Some points of comparison for California water

Jay Lund (UC Davis) wrote an interesting piece this week offering some water management geographic comparisons – how does California stack to other geographically similar regions?

This is an interesting approach, because a lot of water governance rhetoric is inward facing – we see our own problems, but don’t do a good enough job of comparing our successes and failures to others in similar situations. Lund’s starting point is other Mediterranean climates:

These climates tend to be dry (not much water), attractive places to live and farm (bringing high water demands), with mismatch between wetter winters and dry summer growing seasons.  The scarce water supply in the wrong season for human activities makes human management of water problematic for native ecosystems.

Using a number of comparative measures – how many people? how much ag? how big an economy? – Lund suggests that California is actually doing quite well:

California can learn from other regions, but is certainly not a laggard in terms of environmental and economic performance among Mediterranean climates.  We do not do as well with water as we would like, and we must find ways to do better, but California nevertheless does relatively well in managing water.

Intriguing argument worth reading in full.

On California’s “new” groundwater and the hope for a savior

Smart Faith Kearns on the headlines this week about the “discovery” of a bunch of groundwater beneath parched California:

[O]n a symbolic level it’s really just fascinating how often we get caught up in stories being saved — by a good winter, a new dam, new water. I wish I didn’t find it so depressing. Maybe this really is a great time to be thinking about our deep groundwater — we are, after all, in the middle of a very large experiment in managing groundwater.

At the same time, it feels…bad. In a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Like a neverending search for an elusive buried treasure? A lost Atlantis? Eden? With a dash of manifest destiny? I don’t know, but guess it makes for better headlines than the mostly invisible work so many people do every day to make the best of what we’ve got.

the monsoon arrived, and the citizens of Tucson and Albuquerque did rejoice

The dewpoint yesterday (Tues. June 28, 2016) passed a sort of vaguely science-based but somewhat arbitrary threshold for the start of the monsoon in Albuquerque – three consecutive days above 47F (8.3C):

and thus it begins

and thus it begins

They’re partying in Tucson, too:

The argument for California to make a Colorado River deal

The trick now is for the three U.S. states sharing the Colorado River’s water downstream of of Lake Mead – Nevada, Arizona, and California – to negotiate some sort of a deal that reduces their collective take on the river. That’s trick one. Trick two is for state negotiators to then sell the deal back home to sometimes recalcitrant local water agencies that take a dim view of giving up water.

As, for example, San Diego?

First, the case for a deal:

Under current law, California has first dibs on much of the river’s water. California’s rights to the Colorado are so secure that the Central Arizona Project —a 336-mile series of canals and pipelines that brings river water to 80 percent of Arizona’s population— would have to run dry before California has to lose a single drop.

That is the consequence of a deal worked out in the late-1960s. That might be the law, but it’s now hard to imagine letting civilization in Arizona wither while California is unscathed.

Water officials involved in the negotiations worry that without a new deal, politicians will eventually decide everyone’s collective fates rather than technocrats like themselves with experience managing water.

That’s Ry Rivard getting to the heart of why California looks like it may be willing to make a deal on the Colorado that gives up water to which the state might feel legally entitled. But then:

The San Diego County Water Authority is not involved in the negotiations. Instead, it’s on the sidelines and taking a dim view of the talks. The Water Authority calls them a “dubious closed door process.”

This is one of the key arguments I make in my book (pre-order now!) – the importance of the interface between large scale basin-facing management processes and all the local agencies back home that actually distribute the water. Our success or failure at that interface is precisely our success or failure at keeping the system from crashing.

Lake Powell at its highest level in four years

Despite a below-average year in the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell will reach its summer peak this year at its highest level in four years. That comes despite the fact that, once again, the Upper Basin is releasing “bonus” water from Glen Canyon Dam to prop up water users in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. From Lake Powell Life:

“The silent but important statistic is that Lake Powell has provided extra water to Mead in five of the past 10 years, including the giant release of 12.5 maf in 2011….”

Lake Powell, courtesy USBR

Lake Powell, courtesy USBR

The “bonus water” is part of the agreement under the 2007 “interim guidelines“, which include a Rube Goldberg contraption of a ruleset that governs how much water is released under varying reservoir conditions. The “normal” release is 8.23 million acre feet (I call it “normal” because I despair of finding words that all the lawyers can agree on). This year’s planned release is 9 million acre feet, based on the idea that balancing the contents of the two reservoirs is a good idea.

Powell’s at elevation 3,619 today. That’s nearly a hundred feet above the critical threshold of 3,525, below which Powell starts to have problems generating power and delivering needed water downstream. That sounds like a lot, but remember that Powell dropped near 100 feet in the first four years of the 21st century. As you can see from the graph, Powell’s been rising slowly, but it can drop in a hurry.

Gila River diversion being significantly downscaled

We now have an answer to the question of where the money will come from for a billion dollar diversion to take water from the Gila River, a Colorado River tributary in southwestern New Mexico.


Laura Paskus has the scoop on this week’s decision by the project’s governing body to abandon the Cadillac versions of the project that were under study and stick with a far more modest project:

This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River.

With that vote, the NMCAPE officially rejected earlier large-scale plans, including one with an estimated billion dollar price tag.  By tamping down the budget, the board also acknowledged that the project will be smaller – and not one capable of delivering all 14,000 acre feet of water the state has rights to under federal law.


a monsoon looms

This is one of my favorite weather times of year in Albuquerque, the moment of anticipation when our monsoon looms. As monsoons go, it’s a pretty modest affair, and I’d frequently get crap from Albuquerque Journal readers objecting to the term – it’s not a real monsoon, someone who’s been to south Asia would frequently complain.


The pattern, and the reason the pattern matters culturally, is the same: an arid foresummer, hot and dry with a whiff of danger, followed by a moisture pump streaming up from the ocean and then those refreshing afternoon/evening showers.

monsoon creeping north through Mexico

monsoon creeping north through Mexico

The first thing to watch for is the rain creeping up the Sierra Madre in central Mexico.


And rising dewpoints. Albuquerque’s dewpoints shot up four days ago, and have been staying high since.


Most important, though, is tracking the nights Lissa and I sit in the shelter of our front porch watching the rain splatter our driveway, counting the seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and grinning a bit.

First one of those last night. So check. The monsoon approaches.