How low can municipal water conservation go?

From Gary Woodard’s work – in Arizona…

an annual drop in per-household demand of more than 2 percent between 2000 and 2013 across Maricopa and Pima counties.

This trend is expected to extend through 2020, as we continue to replace appliances, fixtures, and landscape plants with new, more water-efficient ones; construct new, more water-efficient homes; and participate in water conservation programs offered by municipal providers.


April-July Colorado River runoff: 71 percent

February precipitation anomalies, courtesy Western Regional Climate Center

February precipitation anomalies, courtesy Western Regional Climate Center

With a dry February, the chances of a big snowpack and “bonus water” flow in 2015 that might begin to refill Lake Mead and Lake Powell are just about gone.

April-July runoff into Lake Powell, the big reservoir in the Colorado River’s “Upper Basin”, is forecast to be 71 percent of average, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. There’s still a one in ten chance, if things get wet over the next month, that we could have an average year. But with another lost month, the chances on the wet side of the probability distribution no longer leave much room for enough excess runoff to bail out the river system’s shrinking reservoirs.

On the bad side, the “one in ten” forecast on the dry side, the worst case scenario, is for 48 percent of average.

As you can see from the map to the right, February was wet up in the state of Colorado, but if your interest is in Colorado River runoff, it was not wet in the right places. That blue blob is on the eastern slope and the plains. The high mountains and west slope were drier than normal, which translates into less runoff into Lake Powell.

I’m waiting on more New Mexico numbers (the Rio Grande Basin) and will write a separate post when I get them, but the preliminary numbers in the San Juan headwaters, which provides San Juan-Chama water, are not good. The projected flow at the Navajo/Chromo/Oso measurement point in southern Colorado, a good proxy for overall SJC production, is 58 percent.

(Full disclosure: I foolishly entered into a bet regarding April 1 SJC supply. It’s a complicated bet involving total allocated and in storage on April 1. Suffice to say I have a cost-of-a-dinner incentive to root for more snow. Also, it’s my community’s drinking water supply.)

West’s snowpack improves, still not great

It is testimony to a lousy January and most of February that the spectacular snowstorm I drove home into over the weekend left the key watersheds that provide water to the Rio Grande and Colorado River still behind average for the year. The 9 inches of snow at my house was the most since December 2006, and snow was widespread across northern New Mexico and into Colorado:

Courtesy NRCS

Courtesy NRCS

Two key basins I watch in southern Colorado – the San Juan and the Upper Rio Grande, are still well behind, but have gone from potentially disastrous (below 60 percent) to simply bad (72 and 86 percent respectively). In New Mexico, the Sangre de Cristos and Chama area are both above 90 percent, which is enough to earn green on the map.

The broader measure of interest to the West, the Colorado River Basin, has climbed as a result of the storms, with steady improvement for the last week, but is still well below average for this time of year. We’ll get formal forecasts later in the week, but the automated daily computer runs are projecting runoff above Lake Powell (the broadest measure, averaging across all the watersheds that feed the San Juan, Green and Colorado rivers) of 72 percent of the long term mean.

(Thanks to Kerry Jones at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque for help with the maps.)

In the mountains of southern Oregon, what used to be snow turns to rain

Precipitation this winter at Crater Lake, in northern California southern Oregon, is a tad above normal. Snowpack is at record lows:

On Friday morning, the snow level was at 32 inches, tying the Feb. 27 record for low snow. However, snow was falling Friday from a new storm system bringing rain to the Rogue Valley and snow to higher elevations.

Grimes said the park is actually at 104 percent of its average precipitation for this time of the year. But warmer temperatures have caused much of that moisture to fall as rain rather than snow.

Matt Jenkins on Pat Mulroy

United and Conquer

Unite and Conquer

Matt Jenkins, the best journalist we’ve got covering water in the western United States, has an insightful cover story in the latest High Country News on Pat Mulroy, the recently retired head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. (Not on line yet – subscribe!)

Mulroy is known for being brash and pugnacious, but Matt gets beyond that gloss to a deeply reported picture of the former SNWA’s critical role in moving Colorado River Basin problem-solving past an age of fighting and the defense of entrenched interests to one of sometimes tense but ultimately productive collaboration.

He adeptly characterizes Mulroy’s transition from someone pushing big, Vegas-style moves, like her famous failed effort to buy water rights from west slope Colorado and her storming 2005 threat to solve the basin’s problems through litigation, to a more quiet cooperative incrementalism that has become the hallmark of current river problem solving. The key is to live within the “Law of the River” while bending it in clever ways to meet new realities:

All of the innovations since the drought began – while carefully pitched as pilot programs and interim measures – have been small advances in Mulroy’s broader initiative, launched more than two decades ago, to open up the law of the river to broader possibilities. That, in large part, is her legacy: pushing everyone into the new era of aquatic contortionism that it will take to fit everything through the knothole.

It’s an optimistic piece, the first in “Glass Half Full,” an occasional series at HCN focused on water solutions. “There’s more than enough, if we’re wise to keep the glass half full.” Yes!

Arizona Republic tackling the Colorado River

Brandon Loomis at the Arizona Republic, with an O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism through the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, is trying to help us with this:

Will Arizona and the Southwest continue to lead the nation in growth as the Colorado River dries?

The first round of stories, with Republic photographer Mark Henle, is terrific:

Equilibrium in the Colorado River Basin

BOULDER CITY, NEV. – I was standing at a pullout on the Arizona side of Hoover Dam late this afternoon, taking pictures of the big empty, when a Japanese family got out of their car and walked up to the edge. One of the men pointed down at the big empty, then made a broad gesture at the “bathtub ring”, the white mineral deposits on the opposite wall of black canyon that starkly mark the great emptiness of Lake Mead. He spoke words I understood despite not sharing a language. It was a version of the same comments I heard over and over this week as people came upon the great emptiness of Lake Mead.

Hoover Dam from the Arizona side at sunset, Feb. 27, 2015, by John Fleck

Hoover Dam from the Arizona side at sunset, Feb. 27, 2015, by John Fleck

I was shooting into the sun, so this picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but you get the idea. It’s the physical manifestation of a system that, to borrow the language of one of the people I talked to at length this week, is not in “equilibrium”. All you have to do is get out of your car and look down.

Melinda Harm Benson, part of my University of New Mexico water policy posse, has been teaching me about “resilience”, which as she carefully defines it means the ability of a system to absorb a shock and retain its basic functional characteristics. In a very helpful paper applying this line of thinking to the Rio Grande, Benson borrows this definitional language from Brian Walker and David Salt: “the capacity of a system to absorb a spectrum disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks—to have the same identity.”

Colorado River Indian Tribes alfalfa field

Colorado River Indian Tribes alfalfa field

What we are seeing in the great emptiness of Lake Mead is a disturbance – substantially less water than we’ve every had before in the system, with demands that are simultaneously as large as, if not larger than, anything seen before in the system.

But the definition of resilience I’m using here begs an important question: who gets to decide what functions are to be retained? What is in, and what is out?

When I say “the system,” I intend something that requires some care in definition. It includes not only the river, but the infrastructure we have built on top of it over the last century to move its water for uses elsewhere, and the society that we have built based on the availability of that water.

Mirage hotel ponds, Las Vegas Strip, February 2015, by John Fleck

Mirage hotel, Las Vegas Strip, February 2015, by John Fleck

So I mean, for example, the alfalfa fields of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, and the befountained resort/casinos of the Las Vegas Strip. I mean Phoenix and Los Angeles as well, and farming in the lettuce and alfalfa belt of Imperial and Yuma, and maybe even the Salton Sea. (Really John, the Salton Sea too? Would you like fries with that and a large drink as well?) The water manager who introduced the word “equilibrium” into our conversation as a goal meant much the same thing – a system that is able to take care of all sectors of the human economy that depend on it (including recreation) while leaving water for the natural environment.

Can we have all of that?

I think the answer is “yes”, that each of the functions I’ve chosen to ascribe to include in the system can survive intact, with much the same relationships and feedbacks to the whole, but at some smaller scale. Every piece of the system must have the capability of getting by with less water – more so if we are going to include “the environment”, which in some areas we’ve already zeroed out. We need to get the institutional plumbing right in a way that backs away from our current precipice. New water sharing and distribution rules are needed that can offer more flexibility – more resilience to shocks.

Las Vegas church that used to have lawn, now xeriscaped, February 2015

Las Vegas church that used to have lawn, now xeriscaped, February 2015

This is not impossible. It is easy to imagine Las Vegas – currently consumptively using 124 gallons per person per day – going down to 100 and still retaining its same basic structure and function. It is easy to imagine Imperial Valley with 350,000 irrigated acres during dry years instead of 450,000, still retaining its same basic structure and function.

There are other conceivable approaches. We could decide that some pieces of the system are expendable. We’ve already largely done that with large segments of the natural environment, though the river’s managers now seem to be genuinely trying to find a way to undo some of that damage. We could solve the entire river’s water deficit in one stroke if we decided that it no longer makes sense to farm the Imperial Valley. I’m not advocating that, and I don’t think it’s needed, but there are those who think it’s inevitable.

If we set to squabbling rather than figuring out how to share, we also could crash-land the system in ways that I think are unacceptable – letting Lake Mead drop below Las Vegas’s water system intakes is the system’s most dramatic near term risk scenario, but one also can easily see a not too distant future in which Phoenix and Tucson see their Colorado River water slashed while California loses not a drop. I also don’t think that’s desirable or acceptable, but that’s a realistic scenario if we don’t get the rules fixed soon. In any of those scenarios, the system would no longer retain its basic function and structure.

It would be a failure of resilience, it would not be “equilibrium”, and it would make me sad.

Park Service to spend $5 million chasing water at Lake Mead

Used to be a lake back there, but they gave up extending the boat ramp when the lake went away. Las Vegas Basy, Lake Mead, February 2015, by John Fleck

Used to be a lake back there, but they gave up extending the boat ramp when the lake went away. Las Vegas Bay, Lake Mead, February 2015, by John Fleck

With Lake Mead projected to drop 15 feet between now and mid summer, to historic lows, the National Park Service is planning to spend another $5 million extending boat ramps, Steven Slivka at the Boulder City Review reported today:

Vanover said drought conditions are expected to continue, and the Park Service is ready to deal with the repercussions.

She added that the Park Service is expecting to spend about $5 million this summer to extend launch ramps. All but one ramp had to be extended last year, she said, and the Park Service was forced to install temporary pipe matting and concrete planks because the lake was losing so much water.

While Lake Mead’s primary purpose is water supply, the Review quotes the Park Service reporting that there were 6.9 million visitors last year to Lake Mead National Recreation area (which includes both Mead and Lake Mohave). That’s more than the Grand Canyon.