The federal role in western drought

The federal government, through its water agencies (and the funding providing via taxpayers in other places) used to be a major player in the development of the West. This Michael Doyle story, in describing a Congress up to its axles in California drought and unable to move an inch, suggests that is no longer the case:

Five months into a new Congress, and deep into a lasting drought, California water legislation still stymies and splits the state’s lawmakers.

Clearly Californians have not passed the first important hurdle for federal action on state-level water issues – unanimity within the state about what should be done. Traditionally a state gets its act together and presents a united position to Congress as a necessary precondition to federal action. But one of the reasons such unanimity is harder today than it used to be is a reduced federal ability to throw vast sums of money at internal state water conflicts. Used to be that part of a deal was federal dollars to build a big canal or dam or something that all the state players could get behind. We’re done with that.

Second is a deeper values division about the best way to deal with our water problems. California has always had a north versus south problem, but now…. Water for the environment? Ag versus urban? This may be greatest hurdle.

The remarkable U.S. water conservation success story

The U.S. economy and population are growing. Our water use is not. New research by Peter Debaere and Amanda Kurzendoerfer of the University of Virginia helps further disentangle the reasons behind this remarkable U.S. water conservation success since the 1980s.

The break between population, economic growth, and water use is something Peter Gleick has pointed out before: “The assumption that demand for water must inevitably grow is false.”

Debaere and Kurzendoerfer have taken our understanding  a step further by disentangling the roles of sectoral changes in our economy (has our core economy changed in a way that simply offshores our water use while we shift to doing other tasks that require less water?) versus underlying efficiency gains in the economy left behind:

Debaere and Kurzendoerfer, 2015

Debaere and Kurzendoerfer, 2015

The top line is their model of water use simply tracked GDP growth. The middle line is a “what if” it was simply “sectoral changes” in our economy – essentially offshoring our water use. The bottom line is what actually happened:

Technological improvements are responsible for the remainder of the water productivity gains–at least 50%. Since actual water is influenced by technological changes as well as structural shifts in the economy, the difference between the lowest line in Figure 1 (actual water use) and the second-highest one marks the contributions of technological improvements. The sizeable impact of technological improvement is a welcome finding if one considers technology an opportunity for replication abroad. Indeed, transferring technology can be a more actionable way of bringing about less water use, especially compared to the slow-moving process of structural shifts toward a less water-intensive service economy.

The virtues of alfalfa in drought

Alfalfa, which recently handed over its”Demon Crop” title to almonds, is really a far better crop in drought than common wisdom suggests, according to U.C. Davis’s Dan Putnam:

Contrary to popular belief, alfalfa has several unique positive biological properties and advantages when it comes to water. Due to these properties, alfalfa is remarkably resilient when it comes to severe drought conditions.

Among other things, Putnam argues that “deficit irrigation” – the ability to cut way back on water during the heat of a summer drought – provides important water management flexibility. The full piece is worth reading.

Water Ranch, Gilbert, Ariz.

Black-necked stilt, Gilbert Water Ranch

Black-necked stilt, Gilbert Water Ranch

In Phoenix for a meeting, I had a couple of hours’ hole in my schedule and skipped out to the “Gilbert Water Ranch”. It’s an interesting example of what the water management solution space looks like in arid central Arizona.

It’s a series of groundwater recharge basins in the Phoenix suburb – both treated municipal sewage and imported Colorado River water. It’s also a lovely municipal park (lots of walkers on a weekday morning). And the birds seem to enjoy it as well.

Mapping the Colorado River Delta – a recognition that Mexico is a part of the basin

It’s a nuance, but of such subtleties are progress often made.

In the Bureau of Reclamation’s new “Moving Forward” report on the future of the Colorado River Basin, a subtle change to the bureau’s canonical map:

Colorado River Basin map, courtesy USBR

Colorado River Basin map, courtesy USBR

There, at the bottom. See that little bit poking down into Mexico? That’s the Colorado River Delta. The Bureau’s official map used to cut off its depiction of the Colorado River Basin at the U.S.-Mexico border. Here, for example, is the map that appeared in the predecessor to the “Moving Forward” report, the 2012 Basin Study:

2012 Basin Map

2012 Basin Map

On the heels of the enormously successful Minute 319 environmental pulse flow down through that Mexican Delta, a quiet recognition that the Colorado River Basin is a thing changed.

On the Gila River in New Mexico, a “field of dreams” argument

From Brett Walton’s piece on a proposal to divert water from the Gila River in New Mexico (in the Lower Colorado River Basin), an old school argument for building western water infrastruccture:

Gutierrez does not believe that the unit cost for water — what a city or a farmer will pay for an acre-foot — is required information. He believes that contracts for the water before construction begins are unnecessary as well. “There’s already a need,” he said. “Once the water is available people will use it.”

Is this Field of Dreams assumption — that if the project is built, someone will pay for the water — sufficient for the commission to continue pushing for construction?

“That assumption is enough for me,” replied Gutierrez, who talks about investing the AWSA money and using the returns to help finance the project. “It may not be enough for the environmental community.”

The piece is interesting throughout.

A window of opportunity to move the Colorado River dialogue forward

The long awaited “Moving Forward Phase 1” report on opportunities for managing water in the Colorado River Basin plopped into public view this afternoon.

I’m going to use the prerogative of a journalist no longer beholden to daily deadlines to wait until I’ve actually had time to review and think about the 448 page report about before writing about it. (Ah, the luxury.)

All-American Canal, above Bard, California

All-American Canal, above Bard, California

My quick reaction after a quick trip through the executive summary (and with a knowledge of how long it took to get the report out the door – the release was originally planned for December) is that it’s as interesting for what it doesn’t recommend as for what it does. By that I mean that actually solving the basin’s problems will require more than a report with a list of recommendations that we can all charge out and implement. You’re not going to see an “X million acre feet out of municipal use by taking the following steps, and Y million acre feet out of ag.” Those numbers must emerge from difficult tradeoffs and negotiations and institutional evolution over time, a process of innovation and experimentation. In that regard, the most interesting comment in the flurry of news releases that hit my inbox this afternoon came from David Festa at the Environmental Defense Fund: “With so many interests coming together with a shared sense of responsibility and opportunity, we can indeed move forward. We don’t have time to lose. Securing new funding sources and implementing pilot projects are key next steps.” In other words, this is about process. We have to do some stuff in order to learn how to do more stuff.

It’s worth sharing in the meantime comments from a group of prominent Colorado River Basin scholars who have had the time to review it. They argue in a new white paper also out today that we have a “window of opportunity” opening to shift the dialogue over the overtaxed river from “resource management” to “use management”.

The release of the new paper from the Colorado River Research Group coincides with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s “Moving Forward” report, the followup to its 2012 Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study.

Here’s the meat of the new CRRG white paper:

The challenges facing the Colorado River Basin are varied and significant. In particular, population growth, drought, and climate change all are likely to further strain the regional water budget unless our management of water uses evolves to match our expertise in managing water resources. Fortunately, there’s also no shortage of viable, cost-effective solutions, and the many reforms enacted during the past decade have opened a short window of opportunity for basin residents to consider what a lasting solution might look like. It’s clear that any real solution must take advantage of the many inefficient water uses that persist throughout the basin, which are every bit as much of an opportunity to embrace as a problem to lament.

It looks to me like the CRRG folks don’t think the new Bureau report goes far enough – focusing on quantifying past municipal conservation successes, for example, without quantifying expectations of future progress. Again, from the white paper, discussing the work of the municipal conservation work group:

To date, that workgroup has focused on documenting the effectiveness of past and planned conservation efforts in the major metropolitan areas serving over 29 million residents—more than 85 percent of all municipal water users served by the Colorado. Preliminary findings suggest conservation and re-use programs active since 1990 have reduced 2010 M&I demand levels by nearly 2.4 million acre-feet/year.

On the downside, this level of water demand savings was sufficient only in “partially attenuating the effect of population growth on M&I water use.” And in the next two decades (2010 to 2030), the workgroup suggests a much more tempered estimate of potential savings: roughly 700,000 acre-feet/year. While it’s true that conservation can become increasingly difficult as the most egregious wastes of water are eliminated first, we suspect that this modest savings projection—just like previous M&I demand estimates in the basin—is heavily influenced by the risk-aversive nature of water providers who understand it’s much safer for them to over-estimate (than under-estimate) demand.


But my inbox also is full of enthusiasm for the Moving Forward report, in the form of press release quotes:

John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority

There is a shared risk and shared responsibility among all water users associated with proactively managing the water supply and demand imbalance. Municipal and agricultural conservation and reuse have been used successfully in the past across multiple use sectors and are key elements in resource plans that will undoubtedly be critical programs in the future to provide sustainability of the river and its many resources.

Tina Shields at the Imperial Irrigation District:

There are opportunities to do more in all sectors to enhance western agriculture, environmental values and provide flexibility for growing water needs through voluntary incentive-based efficiency and conservation programs.

Jim Lochhead, Denver Water

Continuing drought conditions in the Colorado River basin, combined with the California drought, are a sobering reminder that the time for action is now. Doing nothing is not an option. Throughout the basin, and across all water sectors, we face a challenge to step up and lead. We can take control of our destiny, or we can allow drought and climate change to overwhelm us.

The Bureau’s Terry Fulp:

The impacts of the ongoing drought are widespread and are currently being addressed at the local and regional levels. Looking ahead to the longer-term challenges facing the Basin documented in the 2012 Study, it is clear that these challenges must be tackled collaboratively involving all sectors of use. The Phase 1 Report is a critical first step towards this level of collaboration.

Maybe a second diversion to get New Mexico’s share of Lower Basin Colorado River water?

With critics saying there’s no way New Mexico can get 14,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River, as promised in the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Avelino Maestas reports that state officials are talking about a second diversion, on the San Francisco:

The Gila River may not be able to supply the 14,000 acre feet of water guaranteed to New Mexico under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, and a second diversion project will likely been needed on the San Francisco River to make up the difference….

“The Act allows New Mexico 14,000 acre feet of annual use,” Roepke said. “It’s not possible to get that, I believe — without causing severe environmental problems — entirely off the Gila River. So, if New Mexico is going to enjoy the full 14,000 acre feet, yes, you’re probably going to need, at some point, a unit on the San Francisco River.”