A book arrived at my house yesterday by post

The new book Science Be Dammed, with my old book Water is For Fighting Over

the siblings’ first meeting

My early review copy arrived yesterday, ahead of the “official” Nov. 26 publication of the new Eric Kuhn-John Fleck book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado. River. I’ve got but one – I talked to Eric this morning up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, (in the Upper Basin) and he’s got a couple of boxes’ worth. Package tracking suggests my box with another 20 left Las Vegas, Nevada, last night (so currently beating their escape from the Lower Basin!).

So excited. Three years’ work with Eric, trying to tell a story that we think is so very important to understanding how we got to where we are in the Colorado River Basin, and how a better understanding can help us navigate the tough times to come. From the book’s closing chapter:

When E. C. LaRue wrote in 1916, before the Colorado River Compact, before Hoover Dam, before all the development that was to follow, that “the flow of the Colorado River and its tributaries is not sufficient to irrigate all the irrigable lands lying within the basin,” he prefaced his observation with a caveat. “More complete data,” he wrote, “would probably indicate a greater shortage in the water supply available” (emphasis added).

Each of those points has largely been lost to the history on which our modern operational understanding of the Colorado River Basin is based. The first, as we have seen in the stories of LaRue, Stabler, Sibert, Tipton, G. E. P. Smith, Stockton and Jacoby, and the modern climate change scientists is surely the most important. There is simply less water in the system than the edifice of laws and policies and infrastructure was premised upon. But LaRue’s second point may be the more important—the need for humility in the face of uncertainty, and the crucial need to design that humility and uncertainty into the institutions we build to use and manage the river.

We hope you enjoy it.

Metropolitan Southern California’s use of Colorado River water on track to be the lowest this year since the 1950s

MWD 2019 water use forecast. Weird graph to read – it’s the forecast made at each point during the year. So back in January, the USBR was expecting MWD to take nearly 850kaf. That’s dropped to 551kaf.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s deliveries of Colorado River water this year are currently forecast at 550,518 acre feet, and depending on conditions over the two-and-a-half months of the year could drop as low as 506,000 acre feet, according to forecast data from the Bureau of Reclamation and what folks at MWD told me today.

That is the lowest draw on the river by coastal Southern California since the 1950s. Since 1964, MWD has taken, on average, more than a million acre feet of water per year from the Colorado River.

The reasons are twofold. First, a big Sierra snowpack (the fifth largest since 1950) meant a larger allocation via the California State Water Project – a 75 percent allocation (which is really bigger than it sounds – it’s a big allocation). Second, Met’s become much more nimble in conserving water and juggling the various supplies within its service territory.

I keep a dataset of the annual use by Met and other major Lower Colorado River Basin water users that goes back to 1964 (the year the Bureau began formally documenting use as part of the requirements of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Arizona v. California – the data’s here if you want to paw through it for yourself). 551kaf would be the lowest in that entire time period, so I wrote to a friend at Met asking them to dive into their older data. Previous low years:

  • 1958: 538kaf
  • 1956: 479kaf

So at the current official forecast of 550,518 acre feet, this would be Met’s lowest use since 1958. But with a current target within Met of 506kaf, this could be the lowest use of Colorado River water by metropolitan Southern California since 1956.

Either way, that’s before I was born.



From “The Great Mistake” to “Science Be Dammed”

William L. Sibert

William L. Sibert

When I was wrestling six years ago with a path through what became my book Water Is For Fighting Over, I collected material about what I came to call “the great mistake” – the overallocation of the Colorado River’s water. One of my favorite stories surrounded William Sibert:

It is quite probable that the compact attempts to apportion more water than the actual average undepleted flow of the river.

That’s circa 1928, before Congress ratified the Colorado River Compact and approved the construction of Hoover Dam, in a technical review of the project requested by Congress.

I set the topic aside back in 2013 in part because of the technical complexity of the early water math. I frankly had a hard time with the analytical framework (which period of record? which gauges? what upstream depletions? and on….), and the task of writing sensibly about something I couldn’t fully grasp myself was daunting.

Thanks to Eric Kuhn, who’d been thinking along the same lines and who had the analytical chops to make sense of what Sibert and others at the time were saying, we’ve had a chance to take another crack at “the great mistake”.

There in the pages of the Sibert board’s report was a clear message. The nineteenth-century droughts … meant the Colorado River had less water than the boosters had imagined when they crafted the 1922 Colorado River Compact and the federal legislation now before the Congress to ratify the compact and launch construction of what would become the Hoover Dam. The report’s math was inescapable. Once reservoir evaporation and water for Mexico were taken into consideration, any realistic effort to estimate the river’s flow left too little water to meet the allocations carved out in the 1922 compact and about to be ratified by Congress in federal statute.

That’s from “The Sibert Report: A Lost Opportunity”, Chapter 6 of our new book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River, out next month from the University of Arizona Press.

Sibert’s story is an important one that has been largely lost to history, relegated to footnotes or ignored entirely. A retired Army officer and engineer, he headed a panel chartered by Congress in 1928 to review the feasibility of the project about to be launched:

A board of engineers would be tasked with advising federal decision-makers on “matter affecting the safety, the economic and engineering feasibility, and adequacy of the proposed structure and incidental works” to be built on the Colorado River.

Critics of what would become Hoover Dam hoped to scuttle it on technical grounds – could they really build a dam that big? But Sibert, to his credit, took his charge of “economic feasibility” seriously. Would there be enough water to generate the electricity to pay for the project? That required him to take up the underlying question – does the Colorado River really have enough water to honor the allocations in the legislation Congress was about to approve?

His answer, quoted above, was “no”.

Water nerds in the audience will love Eric’s dissection of Sibert’s analysis of the river’s flows. (Buy our book!) More importantly, I hope water nerds in the audience will I hope appreciate Sibert’s probabilistic approach to water management:

Rather than picking one number, the board suggested the planning consider a range, with flows available for future depletion ranging from 10 million acre-feet during drought periods as long as 15–20 years, to high flows over similar time periods of 14.5 million acre-feet, with a long-term average somewhere in the middle.

As we explain in the book, there was too much momentum in Congress and the nation, and Sibert’s careful analysis was ignored. We live today with the consequences.


a dinosaur, in the fog

a dinosaur sculpture in the fog

a dinosaur in the fog, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Thrashing in a pile of work – a university program report that’s overdue, a book review (also overdue), two papers I’m writing with colleagues, a presentation for new grant funders to prepare, and a class to teach – I had plans for just a quick early morning bike ride this morning. But as my bike trail dropped down to Albuquerque’s valley floor, I saw the fog.

I have lived longer in Albuquerque than Southern California, the land of my birth. But Southern California came first. And so on those rare days when we have fog in Albuquerque, I am wistful, reminded of the magic of the fogs of my childhood. It encloses you gently, the fog, erasing things, telling you there are things you’ve no need to see, or know.

I headed out across the river, watching the Rio Grande disappear in the mist. Down back roads and dirt paths I’ve ridden a dozen times in daylight I became delightfully lost, more than once. My glasses fogged and I let them, the fog doing double work. As I dropped back down from the west mesa, toward the river again, the sun came close to burning through the fog, so I looked for the places it remained thickest and rode toward them.

When I was a teenager in the suburbs east of Los Angeles, we would drive to Chino, our valley’s low spot, when it still had dairies, was the place most likely to have fog. There was a story whispered from older brothers and sisters about the mystery of “the green mist”, and we weren’t quite what it was or why we were looking for it.

Just fog, I guess, but in retrospect that is probably enough.

Rio Grande in the fog, Albuqueruqe, New Mexico, October 2019

Rio Grande in the fog, Albuqueruqe, New Mexico, October 2019

Albuquerque’s water use continues to decline

The decoupling between water use and economic and population growth continues in Albuquerque, where we’ve cut per capita water use by more than half since the mid-1990s:

Albuquerque endured a hot, dry summer this year. Temperatures are still above average, and the monsoon season never made a big splash. But that hasn’t stopped the city from conserving water.

At its board meeting Wednesday, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority said customers, through Sept. 9, have used 812 million fewer gallons in 2019 compared with this same time last year. That equates to about 4 fewer gallons per person per day.

Not some magic bean thing going on here. The decoupling we’re seeing across the West, as water use declines even as populations grow, has become the norm. Here’s the aquifer beneath my house, rising:

USGS Del Sol Divider

More Colorado River “grand bargain” buzz

There was more buzz this week at two big Colorado River Basin events about the idea of a “grand bargain” to deal with coming collisions between water overallocation and the Law of the River.

The idea crept into the title of the Water Education Foundation’s 2019 Santa Fe Symposium – “Can We Build a Bridge to a Grand Bargain in the Basin?”. It  also came up repeatedly at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s fall water seminar, including in a luncheon keynote by the University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, who has done a lot of the analytical heavy lifting on the idea.

While most of the people yakking about it in public right now are folks unaffiliated with organized water interests (folks like, well, me), the interesting thing right now is the behind-the-scenes conversations among decision makers within the system. There’s been positive interest across geographic and water-using communities, including both Upper and Lower Basin folks, and both ag and municipal water users.

My collaborator Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of of the Colorado River Water Conservation District well known as a staunch defender of rural Colorado West Slope water interests, is in the middle of all this, speaking at both events. While the ideas has many parents, Eric has come to be identified with it in part because, now that he’s retired, he can thrown down a bit more than when he had the portfolio of obligations that comes with running an agency.

Eric’s 2012 white paper

The idea’s been kicking around for more than a decade, but it was in fact Eric who first publicly documented what to that point had been private discussions. In a widely read 2012 white paper (p. 41, pdf here), Eric detailed a conversation at a 2005 meeting of the basin states principles at a hotel here in Albuquerque. The details are arcane (click through for Eric’s explanation) but the idea is that each basin gives up politically treasured but practically unrealistic interpretations of the Law of the River in a compromise that avoids litigation and provides more certainty for the water management communities in both basins.

Doug Kenney and colleagues have done the most detailed analysis of the idea (see here), if you’re looking for details. But I caution not to focus too much right now on those details. What’s critical, as Eric and I write in our about-to-emerge-book, is that the process of discussion we’re now seeing among basin water users has a chance to bat around ideas, including beating up ours:

The process by which such a grand bargain might happen may be every bit as important as the technical details of what it would entail. At a 2005 meeting of the “basin states principles”—the Colorado River leadership team representing each of the seven basin states—representatives from Colorado floated a proposal. The details involved some tricky trade-offs. But the details are less important than the forum.

Such an agreement cannot be specified ahead of time but has to emerge from the process of collaboration and compromise that has grown up over the last two decades. That 2005 meeting is an example of the sort of meetings that happen all the time, as representatives of the basin water community meet to hash out their problems.

That’s the conversation that seems to be happening.

“I speak in numbers.”- Eric Kuhn

I’m having a bad FOMO day today, watching John Orr’s Twitter feed from the Colorado River District’s fall seminar, being held today in Grand Junction:

Four years ago, as I was putting together the final bits of Water is For Fighting Over, the River District invited me up to give a luncheon keynote at this same event, a chance at a critical moment to pull together the book’s ideas into a single coherent talk.

Eric Kuhn at the Rio Grande, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 2019

I didn’t know Eric well at the time, but a few days after the event he sent me a very nice email gently taking issue with something I had said. I went back to the source material, and of course Eric was right. I went back and rewrote a few paragraphs of the book – a small but critical fix – and sent Eric the revised chapter.

A few months later, at a cocktail reception at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas during the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, Eric and I began a conversation that turned into a collaboration that turned into a book coming out this fall on the history of our hydrologic understanding of the Colorado River – Science be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

The book lives at the intersection of Eric’s deep understanding of the river’s hydrology, understood in a language of numbers, and my desire to tell compelling stories that help productively shape our understanding of water in the west. The book has a repetitive mantra, a motif – “LaRue, Stabler, and Sibert” – three early scientists who tried to warn us that there was less water in the Colorado River than the grandiose plans being laid.

The three – E.C. LaRue and Herman Stabler of the USGS and retired Gen. William Sibert – are crucial characters in the development of the Colorado River who have been largely lost to history because they were on the losing side of important arguments. Eric’s deep fluency with the language of numbers is the key to the book – I was kinda the translator, I guess.

Eric’s on the road this week, talking about the book – today in Grand Junction and tomorrow at a gathering in Santa Fe of the Colorado River brain trust. I’m missing both, enmeshed in some fascinating work in Albuquerque, working with University of New Mexico Water Resources Program students on critical questions involving the Rio Grande. We’re working on how much water it might take to meet shifting values – water for urban trees and their accompanying health benefits, water for the river itself. It was a bad time for Prof. Fleck to sneak away from fall classwork to indulge his Colorado River governance hobby.

I’m trying with our students to put into practice the message of the new book – that it’s important both to be clear and realistic about how our values translate into future water use, while also being clear and realistic about what the science can tell us about how much water we actually have. (In fact, I’ve gotta file this blog post pronto – Prof. Fleck office hours start in four minutes!)

FOMO – some fun party action and important hallway conversations with the Colorado River crowd! But I’m gonna try to get up Friday morning and crash the Santa Fe action, maybe get in an afternoon bike ride with Eric before he heads back to Colorado.