Groundwater in Albuquerque: rising

USGS groundwater monitoring well 350534106354701, Albuquerque, New Mexico

USGS groundwater monitoring well 350534106354701, Albuquerque, New Mexico

A couple of blocks from my Albuquerque home is Del Sol Park, but everyone in the neighborhood calls it “Twin Parks”, because of the short street that divides it in two. On one side of that street, a nondescript concrete pad marks the spot where the U.S. Geological Survey measures the depth to groundwater beneath our part of Albuquerque.

When I started writing about water for the Albuquerque Journal, the community was in the early stages of a $500 million experiment – a shift beginning in late 2008 to river water as our primary source of drinking water, away from an over reliance on groundwater that was draining our aquifer. And so, doing journalism, I started watching the data from the USGS network of groundwater monitoring stations, especially Del Sol. (If the USGS is measuring the groundwater beneath your house, it’s a good benchmark, right?) I confess: I was waiting for the experiment to fail, and to write the story about how our attempt to save our aquifer wasn’t working. But by 2011, the data convinced me that the effort was succeeding. In my neighborhood, an aquifer that was declining a foot every couple of years has risen nearly 20 feet, a pattern seen all over town:


Depth to Groundwater, Del Sol Park, Albuquerque

You can still see the impact of pumping in the graph’s squiggles, as the aquifer drops in summer and rises in winter. We’re not off of groundwater completely, and never will be. But the overall trend is headed in the right direction. It’s driven in part by the fact that, unlike a lot of western states, New Mexico recognizes the connection between groundwater and surface water in our water rights administration. Yay us!

Oh yeah, and in addition to shifting to surface water, Albuquerque’s per capita water consumption has dropped in the last two decades from about 250 gallons per capita per day to what could be as low as 130 this year. So there’s that.

And also oh yeah, it rained this evening.

Just some hopeful notes on a Sunday evening in our droughty summer of discontent.

Yuma: Colorado River produce powerhouse

William Yardley writes in the Los Angeles Times about the water rights and water fears in Yuma, Arizona:

If you eat a green salad between Thanksgiving and April, whether in Minnesota, Montreal or Modesto, odds are good that some of it was grown in or around Yuma.

The summer freshness on all of those winter plates reflects the marvel of engineering the Colorado has become — and why managing the river in the Southwest’s changing landscape seems so daunting.

Palm trees and durum wheat, Gila Valley east of Yuma

Palm trees and durum wheat, Gila Valley east of Yuma, by John Fleck, April 2015

I’m glad to see Yuma get its due. I’ve spent a bunch of time there in the last few years, and it’ll feature prominently in my book, because it’s both historically important (early river crossings always are, stuff grows up around them and influences the human geography that comes after) and because, as Yardley explains, its farming has become a critical piece of the Colorado River water puzzle. Per acre, Yuma and the Imperial County across the river are the most valuable farm land in the Colorado River Basin. That’s one of a number of lines of evidence suggesting that, in economic terms, they’re putting their water to good use. But for better or worse (often worse) Imperial seems to get most of the press.

Notably, the shift to winter produced described in Yardley’s story has been accompanied by a significant reduction in water use in Yuma, even as farmers are making more money. This isn’t a water policy-driven water conservation story. This is an agricultural economics-driven water conservation story. This is why I’m so interested in understanding and writing about Yuma (and the story of Imperial in California, where water use also is down, though for more complex reasons).

red lettuce, Yuma County, Arizona, April 2015, by John Fleck

red lettuce, Yuma County, Arizona, April 2015, by John Fleck

The deal here is that Yuma has some of the best rights on the Colorado River, meaning that under the law, as the river gets lower and lower, the Yuma County farmers continue to get water while other people get cut off. Other people in particular meaning the greater Phoenix metro area. This worries the Yumans*:

They know they have water priority but not necessarily political priority.

“They believe there’s a target on their backs,” said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “I believe they’re right.”

Farmers here do not intend to go quietly. Some come from families that were here when the big cities of the modern Southwest were little more than crossroads.

“We have a legal right to this,” said Mark Smith, who farms about 500 acres in Yuma and leads one of six irrigation districts in the area. “The guys who say this is an easy fix — it’s not an easy fix. We’re growing vital crops.”

I heard a lot of talk when I was in Yuma along these lines, fears about the target on their back. I personally don’t see the risk as great. For reasons that I’ll argue in detail in the book, I think the only way water moves out of the Yuma area to other purposes will be on the Yuma farmers’ and water districts’ own terms. I don’t see the big metro areas taking it by force.

But that’s just me. No doubt Tom Buschatzke knows much better than I what the risks are, so I’ll defer to his judgment about target placement.

If you’re down there in the winter, be sure to drive across the river to Bard, too, and stop off at one of the blood orange stands. Yum. It’s technically in California, but it’s really part of the greater Yuma farming community, and it’s especially lovely. I mean, I realize irrigated desert farming is an acquired taste, but I’ve grown quite fond of the place.

* Yup. They’re called “Yumans”. The name derives from the native people who have lived here a really long time. Before the European immigrants moved in and muscled them out of the way, the Yumans practiced flood recession farming, starting to plant as the high water from the spring floods receded and following the water down, planting in the wet soil as the river dwindled through the summer. I love Yuma.

How I ended the New Mexico drought

I would like to point out that the first six months of 2015, which roughly coincides with the time since I quite writing about drought for the Albuquerque Journal, have seen the wettest statewide average precipitation since the epic year of 1941:

Courtesy National Centers for Environmental Information

Courtesy National Centers for Environmental Information

You’re welcome, and you have my deepest apologies for not doing this sooner.

Risks of 2016 Colorado River shortage declaration pretty much gone, risks of 2017 also shrinking

The Bureau of Reclamation’s latest 24-month study, out this afternoon (pdf), shows continued improvement on the Colorado River system’s big reservoirs as a result of the hella rainy spring and summer, and therefore a continued reduction in the risk of a Lower Basin shortage declaration.

the May precipitation anomalies that bailed out the Colorado

the May precipitation anomalies that bailed out the Colorado

The number to watch is a Lake Mead elevation of 1,075, and the date to watch is January 1. The forecast in the latest 24-month study puts us at 1,082.12 on Jan. 1, 2016. That means that unless something crazy happens, like El Chapo’s tunnel dudes drill a hole in the bottom of Hoover Dam and steal 700,000 acre feet of water, it looks like a 2016 shortage declaration is completely off the table.

For 2017, things are also looking better. The current 24-month forecast puts it at 1,078.13 on Jan. 1, 2017, three feet above the danger line. That’s the midpoint of the forecast, meaning that there’s a better than 50-50 chance we won’t have a shortage in 2017. Three feet is not much, so the risk is clearly non-zero. The Bureau’s been running more sophisticated probability analyses, but I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know what the numbers say.

Matt Weiser leading new California drought news platform

A new California water/drought news site with former Sacramento Bee water beat reporter Matt Weiser as its managing editor is self-recommending. Here’s matt at Water Deeply on El Niño:

Current predictions for the winter ahead suggest El Niño will be a “borderline-strong” event, Null said.

It’s true, a strong El Niño, as measured by temperature change in the ocean, does seem more likely to produce wet winters. But it is not enough reason to start building that new swimming pool.

There have been only four strong El Niños in the past 65 years. Two of those led to a wet winter. The other half were drier than average.

Another U.S.-Mexico water agreement

Via Sandra Dibble:

The United States and Mexico are preparing to sign an agreement to address issues of sediment, trash and polluted stormwater that for years have plagued the Tijuana River watershed.

The binding agreement, known as a minute, aims to set up a framework to formally address the issues bilaterally and bring together members of government agencies as well as participants from the nonprofit sector. Under the minute, groups are expected to address three major issues: sediment control, solid waste management and water quality.

Water in the desert: Crownpoint, New Mexico

Near Crownpoint, McKinley County, New Mexico, by L. Heineman

Near Crownpoint, McKinley County, New Mexico, by L. Heineman

Crownpoint, New Mexico, is one of those places that makes clear the extent to which water (or its lack) constrains human geography.

Lissa and I drove out Friday evening to the monthly Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction. Crownpoint’s the biggest city on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, but at a population of 2,500, it’s small. The embrace of an unbelievably green desert right now is striking (today is the ninth consecutive day with rain at our house, which I think is a record since I began tracking in 1999), but make no mistake – this is the desert. Place names around here are a testimony to longing for water – Littlewater, Mariano Lake, Casamera Lake, Smith Lake.

If you read two books about the West’s water problems, one of them probably shouldn’t be Cadillac Desert.

We need to create a #WestWaterSyllabus.

Mark Hertsgaard at the Daily Beast got a lot of traction this weekend with a piece suggesting this: If You Only Read One Book About the Water Crisis: ‘Cadillac Desert. If we’re going to have a #WestWaterSyllabus, there’s no question Cadillac Desert has to be on it, but making it the only thing we read is problematic. Hertsgaard’s piece demonstrates how it constrains our understanding of the problem in a way that also constrains our understanding of what the solutions might look like.

"Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30" by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30 by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So if you only have time for two books, I’d suggest a second, less well known effort: Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. But whatever you do, I’d really warn against stopping with Cadillac Desert.

Asked some years ago about suggested readings to understand California water, OtPR wrote one of the best explanations I’ve seen of Cadillac Desert’s proper place:

Read Cadillac Desert for an understanding of how things were thirty years ago.  It isn’t accurate now (in fact, the book made itself obsolete), but Cadillac Desert fundamentally shaped the lay view of water in CA.  When a layperson has some outraged simplistic solution to water problems in CA, it’ll be from Cadillac Desert, so it is good to understand where they are coming from.

Cadillac Desert remains so popular because Reisner was a hell of a writer, and he tells a hell of a tale, a story that’s populated with greed and bad guys that makes for an easy-to-grasp narrative structure that has dominated our understanding of western water ever since. So read it, if for no other reason than it’s a great read and everyone you talk to will also likely have read it.

It is, as Hertsgaard suggests, a powerful book with a central message: “The current drought out West only underscores a problem entirely of our own making: for too long we have rigged the price of water to benefit a favored few.”

But the Western water historian Norris Hundley, in his California water history The Great Thirst (oh dear, we’re already up to three? and it’s a really long book!) suggests we need a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of our problems:

More compelling explanations are found in a compound of interest-group pressures, local and regional considerations, political trade-offs, and the larger context of American political culture in which the national culture and its reverberations within California help explain actions that may otherwise be incorrectly attributed to a conspiratorial power elite.

Which means that rather than hunting for bad guys and easy fixes, or maybe in addition to it, we need a nuanced understanding of the efforts made by human communities to engage in this messy task of collective governance of common-pool resources. Enter Ostrom.

Governing the Commons is not primarily a “Western water” book. But its discussion of the evolution of water management institutions in Southern California, and the generalizations that follow about what does and does not work, offers a critical piece that Reisner leaves out. Reisner’s all about our failings. Ostrom points out that people do, in fact, successfully riddle their way through collective management of a shared resource, and how does that happen? I’d been dabbling in water journalism for 20 years, steeped in the Reisner narrative, when I first tumbled to Ostrom’s work. It was a head-smacking “I wish I’d read this sooner” time for me.

In the 30 years since Cadillac Desert, there’s been plenty of bad guy stuff (Hertsgaard is right to call out California’s Westlands Water District, which is a textbook case of what the economists dryly call “rent-seeking behavior“). But there has been a great deal of the sort of collaborative problem solving Ostrom talks about as well in the 30 years since Cadillac Desert, problem solving that has substantially lessened the bite of the current drought and substantially improved the resilience of the communities that depend on the West’s overtaxed rivers and aquifers. It’s problem solving that Reisner’s work did not anticipate and cannot help us understand.

Someone should write another book about that.