& the West – new offering from Stanford’s Lane Center

Worth bookmarking:

We want to be a place where research findings about geology or sociology blend with our journalism about the world of the West, to give a multi-dimensional picture of the region’s life and issues. We will also introduce, and constantly update, a library of links you can use to explore the subjects we cover.

That’s Felicity Barringer, formerly of the New York Times, now writer in residence at Stanford’s Lane Center, on “& the West”, a new project she and Geoff McGhee recently launched looking at a range of issues. These are two very smart people finding new space in what I’ve been calling the “borderland” between academia and journalism.

You can see what they bring to the discussion here, with a look at the proposed  Bears Ears National Monument. Good stuff.

federal dam operations in a Trump administration

A new paper on federal dam operations by my University of New Mexico colleague Reed Benson seems suddenly timely.

It’s an exhaustive review of the legal structures surrounding Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers dam operations, with an eye toward finding a path to more flexibility in response to changing climate, human values, and needs. The paper’s lengthy, but in light of a changing federal administration it rewards a careful read to help in understanding what can and cannot be done within the constraints of our laws.

The core of Reed’s argument is that periodic review of dam operations, rather than strict adherence to operating plans established when dams were first built, could provide crucial benefits in providing the resilience needed to respond to changing circumstance:

Federal water projects may play an especially crucial role in helping the West adapt to its dramatic changes, because the region’s water allocation and management regime is simply not built for flexibility. The early West prioritized “putting water to work” for industry, irrigation, and other economic uses, and today the region’s water law still reflects that focus on development. Water rights last forever, with little or no legal scrutiny applied to established uses; in times of shortage, the oldest uses have a right to take their full share before later users have a right to any water at all; and the system still struggles to accommodate important “new” uses such as water for recreation and the environment. As the western states’ water law reform efforts have lagged, federal initiatives have become increasingly important, and federal reservoir operations are one area where federal agencies may find a measure of needed flexibility in water management.

Maintaining current operating plans may be the path of least resistance in the short term, and it is easy to understand why the agencies are reluctant to undertake reviews given the potential cost, controversy, and litigation risk. The record shows, however, that for many years dam operations have been the focus of controversy and costly litigation, with most of that litigation arising under the ESA. Maintaining the operational status quo nearly guarantees that endangered species listings and litigation will remain the go-to tactics for those who seek to address environmental problems associated with federal water projects. A more open and inclusive process for addressing environmental concerns could make the ESA less crucial, allowing the agencies to break away from reactive water management driven by a single species, and might even result in less controversy and litigation than the current approach.

In a nation that has always subjected private hydropower projects to periodic review, it is especially difficult to justify allowing federal reservoirs to operate under old plans in perpetuity. After all, these are public projects. Congress authorized them, ostensibly to serve the national interest. They were primarily built with public money, and today they are operated by public agencies. In serving the public, those agencies should do more than apply the best science and analytical tools in determining reservoir operations; they should also engage the public, which deserves to have a say in how these projects operate. Only then can the Corps and the Bureau ensure that their projects will adapt to change and serve the public interest.

We have few clues as to what approach a Trump administration might take toward water policy, but Reed’s paper provides a careful look at what might be possible, especially in light of a new “changing circumstance” – the election’s result – that many of us did not anticipate.

(Reed’s a regular guest lecturer to UNM Water Resources Program students, teaches great water and federal environmental law stuff, if you’re looking for a chance to take a deeper dive into these issues and have a couple of years to devote to getting a masters degree. Plenty of time to apply for fall 2017. 🙂

NAFTA and the Colorado River

With campaign rhetoric suggesting the likelihood of a changing relationship with Mexico, it is worth asking how a Trump administration might influence ongoing binational collaborations on the Colorado River.

The important caveat here is that, as one of my friends put it in the days after the election, we chose Door Number Two on Nov. 8 and for large swaths of the policy world, including western water, we have no idea what’s behind it. But we do know that as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump suggested dissatisfaction with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. How that dissatisfaction might manifest itself in actual policy is one of those “Door Number Two” things, but at least it gives us a starting point.

Management of Colorado River as it crosses from the United States into Mexico is governed by the 1944 Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande. Because the treaty left ambiguity about important issues, especially environmental issues like water quality and the sharing of surplus and shortage, a series of addenda, called “minutes”, have been negotiated over the years to clarify its terms. In recent years, the most important of those has been Minute 319, signed in 2012, an interim deal that clarified shortage rules and creating the framework for important environmental restoration activities on the Mexican side of the border.

NAFTA was first and foremost a trade deal, but it also created new tools for collaborative environmental work along the US-Mexico border. In a paper published earlier this year* (behind paywall), Colorado State University political scientist Stephen Mumme argued that those NAFTA-related tools for collaboration around the shared resources of the border region played an important role in the complex multi-party negotiations that led to the Minute 319 environmental success.

In particular, NAFTA-related reforms to the International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational governance thingie that manages the shared rivers as they cross from one nation to another or flow along their shared borders, played a key role in enabling the discussions that led to Minute 319, Mumme argues:

There is no question that the NAFTA side agreements and related programs altered the institutional environment for transboundary water management along the border. They established three new international agencies, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC), and the North American Development Bank (NADB). They strengthened implementation of the La Paz Agreement along the border. They amplified natural resources policy cooperation through the Trilateral Committee on Wildlife. New domestic advisory bodies, focused on sustainable development and environmental protection on each side of the border, were established. The political process associated with NAFTA proved a catalyst for NGO engagement and network along and across the border, strengthening the capacity of civil society to collaborate and influence water governance. These changes, in turn, altered the structural context for transboundary water management, triggering adjustments at the IBWC and broadening its agenda.

There’s a lot more to the 319 deal than that, especially the expanded role for environmental NGOs that followed a path of collaboration rather than litigation (buy my book for that story!). But Mumme argues that NAFTA’s environmental framework played a key role.

Party at San Luis as the Colorado River returns, March 25, 2014, by John Fleck

Party at San Luis as the Colorado River returns, March 25, 2014, by John Fleck

What that means for the future, as US and Mexican negotiators race to try to finish a follow-on deal before Jan. 20, remains one of those “Door Number Two” unknowns. It seems unlikely that the environmental successes, which have been viewed as a positive on both sides of the border, would easily slip away, however the new administration approaches the task of making good on Donald Trump’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric.

But it’s perhaps worth noting that the only negative news story I’m aware of about the 2014 Minute 319 environmental pulse flow was published by Breitbart, making the “Why waste water in a drought?” argument. And Breitbart’s former chief executive, Steve Bannon, has just been named chief strategist and senior counselor to the next President of the United States. I’m not sure that reading old Breitbart stories to try to figure out what might be behind Door Number Two is the best approach, but I’m hunting my clues where I can find them.

* Mumme, Stephen P. “Scarcity and Power in US–Mexico Transboundary Water Governance: Has the Architecture Changed since NAFTA?Globalizations (2016): 1-17.

on journalism’s failings

When Brad Plumer interviewed me about my new book for Vox, he seized on this point:

For a journalist, few things make better headlines than a good resource crisis. Which is why reporters writing about water issues in the American West are often attracted to the prospect of apocalypse — that the region is going to run out of water someday….

It’s a sexy story. But it’s not always an entirely accurate story. As longtime water reporter John Fleck argues in his thought-provoking new book, Water Is for Fighting Over, the constant doom and gloom about water in the West misses something extremely important that’s been going on in recent years. Even in the face of scarce water and apocalyptic fears, communities have managed to adapt and thrive in surprising ways.

It was clear to me in the waning years of my 30-year career in journalism that my business incentivized the delivery of bad news, creating a deep bias toward a what my friend and colleague Melinda Harm Benson calls the “tragedy narrative”.

Benson is writing (see here for example) about environmental discourse (as am I in my book) but this generalizes. It is even more clear to me after nearly two years outside the newsroom bubble how pervasive the problem is. And last week’s election shows how destructive those misleading narratives can be.

David  Borenstein and Tina Rosenberg capture this in a piece in this morning’s New York Times:

Crime is, in fact, at unusual levels, but it’s unusually low levels — close to the lowest rate in 45 years. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their native-born peers and twice as likely to start businesses. In many parts of the country, the public institutions that people count on every day like schools and hospitals have improved, thanks to a wide range of reforms and initiatives. In the past few years, there have also been steady gains in employment and wages.

This goes far beyond the environmental sphere Benson and I write about.

The effect on the social fabric has been corrosive. Since the early 1970s, surveys conducted annually have revealed that trust and confidence in virtually all American institutions — government, corporations, banks, medicine, education, organized religion and, yes, the press — have been declining steadily.

The blame does not lie solely with journalists. Audiences are at fault too. The incentives here are important. But journalists must hold themselves to a higher standard, which is truth, not clicks.

This is journalism’s greatest failing.


this cannot be normalized

Breitbart even managed to make El Niño about race

Breitbart even managed to make El Niño about race

Last year, a website called “Breitbart” ran a piece about the growing El Niño in the equatorial Pacific, a climate pattern that shifts weather across much of the Earth.

Without evidence – let us be clear, the author of the piece offers a chain of cobbled together logical fallacies but zero evidence – Breitbart’s Chriss Street warns ominously that El Niño means “millions of impoverished peasants may soon be headed for the United States” – an evidence-free stretch to turn a normal piece of science journalism into racist clickbait, fueling and fueled by fear of a brown hoard of “other” poised on our southern border. It was true-to-form Breitbart – “a site known for its nationalist, racially charged, conspiracy-laden coverage“. Breitbark is a masterwork in hateful, but remarkably, frighteningly successful, propaganda.

The former proprietor of that site, Steve Bannon, was just named “chief strategist and senior counselor” to president-elect Donald Trump.

This cannot be normalized.

Not a lot of good reservoir sites on Mars

For those planning a trip to Mars….

Evidence shows that more than 3 billion years ago Mars was wet and habitable. However, this latest research reaffirms just how dry the environment is today. For life to exist in the areas we investigated, it would need to find pockets far beneath the surface, located away from the dryness and radiation present on the ground.

So, not a lot of good reservoir sites, really no choice other than (unsustainable?) groundwater pumping.

The risks of overestimating future water demand

Laura Paskus has a new piece touching on an issue that is one of the most important policy problems in western US water management – the tendency of water managers to overestimate future demand. In this case, it’s the Gila River basin in southwestern New Mexico, where planners are considering significant investment to build a new water diversion for use by the region’s communities. But will that water be needed in the long run? She’s quoting here Craig Roepke, prior to his retirement as the state of New Mexico’s manager for the Gila project:

But before the engineers laid out planning options for the board to consider, Craig Roepke, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s Gila Region Manager, set the stage. His remarks focused on the demand for additional water in the region. On a screen at the front of the room, he showed that water demand ranged from 45,000-160,000 acre feet of water (slide nine in this  PowerPoint presentation).

Roepke called it a “rough cut” estimate of water needs in southwestern New Mexico.

“It doesn’t matter where you put a project or what it would be,” he told the board members. “Even if you could develop every acre of AWSA water, you couldn’t ever meet needs, even in any particular basin.”

That’s a lot of water needed. But when Laura dove into the details, the ISC could come up with no data to support those numbers, and, as she explains, there is some doubt that that much water will ever be needed.

As I wrote last summer in a piece for the Breakthrough Journal, we have a long history of overestimating future water demand and therefore overbuilding water infrastructure in response. This is a problem.

Effluent as an environmental good

Albuquerque wastewater treatment plant outfall

Albuquerque wastewater treatment plant outfall

My University of New Mexico Water Resources Program colleague Bruce Thomson loves to point out that Albuquerque’s wastewater treatment plant is, in New Mexico, the second largest tributary to the Rio Grande after the Rio Chama. But as tributaries go, it’s a short one – under 100 yards/meters from the outfall to the main river channel. I’ve long harbored a not-so-secret dream/scheme – what if, rather than a short rock-lined channel, we could route that water through the nearby riverside woods, getting an increased benefit in riparian vegetation and habitat along the way?

Tony Davis in the Arizona Daily Star reports that Tucson is considering just that:

The long-dead Santa Cruz River could flow again within two years.

Tucson Water, which had opposed the idea for years, unveiled a blueprint last week for putting heavily treated wastewater in the river through downtown Tucson. Officials call the plan “Agua Dulce,” Spanish for sweet water.

The idea would be to pump the effluent uphill from a sewage treatment plant northwest of the city via an existing pipeline south to 29th Street. From there, effluent would run downhill through the city’s core; the Santa Cruz flows south to north. Officials don’t know yet know how far downstream the water would run.

There are big differences, but the underlying principle is similar – leverage wastewater for environmental benefit. Lots of hurdles in both cases. In Albuquerque, the most important one would be the water losses – the riparian vegetation my scheme would consume water.

On the brink of a major deal to reduce Colorado River water use

A sweeping deal to reduce Lower Colorado River Basin water use will get its most detailed public airing to date at tomorrow’s (Nov. 7, 2016) meeting of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Water Planning and Stewardship Committee.

If the deal goes through – and there are hurdles yet to clear – Arizona, California, and Nevada would all agree to further cuts in their use of Colorado River water. It would be the third major agreement among the states and the federal government in the last two decades, deals that have repeatedly sidestepped the risk of litigation over unsettled legal questions about who is entitled to how much of the river’s increasingly scarce water.

Under the deal Nevada and Arizona would take deeper cuts than those already locked in by a 2007 multi-state agreement. In addition, California (which has senior water rights and therefore the strongest bargaining position) would also agree to join in the reductions. Arizona, which pumps Colorado River water uphill from Lake Havasu to the farms and cities of the Phoenix-Tucson region, would take by far the biggest cuts. But having California join in the reductions is a huge breakthrough in finding a workable solution to the Colorado River’s problems.

The deal’s been talked about for some time, so much of what’s in the MWD staff presentations is not new. But Monday’s public meeting begins the next step in the process, as the many agencies involved begin the process of formally approving the deal, so it’s worth digging down into the details at this point.

Why is this needed? Because water use has been consistently greater than water supply since the turn of the century. Lake Mead, which stores water for a vast region of the Southwestern United States, has dropped more than 140 feet since the late 1990s, and is now at its lowest levels since it was first filled in the 1930s.

It is not yet at critical levels, and modeling done in 2007 suggested that the risk of the supply/use imbalance pushing Lake Mead to critical levels was relatively low. But in the last decade, things have just gotten worse and worse. From the staff presentation to be delivered to Met board members tomorrow:



Elevation 1,020 is in the zone where things get really bad, a threshold beyond which it is difficult to maintain the basic structure and function of the communities depending on Colorado River water in Nevada, Arizona, and California. In 2007, the federal study used to support the interim shortage guidelines negotiated by the states suggested a bit more than a one in ten chance of reaching 1,020 by year 2026. By the summer of 2015, the modeling put that at something like one in five. But a “stress test” modeling run, using data that more closely matches the recent drought and the impact of climate change, puts the risk now at more than 40 percent absent action to slow Mead’s decline by reducing water use ahead of trouble.

That action, to slow Mead’s decline, makes up the most important piece of the deal.

The 2007 shortage sharing guidelines took the first steps in that direction, with Nevada and Arizona agreeing to specified cuts as Mead dropped. Those first cuts would kick in when Mead begins a year below elevation 1,075 feet above sea level, which hasn’t happened yet.

As outlined in this table being presented to Met board members tomorrow, the new agreement includes deeper cuts, sooner:

One of the tricks here is that agreement at the state level to reduce the amount of water taken from the Colorado River must then be sorted out at more local levels, among the various water users with claims on the Colorado River. California appears to have a deal among those using Colorado River water to apportion the cuts as follows:

That would mean, for example, that the Imperial Irrigation District would have to absorb 60 percent of the 200,000 acre foot cut that happens if/when Lake Mead drops to elevation 1,045, or 120,000 acre feet of water.

But here’s where the deal gets tricky. The amount of water not taken (by IID or whomever) would get its own line item in the Lake Mead accounting system, sort of like a piggy bank. Here are the rules for managing that water and in some cases getting it back out of the piggy bank:

What this means, in essence, is that if it gets wet again, users will be able to get their conserved DCP water back out of Lake Mead. And in the meantime, they have the option of using some of it on a short term basis.

There is some urgency to get this thing done. Folks in the current administration have made it clear that they want to have a deal in place before Jan. 20. Even with if Hillary Clinton wins next Tuesday’s election and we have relative continuity, a new administration would want to take a fresh look at a deal this important, which would mean significant delay. A change in party would mean even more uncertainty and likely delay.

With the California part of the deal looking relatively solid, there are two major areas of uncertainty remaining. (Nevada, with essentially one major water user, the Southern Nevada Water Authority serving greater Las Vegas, faces little controversy.)

The first is Arizona. There’s a scramble underway to figure out how shortages there would be allocated, and as near as I can tell no agreement yet on the details. (If you know different, text me, let’s talk!) Arizona faces an additional complication in that any agreement requires ratification by the state legislature. I’m told that could happen in early January if the parties within Arizona can come to agreement.

The second is the question of Mexico. Diplomats from both countries are in the midst of delicate negotiation over the final terms of an agreement that they also hope to have done before the Obama administration leaves office. This will determine the extent to which Mexico also shares in shortages as Lake Mead drops. It’s not at all clear to me where this stands, other than that a lot of work remains between now and Jan. 20.

By tradition, big deals like this are nailed down and publicly signed and sealed and speeched upon by the Secretary of the Interior at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, which this year begins Dec. 14. Here’s what to watch for: If Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is there for the usual Friday federal session, we’ve got a deal. If Deputy Secretary Mike Connor is on the agenda to speak in her stead, be nervous.

We’re already in a Colorado River “shortage”, we just don’t call it that

As Bruce Finley notes in today’s Denver Post, we are on the brink of the first shortage declaration on the Colorado River:

The next president could be faced with ordering a first-ever reduction in water siphoned from the river by 333,000 acre feet next August, a report by the Colorado River Future Project contends. That’s an amount equivalent to the water used in 666,0000 homes.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials on Tuesday confirmed the finding. Federal models show a 48 percent chance that, without cuts, lower basin states Arizona, California and Nevada would face shortages starting in 2018.

What Finley is describing is the formal shortage declaration procedure. If next summer’s forecast calls for Lake Mead to drop below elevation 1,075 feet above sea level at the end of 2018, the federal government will declare a shortage, reducing deliveries of water to Arizona and Nevada.

2016 Lower Basin water use

2016 Lower Basin water use

But in order to try to avoid mandatory cutbacks – a “shortage” declaration – we’re already seeing water users in Arizona and Nevada voluntarily cutting back. My rough estimate, based on munging together a couple of US Bureau of Reclamation datasets*, is that US Lower Basin water use this year will be about 7.267 million acre feet, the lowest it’s been since 2005. In other words, in order to avoid being forced to use less water, a number of the big water agencies are voluntarily using less water.

The current forecasts for the end of 2017 are close enough to the magic 1,075 line that a continuation of this year’s voluntary conservation efforts could very easily prevent a mandatory “shortage” declaration again next year.

* a note on methods: Based on the keen observations of Tony Davis about the USBR’s methodology for forecasting water use, I’ve done some supplemental calculations here to come up with my own revised estimate of how much water will be used this year. It’s based on the official USBR forecast, combined with estimates from the agency’s 24-month study which capture anticipated diversions by the Metropolitan Water District and the Central Arizona Project that don’t show up in the official forecast until later. It’s still not “right” (danger, journalist doing math!) but close enough. Here’s the data graphed back a while:

Lower Colorado River Basin water use

Lower Colorado River Basin water use