Conservation and the municipal water finance dilemma

Matt Weiser takes us into the strange world of California municipal water infrastructure finance, where costs are relatively fixed and vendors are trying to sell less of their product:

[M]any water agencies are feeling the strain because they had already delayed imposing rate increases for a number of years due to the drought and a reluctance to strain ratepayers. The drought aggravates things because water conservation mandates reduce the amount of water they sell, thereby reducing revenues.


Thoughts on federal drought legislation circa October 2015

Some thoughts after today’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on federal western California New Mexico etc. drought legislation….

On Congressional process

We currently have two “California drought bills” – H.R. 2898 developed by California House Republicans and S. 1894. They are very different. As a matter of process, the details of the difference don’t matter as much as the very fact of their difference. The rest of Congress is unlikely to meddle in California’s water management affairs unless and until its own Congressional delegation can come up with a unified approach. The fact that we’ve got two such different bills means the likelihood of a California drought bill this year is close to nil. Next year is an election year. So California, don’t expect much help from the federal government beyond that which is possible under current authorizations and appropriations.

the downside to litigation

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor, in criticizing the House bill, described it as a recipe for litigation. I don’t know enough about the bill to know whether he’s right, but he made a central point that is crucial to water problem solving. Litigation provides narrow solutions and increases constraints. Collaborative, negotiated solutions have the potential to expand options and provide flexibility.

the Middle Rio Grande

Adrian Oglesby, director of the Utton Center* at the University of New Mexico School of Law and vice-chair of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board, suggested a new flexibility on the part of central New Mexico’s largest water agency. The conservancy district, which provides irrigation water to farms and other farm-like properties, has long opposed the creation of water leasing programs that would provide temporary transfers to provide environmental flows. The agency’s position has shifted, Oglesby told the Senators, which creates an opening for S. 1936, sponsored by Tom Udall. Udall’s bill would begin to create the institutional infrastructure for such leasing programs, which could keep water rights attached to old farmland while allowing temporary use of the water elsewhere.

This is a big deal.

Since I handed in my press card, I’ve lost touch with Congressional process issues such that I’m not entirely clear about the path forward for the Udall bill. My impression is that its best hope is to be folded in with other federal drought legislation into some sort of omnibus package. My comments above about the California legislative logjam leave me less than optimistic about S. 1936’s chances this year, but this is the sort of legislation that has to go through a learning process, and the simple fact that the Senators wanted to hear from Adrian today suggests that progress is being made in fleshing this stuff out.

* disclosure: Adrian and the Utton Center have provided me, in my new capacity as University Dude, with funding for my contributions to a study currently underway into resilience and New Mexico water law and policy.

Lake Mead, for the first time since filling, ends water year below 10 million acre feet

It’s one of those milestones that’s an entirely arbitrary result of the units we use to measure, but it’s probably nevertheless worth marking: for the first time since it was filled in the 1930s, Lake Mead ended the “water year” below 10 million acre feet of storage.

The finally elevation at midnight last Wednesday, Sept. 30, was 1,078.1 feet above sea level at the big Colorado River reservoir, which holds water for use in Nevada, Arizona, California, Sonora, and Baja. That translates to an estimated 9.854 million acre feet in storage, down from 10.121 maf a year ago. That is 38 percent of capacity.

Total storage in Mead and Lake Powell, the reservoir upstream of the Grand Canyon that holds most of the rest of the Colorado River Basin’s stored water, ended the water year at 22.187 maf, down from 22.407 maf a year ago.

Mead, Powell storage

Mead, Powell storage

A few notes on this….

As Central Arizona Project board president Lisa Atkins noted this week, a combination of a wet late spring and summer and efforts by lower basin water uses to conserve and leave water in Lake Mead has postponed a “shortage” declaration until at least 2017 and possible later. More on that here.

The crazy accounting system used to manage the river measures some things on a “water year” basis (Oct. 1 – Sept. 30) and some things on a calendar year basis, so we won’t have final water use accounting until the end of the year, but the latest forecast numbers published this morning (pdf) project water users in California, Arizona, and Nevada will collectively use 7.165 million acre feet of their 7.5 million acre feet 2015 allotment. If this holds, that would be the lowest water use for the three states since 2005 and 17 percent below “peak Lower Basin Colorado River water use” in 2002.


Happy 80th birthday, Hoover Dam

Harold Ickes delivering Boulder Dam dedication, Sept. 30, 1935, courtesy USBR

Harold Ickes delivering Boulder Dam dedication, Sept. 30, 1935, courtesy USBR

From his Sept. 30, 1935 speech dedicating what was then called “Boulder Dam,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes:

I venture to hope that this dam, with its great storage of health and wealth and happiness for thousands of people, will stand as a definite opening of a new era with respect to the natural resources of America; an era of conservation, which means the prudent use of all our natural resources for the greatest good of the greatest number of our people; an era that will recognize the principle that the riches of forest and mine and water were not bestowed by God to be ruthlessly exploited in order to enhance the wealth of a small group of rugged individualists, but were beneficently given to us as an endowment to be carefully used for the benefit of all the people. On no other theory would the Federal Government be justified in so generously opening the doors of its treasure house for the building of this and other similar projects that will turn large sections of this breathtaking Western country into rich homesteads where a happy and contented people will find it possible to live those comfortable and worthwhile lives that we covet for every man, woman and child in these United States.

I love this. It was such a hopeful time. Listen to the audio here.

Why pumping water from the ocean to save the Salton Sea is a bad idea

Brandon Loomis, in an excellent recent piece on the problems of the Salton Sea, quoted a resident along the troubled inland California lake who thinks the answer to its decline is straightforward:

Rod Jeffries, a 64-year-old urban refugee from San Francisco, is confident the state will act….

His favored solution is to pipe seawater from the gulf, since the water is already so salty.

This idea has lingered for generations, but it’s a really terrible idea. The reason the Salton Sea is so salty is because the water flowing in currently, from Imperial and Coachella ag runoff has only a modest amount of salt, but evaporation leaves all that salt behind. If you add ocean water, which is much saltier than the current ag inflow, the evaporation would make the sea way saltier. So you’d have to not only pump salt water in from the ocean, but also pump salty water back out from the Salton Sea. The amount of water involved, and therefore the energy and infrastructure costs, are staggering. Michael Cohen at the Pacific Institute has put together a helpful video that explains all this:


Cohen has posted more useful info on the problems with “sea to sea” schemes here.

A quiet end to the water year on the Rio Grande

Water year 2014-15 is ending with low flows again on the Rio Grande through central New Mexico. (We’ve only had one year since 2000 with above-average flows.)

Lissa and I walked out to the Rio Grande in Bernalillo County’s far South Valley this afternoon. The water was low. Low is normal for this time of year, but the river’s lower than that (234 cubic feet per second at the Albuquerque gauge, with a median this time of year around 380). A flock of Canada geese was squatting on the sand bars (just pixels in this picture, but I know they’re there) and the water was low enough that the musty smell of Albuquerque’s sewage outfall, which is just a couple of miles up river from here. It’s not an awful smell, just a reminder amid the idyllic nature shot that this remains an urban, working river:

Rio Grande at Valle do Oro, Sept. 27, 2015. By John Fleck

Rio Grande at Valle do Oro, Sept. 27, 2015. By John Fleck

The “water year” ends Wednesday, and this is one of my favorite times along our river. The last cutting of alfalfa is still out on the fields east of the river (did I mention it’s a working river?), but the ditches will soon be shut down, the cottonwoods are showing their first glimmers of autumn yellow, and the river itself is a quiet thing.

Alfalfa, the Rio Grande as working river

Alfalfa, the Rio Grande as working river

After an abysmal start, with a warm, dry winter and a lousy snowpack, the water year turned around with big rains starting in May. They didn’t make up for the deficit, but they helped water managers glue together a decent season, delaying the annual drought year struggle to keep water in the river for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow until September. The farmers and the affluent valley dwellers who get an agricultural tax exemption for their horse pasture got the water they needed. Albuquerque got the water it needed for municipal supply (and preliminary estimates suggest our per capita use this year will be down another 4 percent in 2015, meaning water use in my city continues to drop faster than population is growing, yay us).

But my preliminary calculations based on USGS data put the water year flow past the Central Avenue Bridge in Albuquerque at 608,000 acre feet, will below the long term average (1974 to the present in this case) of 893,000 acre feet. Only once since 2000 – in 2008 – has the flow past the Central Avenue gauge been above average.

Elephant Butte Reservoir, the next reservoir to the south of this point and the Rio Grande’s largest, shows it. The Butte remains abysmally empty, at just 8 percent of capacity.

Data source: USGS