Have we halted Lake Mead’s decline?

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, December 2016, © John Fleck

There’s a “half full/half empty” joke in here somewhere.

The reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin are 49 percent full/51 percent empty right now (data pdf). Despite another bad runoff year, that’s pretty much exactly where they were at the end of 2015.

Let’s go with half full then, shall we? We’ve come within a couple of inches’ elevation of halting Lake Mead’s decline. It still shrank, and absent further action it will continue to do so.

But we are close, and we can see what “further action” looks like. As I write this on New Years Eve, it looks like Mead will end 2016 at elevation 1,080 feet and change above sea level, just a couple of inches below where it ended 2015. Maybe the experience of the last couple of years suggests “inexorable” is no longer the right word?

Annual elevation change, Lake Mead

The year-end number is still a record – the lowest since 1936, when they were first filling the big reservoir. (Despair?) But in a year with below average precipitation in the Colorado River Basin (89 percent of average into Lake Powell), this represents real progress in managing the system. “Normal” for the 21st century (the median) is an annual drop of 12-plus feet in the reservoir. It’s only gone up twice since 2000. Both times were unusually wet years. A year in which, despite sub par runoff, Lake Mead doesn’t keep dropping is a step in the right direction.

Looking at the basin more broadly, total storage at years’ end sits at 29.453 million acre feet, just a tad below 29.693 million acre feet last year at this time. This despite Upper Colorado River Basin runoff that was more than 1 million acre feet below average.

A few things are going on here:

  • Arizona only took 2.61 million acre feet of water in 2016, 93 percent of its full allotment.
  • Nevada only took 235,000 acre feet, 78 percent of its full allotment.

Over the last couple of years, the combined conservation efforts of Arizona and Nevada are equivalent to about 8 feet of elevation in Mead – water that is currently sitting in the reservoir.

Lake Mead also has benefited from “bonus water” released from Lake Powell upstream. Under a deal the Colorado River Basin states cut back in 2007, in some years extra water is released from Lake Powell down through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, in an effort to balance the contents of the two big reservoirs. That has happened the last two years, and the forecast calls for it again in 2017.

The latest projections for next year suggest Mead will decline again absent bigger conservation measures. With a larger water conservation deal close and probably inevitable, we seem close to turning that important corner. A year in which Mead only dropped two inches despite below-average runoff suggests that it can be done.

When people have less water, as I have previously written, they use less water.

the sadness of old citrus

abandoned orange grove on the banks of the Colorado River, Baja California, March 27, 2014

Carey McWilliams said this about the life of the orange tree and those who grew it:

With its rich black-green shade, its evergreen foliage, and its romantic fragrance, it is the millionaire of all the trees of America…. The aristocrat of the orchards, it has, by a natural affinity drawn to it the rich and the well-born, creating a unique type of rural-urban aristocracy. There is no crop in the whole range of American agriculture the growing of which confers quite the same status that is associated with ownership of an orange grove.

(McWilliams, Southern California, an Island on the Land, as quoted in Matt Garcia’s A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970.)

Citrus begs tending and rewards it mightily. It is said (and I will look this up for you before I put it in a book, but it is repeated often enough that it is a point with at least literary merit, if not journalistic) that for a time in the late 19th and early 20th century Riverside, California, at the eastern end of the Southern California citrus belt, was per capita the richest place in the United States.

oranges, Baja, March 2014

Following the dry bed of the Colorado River into Mexico back in 2014, Karl Flessa led us to the little citrus ranch you see in the picture above. It seemed abandoned, but not so long ago that you could not see the traces of its old aristocracy, elegant palms lining the driveway, flanked by citrus spreading across the desert flats. It was hard to tell how long it had been since the trees were irrigated. They were spindly and dry, but the fruit pushed through anyway.

The riverbed there was dry too, covered in salt cedar. The entire space felt abandoned, but only recently so, the palms and ditch and orange trees a trace of the way water and farming still shape the place.

The Lee’s Ferry flood of record and the cat in the tree

[T]he maximum discharge known outside the period of record was about 8500 m³sec¯¹ on July 7, 1884. According to E. C. LaRue (1925), during this flood, a resident of Lees Ferry rescued his cat from the branches of an apple tree. Decades later, the resident, with “the height of the water on the trunk of the tree … well impressed on his mind,” assisted a surveyor in referencing that elevation to the datum of the stream gage established at Lees Ferry in 1923.

8,500 cubic meters per second, translates to about 300,000 cubic feet per second. That is a lot of water. Sustained over a single day, it would be enough to raise Lake Mead by more than five feet and meet Las Vegas Nevada’s demand for water for two years.

The quote is from O’Connor, Jim E., et al. “A 4500-year record of large floods on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona.” The Journal of Geology (1994): 1-9. I thank Scott St. George for bringing this to my attention.

In western water management, the rest of us nervously watch California

One of my new lectures this semester for UNM Water Resources Program students tackled the question of where and how you draw boundaries around a water management problem. The example I worked through was the Colorado River and the U.S.-Mexico border. You have water management institutions and governance that are largely separate on each side of the border, and a treaty that attempts to manage the handoff as water (a river and aquifers) moves from one nation to the next. There’s a fascinating history of adaptation, sometimes quite poor, in the way that handoff is carried out.

Salton Sea, Carol Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

Another great example – perhaps a lecture for next year? – is the handoff between the Colorado River Basin and a couple of water problems in California that have been placed outside the Basin’s institutional and governance boundaries but that directly impinge on our ability to solve problems within the Basin.

I had the chance to talk about two of these areas yesterday – the Salton Sea (an op ed in the Sacramento Bee) and a last-minute appearance on Larry Mantle’s Air Talk on Southern California Public Radio to talk about California’s attempt to solve the Sacramento Delta’s problems.

In both cases, I took the opportunity to try to impress on Californians the importance that they deal with their significant water issues because of their implications for the rest of us around the West trying to share these giant human-built watersheds. My Bee piece talked about the need for California to address the Salton Sea’s problems because of the way that issue is linked to a new deal on the Colorado River:

Water managers in the rest of the Colorado River Basin – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and my own state of New Mexico – are watching nervously. We worry that shortfalls in Lake Mead could lead like tipping dominoes to water problems throughout the West as we try to share this interconnected, shrinking resource.

On Mantle’s show, I argued that California’s success or failure in dealing the Sacramento Delta affects all of us because the interconnection through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California links that problem with the rest of the Colorado River Basin. Less water supply reliability from the Sacramento Delta means more pressure on the Colorado River Basin.

We’ve drawn the Colorado River Basin’s governance boundaries in a way that excludes both the Salton Sea and the Sacramento Delta. That leaves the rest of us dependent on California, on its side of these water governance boundaries, to do the right thing.

Some thoughts on the death of Sid Drell and the seriousness of nuclear weapons

I once wrote a great deal about nuclear weapons.

For more than two decades as a beat reporter at a daily newspaper in a state for which nuclear weapons was at times arguably the largest single business, it had a routine dailiness to it – what’s the budget for the new B61 mod 12? does that new gazillion dollar plutonium building make sense? – that masked the thing at its heart.

Nevada – Frenchman’s Flat – members of 11th AB Div. kneel on ground as they watch mushroom cloud of atomic bomb test – Courtesy Library of Congress

But in dealing with the very ordinariness of those things, the moral core was never far from the conversation. The thing that was both exhausting but also deeply gratifying was the ethical stance among of those involved. On one side were the weaponeers who believed that nuclear weapons, through deterrence, had become tools for peace. On the other side were people who believed nuclear weapons were an unspeakable evil. No, not unspeakable. We spoke about them a lot. But a deep and corrupting evil.

These views among the political disputants were irreconcilable, but sincerely and seriously held. I worked with the last generation of weaponeers who had felt the ground shake after a Nevada Test Site blast. They took their awesome (I use that word in its literal sense) responsibility seriously.

Ann Finkbeiner, like me a journalist who has lived at the margins of this world, was recalling today the words of the late Sid Drell, a physicist who advised governments for more than a half century of this stuff, and who was the very definition of someone taking it seriously:

Science is not a moral subject. You don’t know when you’re doing basic science where you’re going to end up. But the minute you get some idea and you can start thinking about the technical applications, that’s where societal questions come in. And having a [public] debate on these things, thinking these things through, that’s what I call the moral obligation of the community. And [being a science advisor to the government] gives you both an opportunity and a responsibility to speak out or to testify.

As Drell’s New York Times obituary explained, Drell in the last decade of his life became one of the leaders of a group seeking a path to the elimination of nuclear weapons:

In 2006, he and George P. Shultz, the secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, founded a program at the Hoover Institution to propose practical steps to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

“In dealing with terrorists or rogue governments, nuclear deterrence doesn’t mean anything — the value has gone,” he told the website In Menlo in 2012. “Yet the danger of the material getting into evil hands has gone up. So what are existing nuclear arms deterring now? In this era, I argue that nuclear weapons are irrelevant as a deterrence.”

There are those opposed to nuclear weapons who argued Drell, Schultz, and the other advocates of this approach to our nuclear future of providing cover for the status quo. I never felt competent to come to my own judgment regarding the answer to that question, but I appreciated the deep moral seriousness and sincerity of those engaged in the fierce debates.

It is in this context that I share my horror at the flip way the incoming Trump administration is dealing with U.S. nuclear weapons policy – tweet, confused explanation from spokespeople, strange new comments from the president-elect. (The Washington Post’s Philip Bump chronicled the whole affair if you want details.)

I get that elections have consequences, and that the incoming administration might pursue policies with which I disagree on a host of issues. But on all questions – especially on this one, where the risk is literally annihilation of billions of people on a time scale of hours – I expect seriousness of the sort the late Sid Drell brought to the task.

The Sacramento Delta-Colorado River connection

LA Times on the eve of the release of the EIS on Sacramento Delta water diversion tunnels:

Talks are ongoing over the Colorado River, where drought and increasing demand from Arizona and Nevada may reduce California’s share. If the tunnels are never built, the Met will need to drive a harder bargain on the Colorado to ensure a reliable supply.

White Christmas

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north

– Irving Berlin

citrus irrigation, Riverside County, CA, courtesy Library of Congress

The backyard of my childhood home, in the foothills above Upland, California, was a remnant of an old orange grove. It still had a concrete irrigation standpipe (I think that’s what they’re called?) like the one in the picture. No water came out – such are the traces of Southern California’s agricultural past as we brought water to the land, grew food, then moved on.

There were still groves checkerboarded through our neighborhood in the 1960s when I grew up, a past I romanticize – the smell when the trees were in blossom, the sound of wind machines on the rare cold mornings, the way my parents’ bridge game with their friends Dick and Elizabeth Fleming would stop so Dick could listen turn up the radio to listen to the fruit frost report.

I had a longstanding tradition when I worked for the Albuquerque Journal of writing a White Christmas story, generally about how it was not going to be one in Albuquerque that year. I learned early the benefit of exploiting editors’ needs to fill the paper on slow news days to write the oddball stuff, the week before Christmas is invariably slow, and so I got away with a great deal in my annual riff about why it was, yet again, not likely to be a White Christmas.

I was goofing, but I took the work seriously:

It’s perhaps worth remembering the first verse of Berlin’s White Christmas — the “lost verse” that is often left out in our recreations of hearth and home.

In it, the song’s narrator is stuck “in Beverly Hills LA,” where “the orange and palm trees sway” — stuck in a place with no snow, and “longing to be up north.”

New Mexico is on a climate/cultural border between the snowless “Beverly Hills LA” and the Connecticut farm in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby, which introduced Berlin’s dreamy cinematic vision of snow at Christmastime. Unless you live in the high country, a white Christmas is better imagined than experienced.

Nathan Masters wrote earlier this month on the loss of snow in Los Angeles:

For generations, Angelenos could count on waking up, at least once or twice in their lives, to a wintry scene: children pelting each other with snowballs beneath powder-dusted palm trees.

For me, it was the Friday before Christmas, 1969:

I was in fifth grade, and it was the Friday before Christmas, and my teacher wouldn’t let me go out and play with the other kids because I had a little bit of a cold.

I do not remember the teacher’s name, but I have not forgiven her.

Old Baldy Brand oranges

If you look in the foothills in this citrus crate label, just to the left of the flag pole, that’s where our house was. The Chaffey Brothers, William and George, developed the irrigation colony that became Ontario and Upland.

So there are two threads here, and they are in conflict. In White Christmas, one of the great set pieces of Americana, Irving Berlin sets the real America apart from the orange and palm trees, the artificiality of “Beverly Hills, LA”.

The citrus crate labels I so love are precisely that, an artificial marketing dreamland created to sell Southern California fruit back east. It worked. There was a time, they say, when Riverside County was the richest place per capita in America.

But that gauzy citrus landscape is also the America of my childhood.

So was Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, artificial but with the power of a narrative that was self-executing. Here’s music critic Jay Rosen, from his wonderful book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song:

The longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin’s song.

I love the orange crate labels (check out the University of California library collection) in the same way that I love Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. Like the orange crate label artists, Berlin made up a world that, in our own longings, then became real.

So with that, via NCEP’s Global Forecast System Model, here’s your White Christmas forecast for total snowfall for the 24 hours ending midday Sunday:

sleigh bells in the snow