What’s left of the Rio Grande

Rio Grande at Interstate 40, Albuquerque, May 21, 2018

I stopped on the Gail Ryba Bridge over the Rio Grande this morning, the bike bridge adjacent to Interstate 40 that offers one of the great views of our river. The morning light was lovely, I saw a couple of egrets in the ditch down below. I love this place.

Flows right now are stable at a bit more than 500 cfs at the gauge just downstream from here. At this point essentially all that water is human water ops. With a terrible snowpack this winter and farm water use to our north in Colorado, the river’s natural flow probably wouldn’t be enough to reach this spot were it not for agricultural water releases by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District from El Vado Reservoir, up on the Rio Chama.

This can’t last all summer, and absent a great summer rainy season and/or some creative juggling by the water agencies to stretch out their supplies, this could very well be a view of a dry riverbed by mid-July.


Federal pressure to do a Colorado River water conservation deal

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman

Catching up after a busy final week of the semester at the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, I had time today to sit down and and think through the implications of this remarkable Bureau of Reclamation press release.

It did a great job of achieving one of the primary goals of a news release, capturing a news cycle with the message of increasing risk of a “shortage” declaration by 2020, which would impose water delivery cutbacks on Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico. (“Mexico, 2 U.S. states could see Colorado River cutback in 2020” was a common takeaway.)

But that news peg – a slight increase in the latest Bureau analysis of a risk we already knew was there – wasn’t really news. We’ve known that since January, and the latest numbers represent only a minor tweak in the direction of increased risk. The real action was in Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman’s use of the “press release” platform to issue a very public call for action.

“We need action and we need it now. We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans,” said Reclamation Commissioner Burman. “We all—states, tribes, water districts, non-governmental organizations—have an obligation and responsibility to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River. I’m calling on the Colorado River basin states to put real – and effective – drought contingency plans in place before the end of this year.”

Henry Brean did a nice job of capturing the key point:

The head the federal agency that oversees the Colorado River has a message for state water managers: The outlook is bleak, so quit squabbling and get back to work.

In a pointed message Wednesday, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said drought and low flows continue on the Colorado with no end in sight, so it’s up to those who rely on the river to stave off a coming crisis.

This was not a traditional press release. It was more akin to what in linguistic philosophy they call “performative utterances”, where the act of saying a word also carries out the action the word describes. “I apologize” is the most memorable example. The news release is kinda like this. It doesn’t describe Burman’s call to action. It is Burman’s call to action.

And then Burman and her staff did something particularly clever. They got statements of support for early action on a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan from representatives of each of the seven U.S. Colorado River states. One of the rituals for a reporter in a situation like this is to try to get everyone on the record. Whaddya think, is Burman right, do we need a Drought Contingency Plan right away? Burman and her staff did it for us!

My favorite is John Entsminger from Nevada: “This ongoing drought is a serious situation and Mother Nature does not care about our politics or our schedules. We have a duty to get back to the table and finish the Drought Contingency Plan to protect the people and the environment that rely upon the Colorado River.”

A year-and-a-half ago I wrote that a deal to reduce Colorado River water allocations was “inevitable”. The recent fracas in Arizona over details of such a plan had left me questioning that notion. It’ll be interesting to see how successful this effort by Reclamation is to clearing the logjam and getting a Drought Contingency Plan done.

A drying Rio Grande

I went out to the Rio Grande yesterday morning to talk to KOB’s Eddie Garcia about the prospect of a drying Rio Grande through Albuquerque this summer.

The final forecast numbers put this year’s runoff at just 18 percent of the long term average. The flow right now at Embudo, as the Rio Grande is entering New Mexico’s populous middle valleys, is the second lowest it’s ever been at this time of year. Records there go back to 1889 – the oldest USGS gauge in the nation.

It’s not clear yet whether we’ll have complete drying through the Albuquerque reach, but it’s a possibility. The last time that happened – a zero cfs reading at the Central Avenue gauge – was 1977. The last time we’ve been under 30 cfs – which is still a trickle, but for all practical purposes is dry – was 1983.

Days with zero flow, USGS Albuquerque gauge

Historic low flows on New Mexico’s Gila River

Our UNM Water Resources Program students used the Gila River in New Mexico for their spring case study projects, so I’ve made it a habit to watch the USGS “Gila near Gila” gauge. Class is finished, but the habit is not.

Flow there dropped below 30 cubic feet per second this evening.

Update: I didn’t do the analysis right. It’s the lowest on record for this point in the year, not the lowest in general.

If I’ve done the analysis right, this is the lowest recorded flow on the Gila – not just for May 9, but the lowest period.

Record low on the Gila

Records go back to 1927.

Water use is going down

There’s a rock I keep pushing up a hill. But powerful forces are at work, and the rock keeps slipping my grasp and rolling back down. So I chase it down, and start anew.

I’ve given more than 30 public talks around the western United States since my book came out nearly two years ago, and every time I talk I include a bunch of graphs and data making the same point – water use is going down. Across nearly every geography, water source (surface and ground) or class of users. Water use is going down. And nearly every time, I get a combination of skeptical questions and eager followup from members of the audience on this point, whether the audience is water managers, or academics, or members of a more general public.


Here is no less a luminary than the official Twitter feed of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, arguably the most important federal water agency in the western United States:

BRB, I’m headed back down to catch the rock, in the meantime, via Peter Gleick and Brad Plumer, here’s a graph:

What happens if we have another dry year on the Colorado River?

One of the big problems caused by the current breakdown in Colorado River diplomacy is the danger it poses if we have another bad year on the Colorado River.

A new Bureau of Reclamation analysis puts some numbers to the fear – a credible risk that Lake Mead could drop to elevation 1,062 by the end of 2019, just 20 short months away.

This nice chart put together by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, part of Met’s Water Supply Conditions Report (pdf), nicely illustrates what’s been going on in recent years:

Powell inflow, courtesy MWD

There’s a point my friend and book-writing partner Eric Kuhn has been making that shows up nicely in this graph. We’ve had four consecutive decent years. From 2014 to 2017, we have’t been in “drought” (whatever that word even means any more). That string of relatively good years (or at least “not bad years”?)  has enabled the 9 million acre foot per year releases that has so exercised the interbasin conflict between the Central Arizona Project and other basin water users. 9 million acre feet per year – well above the Law of the River-mandated 8.23 million acre foot release from Lake Powell – has bought time for negotiations over new management rules to reduce everyone’s demand on the system. But even with those big releases – the Upper Basin from 2014 to this year has delivered 2.3 million acre feet more than the Law of the River requires – Lake Mead has dropped 10 feet.

The bureau’s April “minimum probable water supply forecast” suggests a risk of a 1.2 million acre foot/13 foot drop in Lake Mead in 2019 if the winter of 2018-19 is another bad one. That “what do we do if it’s another bad year” question was lingering in the background of Monday’s meetings in Salt Lake City among and between Upper Basin water managers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and representatives of Arizona.

No one wants to be in the midst of trying to negotiate new rules while Lake Mead water is circling the drain. There are some incentives to laying down a workable framework, a “Drought Contingency Plan” or whatever, this year, before the frenzy.


2017 Lower Colorado River Basin water use the lowest in a quarter century

Led by California, the states of the Lower Colorado River Basin had their lowest consumptive water use in 2017 since 1992, according to a near-final tally  by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The final numbers won’t be out until mid-May, so could change slightly, but at this point they won’t change much. And they show that, despite the chaotic politics you’ve been hearing about lately, Lower Colorado River Basin water users are pushing their water use in the right direction.

In each case, the three Lower Basin states in different ways and on different time scales have been confronting the reality that they had come to depend on more water than the river could provide in the long run. Policy interventions that include municipal conservation, agricultural conservation, and ag-to-urban water transfers are shifting the water balance in the right direction. With that as my benchmark – cuts from glutinous peak – here then are the near-final 2017 numbers:


  • 2017: 4.027 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 1950
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent


  • 2017: 2.511 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 2005
  • Reduction from peak: 16 percent


  • 2017: 243,000 acre feet
    • Lowest since 2016
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent

At 6.782 million acre feet, that’s the lowest since 1992, before the Central Arizona Project was completed – the last big straw sucking water out of Lake Mead.

When the final numbers are completed, they’ll be published here.

Note for the water nerds: The accounting systems are managed differently for the upper and lower basins, and it’ll be some time before we have comparable data for Colorado River water use in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. For 2015, the most recent year for which we have upper basin data, use by those four states of 3.177 million acre feet (this figure does not include reservoir evaporation, to make it comparable to the Lower Basin data above) was the lowest since 1977. So, also, headed in the right direction.

When people have less water, they use less water.

Some helpful context for understanding the Central Arizona Project managers’ decisions in current Colorado River governance scrap

A guest post from Water Nerd, originally posted in the comments here and lifted, with permission, into a post of its own. It’s a valuable contribution to the discussion of the current scrapping on the Colorado River.


One of the most interesting ideas you discuss in your book is the application of Elinor Ostrom’s economic theories to water management in the southwest. Her idea that there is an alternative to the government regulation versus private property/free markets approach to managing common pool resources is insightful and won her the Nobel Prize in economics. One of the advantages to her collective decision making model is that all parties are vested in the outcomes; because they were engaged in making the rules for management of the resource, they feel responsible for enforcement and for ensuring good outcomes. We have seen this model work well for southwestern rivers and groundwater basins. Perhaps you are right that the rules on the Colorado River are evolving from a rational self interest approach to a collaborative mutual benefit approach.

This bodes well for the health of the river and our ability to solve problems for the benefit of the over 40 million people who depend on the river.

However, one of the disadvantages to the collective decision making model is the “bully problem.” Often, there is an imbalance of power between the parties negotiating the rules. If this is the case, the rules can favor the bully or the party with more power. Perhaps the fracas on the Colorado River system is to some degree a result of this bully problem? Shortages on the lower Colorado River are not shared equitably as a percentage based on each state’s allocation. In fact, under the 2007 Guidelines, Arizona is facing a risk of losing 480,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 MAF entitlement, Nevada’s risk is 20,000 acre-feet of its .3 MAF entitlement, and California’s risk is zero acre-feet of its 4.4 MAF entitlement. Under the draft Drought Contingency Plan, the risk of loss increases to 720,000 acre-feet for Arizona, 30,000 acre-feet for Nevada, and 350,000 acre-feet for California.

What accounts for this imbalance in the sharing of the risks of shortage? What behaviors might you expect from rational actors in such a system? If you removed power dynamics from the equation and designed a system to manage water shortages on a variable system such as the Colorado River, you might design something more like the Upper Basin system – where shortages are shared based on a percentage of each state’s allocation. But the Law of the River is the law, and every state can point to wins and losses. We simply can’t revisit everything that was decided in the last century. Nevertheless, we should not be surprised when the entities or stakeholders who bare an exponentially greater risk of shortage act to prevent or mitigate the harm from that risk.

How much money should be spent on paying those with water rights not to use their water and who should pay for it? In many cases, taxpayers and water users in local jurisdictions are funding a portion of the annual compensated conservation to remedy water scarcity in each state. People would understandably be concerned if their money is being used to fund conservation that increases the likelihood of shortage (based on the mathematical formulas set forth in the Guidelines for determining releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead) and triggers significant negative economic consequences in their region. For example, in Arizona, a farmer, a homebuilder or a homeowner might be asked to help pay for a tribe to leave its water in Lake Mead. This conservation in Lake Mead would benefit the river system overall, but it might result in less water being released from Lake Powell and therefore trigger a Tier 1 shortage, which would cut the farmer’s and the homebuilder’s water supply, and might put the homeowner out of a job. In fact, taxpayers and water users in Arizona might feel that their elected representatives are acting irresponsibly if their money is used to fund something that actually causes rather than prevents shortage in their region. And the cost of funding 480,000 acre-feet of conservation is much greater than the cost of funding 20,000 or zero; the impacts to the local economy are much greater when the risk is exponentially higher.

Furthermore, we must ask what is the problem that we are trying to solve? If we are trying to reduce the structural deficit (over-allocation of the Colorado River supply), the solution and strategy may look different than if we are trying to avoid triggering shortage at Lake Mead. The relative good of the strategy must be viewed in light of the articulated goal. When you consider the costs and quantities at risk, put a human face on the impacts of shortage, and take into account the goal of avoiding shortage at Lake Mead, Central Arizona Project’s desire for a more flexible approach to system conservation, that considers risks, costs, and variations in hydrology, sounds a lot more like wise water management than ‘manipulation of demands’ or ‘gaming the system.’ Couple that with the DCP like quantities (over 300,000 acre feet per year) of uncompensated conservation that CAP and its partners have been voluntarily leaving in Lake Mead each year to prevent shortage, and you might see entities that are putting forth real wet water for conservation instead of bad actors.

If there is one thing that is certain, it is that people will fight for their water. Perhaps if we could get away from pointing fingers and turning people or entities that we must work with for the common good into our enemies, we’ll be able to find collaborative, innovative solutions to the water scarcity and drought facing our region. Maybe we could approach water issues with more humility, worrying less about being right and more about listening to the real concerns of our fellow water users, focusing on problem solving and best outcomes. I hope that we do because the elephants in the room just seem to get bigger while we are running circles around the mice.