The institutional hydrograph: April on New Mexico’s Rio Grande

Rio Grande near Cerro, NM, courtesy USGS

Rio Grande near Cerro, NM, courtesy USGS

Here’s another example of a New Mexico “hydrograph” – the rise and fall of flow on a river over time – driven by rules, not weather. The drop in river flow happens when the irrigation season begins in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Here’s J.R. Logan in the Taos News:

The Río Grande is at the heart of the valley’s massive agricultural industry, and farmers waste no time in taking their share.

“We got to get after it,” says Jay Yeager, head of the Río Grande Canal Water Users Association, which manages a primary irrigation artery in the San Luis Valley.

The rules governing how much Colorado water users can take and how much they must pass downstream for use in New Mexico are governed by the Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas signed in 1938. It is the important implement of governance here, and the flow in the river bears its mark. Here is Logan’s nice explanation of the implications:

The catch – for New Mexico – is that the delivery is calculated on an annual basis, meaning Colorado can let every drop of the river go to New Mexico during the fall and winter while taking most of the river during the spring and summer and still fulfill its debt to New Mexico.

This is a problem if you are a river rafter or a fish, two examples of modern uses and values that weren’t at play in the 1930s when the deal was negotiated.

Resilience and water management on New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande

NCDC March precipitation rankings

NCDC March precipitation rankings

After a good start this year, New Mexico’s snowpack cratered in February and March. The month just completed, in fact, was the driest March on record in New Mexico. February and March combined were the second warmest and second driest on record, a devastating combination for what had been shaping up to be a decent snowpack year. The preliminary April 1 median Rio Grande runoff forecast is now calling for 60 percent of the long term average at Otowi, the key measurement point as the river enters the most populous and water-using part of the state.

If the forecast holds, this would be the 15th year of below-average flows in the 17 years since 2000 (inclusive), and the 8th straight below average year. This period represents a significant test of the resilience of the system. How are we doing?


Short answer, looking at the three primary uses of water in the region:

  • municipal water use: doing remarkably well
  • agriculture: also, remarkably well (data below)
  • nature: not so good


My University of New Mexico colleague (I still love saying that!) Melinda Harm Benson and a group of colleagues wrote a paper a couple of years ago applying a “resilience” framework to the Middle Rio Grande. Their definition of the term “resilience” is the ability of a system – in this case a “social-ecological system” with feedbacks between human and natural systems – to absorb a significant external shock while retaining its basic structure and function:

From a management perspective, promoting resilience involves (1) evaluation of the current trajectory of the system state, and (2) fostering the ability of the system to resist perturbations. The abilities to influence both of these factors are determined by a combination of attributes of both the social and the ecological aspects of the system. Systems with high adaptive capacity are able to re-configure themselves without significant changes to crucial functions, such as primary productivity, hydrological cycles, social relations, and economic prosperity.

I find this to be an incredibly useful framework – I don’t talk about it much directly in my book about the Colorado River Basin’s management, but Professor Benson’s help thinking through the issues (she had me come talk to one of her classes – that helps clarify the mind) provided an invaluable conceptual skeleton. It’s useful in part because it requires us to clarify which structures and functions we’re talking about. We then can look at the institutions through which we lumbering humans execute the “social” part of “social-ecological systems”.

Middle Rio Grande crop productivity

Middle Rio Grande crop productivity

The remarkable surprise for me, having watched Middle Rio Grande water management closely through this period of extended drought, is the extent to which the two key human systems built around water extraction have survived and even thrived during this period of less water. One useful measure of the success or failure of the region’s agriculture, for example, is the dollar value of crop production. The Department of Commerce publishes annual estimates of total crop sales (Table CA45 here), which I’ve summed up for the Middle Rio Grande’s four counties (Sandoval, Bernalillo, Valencia, Socorro) and adjusted for inflation here. The blue part is the last wet period, the ugly reddish purple is the drought. I haven’t done any fancy statistical tests here (Danger, journalist doing math!), but just eyeballing it you can’t see any particularly significant impact from drought on the sector of human use that depends the most on surface water for irrigation. A big part of this is efficiency in irrigation water application. During the wet times, farmers were more likely to simply dump a lot of water on their fields. As things dried up and allocation got scarcer, the farm water system has tightened up, but without a significant reduction in crop yields. Middle Rio Grande agriculture is a tiny segment of our economy, but by this measure it appears to have absorbed the shock of unprecedented drought and retained its basic structure and function. The adaptive capacity seems located in two places – on the farms themselves, and in the management of the irrigation district that delivers their water.

Albuquerque water use

Albuquerque water use

The second major human-using water sector, municipal use, has also fared remarkably well during the drought. Total water use in Albuquerque, the region’s metropolitan core, has declined over the last 25 years, even as population has grown substantially (more background here on the 2o15 numbers shown to the left). As a result of the combination of a shift in supply management and conservation trends, Albuquerque’s overtaxed aquifer has risen 15 feet or more over the last decade (data here). Again, the adaptive capacity seems located in two places – among residents themselves via their conservation behavior, and in the water management institution that delivers their water.

Put another way, the rising aquifer means the mass balance of water in this region has increased during the worst drought on record while both agricultural and municipal water use sectors have continued to receive supplies sufficient for them to retain their basic structure and function. In both cases – ag and the municipal sector – we have stable institutions that have have demonstrated their ability to continue delivering the water supplies with general community consensus (or at least lack of significant conflict) around their approaches to managing supply.

The third important piece of the Middle Rio Grande’s water use, nature, is more complicated. The Rio Grande silvery minnow, the endangered species that has been our coal mine canary, depends on fish raised in hatcheries, so altered by human dams and diversions is the “natural” ecosystem in which the little fish evolved. The Endangered Species Act requires us to try to keep alive a fish that evolved in a meandering, braided desert river with large spring pulse flows in what is now a much more narrow, channelized river with much smaller spring pulse flows. Their is no stable institutional structure through which we as a community can come together to hash out our shared community values and then pursue them regarding what we want the river itself to be like, and what kind of natural system we might hope to preserve and enhance, and how we might manage water to achieve this. The best we have is the conflict-ridden Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program, which has been unable in recent years to complete the most basic of regulatory tasks – extending the “biological opinion”, the basic Endangered Species Act regulatory document, which expired in 2013. This is one of the most interesting questions raised by resilience theory – where do you draw the boundaries around the systems you’re talking about? I think it’s fair to say that the riparian ecosystem has not retained its basic structure and function, and our institutions have not been up to the task of responding.

There remain interesting questions. Have the changes in water management that have allowed us to manage nearly two decades of drought merely taken the slack out of the system, making us more vulnerable to future shocks, especially from climate change? In other words, is the success I describe above not really a demonstration of resilience, but rather a hardening that in the long run leaves us even less resilient to future shock? Is our manhandling of the ecosystem weakening future resilience? Have I drawn the boundaries in the wrong place – maybe we’ve succeeded here in the Middle Rio Grande at the expense of folks upstream or downstream?

Are domestic wells hiding Florida water problem?

On paper, it looks like water use in Gainesville, Florida, is going down. But….

“We are seeing public supply water use decrease over time but population is going up,” Greco said. “So everyone is patting themselves on the back, people like myself, saying, ‘Oh, we are doing such a great job. We are conserving water.’”

But this good news wouldn’t be so good if the numbers are dropping in part because uncounted backyard well pumping is replacing irrigation from public supplies.

That’s from How Many Straws, a piece by Hannah Brown that is part of Project Blue Ether, a look at Florida water from a group at the University of Florida led by Cynthia Barnett.

“Water is for Fighting Over” – on the shelves in September

Water is For Fighting Over: and other Myths about Water In the West, by John Fleck, Island Press, September 2016

Water is for Fighting Over: and other Myths about Water In the West, by John Fleck, Island Press, September 2016

My life’s kind of a blur right now, but the official Island Press announcement of my book, along with the unveiling of its cover, is a thing that has just happened, so let me pause and catch my breath.

People familiar with my frequent ranting about how Mark Twain never said the thing about whiskey and water (see here, here, and here) may be puzzled over the title. Here’s the essence of the message, as cribbed from the Island Press book summary:

When we think of water in the West, we think of conflict and crisis. In recent years, newspaper headlines have screamed, “Scarce water and the death of California farms,” “The Dust Bowl returns,” “A ‘megadrought’ will grip U.S. in the coming decades.” Yet similar stories have been appearing for decades and the taps continue to flow. John Fleck argues that the talk of impending doom is not only untrue, but dangerous. When people get scared, they fight for the last drop of water; but when they actually have less, they use less.

Having covered environmental issues in the West for a quarter century, Fleck would be the last writer to discount the serious problems posed by a dwindling Colorado River. But in that time, Fleck has also seen people in the Colorado River Basin come together, conserve, and share the water that is available. Western communities, whether farmers and city-dwellers or US environmentalists and Mexican water managers, have a promising record of cooperation, a record often obscured by the crisis narrative.

In this fresh take on western water, Fleck brings to light the true history of collaboration and examines the bonds currently being forged to solve the Basin’s most dire threats. Rather than perpetuate the myth “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over,” Fleck urges readers to embrace a new, more optimistic narrative—a future where the Colorado continues to flow.

As I’ve written before, I’m dyin’ to share it with y’all.

Granite Bay and the California water ethic

Blue Revolution, by Cynthia Barnett

Blue Revolution, by Cynthia Barnett

When I read this Phillip Reese story Monday evening about a California community willfully defying the state’s water conservation orders, the name of the place rang a bell. I shot off an email to my friend Cynthia Barnett, author of the wonderful Blue Revolution, a call for a new water ethic in the United States. “Wasn’t Granite Bay the place you wrote about in Blue Revolution?” (My copy of the book was on the shelf at my University of New Mexico office – I push it on water resources students every chance I get.)

Turns out my memory was correct. It was the waterfalls I remembered, right there on the first page of the book:

The amenity to envy was no longer the diving board. The must-have, now, was the waterfall.

No community glorified the trend like Granite Bay, California….

In Granite Bay’s best backyards, rocky waterfalls cascade artfully into boulder-lined swimming pools, set off with grottoes, swim-up bars, and built-in hot tubs. Thick bushes and trees bearing flowers and fruit adorn the watery wonders, making a place naturally dominated by needlegrass and sedge look more like Fiji. Precisely groomed lawns, a quarter acre and larger, complete the sublimely unnatural tableau.

As Barnett noted, that comes with a cost – water use more than three times the national average.

As Reese noted, Granite Bay still uses a lot of water:

In July, San Juan Water District customers used more than 400 gallons of water per capita, more than 100 gallons per capita more than any other district in the region, state figures show.

To be fair, Granite Bay residents have cut back just like everyone else, but they’re still among the state’s big residential water users, and the message sent by their unwillingness to keep up the pressure is telling. It made Cynthia sad (email comment shared with permission):

Granite Bay struck me as perhaps the best example in the nation of the illusion of water abundance and our lack of an ethic for water in America. Today, it is perhaps the best example of a lost opportunity to show that even the most water-addicted communities can change, and live ethically with water — while still living really well.

Hanak on federal agriculture policies and water

When we think of federal water policy, we think Bureau of Reclamation or EPA. But just as agriculture is where the water is, federal agriculture agencies are where the money is. Ellen Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California had a post yesterday with some useful suggestions for spending it well:

Practical reforms in easement programs could yield drought-management results. The wetland recovery program pays farmers to permanently restore fields to wetlands, and the conservation reserve program pays them to convert fields to cover crops for 10–15 years. But such long-term commitments to fallow lands are unappealing to many farmers.

These programs could be more effective by allowing shorter easements and working with groups of farmers rather than individuals. For instance, paying farmers to create temporary wetlands during droughts can stretch scarce water and dollars while supporting waterbirds. Similarly, paying a group of farmers to do rotational fallowing—which means they take turns temporarily fallowing fields—can reduce overall water use while keeping farms in production. Meanwhile, other incentives could focus on farmers who commit to maintaining land in field crops rather than permanent crops—a change that could boost drought resilience in places like California, which has seen a big expansion of tree crops that are harder to fallow.

There is more, and I recommend the work of Hanak and her colleagues for practical, actionable water policy suggestions.

Throwback Thursday: Making adobe brick. Bosque Farms, New Mexico

Making adobe brick. Bosque Farms, New Mexico. Arthur Rothstein, April 1936

Making adobe brick. Bosque Farms, New Mexico. Arthur Rothstein, April 1936

Arthur Rothstein arrived in the Dust Bowl in April of 1936. He was 21 years old, the son of Jewish immigrants, born and raised in New York City. Fresh from Columbia University, Rothstein had been the first photographer hired by Roy Stryker, his former professor, at the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency that, from 1935 to 1936, relocated struggling families to communities planned by the federal government. The photography unit, later part of the Farm Security Administration, documented for the public not only the multitude of problems the nation was facing, but what the government was doing about them.

Arthur Rothstein's iconic Dust Bowl picture

Arthur Rothstein’s iconic Dust Bowl picture

That’s from the biography of Rothstein written as part of Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary. Rothstein is justly famous for his photograph of a farmer named Arthur Coble and his sons walking against the dust in Cimarron County, up against the Oklahoma-New Mexico border.

New Mexico was on the far western edge of what we can to call the “Dust Bowl”, and Rothstein’s work here is far less famous. But it’s a wonderful documentary record of a moment in time.

Roy Stryker hired the young photographer as part of a team of documentarians that included Dorothea Lange. Rothstein had to learn to drive in order to do the job.

Historian Michael L. Carlebach (behind paywall) argues that the body of work they produced is as much propaganda as it is documentary journalism or art:

The FSA photography project was the first attempt by the federal government to provide a broad visual record of American society. It was also the first systematic use of photography by the government for partisan purposes. In order to convince the American people and the Congress of the need for reform, especially in the agricultural sector, still photographs that described the deplorable conditions in the countryside were produced and disseminated.

Rothstein’s pictures are interesting in this context. As he travelled the western United States, he seemed to be especially focused on irrigation works, as the Library of Congress’s collection of his work shows. So maybe this is propaganda at a critical moment in American history selling the nation on the benefits of irrigation?

Whatever. They’re wonderful pictures.