The tragedy of the anticommons – we’re good at saying “no”

Cleaning out some old files this morning, I ran across this great quote from Pat Mulroy some years back from a talk about the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Via’s Maven’s Notebook:

We are very, very good at saying no. We are very, very good at blocking. Anybody can stop anything. What we can’t do or can’t seem to do is find a structure within which to say yes. You will never have enough science, you will never have enough data, but at some point, something has to change.

This applies beyond the California Bay-Delta.

Rio Grande so low I needed to switch to log scale

Flow so low I needed to switch to log scale

I mostly hate log scale in graphs I use for broad communication purposes. It’s just not intuitive.

But I’ve made the switch for this year’s Rio Grande, because the flows are so low that we need the log scale, because at really low flows small changes become big, if that makes any sense. The difference between 50 and 150 cubic feet per second through Albuquerque is hugely consequential for the our river. Best to have a visual display that highlights that.

Some data on a bad year on New Mexico’s Rio Grande

Total storage on New Mexico’s Upper Rio Grande reservoirs right now is the lowest it’s been at this point in the spring in over four decades of records

No sooner did my spring break begin a week ago (quite literally within a couple of hours of the end of my last class before break) than I got sick. This has led to much laying around, and resting, which I think was the point?

I’m finally on the mend, and a friend got me out of the house yesterday morning for a walk down by the river. Which was nice, except I have the sort of friends who have the latest Rio Grande gossip. Like about how we could see the river go dry by June, stuff like that.


Rio Grande at Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge, March 19, 2021

To be honest, the river looks pretty good right now. There were a few buds to be seen, but mostly the river’s still wearing its winter colors, the quiet tans and browns that I’ve always thought were one of its best looks. With the gauge at the Central Avenue Bridge reading a bit less than 600 cubic feet per second, it was enough water to barely fill the channel from bank to bank, which as you can see from the picture also is a nice look. It’s only 25th percentile flow for this time of year, but not awful.

The awful is the thing we expect to come next.

The March 1 forecast called for 54 percent of the long term mean flow in the river into New Mexico’s “Middle Rio Grande Valley” – the part of the river where I live, the “Albuquerque reach”. That’s the mid-point, the one-in-ten best chance (90th percentile) is 93 percent of average, the one-in-ten worst (10th percentile) is 26 percent.

That’s bad, but the situation is made far worse by the graph at the top of the page. Mid-March total storage in the three upstream reservoirs was just 140,300 acre feet, which is just 29 percent of average and, more importantly, the worst in the dataset that I have access to, which goes back to 1980.

We’ve limped by in recent years by draining storage, keeping the river wet for the cultural and environmental benefits that provides, and keeping the irrigation ditches wet as well. That’s not going to be possible this year. That’s why my gossipy friend, who is connected, pointed to the possibility of river drying by June.

A note on data sources and methods: The data comes from the USBR Upper Colorado Region’s historical datasets, to be found here. I grabbed the data for Heron, Abiquiu, and El Vado reservoirs, summing up total storage for March 15 every year for which we had data on all three, which goes back to 1980. There’s probably longer datasets available somewhere, but I’m just an unpaid blogger with a few spare hours on a spring weekend, so you get what you pay for, eh?

I said some things about Utah and the Colorado River

The AP’s Sophia Eppolito did a nice job of pulling a single bit of business from a lengthy interview that captured the key point of my thoughts on Utah’s approach to Colorado River governance and water management:

The river supplies Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico as well as a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. As the states face a dire environmental future and negotiations over a new plan to protect the waterway from drought, it’s forced a shift in thinking.

The goal of renegotiating is figuring out how to use less, “not staking out political turf to try to figure out how to use more,” said John Fleck, director of University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

“It’s just not clear Utah has a willingness to do that,” he said.

Full story here.

Water Wars – What are they Good For? Webinar, March 15

I’ll be joining Tim Quinn, former executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies; and Tracy Quinn, Director, California Urban Water Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at the NRDC (and also a board of of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) in a webinar to talk about collaboration and conflict around water:

A week doesn’t go by without someone saying there are water wars underway or about to kick off in California. How we manage and govern water is critically important to people, the environment, and the economy. But, are we really at war? Really? Do we believe there are always victors and vanquished? What is the impact of telling ourselves and others this is warfare, when in reality it is simply the messiness of working together in community?

So, we’ve gathered a panel to answer the question: Water wars, what are they good for?

Chris Austin (California’s Water Maven), along with the super interesting Mike Antos, a social scientist smart in the ways of water collaboration, plus the always fascinating Lisa Beutler. (Mike and Lisa are with Stantec.)

After a super interesting brainstorming call this afternoon with the five of them, I’m really excited about the conversation. This’ll be fun, please join us, sign up here.

Together Again

Robert and Elizabeth Fleck, together again

My sister, Lisa, and I had an amusing exchange this morning as we drove home from the funeral home with Mom’s ashes.

She was pretty sure I had Dad’s ashes at my house, but I had no memory of where we’d stashed them. That’s the way it has ever been between us – she’s the one who remembers things.

Turns out he was on the bookshelf in my bedroom, so I dusted the top and put Mom in her resting place next to him.

Together again.

The clash between the expectations and reality of grief, since my mother died three weeks ago at the age of 100, have been a struggle for me. We’ve been doing what a friend described as “pre-grieving” for a long time now as Mom’s dementia robbed her of any apparent awareness of the world around her, and Dad’s for many years before that.

It’s been more than a decade of long, slow grieving.

Lisa, who has a grace about these things, visited Mom almost daily anyway, talking in case there was still a Mom brain inside there who could hear. I have less grace, but Lisa fortified what I had and we would still visit, together, once a week, wheeling Mom into the nursing home garden when the weather was warm enough and talking in a way that included her when we could.

Covid lockdown – two days before Mom’s 100th birthday last March – robbed us of this. But when we got the mid-February call that Mom’s body was finally shutting down for good – not of Covid, she’d already survived that – the folks at the nursing home arranged a few last visits for us to say goodbye.

I’m the writer in the family, so I offered to write the obituary, then wallowed in the task, suffering a bout of writer’s block as agonizing as any I’ve experienced. “It is impossible,” Elliott wrote in Prufrock, “to say just what I mean.”

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
     “That is not it at all,
     That is not what I meant, at all.”

It is hard say this with confidence, my memory not being as crisp as Lisa’s, but in my telling my mother is the reason,  or at least half the reason, I am a writer. Her gift, first and foremost, was to bestow upon me the unerring confidence that I could do whatever I wanted. From the beginning I wanted to be a writer, because she had wanted to be one.

My father was the other half of the reason, an artist who labored joyfully at his craft his whole life.

Often I do not fully know just what I mean until I try to write it, to find a voice in which to say just what I mean.

It made me so very happy, and grateful, this morning to see them together again.



The dogs of the cul-de-sacs of Albuquerque’s South Valley

A recent South Valley ride. Blue bits are streets I’ve not ridden in “the GPS era”. Note the stubs.

Apologies that I don’t have any pictures of the dogs.

Via the wonderful Wandrer, I’ve been playing a new cycling game that involves trying to ride on all the streets. For a modest fee, you can connect Wandrer to a cloud-stored archive of all your GPS-recorded bike rides, and it’ll keep keep track of which roads you’ve ridden, and which you haven’t.

I’ve long been somewhat catholic in my cycling (in one of the old senses of the word – “entire, without exception”), trying to ride everywhere. When I first signed up for Wandrer, it told me I’d already logged 25 percent of the ~5,000 miles of roadways in Bernalillo County, where I live. But boy howdy, had I been missing the stub streets in the valley!

Late 20th century urban design would call them “cul-de-sacs”, the primary purpose of which is street basketball hoops. But Albuquerque’s valley floor communities, overlaid on a web of irrigation ditches, has had them for far longer. Bridging the ditch is expensive, so lots of streets just stub when they reach it.

I’d already been riding these streets, because often the stub will allow the pedestrian or cyclist a connecting path to walk or ride on the ditchbank. (Urban planners seem to call this “filtered permeability“.) But with Wandrer, I’ve a new motivation to seek them out.

The best part? The dogs!

On a street with regular bicycle traffic, the dogs become blasé. We are ordinary. A few desultory barks from behind the fence, or a glare and snarl from the driveway if they’re loose.

But on the stub streets, my presence is a source of delightful excitement, dogs given the chance to pursue their prime directive, which is to chase me away. They race frantically up and down their front fences, a riot of righteous barking.

Occasionally I’ll encounter an unfenced dog – far more frequently than on through streets, but still rare. This requires great care on both our parts, but the dogs seem clever enough to put on the show without actually running the risk catching me.

I have, on occasion, been happy for the filtered permeability of an escape route on the ditchbank, so that I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of a loose dog riding back out of the cul-de-sac. I’ve only had one encounter on the ditchbank itself.

Apologies that I don’t have any pictures. The modest illustrations on this blog are a point of pride. I hope you can understand that the delicacy of the encounters doesn’t really leave time to stop and pull out my phone.