that falls in the Rockies to the north, where the current forecast could be worse – slight tilt in the odds toward wet for a portion of the basin. But only slight:


Nov-Jan forecast, courtesy Climate Prediction Center

It’ll be a while before we can say much that is actually useful about the impact on the Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, but this is just a blog and no one reads it, right? So I’ll just find a vague thread of evidence and then improvise, and y’all won’t hold me to it, OK? The vague thread of evidence is this month’s Bureau of Reclamation 24-Month Study (pdf), which projects a bit of bonus water to be released from Lake Powell down to Lake Mead. But even with the extra water, Mead’s still projected to drop another 5 feet. This is the “structural deficit“, which Arizona’s so exercised about, in action:
Total storage in Lakes Mead and Powell. Data by USBR, graph by Fleck

Total storage in Lakes Mead and Powell. Data by USBR, graph by Fleck

For those squinting at the graph and trying to keep score at home, that’s the lowest total storage in Mead and Powell combined since 1967.

Colorado River problems are a threat to beer

Colorado River, Water Source For Craft Beer, Drying Up:

Some of the best craft beer in the US is produced in the West, in places like Colorado and California. And the craft beer culture in that part of the country is also strong. Many craft brewers, such as Stone Brewing, obtain all of their brewing their water from the Colorado River. So it is a big problem, not just for craft beer but for everyone in the region, that there is a very serious drought in the Colorado River Basin.


It would be devastating to craft brewing in the US if this trend continued, but compared to the other massive problems that lack of water brings, craft beer seems like a smaller issue.

Fair enough.

How drought shaped Southern California

From the Orange County (Calif.) Weekly, a story about how drought shaped Southern California:

Orange County as we know it exists because of the Great Drought of 1864. It wrecked Southern California’s cattle industry, then one of the largest in the world and the heart of the area’s economy, and forced ranchers to unload their land at fire-sale rates. Developers swooped in and divided their newly acquired properties into lots that evolved into the cities of today. Those settlements, in turn, drew in Americans who pushed out the state’s original Californio families. Enough people came to make Orange County’s secession from Los Angeles County in 1889 a natural. And those residents transformed pastoral OC into a suburban paradise that brought us national acclaim–and also sowed the seeds for our current water crisis.


Plan for a bad news future on the Colorado, or embrace uncertainty?

In Colorado River Basin planning, there is a common mistake growing out the the Bureau of Reclamation’s Basin Study. It is made by seizing on the study’s finding regarding the impact of climate change (as exemplified by the results of General Circulation Models, or GCM’s) on the river, quoted here from the executive summary (pdf), and then arguing for a portfolio of policy options to make basin water use sustainable given that new reality:

Under the Downscaled GCM Projected scenario, the median of the mean natural flow at Lees Ferry over the next 50 years is projected to decrease by approximately nine percent, along with a projected increase in both drought frequency and duration as compared to the observed historical and paleo-based scenarios.

This is a helpful prod, but it’s not quite right to interpolate that into “Basin Study predicts 9 percent reduction in flow”, as I frequently see done. That 9 percent number is better thought of as the midpoint in a very uncertain future, as the Basin Study goes on to explain:

The range of this result varies amongst the individual GCM projections that comprise this scenario with some of the GCM projections showing a larger decrease in mean natural flow than nine percent while others showing an increase over the observed historical mean.

The problem is nicely explained in this work from a team at RAND, which worked with the Bureau on the Basin Study:

Reclamation and the water agencies must deal not with a future that is uncertain but well understood; instead, they must plan for a future that is deeply uncertain and one that cannot be described statistically because of a lack of knowledge about how changes will unfold. Under these conditions, developing an optimal management strategy designed to perform well for a single deterministic or probabilistic forecast of future conditions is not very useful; rather, planners need a robust and adaptive strategy—robust in that it performs well over a wide range of possible futures and adaptive in that it can adjust over time in response to evolving conditions.

This recent Ensia piece by Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Craig seems to be heading off in the right conceptual direction:

The concept of resilience holds promise as a new way of addressing the challenges ahead. While not inherently incompatible concepts, resilience and sustainability are not the same. The pursuit of sustainability assumes that we a) know what can be sustained and b) have the capacity to maintain stationarity (i.e., keep the system operating within an unchanging envelope of variability). In contrast, resilience thinking acknowledges disequilibrium and nonlinear, continual change — often as a result of crossing a “tipping point” or threshold — and offers a tool for assessing the dynamic relationships between systems.

Chinook in the upper Elwha

The National Park Service reported three Chinook salmon have already found there way into the upper Elwha, upstream of Glines Canyon Dam. The last of the dam, on the Olympic Peninsula salmon river, came down last month:

Following an observation by a fisheries biologist and member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a possible Chinook salmon in the former Lake Mills, two Olympic National Park fisheries staff conducted a snorkel survey of the Elwha River above the old Glines Canyon dam site.

They found three adult Chinook salmon, all between 30 and 36 inches long, in the former Lake Mills, between Windy Arm and Glines Canyon.  Two fish were seen resting near submerged stumps of ancient trees;the third was found in a deep pool in the former Lake Mills.


Driving the seam of the North American continent

One of my treasured memories of college thirty-plus years ago is the mornings spent in Bob Carson’s geology classes learning the physiographic provinces of the North American continent. It was a beautiful slide show combined with a deeply meaningful (to me) new set of organizing principles for looking at the landscape around me. I wasn’t becoming a scientist, but instead was learning an incredibly rich new way of looking at the world.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, September 2014

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, September 2014

The text we used, which remains on my shelf today, captures the premise: “Natural Regions of the United States”. Here was a way of organizing the landscape that made sense on the landscape’s own terms, not in terms of things we humans had come along and done later. And so it was that I ended up over the last few days driving to Colorado and back along I-25 on the boundary of two of those great “natural regions” – the Colorado Piedmont and Raton Section of the Great Plains Province and the Southern Rocky Mountains. I carry with me now my own conceptual labels instead, and driving up to Colorado Springs Sunday I kept casting my eyes back and forth between the Great Flat Part to my right and the Great Sticky Up Bits to my left.

The interstate is never far from the seam between the two, and often runs right on top of it. But the funnest expression was when my host Eric Perramond at Colorado College (thanks, Eric!) took me for an afternoon drive up to Garden of the Gods, a delightful Colorado Springs city park in the foothills where you can literally walk through the seam’s stitching. To the west, the Great Sticky Up Bits, pushed up by the Laramide Orogeny, shoved overlying sedimentary rocks out of the way as they rose. Garden of the Gods is the resulting debris, an impossibly beautiful collection of sandstone slabs tipped up on end with lovely walking trails among them and a big parking lot for all the humans such as Eric and me to ogle the nice continental stitching.

To the north, Eric pointed me to the long way ’round Denver up 470 toward Boulder, where highways and neighborhoods and river channels zig and zag through the stitching, until you get to Boulder’s Flatirons. This is all complicated by the hydrologic system draped atop things which is what usually distracts me. But the entire way, from Las Vegas, NM, all the way to Denver and Boulder, you’re never far from the fundamental boundary between Great Flat Part and Great Sticky Up Bits, the two great Natural Regions in physical display.

Boxall on the modesty of California’s approach to groundwater regulation

Bettina Boxall:

California is finally about to join the rest of the West in regulating groundwater supplies. But the package of bills awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature is not an instant fix for the state’s shrinking, over-pumped aquifers.

It could be decades, experts say, before the most depleted groundwater basins recover under the legislation, which is a historic step in a state that long resisted managing a key water source.

The bills, which Brown is expected to sign, will take years to implement. And they create a weaker regulatory framework than is found elsewhere in the West.

“This is a much more laissez-faire approach and a much more light-hand-of-government approach than just about any other state,” said UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff.

Compromise on the Colorado

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Anne Castle, speaking late last month in Las Vegas:

With the crucial Lake Mead reservoir at 38 percent capacity and the Southwest in the grip of the driest 15-year period in more than a century, Castle said it will take multiple, incremental agreements to balance the water rights of cities, farmers, Indian tribes and states.

“Compromise is the only way we’re going to get ourselves out of this drought,” she said. “This is difficult state politics.”

Somebody should write a book about that or something. :-)

More California groundwater discussion

Interesting comments from water people Scott Slater and Brian Jordan about the pitfalls ahead for California groundwater regulation: