Does this simply represent hardening of demand – the result of low-hanging conservation fruit being mostly all plucked? Or does this suggest arid Arizona is not headed toward the big water-driven economic collapse some people fear?
I’m looking forward to Requiem for the Santa Cruz: An Environmental History of an Arizona River, a forthcoming University of Arizona Press book by Robert Webb, Julio Betancourt and colleagues. While we spend a lot of time talking about how to return water to rivers in the arid southwestern United States, this group of authors is entertaining a more subtle point – it’s not just about the water flowing in the river, it’s about the groundwater beneath:
In prehistoric times, the Santa Cruz River in what is now southern Arizona saw many ebbs, flows, and floods. It flowed on the surface, meandered across the floodplain, and occasionally carved deep channels or arroyos into valley fill. Groundwater was never far from the surface, in places outcropping to feed marshlands or cienegas. In these wet places, arroyos would heal quickly as the river channel revegetated, the thriving vegetation trapped sediment, and the channel refilled. As readers of Requiem for the Santa Cruz learn, these aridland geomorphic processes also took place in the valley as Tucson grew from mud-walled village to modern metropolis, with one exception: historical water development and channel changes proceeded hand in glove, each taking turns reacting to the other, eventually lowering the water table and killing a unique habitat that can no longer recover or be restored. (emphasis added)
Thus, when a river runs low, a shallow water table still leaves refugia, muddy holes that stay wet even as the flow in the river itself dries. As we pump down our aquifers, we lose that, even as environmental restoration efforts focus on adding more flow to the rivers themselves.
A couple of summers ago, I saw the Google Street View car coming down the Interstate 40 onramp at Carlisle Boulevard, parallel to my bike trail, as I was coming home from a ride. I looked a few times, hoping they’d captured my endorphin smile, then forgot about it.
This evening I remembered to check:
Yesterday my sister and I busted Mom out of the nursing home for lunch and a drive down by the river to see the tail end of the fall colors. Down by Tingley Beach, an Albuquerque municipal park adjacent to the Rio Grande, the cottonwoods were still putting on a show, but they’re clearly tiring, getting ready to dump the leaves and be done with it. In the face of creeping blindness and dementia, we can’t be sure any more what Mom sees. When her brain worked, her pride and a certain amount of denial made it hard to get her to share what she could really see as her eyesight was fading over the last 15 years. Now, it’s just hard to get much of anything out of her brain. Best to default to showing her the fall colors, I suppose. Can’t hurt, and she seems to like the idea that she’s seeing them, even if she doesn’t realize she can’t.
Lissa and I went back today for a walk in the woods. Humans created two big ponds near the river, which are popular with the wintering ducks. We saw our first canvasbacks and redheads of fall, along with a single ruddy duck, a single pintail and a mob of wigeons. I’ve always been partial to the winter palette of the Rio Grande woods, the drab grays and browns after the autumn color show is over. There’s a cold quiet that seems to go with the color. It wasn’t quite there yet today – a warm afternoon, some garish yellows of fall still lingering on the cottonwoods, the dog walkers and joggers and bikers taking advantage of one last warm Sunday afternoon, nearly outnumbering the wigeons.
[T]he traditional wooden fences of earlier American frontiers were simply not feasible in a landscape whose most distinctive feature was its lack of trees. Ranchers could of course get any amount of wood they needed from lumber merchants in Chicago and the Mississippi Valley – if they could afford it. Earlier fencing styles were so wood intensive, however, that they were simply too costly for wide use in the open spaces of the High Plains. Large-scale fencing there became possible only in the 1870s, after Joseph Glidden’s invention of barbed wire in 1873 dramatically reduced the amount of wood that went into a typical fence. The railroads that allowed ranchers to ship their animals to Chicago’s market brought in return the fence posts and barbed wire with which to partition the grasslands.
William Cronon, in his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.
Can the decline of an “invasive” species be taken as a sign of an ecosystem’s declining health?
That’s the question raised by an interesting Alastair Bland article in the East Bay Express on the latest numbers for striped bass in the Sacramento-San Joaquin-San Francisco Bay Delta system:
Scientists say the existing population may be as small as 5 percent of historic highs, and even diehard fishermen have given up trying to catch striped bass — once one of the most popular game fish on the West Coast.
Stripers aren’t native. As Bland notes, they were introduced via a small population in the 19th century. By the 1930s, according to Bland, their abundance supported a thriving commercial fishery, and they’ve long been a popular target of sport fishing. But there’s also been pressure to reduce their numbers because of the belief that they prey on endangered and threatened native fish like the delta smelt.
Given the smelt and their colleagues are the Endangered Species Act drivers now pushing delta habitat recovery and restoration efforts, what should we make of the decline of the striper? If what we’re trying to do is reduce jeopardy to specific listed species, shouldn’t we celebrate the decline of the striped bass? Or are we now dealing with such a fundamentally human-altered environment that the striped bass is an intrinsic part of the “social-ecological system” of the Bay-Delta of the 21st century?
Questions of science, questions of values, inextricably entangled at this point such that it’s hard to see where one stops and the other begins.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, economist Gary Libecap’s take on “The Myth of Owens Valley“:
The allegations are that Owens Valley water was stolen from farmers by a rapacious Los Angeles and, once it was shipped out of the valley through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the agricultural economy was ruined and the valley was left a wasteland.
Unfortunately for the development of water markets and the smooth reallocation of water, the story is wrong. The water was neither stolen nor was the farm economy left in ruins. There is another and more useful lesson to be drawn from Owens Valley for promoting the development of water markets: Because water is a complex resource with many interconnected uses (some rivalrous and some not), any water trade is likely to have at least a few third-party effects. Fears of those effects bottle up contemporary water discussions. But the Owens Valley experience reveals that the allocative benefits of moving water from low-valued uses to high-valued ones are so large that they most likely will swamp the distributional concerns.
Libecap argues that the decline of Owens Valley farming, part of the foundation of what he calls the “myth”, is the same trend found in other Great Basin farming valleys, a long term shift to livestock:
The export of water reduced crop production as a share of overall agricultural output and encouraged a shift toward livestock. But this pattern also took place elsewhere in the Great Basin. The comparative advantage of the region ultimately was in livestock, so there likely would have been a gradual shift from crops in Owens Valley, even had the aqueduct not been built. Owens Valley was not left a wasteland as is sometimes alleged.
This conversation matters because so much of the West’s water is currently used in agriculture. We only have a long term shortage in the West if we want our cities and our farms to both continue on their current trajectories. Given the relative economic size and importance of the cities relative to the farms, we need to get the “distributional concerns” about farm-to-city transfer right, which means we need to look carefully at what actually happened in the Owens Valley (and other places where ag->urban transfers are underway).
If you want a chance at beating a computer at chess, there is one simple way: Make the computer itself move the pieces across the chess board. For all the playing strength of the programs, the computer-driven robots that move the pieces don’t do such a great job.
From Tyler Cowen’s fascinating Average Is Over, about chess, technology and the hollowing of the American middle class.
Electa Draper in the Denver Post over the weekend on what happens when streams reclaim their flood plains in a human-altered world:
Before Colorado was settled, its narrow canyons were river channel from wall to wall. Humans added roads and buildings in these tight spots and confined the channel. In one week in September, the stranglehold of asphalt, concrete and riprap on the St. Vrain was broken.
The river, from an ecosystem perspective, was as creative as it was destructive — new beds and paths, new aquatic life habitat in new pools and riffles and runs.
“No question, it was a disaster for people,” Wohl said, “but floods are actually good for the health of the rivers. They are dynamic systems. We try to make them less so. We create bland rivers.”
I’d come to take the wood ducks living on the Rio Grande Nature Center pond for granted, until I recently picked up a camera. Really lovely birds: