Running out water – again with the governance

This Alex Breitler story reminds how running out of water is almost invariably as much a problem of governance as much as it is of drought:

MOUNTAIN HOUSE — Years before the first shovelful of earth was turned on this master-plan community near Tracy, developers and county officials knew that its sole source of water could someday be interrupted.

It wasn’t severe drought that they feared, necessarily, but the high level of state and federal scrutiny that surrounds any diversion of water from the delicate Delta.

Whatever the cause for their worry, it wasn’t enough to stop county officials from approving the developer’s plan for what eventually would be a community of 44,000 people. The approval came even after an earlier requirement to write a water shortage contingency plan was scrapped.

And in the following two decades, even after construction began, nothing was done to secure a second source of water.
So it is, some say, that Mountain House’s mad scramble to acquire emergency water last week shouldn’t have been such a surprise after all.


Public water, public spaces

UNM Duck Pond

UNM Duck Pond

My University of New Mexico office is a short walk from the campus Duck Pond, which though it was never an official name, we’ve come to capitalize. It’s a very important place.

I often come to campus on Saturdays to write, and on those Saturdays I generally take keyboard breaks to go for a walk. Invariably, there’s a wedding party or a quinceañera gathered for pictures. In two walks this afternoon I have counted five such gatherings. Sometimes it’s a Krazy Party Bus parked nearby, or a stretch limo. And always the happy people.

Weekdays, it’s surrounded by people sitting and eating and reading and kissing and doing all the things people do while being, by choice, next to water.

I am prepared, with no other evidence than this, to declare the Duck Pond and the green grounds that surround it an extraordinarily valuable use of our precious water. I spend a lot of time thinking about the valuation of water, both cultural and monetary.

It’s no Bellagio Fountains, but this seems to me like some seriously high-value water.

Lake Powell runoff update

On May 1, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center projected 3 million acre feet of runoff into Lake Powell from Aril 1 through the end of July. This was bad. Then it started raining.

On June 1, the forecast was increased to 5 million acre feet.

increased Colorado River runoff as a result of May-June storms

increased Colorado River runoff as a result of May-June storms

As of late last week, the estimate actual inflow was already 5 million acre feet, with more than a month to go. This is good.

I am a Californian. I am a Westerner. I proudly wear flip-flops.

In his dissent from the majority on today’s gay marriage ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weighed in on a central question confronting those of us in the western United States: Is California in The West?

California footwear?

California footwear?

The court, Scalia notes, contains “not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner. (California does not count.)”

If you live elsewhere, you will scratch your head, look at your map, and say “Huh?” But “The West” is a complicated place.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times (for those of you referring to your map, it’s over on the western part), Steve Lopez helps frame this:

We are so peculiar that Scalia put us in parentheses, like we had to be quarantined. (Is there any coincidence that the swing vote came from a California native, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy?)

We are west of the West, chiseled off the map and sent floating out to sea in our flip-flops and board shorts, an island of the lost and irrelevant.

For the record, I am a California native. I have a pair of office flip-flops, which I change into on hot summer days. I have two more pair at home, a main pair and a backup gardening pair that sit on the back porch, ready for me to slip into, that I might remember my California roots.

Albuquerque’s monsoon officially underway

By the powers invested in my by no one in particular, I hereby declare Albuquerque’s 2015 Monsoon Season underway.



The weather radar is showing blobs of color in the high country to the southwest, there are high clouds popping up above the mountains to the east of the city, but the real clue was how muggy it was as I rode my bike the five minutes it took me to drop off something with a friend over at the UNM School of Law.

It that’s mugginess that does the monsoon magic. Moist air gets lofted into the sky by daytime heating, big clouds happen, then they rain.

Some years ago, I wrote in the newspaper about some work by a University of New Mexico undergraduate named Patrick Higgins who concluded that three consecutive days of dewpoints at or above 47F (8.3C) were a reliable indicator that the summer monsoon was here.

Tuesday and Wednesday were above the Higgins Line, and today is on track to finish above 50. If true, and we really do get some rain out of the current pattern, it will be unusually early. Typically we don’t see a serious monsoonal pattern until about a week into July.

I do miss the opportunity to write for the newspaper at this particular time. Monitoring the approach of our summer rains was one of my most-beloved duties. I do not miss the pedantic emailers complaining that, well, I’ve been to India, this really isn’t a monsoon.

By the powers vested in my by no one in particular, I declare that it is.

Halfway through June, another million acre feet on the Colorado River

The June mid-month forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is up a million acre feet from June 1.

Total April-July inflow into Lake Powell is now projected to be 6 million acre feet, up from 5 million acre feet forecast on June 1. That’s still below average, just 84 percent of the mean. But it’s double the forecast on May 1.

Details from USBR here (pdf).


Taking more water from the Colorado River’s upper basin

Wyoming is pursuing federal legislation to take another 150,000 acre feet per year from its share of the Colorado River’s Upper Basin allotment:

If successful, the project would allow the state to use the bulk of its remaining allocation under the Colorado River Compact, diverting another 149,600 acre-feet from the Green River annually, according to state documents.

The legislation tackles a technical question: the need for improvements to Fontenelle Dam to allow Wyoming to fully use its water. I don’t know squat about the technical question. I’ll refer you to Angus Thuermer’s story for that, he does a good job with that context.

The basin-scale policy question, though, is clear. In a general sense, the water simply isn’t there to do things like this. But Wyoming’s dogged pursuit of the project illustrates what I think is the core Colorado River Basin policy dilemma.

All of the states of the Colorado River’s Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) are using substantially less than their current full legal allocation. The Colorado River Compact allocated a total of 7.5 million acre feet of water to those four states. In 2012 (the most recent year for which we have good data – pdf here) the Upper Basin States used 4.639 maf. But even though they are using far less than their share, the big reservoirs on the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are dropping.

There is simply not enough water in the system for everyone to take their full legal allotment.

Here is the dilemma. People who work at the basin scale understand this. They understand that, in the long run, some sort of grand bargain (or federally imposed solution) is going to have to restrict the number of straws sucking water out of the river and the amount of water moved through each straw.

But everyone working at the basin scale has to go home and face a domestic politics that is not particularly attentive to this basin-scale problem. There, people point to the pieces of paper (the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin Compact), and say, “Yeah, but we’re entitled to that water, it says so right here!”

You can see this tension playing out in the back-and-forth earlier this year between Colorado senior water dude James Eklund and his basin counterparts over Colorado’s new draft water plan:

“If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken,” he said.

Eklund, who lives at the boundary between these two worlds – basin-facing politics and domestic water politics – got slapped around a bit, because the language flew in the face of the delicate diplomacy now underway. But the dilemma remains unresolved.

Ultimately the water for the Upper Basin to keep dipping in new straws to expand use into its full legal entitlement just isn’t there. In the short run, with Lake Mead at record lows, the basin has more pressing problems, focused in the Lower Basin. But in the medium to long term, sorting out this issue is the central challenge of Colorado River Basin water management.

When the drought story is really a poverty story

Andrea Costillo in the weekend Fresno Bee:

East Porterville’s poverty and education shortcomings stand out in a state analysis of communities with the highest health risks. The analysis from the California Environmental Protection Agency shows the town’s poverty level is among the highest 10% in the state. In education, the community ranks worse than 91% of the state.

Poverty and education are among more than 20 factors, including air pollution and groundwater problems, that the state analyzed to arrive at rankings reflecting heightened health risks. East Porterville has more health stress than three-quarters of California.

Yes, as we keep hearing, East Porterville is the California community without water. But it is East Porterville’s poverty that leaves it vulnerable, lacking resilience, powerless to respond.