Some notes on measuring water

There is something manifestly silly about the assertion, in table 5a of the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2015 Colorado River Accounting and Water Use Report, that the Imperial Irrigation District diverted 2,455,649 acre feet of water from river at Imperial Dam that year.

Park of the core curriculum for our University of New Mexico Water Resources Program students is an intensive field class in which students go out and measure water in a variety of ways (flow, chemistry, ecosystem properties, etc.). One of the class’s purposes, UNM engineering water guru Mark Stone tells the students, is to instill a healthy sense of the humility in the face of the difficulty of accurately measuring the parameters we’re using to manage water.

The notion that one can measure the flow of water with seven digit precision is absurd.

Hoover Dam stilling well, Oct 18, 2010

Hoover Dam stilling well, Oct 18, 2010

This is not to meant to be a criticism of the accuracy of the Bureau’s work. Far from it. One of the early tangents in the research I did for my book was a dive into the measurement of water, which included a memorable visit to the stilling well within Hoover Dam, where one of the river’s most important measurements is made. I developed the utmost respect for the people measuring water on the Lower Colorado River. They take their job seriously, and do it well.

Accuracy matters, and doing the work as accurately as one can matters a lot. But equally important is the credibility of the methodology, and the fact that the people using the numbers to make management decisions have a shared understanding that the numbers are good enough for the purposes at hand.

Jay Lund wrote about this last week, discussing disparities in the reported numbers for pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Jay cites seven different measures that in some cases differ by enormous amounts. Which one is right?

Measuring water is hard. There is no “right” number. What matters is that the numbers are collected for an agreed-upon purpose, and that there is confidence among those who need to use them that they are being collected in a fair and diligent way.

In the case of the USBR’s water accounting report cited above, the measurement and accounting is a requirement of the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in the case of Arizona v. California for determining allocation of Lower Colorado River water. There’s a clearly defined purpose, and little argument over the methodology used. This is one of Elinor Ostrom’s points in her book Governing the Commons – that agreement on the numbers is critical to successful common pool resource management. They don’t have to be “right” in some absolute technical sense, so much as reasonable enough for everyone to agree to use them.

So did Imperial divert precisely 2,455,649 acre feet of water in 2015? Of course not. But we’ve all agreed that it’s the number we’ll use.

Happy New Water Year, Colorado River Basin! Now get to work….

As the new “water year” begins, we’ve got some challenges in the Colorado River Basin.

It is worth noting some good news – despite a mediocre runoff year at 88 percent of average, storage in the basin’s two huge reservoirs, Mead and Powell, is almost exactly the same as it was last year at this time. (source pdf)

total storage, Mead and Powell

total storage, Mead and Powell

Lake Powell ended September with a surface elevation of 3,611 feet above sea level, five feet above last year. Lake Mead ended at 1,075, three feet below last year.

But it’s taken a lot of institutional duct tape to hold things together at those levels, and duct tape is not sustainable.

The current rules for allocating Colorado River water aren’t working. They allow farms and cities in Arizona, Nevada, California, Baja, and Sonora to take out more water than flows into the reservoir each year. Over short time scales in a variable system, that might make sense. The point of a big reservoir is to store water in wet years for use in dry years. But if there’s an imbalance in the long run, if we keep taking out more year after year, eventually we’re screwed unless the rules adjust as the reservoir drops.

Our current rules don’t.

I had a great pair of conversations over the last week with Ian James at the Desert Sun, who’s been doing some really thoughtful work about water use in the West (and around the world). He was kind enough to transcribe them to share with his readers some of my take on the Colorado River and why, despite its troubles, I am optimistic. This bit stuck out, when Ian asked about my assertion that “we need new rules” to govern the allocation of Colorado River water:

Clearly the rules are going to be that everybody, all of the three states in the Lower Basin, are going to be taking less water out of Lake Mead as Lake Mead drops. But how much less and how you allocate the details of those shortages, those have to emerge from the negotiations among California and Arizona and Nevada and the federal government and Mexico, and that’s the really important thing that I learned about how these negotiating processes work.

This seems like a no brainer – take less water out of Lake Mead! – but the details are hard. As I’ve been arguing over and over again in the interviews I’ve been doing to accompany the release of my book, communities in the West have shown repeated success in using less water when they have to. But no one wants to volunteer to be the one to use less, let those other people over there do it.

The “drought contingency plan” now under negotiation appears to have a good shot at fixing this problem. It’s a new set of rules to take less water out of Lake Mead, and by construction it would stabilize Mead’s levels as users agree to deeper and deeper cuts as needed until, at low lake levels, inflow and outflow would equalize. This is in everybody’s interest, but it is a classic collective action problem which is running headlong into what I view as the essential hurdle. State-to-state negotiators have developed a workable plan, but the no-one’s-in-chargeness problem of “polycentric governance” (eek! jargon! read Ostrom! take my class!) means one step remains. From my conversation with Ian:

The biggest pitfall, the biggest danger is that the people who are working at the basin scale, the people who are in this network of people working together across state boundaries, understand that we have to take less water from the system. They have to go home and sell that to a political environment that’s really locally focused. There’s this political pushback back home, and all these deals ultimately have to be approved back home.

We’re in the pushback phase. As we enter a new water year – most water accounting systems begin Oct. 1 – there’s a hurdle there in front of you, people, now’s the time you’re supposed to jump.

“It’s not all that high,” Fleck said with his characteristic naive yet generous optimism. “You can do it.”

Municipal water conservation – lots more room to move

Central to my “decoupling” argument is the premise that, in addition to the water conservation we’ve already seen, we have significant opportunities to conserve yet more. This from  Dave Cogdill (California Building Industry Association and an adviser to the Public Policy Institute of California) puts some numbers to the thing:

New homes are quite water efficient, but about two-thirds of the state’s homes were built prior to water-efficiency standards. Our studies show that homes built after 1980 are two times more efficient in water use than those built prior to these standards—mostly due to water-efficient fixtures that are required for new construction. We could save 300 billion gallons annually—enough to supply 2.5 to 3 million homes—if the state’s existing homes had to comply with these standards.

Some great deals right now on my book

Water is for Fighting Over

Water is for Fighting Over

The last month of my life has been remarkable. My book, Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, emerged into the world, and people noticed it and they’ve been talking about it and I could not be more happy.

Nick Stockton interviewed me for Wired, Brad Plumer did a Q & A at VoxHuffington Post, a review in New Scientist, and discussions with KJZZ and Sea Change Radio, and perhaps my favorite of all, a Q&A with Johnny Vizcaino at UNM’s Daily Lobo, with a fun visit to the Rio Grande with Diana Cervantes for pictures. As a UNM prof, the Lobo is my home town paper.

The folks at Island Press have been amazing to work with, even more so right now because until the end of the month (tomorrow, Friday, September 30) it’s their E-book of the month with a special price of $3.99 at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, and your local independent bookseller.

But you are an old like me and want the hardcover, you say? Until tomorrow (Friday 9/30). Island Press is selling everything at 50 percent off through tomorrow. Not just my book. All their great titles.

Advice to the new president?

When the folks at Island Press asked a bunch of their authors to offer up advice to the incoming president, whoever that might be (If you were advisor to the president, what would your top priority be and why?“), I tried to keep in mind a fundamental principle that guides my work – the art of the possible. I tried to think of things that were not simply generally aspirational, but things a president can actually do:

Maintaining and extending the collaborative relationship with the Republic of Mexico over the shared waters of the Colorado River should be a sustained priority. The 2012 agreement known as “Minute 319”, signed in 2012, included important water sharing provisions and for the first time allowed water to be returned to the desiccated Colorado River for the environment and the communities of Mexico. The deal was an important milestone, but it was only a temporary agreement. We need permanent solutions to the overuse of the Colorado River, and sustaining our partnership with Mexico is a critical piece.

The executive branch has few degrees of freedom on water management, but international diplomacy is clearly under the purview of the president and their appointees.

Lots of other cool suggestions from my Island Press siblings, I encourage a click. And if you like the sort of things we write, there’s a big sale going on now. Bargains galore on smart books.


Vin Scully and the importance of doing the work

I’d like to tell a Vin Scully story.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, radio was a backdrop to our lives. It was the AM radio era, and KFI 640 was often on in the house, whatever they were playing. I loved radio. I would listen to whatever, fascinated by the magic.

For a time, I even listened to hockey. I had never seen a hockey game. I had no earthly idea where the blue line was or what what “icing the puck” meant. I would construct these elaborate images in my mind to match the frenzied voices on the radio.

Carol Highsmith, via Library of Congress

Carol Highsmith, via Library of Congress

So I listened to baseball, not as a baseball fan, but as a child mesmerized by the magic of a distant communicator telling stories. During that time, Scully and his broadcast partner Jerry Doggett would swap innings, each solo in the booth. As a youngster, there was no distinction in my mind between the two, but eventually from the background emerged Scully the storyteller.

There’s an easygoing way to his stories, a fun bit of business he’s telling a friend over the backdrop of a lazy summer afternoon at the ballpark, a circling parallel narrative that never got in the way of the day’s game, but rather filled in around it.

There was a period, memory is hazy but I’m guessing it was the early 1970s, when one of the local TV stations, KTTV Channel 11, would carry the Saturday road games, and Scully and Doggett would also do the TV play-by-play – one on TV, the other on the radio simultaneously, then switching. By that time I’d become a huge Scully fan, so I’d switch the sound and get Vin Scully for the whole game – half his TV call, the other half his radio call. I loved those Saturdays.

The difference in approach was noticeable – more work to fill in the spaces on radio, less with the TV because we could see things for ourselves. Like John McPhee and Miles Davis, Scully is a master of staying out of the way of his own story, giving you what you need and no more. It was a communication clinic. (Listen to his call of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run, or the final inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, to see what I mean here.)

But there was something else that was to me, a young storyteller in the making, remarkable. The story he told one inning on the radio, the second little narrative that paralleled the game he was was calling, he’d tell again on TV. He made it sound like an easygoing tale, remembered spur-of-the-moment from a locker room conversation or an old game he called years ago. But in fact the easy storytelling was the result of meticulous preparation.

Vin Scully did the work.

I have a lot of different stories I tell myself about how I became a writer, but this is one of them: that I learned to love the craft of the telling of stories by listening as a child to Vin Scully.

The Salton Sea and the risk of failure

While I was writing my book about the future of Colorado River water management, I joked about my efforts to leave the Salton Sea out of the story. It was only sort of a joke. The problems of the Salton Sea, an inland water body fed by agricultural drainage from the Imperial Valley, are an integral part of the Colorado River story. As we pursue efficiency, agricultural drainage shrinks. And so, therefore, does the Sea.

Salton Sea, Carol Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

Salton Sea, Carol Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

My desire to leave the Salton Sea out of the book was in part a matter of the practical constraints of writing this particular book. The problems of the Sea are enormously complex, and every time I tried to write the story it failed in a blind alley with a heap of linguistic garbage. My Island Press editor Emily Turner Davis and I were trying to craft a short book. The Salton Sea did not lend itself to that.

There’s a layer of complexity to the Salton Sea problem that both made it hard to write about but that also illustrates why it’s a hard problem for water managers to sort out. The institutional plumbing we’ve built over the last century to manage water is about managing water. That sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but it has an important implication: we’re not good at thinking about and coping with knock-on effects of water management decisions on non-water systems. Often, our solutions come at the expense of what economists would call “externalities”.

The environmental piece of this is obvious, and we’re slowly learning to grapple with it. When we remove water from where it used to sit or flow, the environment is changed in ways that we increasingly view as detrimental (fish die, springs dry, cottonwoods whither, etc.). The options for bringing those watery values into the institutional plumbing are narrow, but we’re getting the hang of them. Environmental management is increasingly incorporated into water management.

But the most significant problem caused by a dwindling Salton Sea may be a public health issue. As the Sea shrinks, exposed shoreline flats are dust storms waiting to happen, creating filthy air and a public health risk. (See Michael Cohen’s Hazard’s Toll, and the Salton Sea Initiative for summaries.) Importantly, the most vulnerable population here is poor. We simply lack the institutional tools to incorporate public health into water policy decision making – all the more so when the people hurt are poor. Public health people speak a different language, go to different meetings, hang out in different hotel bars.

The current scheme for reducing water use in Imperial includes a trigger point that would lead to significant reduction in ag runoff and a shrinking sea beginning Dec. 31, 2017. That’s not far away. The water use piece is crucial to balancing California’s water books. Without those Imperial reductions, less Colorado River water would be available to municipal Southern California. A loss of water supply reliability there would increase pressure on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the other source of Southern California’s water.

So this is a statewide problem, but the poor folk of Imperial are being asked to bear a disproportionate burden in its solution.

There are three possible outcomes:

  • The deal to reduce ag water use in Imperial could collapse. By reducing the reliability of Southern California’s Colorado River supplies, this would place enormous pressure on California’s water system state wide.
  • The deal to reduce ag water use could hold, and the shrinking Salton Sea would leave exposed shoreline, create toxic dust and a public health threat. The burden of solving California’s water problems thus would fall on one community in particular.
  • Those who benefit – the residents of the state of California as a whole – could fund the mitigation measures necessary to manage the impacts of a shrinking sea, creating habit and dust control measures.

My preference is the third option. Time is running short.

And for what it’s worth, my efforts to leave the Salton Sea out of my book failed. It required some crushing simplifications, but it remains a short book.

I talked on the radio about my book

I miss y’all! So busy being person-selling-a-book while simultaneously being person-teaching-grad-students-about-water. I have much to say, frustrated that I don’t have enough time to write about it all here, but Steve Goldstein at KJZZ helped me share some of my ideas with Phoenix radio listeners. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can listen in now too:

For as long as anyone can remember, there have been concerns about whether there’s enough water for a city like Phoenix to be sustainable in the long run.

The reality seems even more daunting after years of drought and disputes over what share of the Colorado River states like Arizona and California may get. And most headlines indicate those disputes are getting worse.

In his new book, “Water Is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West,” John Fleck paints a fairly optimistic picture about cooperation and collaboration.