A great water historian in California’s time of need

UCLA’s Jon Christensen* has written a lovely, loving essay remembering the late water historian Norris Hundley, who wrote so well about western water, and (Jon argues) is important now, in California’s time of need:

It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because one of the central arguments in my work right now is that water is not for fighting over, but I think there is room for a meeting between my own work and the argument that both Christensen and Hundley are making and it lies in part in this central point.

One farm district at a time.... A citrus orchard going in, Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District, Arizona

One farm at a time…. A citrus orchard going in, Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District, Arizona

I, too, have been rereading Hundley. His three great books, Dividing The Waters, Water and the West, and The Great Thirst are within arms reach of my computer as I type this (four, in fact, I have both versions of The Great Thirst). In the prologue to The Great Thirst, Hundley argues against the “grand conspiracy” wing of western water history that argues that the characteristics of large scale irrigation inevitably lead to dominance by large, centralized institutions, and that our problems largely flow from that:

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 others be incorrectly attributed to a conspiratorial power elite.

Hundley doesn’t say it, but I read this as an “anti-Cadillac Desert” argument, an argument against Marc Reisner’s grand federalist conspiracy, the great centralized something-ocracy that Donald Worster so elegantly offered up in Rivers of Empire. I spent a lot of time in the blind alley those two books sent me down, but the Reisner/Worster narrative kept clashing with the messy reality my journalism encountered daily. Donald Pisani, another of the western water historians, makes a similar critique, explicitly, of Reisner and Worster in “The Irrigation District and the Federal Relationship”, an essay published in the 1989 book The Twentieth century West: Historical interpretations.

I wish I’d read Hundley more carefully, and sooner. If Hundley is right – and I think he is – it has important implications for what we do with water policy today.

I agree here with Christensen that it’s really just “democracy, messy democracy” – well-intentioned people with imperfect information trying to make their best of the situation by muddling along. That suggests that big solutions are not likely to bear fruit – that what we’re doing to end up with is a lot of small solutions, solving problems one municipality and irrigation district at a time. Hundley calls it “an excess of Madisonian democracy with its focus on localism.” This is the best explanation I know for why the kind of strong federal intervention you saw in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin won’t happen here. It runs against our basic nature.

In my Colorado River work, I frequently talk to people looking for grand solutions – basinwide planning that somehow bakes in population or acreage limitations required to make the water math balance. My response is what I describe as “no-one’s-in-chargeness”. These decisions are made one suburban municipal government or irrigation district at a time. That’s our Madisonian democracy.

My disagreement with the “fighting” meme is that, mostly, irrigation districts and municipalities haven’t been fighting. Much of the history of water in the West is a history of banal building of cities and farms that mostly had enough water and mostly got along with their neighbors. But I’m nervous about this assertion, always nervous that I might be wrong.

The key here is that the fighting or the “not fighting” has to happen at this “messy democracy” level. We’ve no alternative.

* Disclosure: When Jon was at Stanford, he provide through the Lane Center some funding and support for early work that is slowly but surely turning into my book. More importantly he encouraged me, in a memorable conversation in his Stanford office, to overcome my fear that I might be wrong about this “not fighting” stuff and stick my neck out. It’s now out.

One more money quote from the California court decision on tiered water pricing

A friend notes that I may have cut the best part from the “Cadillac Desert” quotation in this week’s California court decision on tiered municipal water rates.

We hope there are future scientists, engineers, and legislators with the wisdom to envision and enact water plans to keep our beloved Cadillac Desert habitable. But that is not the court’s mandate. Our job – and it is daunting enough – is solely to determine what water plans the voters and legislators of the past have put in place, and to determine whether the trial court’s rulings complied with those plans. (emphasis added)

A glimmer of good water supply news for New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande farmers

Despite some hilariously complex argument over the accounting details, there finally is enough water in Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande that everybody agrees it’s now legal for the middle Rio Grande’s farm water agency to store some water behind upstream dams to help stretch out this summer’s irrigation season.

The runoff forecast is still lousy, but the flexibility allowed by the storage lessens the pressure on the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers farm water to some 60,000-ish acres in a narrow strip along the river valley through central New Mexico.

Here’s some back story on Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, but basically it was written into the interstate water deal to ensure that in dry years, Colorado and New Mexico didn’t hog a lot of water. If there’s less than 400,000 acre feet of complicatedly bureaucratically described water of a certain type in Elephant Butte, upstream folks can’t store, except when they can kinda sorta under certain narrow conditions (did I mention hilariously complex arguments over accounting details?). That makes farm water management substantially harder, because one of its basic principles involves storing some of the water during the spring runoff peak to use in the summer when the rivers get dry.

New Mexico's Hatch chile, seen here last August, will get their first Rio Grande irrigation water beginning May 11.

New Mexico’s Hatch chile, seen here last August, will get their first Rio Grande irrigation water beginning May 11.

Sometime in early April (somewhere between April 3 and April 9, depending on who you ask, see “hilariously complicated accounting”) we came out of Article VII and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was allowed to begin storing water for its farmers’ summer use.

I’m pretty sure this is the first time we’ve been out of Article VII storage restrictions since July of 2010.

The forecast is still lousy. Elephant Butte Irrigation District managers, at a farmer meeting in Hatch this morning, announced that they’ll begin a small early release for the Hatch Valley vegetable farmers on May 11, with a full release beginning May 28 that will wet the river and begin moving down the canals through the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico. (Prior to 2013, EBID had never had an irrigation season start later than March. 2013, ’14, and ’15: May.)

Tiered water rates in the Cadillac Desert

From yesterday’s landmark California court ruling on the legality of tiered municipal water rates (pdf):

Southern California is a “semi-desert with a desert heart.”1 Visionary engineers and scientists have done a remarkable job of making our home habitable, and too many of us south of the Tehachapis never give a thought to its remarkable reclamation. In his brilliant – if opinionated – classic Cadillac Desert, the late Marc Reisner laments how little appreciation there is of “how difficult it will be just to hang on to the beachhead they have made.”2

In this case we deal with parties who have an acute appreciation of how tenuous the beachhead is, and how desperately we all must fight to protect it. But they disagree about what steps are allowable – or required – to accomplish that task. We are called upon to determine not what is the right – or even the more reasonable – approach to the beachhead’s preservation, but what is the one chosen by the state’s voters.

We hope there are future scientists, engineers, and legislators with the wisdom to envision and enact water plans to keep our beloved Cadillac Desert habitable.


Footnotes to Walter Prescott Webb (1) and Marc Reisner (2)

h/t Robert Glennon

Lake Powell spring runoff forecast this year now less than half of average

At the risk of nickel-and-diming you with bad forecast news, today’s Bureau of Reclamation mid-month report is bad forecast news.

April-July flow into Lake Powell is now forecast to be just 3.4 million acre feet, 47 percent of average (pdf). That’s down from 3.75 maf (52 percent) just two weeks ago. Runoff for the full water year (Oct. 1 – Sept. 3) is now forecast at 63 percent, down for 67 percent two weeks ago.

April hasn’t been super warm, but it has been very dry:

April precipitation anomalies, courtesy PRISM

April precipitation anomalies, courtesy PRISM

April temperature anomalies

April temperature anomalies

Data courtesy PRISM Climate Group.

What does this mean for Colorado River water users? It decreases the possibility that there will be water available in Lake Powell to release extra supplies for downstream states, which increases the near term odds of a formal shortage declaration sooner (potentially as soon as 2016) rather than later. More here on who will be impacted by shortage.

In California, you can’t charge water hogs more than the rest of us

Crazy California’s proclivity for “governance by voter initiative” seems to have just undercut one of the major tools in the municipal water conservation kit.

Tiered water rates, in which residents are charged a low rate for basic needs and increasingly higher rates for high usage, violate California law, according to a court ruling handed down today. Matt Stevens in the L.A. Times:

[T]he 4th District Court of Appeal  struck down San Juan Capistrano’s fee plan, saying it violated voter-approved Proposition 218, which prohibits government agencies from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.

“We do hold that above-cost-of-service pricing for tiers of water service is not allowed by Proposition 218 and in this case, [the city] did not carry its burden of proving its higher tiers reflected its costs of service,” the court said in its ruling.

Precipitation-runoff relationships in sustained drought

This paper is measuring stuff in Australia, but seems to mimic the dropoff in runoff we’re seeing on the Rio Grande and other western U.S. rivers compared to the precipitation deficits we’re experiencing:

Annual rainfall and runoff records from south-eastern Australia are used to examine whether interdecadal climate variability induces changes in hydrological behavior. We test statistically whether annual rainfall-runoff relationships are significantly different during extended dry periods, compared with the historical norm. The results demonstrate that protracted drought led to a significant shift in the rainfall-runoff relationship in ~44% of the catchment-dry periods studied. The shift led to less annual runoff for a given annual rainfall, compared with the historical relationship.

From “The influence of multiyear drought on the annual rainfall-runoff relationship: An Australian perspective”, Saft et al., Water Resources Research, 10.1002/2014WR015348

h/t Kevin Anchukaitis at Woods Hole


In California drought, when the water’s not fer fightin’ over

What to make of this California drought story from Alex  Breitler?

Farmers within the Delta and farmers south of the Delta aren’t exactly bosom buddies.

Not when it comes to water.

But this spring, as their lawyers geared up for another year of fighting over limited supplies, farmers on both sides quietly started talking.

They hammered out a rough plan to compensate Delta farmers for voluntarily fallowing their fields, thus freeing up water that could be pumped south to their parched brethren.

The tentative arrangement was more complex than that — too complex, according to state officials, who rejected the plan late Wednesday.

But parties on both sides say the progress they’ve made could be helpful if, heaven forbid, the drought lingers for years to come.

The danger for me here is that the entire premise of my upcoming book is that collaborative arrangements to share water, rather than fighting, are the only way out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. So obviously, in the midst of all the California hollerin’ right now, I love this story because it feeds my preconceived narrative. Most of my research right now is focused on deals like this, and how they come about – the formal legalistic (institutional) structures, but also the informal stuff. Great job Alex for this detail:

Farmers from both regions met recently on McDonald Island, toured the farms there and broke bread together (actually, they ate burritos).

Burritos! Yes! (For my book, beer seems to be the thing, though there’s an epic tale I may include involving mole at a Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City.)

But there are two problems with the story that give me pause. The first is the obvious point that the deal didn’t go through. The state nixed it. I don’t see that as a huge problem. Part of what all these burritos, beer and mole are about is learning how to have the conversation. Alex’s story gets that:

While the plan appears to be dead this year, he didn’t rule out the possibility of another effort.

“We were trying to change the way we do this in California with more of a direct farmer-helping-farmer approach, rather than lawyer-talking lawyers,” he said.

The second problem is more fundamental. Like some of the deals I’m looking at in the Colorado River Basin, this is a small deal. Are problems are huge. Does this approach scale up?

Deconstructing media coverage of the California drought

Brian Devine has written one of those special pieces that made me smack my forehead repeatedly and say, “Yeah, that!”:

To conflate the myriad problems of water in California into a single problem is the hallmark of a generalist reporter on deadline, as if I wrote that the Detroit auto industry’s collapse was because they made lousy cars. Did they? Probably. Certainly I could find some evidence for that. Have we planted too many almonds? Are we growing too much of China’s forage crops? Do we have too many lawns? Do we still drink bottled water unnecessarily? Yes. No doubt. But to write about one of those things and omit the others- not out of malice or ignorance, mind you, but to find an interesting story that appeals to busy readers from all walks of life- has real consequences for how the general public- the ultimate arbiter in the market and the voting booth- think about our very, very complicated problems.

I recommend clicking through to read the entire piece. It is very good.

The Upper Basin: the Colorado River shortage that has already happened

Mike Cohen of the Pacific Institute, in some conversations last week sparked by my post about the risk of what we often call the “first ever” shortage in the Colorado River Basin, points out that shortages in fact are routine in the river’s Upper Basin.

This is a result of hydrology. The Lower Basin – Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico – has two big storage reservoirs upstream of its water users that fill in wet years and therefore allow continued water use downstream in dry years. But if you’re in Utah or Colorado, without a big reservoir above you, you’re dependent on the snowpack in the mountains above you and the water flowing down your river. If it’s a dry year, you don’t have water to irrigate.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation attempts to calculate the shortages that result – the amount of water that would have been used but is not available simply because it’s a dry year. Here’s Mike’s graph of the results:

Courtesy Michael Cohen, Pacific Institute; data from USBR

Courtesy Michael Cohen, Pacific Institute; data from USBR

2002 is particularly interesting, and was apparently particularly galling for folks in the Upper Basin. It was a horribly dry year, with big shortages to Upper Basin water users. But the big downstream reservoirs were relatively flush, and the Bureau declared a “surplus” on the Lower Colorado, giving California a big slug of extra water.

Typically in a big river system, the people upstream have the advantage, and those downstream are left behind because of upstream use. But on the Colorado, it’s the reverse.