The draining of New Mexico’s reservoirs continues

Heron Reservoir, the first stop for central New Mexico’s imported Colorado River Basin water, dropped Oct. 10 to its lowest level since filling after it was first built in the 1970s:

draining Heron Reservoir

As I noted last month, total storage on New Mexico’s part of the Rio Grande system is at historic lows. I updated the numbers this morning, that hasn’t changed.

Here’s the obligatory picture of the Rio Grande through Albuquerque from yesterday’s bike ride. Looks pretty much like every other picture I’ve taken there this morning, though you can tell I’m not cheating by the bits of yellow beginning to decorate the cottonwoods.

Low flows on the Rio Grande, Albuquerque, October 2018

Creating a conservation storage pool in Lake Powell

It’s apparently Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan week! Documents here. This is when we all gather around and try to make sense of the sweeping effort to ratchet up efforts to reduce Colorado River water use to keep the system from crashing.

The plan you see before you is really not that different, at the interstate level, from what was essentially agreed to nearly three years ago – Arizona and Nevada agree to bigger reduction in their Colorado River supplies earlier, based on the elevation of Lake Mead. If Mead drops far enough, California joins the party, where by “party” I mean “sees its Colorado River supplies cut as well”. So this is one of those parties you really don’t want to go to, because you’re super introverted, but….

The most interesting bit now seems to be the halting progress toward a new set of rules that allows the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – to create a conservation storage pool in Lake Powell. One of the sticking points in planning for water reductions up here (in the Upper Basin) is that if we conserve water and prop up Lake Powell in the process, under the current rules, we risk simply increasing the release to Lake Mead. We risk losing a chunk of the water we conserve.

The idea under DCP would be to create a separate accounting category in Powell for conserved water that’s “invisible” (the word people have been using) to the Powell->Mead water sharing rules. The details here are hairy, in terms of ensuring that conservation is really happening and accounting for it in a way that’s transparent and agreeable to the states of the Lower Basin.

But the fact that we seem to be getting something of this sort, or at least an agreement on the general outline of how it might work, is a big deal.

Mill Creek

Mill Creek, Walla Walla, Washington, October 2018

Mill Creek is a bit of a cipher as it slips through Walla Walla.

Flowing out of the Blue Mountains, it is the southeast Washington town’s primary water supply, and its geographic organizing principle. But the “creek” itself, as it flows through the town built on its banks, is confined to a concrete channel, in some parts of town an ignored back alley sort of thing, elsewhere roofed over completely by the buildings of downtown.

When I came here in the fall of 1977 to attend Whitman College, my friends and I immediately found it, though, out the back door of Anderson Hall where we all were scared and excited youngsters in equal parts eager and terrified by this new step in our lives. We’d hop down the wall and walk downstream late at night, slipping beneath downtown in the darkness and out toward the fields on the west end of town.

I’ve written since about how, whenever I go to a new place, I end up going down to its water – a bay, a beach, a river, a concrete creek. At risk of a post hoc reconstruction of the meanings of my life, it occurred to me as I returned this week to Walla Walla for the first time in years that Mill Creek must be the place where this started.

I was staying at the Marcus Whitman downtown – just offices and residential apartments when I lived here four decades ago, now an upscale hotel catering to wine tourists. When Lyman Persico, a Whitman College geology professor and my host for a few days’ visit to my alma mater, dropped me off Sunday afternoon, I dumped my bags and headed for Mill Creek.

One of my great joys has always been walking around, aimlessly, and it occurred to me that Sunday afternoon as I retraced the steps 18 and 19 and 20 and 21-year-old me walked so very many times that this joy is rooted here. It was a happy place, and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with 20-year-old me. I’m not that person any more, but I liked meeting him again after all these years.

During some of the down time between my visits to Lyman’s environmental studies classes, I rented a bike to increase my range, visiting all the places I lived – two dorms, a lovely apartment building up Boyer Avenue, and a shitty old rental house on Rose Street that has not worn the subsequent 40 years as well as I have.

I felt lost sometimes, my mental map ripped with holes, some because of a changed landscape, much because of my own hazy memories.

I turned to my cell phone to find my way to the Washington State Penitentiary, on a hill west of town. It was a gut check moment as I wheeled onto the state highway that leads to the pen and saw the big water tower.

I was, I think, just twenty when I first visited the place.

I’d been working weekend shifts at a local commercial radio station, “adult contemporary” soft pop. It was a small operation, but made a pretense of covering the local news. There had been a riot at the penitentiary, and I got a call from the station asking if I could go cover the warden’s news conference.

It was a big deal. The networks had crews there. It was national news.

I was a long-haired punk (in the Ramones sense of that word), and the thing I remember most is when a guard stopped me, leaving after the news conference, to make sure I wasn’t escaping. I couldn’t have understood the importance then, but it was my first act of paid journalism.

A couple of years later, I ended up as “news director” at the same radio station, barely more than minimum wage, but it was an act of becoming – becoming a real, paid journalist. And I covered the state pen.

Thus, here, it all began.

Come help solve the Rio Grande’s problems: the NM Interstate Stream Commission is hiring

A great job here, helping solve problems on the Rio Grande:

The incumbent will be responsible for independent technical and scientific engineering decisions based on the principles and methods of hydrologic/water resources analyses and evaluation. The position will required advanced technical analyses of complex hydrologic and water resource engineering issues; an in depth understanding of the history and administration of the Rio Grande Compact and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande project. The incumbent will be responsible for managing professional service contracts in the ares of hydrogeoloygy, water quality, water use, water resources investigations, and river and reservoir operations. The position will also develop annual funding requests, and, at the request of the Legal Manager, coordinate on work plans/projects to gain a better understanding of Rio Grande Basin hydrogeology and apply those findings to determine informed, defensible, water management decisions. The position may also manage projects and professional service contracts related to river management and Endangered Species concerns in the middle Rio Grande.

The drying of New Mexico’s Rio Grande

I went on a bike ride this morning to get a look at the Rio Grande through Albuquerque. Flows dropped below 100 cubic feet per second Thursday evening for just the second time since we moved here in 1990. Flows this low are hard to measure – we didn’t get a numerical picture of just how bad things are until the USGS river measurement people calibrated their Central Avenue gauge Friday morning.

The other time we had flows this low during my tenure as an Albuquerque resident was September 2013 (I remember it well, I was covering the heck out of the river for the Albuquerque Journal at the time). But it’s worth looking back in time, because the flows we’re seeing this year, which are freaking me out, used to be a nearly annual affair. Here’s a plot of annual minimum flow, based on USGS data:

Annual Rio Grande low flows

This is a classic result of what I’ve come to call “an institutional hydrograph”. A hydrograph is a graph of flow on a river over time. In its normal form, it responds to seasons, weather, and climate. But in its institutional form, it responds to rules and policies and norms of human behavior in managing the river.

Those zero-flow points on the left half of the graph are institutional. From the mid-1940s to the early 1980s, we dried the river through Albuquerque almost every year. I phrased it that way on purpose – not “the river went dry” but “we dried the river”. If you look at upstream gauges, there was water in the Rio Grande, flowing into the central valley where Albuquerque sits. But the irrigation agency that provides water to this valley’s farmers diverted it all, running its ditches full, so that by the time the Rio Grande reached Albuquerque, it was dry.

I’m hazy on some of the history, but by the time I started paying attention to the Rio Grande in the 1990s, a combination of community environmental values and the strictures of the Endangered Species Act had triggered changes in irrigation management. As a matter of policy we now leave water in the river. So for my generation of river-watchers, this is a really striking thing to see:

Rio Grande south of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge, Sept. 15, 2018, by John Fleck

Tough to be a fish in the Colorado River

As Lake Powell drops, a waterfall forms at the reservoir’s upper end as the San Juan cuts down through sediments dropped when the reservoir was fuller. The resulting waterfall is a bit of an obstacle to fish:

The razorback sucker population estimate for 2017 alone was 755 individuals and, relative to recent population estimates ranging from ~2,000 to ~4,000 individuals, suggests that a substantial population exists seasonally downstream of this barrier. Barriers to fish movement in rivers above reservoirs are not unique; thus, the formation of this waterfall exemplifies how water development and hydrology can interact to cause unforeseen changes to a riverscape

Draining the reservoirs on New Mexico’s Rio Grande

A rapidly drying Rio Grande at Albuquerque, Sept. 9, 2018. Photo by John Fleck


Total reservoir storage on the Rio Grande in New Mexico at the end of August was the lowest it’s been since at least 1980.

longer (with graphs!)

In our University of New Mexico Water Resources Program class, we’ve been discussing the state of the Rio Grande in real time. This feels like a remarkable moment, for teaching.

The water managers down on New Mexico’s Lower Rio Grande have made the conscious decision to essentially drain Elephant Butte Reservoir – the primary source of surface water supplies for farmers in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys. Elephant Butte, a 2 million acre foot reservoir, ended August with just 85,000 acre feet of water, something like 4 percent of capacity. That’s the lowest it’s been at this point in the year since 1972.

Simultaneously, we’ve made a similar decision upstream – draining Abiquiu, El Vado, and Heron reservoirs on the Rio Chama in order to continue deliveries to farmers in this part of the state, with some water devoted to instream flows for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

We essentially manage the two parts of the system separately, but I was wondering what it would look like if we looked at them together:

Combined end-of-August storage in Heron, El Vado, Abiquiu, Elephant Butte, and Caballo reservoirs

The US Bureau of Reclamation datasets available on a Sunday afternoon lack the necessary detail prior to 1980 for some of the reservoirs, so that’s as far back as the graph goes.

We’re draining these things and hoping for a wet winter.

Don’t forget Lake Powell

From 2000 through the end of 2018 (projected), Lake Powell’s elevation will have dropped approximately 94 feet despite Upper Basin consumption only averaging about 4.5 million acre?feet (maf)/year. Several particularly dry years—including 2018—in a process of continuing aridification contributed to the drop, but ultimately it is the operational rules that are slowly but surely draining Lake Powell. Through 2018, cumulative releases since 2000 from the reservoir will be approximately 11 maf higher than the 8.23 maf/year baseline traditionally utilized by Reclamation (see figure on page 3). Had those excess releases remained in Lake Powell, the lake level would not have declined. However, those extra releases—now governed by the 2007 Interim Guidelines—are the only thing that has kept Lake Mead from dropping into shortage conditions.

That’s from the a new white paper – It’s hard to fill a bathtub when the drain is wide open: The case of Lake Powell – from the folks at the Colorado River Research Group.

For not fighting over

Wolf and his colleagues combed through thousands of newspaper clippings and historical accounts of anything having to do with water at international borders. He ranked every event on a scale of -7 to +7, with numbers below zero indicating worsening degrees of conflict, and numbers above zero pointing to increasing degrees of collaboration. “It turns out two-thirds of the time we do anything over water, we cooperate,” Wolf says. “There was a whole rich history that isn’t covered anywhere.”

In a warming world, the fight for water can push nations apart—or bring them together