Repartimientos de agua: New Mexico’s tradition of water sharing

Repartimientos de agua is how community acequia systems operate in times of water scarcity. Custom originally arose out of conflict and the ongoing elastic process of negotiation and reconciliationitself, of meeting year after year to divide the water according to agreements forged in crisis long ago.

Acequieros believe that water scarcity should be shared equitably among irrigators with decision made locally about distribution. This in contrast to the concept of priority calls which can allocate all available water to the most senior user. Historically, Mayordomos have resorted to daily, ditch-by-ditch repartos. Still, in many cases, no one ever got enough water, and there were days when livestock and crops went thirsty.

That’s the New Mexico Acequia Association’s explanation of how some communities here have managed water in drought for a very long time.

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: The Great Decoupling of the West’s Water

This 2010 paper by Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan planted the seed, and as I worked on my book I found examples everywhere – geographies and economic communities that are using less water even as they were growing. I blogged about it, as one does, one thing led to another, and when I finished the book manuscript in December I embarked on a deep dive into “decoupling” of the West’s water:

Contrary to the narratives of apocalyptic doom or a need for ever-growing supply as a result of unsustainable water use, these communities have demonstrated an adaptive capacity that has allowed more people and economic activity using less water. This creates opportunity – to grow more food, to move water to cities, and to begin to reclaim some of the surplus for the environment.

My water wonkness is all about narratives, and the “we’re gonna run out of water” narrative seems one of the strongest and most damaging to our ability to solve our problems. A recognition of the opportunities provided by decoupling seems to me to be central to our ability to solve the problem of creating a sustainable and resilient future here in the Southwest.

A big thanks to Ted Nordhaus and colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute for supporting the work, and for some really insightful contributions as I did it.

A new home for some stuff I write now and then

My friend Scot Key offered me double the rate they pay here at Inkstain (this is a joke, we are bloggers, we do it for “exposure”) so I’ve got a new post up over at his Better Burque. We mostly ride bikes and complain about how much this or that sucks, especially poorly designed and executed bicycle infrastructure. (We kid! The new Coal overpass over the railroad tracks is great!) But we also share a fascination with urban planning and economics, so we write stuff.

Scot assured me that if I wrote about A.R.T., Albuquerque’s controversial new redesign of old Route 66, I’d get a ton of clicks. I basically think A.R.T’s an OK idea, which seems to have become a controversial position in Albuquerque. But I started small, with Mesa del Sol’s roads to nowhere and the question of whether Albuquerque is creeping toward becoming a steady-state economy, a sort of post-sunbelt growth boom city.

What would that mean?

Green versus green: removing Snake River dams

One of my University of New Mexico Water Resources Program colleagues frequently points out what they call “green versus green issues” – environmental tradeoffs that are often under-examined because our environmental discourse focuses on one set of values without sufficiently incorporating other values.

Today’s inbox missive: removing dams from the Snake River in the U.S. Pacific Northwest:

The steady and reliable dams balance energy from intermittent sources like wind. As wind becomes a larger portion of our energy supply, the load balancing function of the Snake River dams will become even more important, especially since the wind is often strongest in the middle of the night when our need for energy is at its lowest.


Some points of comparison for California water

Jay Lund (UC Davis) wrote an interesting piece this week offering some water management geographic comparisons – how does California stack to other geographically similar regions?

This is an interesting approach, because a lot of water governance rhetoric is inward facing – we see our own problems, but don’t do a good enough job of comparing our successes and failures to others in similar situations. Lund’s starting point is other Mediterranean climates:

These climates tend to be dry (not much water), attractive places to live and farm (bringing high water demands), with mismatch between wetter winters and dry summer growing seasons.  The scarce water supply in the wrong season for human activities makes human management of water problematic for native ecosystems.

Using a number of comparative measures – how many people? how much ag? how big an economy? – Lund suggests that California is actually doing quite well:

California can learn from other regions, but is certainly not a laggard in terms of environmental and economic performance among Mediterranean climates.  We do not do as well with water as we would like, and we must find ways to do better, but California nevertheless does relatively well in managing water.

Intriguing argument worth reading in full.

On California’s “new” groundwater and the hope for a savior

Smart Faith Kearns on the headlines this week about the “discovery” of a bunch of groundwater beneath parched California:

[O]n a symbolic level it’s really just fascinating how often we get caught up in stories being saved — by a good winter, a new dam, new water. I wish I didn’t find it so depressing. Maybe this really is a great time to be thinking about our deep groundwater — we are, after all, in the middle of a very large experiment in managing groundwater.

At the same time, it feels…bad. In a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Like a neverending search for an elusive buried treasure? A lost Atlantis? Eden? With a dash of manifest destiny? I don’t know, but guess it makes for better headlines than the mostly invisible work so many people do every day to make the best of what we’ve got.

the monsoon arrived, and the citizens of Tucson and Albuquerque did rejoice

The dewpoint yesterday (Tues. June 28, 2016) passed a sort of vaguely science-based but somewhat arbitrary threshold for the start of the monsoon in Albuquerque – three consecutive days above 47F (8.3C):

and thus it begins

and thus it begins

They’re partying in Tucson, too:

The argument for California to make a Colorado River deal

The trick now is for the three U.S. states sharing the Colorado River’s water downstream of of Lake Mead – Nevada, Arizona, and California – to negotiate some sort of a deal that reduces their collective take on the river. That’s trick one. Trick two is for state negotiators to then sell the deal back home to sometimes recalcitrant local water agencies that take a dim view of giving up water.

As, for example, San Diego?

First, the case for a deal:

Under current law, California has first dibs on much of the river’s water. California’s rights to the Colorado are so secure that the Central Arizona Project —a 336-mile series of canals and pipelines that brings river water to 80 percent of Arizona’s population— would have to run dry before California has to lose a single drop.

That is the consequence of a deal worked out in the late-1960s. That might be the law, but it’s now hard to imagine letting civilization in Arizona wither while California is unscathed.

Water officials involved in the negotiations worry that without a new deal, politicians will eventually decide everyone’s collective fates rather than technocrats like themselves with experience managing water.

That’s Ry Rivard getting to the heart of why California looks like it may be willing to make a deal on the Colorado that gives up water to which the state might feel legally entitled. But then:

The San Diego County Water Authority is not involved in the negotiations. Instead, it’s on the sidelines and taking a dim view of the talks. The Water Authority calls them a “dubious closed door process.”

This is one of the key arguments I make in my book (pre-order now!) – the importance of the interface between large scale basin-facing management processes and all the local agencies back home that actually distribute the water. Our success or failure at that interface is precisely our success or failure at keeping the system from crashing.