How to solve the Colorado River’s problems, or not

tl;dr Everyone on the Colorado River has a legitimate argument that they’ve already sacrificed, and that they have a legal entitlement to what’s left. If everyone digs in their heels on these points, the system will crash. We need to be willing to share the pain. But (scroll to the bottom) there is hope on that front.

Colorado Basin, map courtesy Pacific Institute

Colorado Basin, map courtesy Pacific Institute

longer – The Unhopeful Part

In reading and interviews for my book, I frequently run across arguments of the form that “we” (usually a state, but also sometimes a smaller water-using entity) have already done “our” share for solving the Colorado River’s problems by (insert specific sacrifice already made here).

They all, of course, are right. Consider:


With the 1968 approval of the Colorado River Basin Project Act, Arizona agreed to subordinate the bulk of its Colorado River water rights to California in return for the political supported needed to build the Central Arizona Project, which brings water to Phoenix, Tucson, farms and Native American communities in the central part of the state. As a result, Arizona currently shoulders (at least on paper) much of the risk in the face of shortfalls in the lower basin. Under the current law, all of Arizona’s CAP water would be cut off before California loses a drop. That was a major sacrifice.


But wait, didn’t California already lose a bunch of drops? Yup, in 2003 California was cut back from its historical use of in excess of 5 million acre feet per year to 4.4 million. That required major water conservation and supply shifts in metropolitan Southern California, and the fallowing of land in the Imperial Valley to free up enough to keep Southern California’s economic engine humming. So yeah, the next big cuts would hit Arizona if there’s a shortage, but that’s only because California already took a big hit.


Nevada took its hit coming out of the starting gate. Its allocation of 300,000 acre feet, which goes to Vegas, is basically a rounding error if you’re rounding total Colorado River flow to the nearest million acre feet. Don’t look at Nevada for sacrifice (and even if you did, as I mentioned, sacrificing Nevada completely is just a rounding error on the Colorado River balance sheet).

Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico

Under the Colorado River Compact, the four states of the Upper Basin are entitled to use 7.5 million acre feet of water per year. When they signed the deal in 1922, they knew it would be a long time before they would grow into their entitlements, but it was water in the bank to support future growth. In 2012, they only used 4.6 million acre feet, which is pretty typical. The Upper Basin states have clearly done their share.

This isn’t cheap sophistry. Each of the above arguments is a reasonably held, legitimate view. It’s most on display this week in the development of Colorado’s water plan:

Colorado wants to ensure its farms, wildlife and rapidly growing cities have enough water in the decades to come. It’s pledging to provide downstream states every gallon they’re legally entitled to, but not a drop more.

“If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The governance boundary problem

There’s a core issue here that involves the boundaries we draw around our Colorado River water problems. Doug Kenney and his colleagues in the new Colorado River Research Group captured this nicely in one of their first white papers, on “Repairing the Colorado River’s Broken Water Budget” (pdf). Each state, operating within what it thinks are the legal boundaries around its “share” of the Colorado River, has put down on paper a menu of future water options that are wildly unrealistic given the hydrologic reality. There is less wet water in the river than paper water embodied in each user group’s lawyers’ arguments.

Is that realistic? “[I]t’s not, and those water managers that look at the numbers through a basin-wide lens know this,” Kenney and colleagues wrote. But while the Colorado River’s problems have to be solved at a basin scale, much of the water use decision making that matters happens at the state and local level, where the basin wide problems are less visible.

I see this in New Mexico water politics all the time, where there is an expectation that a full firm yield of 96,200 acre feet of water per year through the San Juan-Chama diversion project is our compact-given right. Our sacrifices have been to cleverly live within that allocation, maximizing its beneficial use. The notion that the Colorado Basin as a whole is over-allocated, and that we might have to take a haircut along with everyone else, is simply not part of the discussion.

The hopeful part

To be clear, there are a lot of people up and down the governance ladder, from federal and state to local levels, who aren’t talking this way. Matt Jenkins’ excellent High Country News article today about the Pilot Drought Response Actions program highlights a great example. Here you’ve got a bunch of lower basin water managers trying to find a way to route around this problem, building a couple of different types of institutional widgets to reduce water use locally, but in the context of a basin wide effort.

The PDRA (PDRAP?) attempts to overcome the problem Eklund is referring to (If I conserve, won’t it just end up in California?) by matching conservation commitments. The big metro water agencies in each of the lower basin states agrees to take a haircut and leave the saved water in Lake Mead. Arizona, which is clearly the state with the most to lose, pledges 345,000 acre feet by 2017 (the Central Arizona Project is the actor here); Southern California (Met) pledges 300,000 af; Vegas (Southern Nevada Water Authority) pledges 45,000 af and the Bureau of Reclamation agrees to throw in another 50,000 af. The water stays in Lake Mead, to prop up levels and forestall the risk of shortage.

Matt’s story suggests Arizona’s already nailed down a portion of its savings, in the form of ag agency commitments. This is hopeful stuff.

Tweeting lessons from a California drought

A couple of new papers exploring California’s drought triggered what I thought this morning was some overly simplistic back and forth on the twitters about whether climate change is to blame. I think that’s the wrong question.

The first paper, which I wrote about last week, was the Griffin/Anchukaitis paleo look at the thing. They argued that while as measured by precipitation alone, the last three years were not unprecedented, when you add in the impacts of rising temperatures, it was the worst drought in 1,200 years (which is as far back as their tree ring data go).

Then today, Richard Seager and Marty Hoerling released an analysis suggesting that natural variability was sufficient to explain the drought:

The current drought is not part of a long-term change in California precipitation, which exhibits no appreciable trend since 1895. Key oceanic features that caused precipitation inhibiting atmospheric ridging off the West Coast during 2011-14 were symptomatic of natural internal atmosphere-ocean variability.

Model simulations indicate that human-induced climate change increases California precipitation in mid-winter, with a low-pressure circulation anomaly over the North Pacific, opposite to conditions of the last 3 winters. The same model simulations indicate a decrease in spring precipitation over California. However, precipitation deficits observed during the past three years are an order of magnitude greater than the model simulated changes related to human-induced forcing. Nonetheless, record setting high temperature that accompanied this recent drought was likely made more extreme due to human-induced global warming.

My take:



Ostrom on institutional transparency

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

On twitter the other day, I was joking that I’ve adopted a new approach to my book research: when confronted with a problem, I first ask, “Did Elinor Ostrom write about this?”

Ostrom won the economics Nobel in 2009 for her work on how communities solve common pool resources problems, work that’s central to the themes I’m exploring in my book. But the occasion for my twitterquip was Ostrom’s appearance in an entirely different field, a post by my friend Luis Villa on the issue of free riding in the free software world:

As I’ve explained before here, a major reason why people choose copyleft/share-alike licenses is to prevent free rider problems: they are OK with you using their thing, but they want the license to nudge (or push) you in the direction of sharing back/collaborating with them in the future. To quote Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research on how commons are managed in the wild, “[i]n all recorded, long surviving, self-organized resource governance regimes, participants invest resources in monitoring the actions of each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” (emphasis added)

This afternoon, I encountered yet another of my realms in which Ostrom applies: institutional transparency. This sunshine stuff is the lifeblood of journalism, and Ostrom is on it! This is from her doctoral thesis, a study of the formation of the West Basin Water Association and other associated institutions for the management of water in Southern California’s West Coastal Basin:

The association has maintained a policy of open files. Any interested person can gain ready access to a wealth of information about the basin by going to the association office. As a consequence, all producers in West Basin have equal access to the same information. No one enterprise can exploit a favored position in the association and control the action of others by eliminating their sources of information. Also, the superior capacity of some of the larger water producers to gain information about the physical system is thus balanced by the association which has command of sufficient resources itself to gain detailed information about the operation of the basin.

And then she adds, in a footnote:

This policy of an open office and open files also enables a researcher to gain access to a wealth of information about how an organization such as this arrives at decisions and implements its decisions – for which the present writer is deeply appreciative.

Always with the hat



When I was a youngster, which was a very long time ago, a guy named Ed Helminski took me into his journalistic embrace. Ed had a business model that involved smart coverage of the U.S. nuclear enterprise, and he made that model work at a time when journalistic models were faltering all around us. His newsletters sold well among private sector types who needed the best intelligence to make business decisions. But they were a must-read for the arms control and anti-nuclear communities as well. (Still sell well. Still are a must read, probably more than ever. Don’t mean to be slipping into past tense here.)

Ed’s publications provided a home for wonky budget and policy arcana that forced me to think better and more deeply about the nature of the nuclear enterprise, the sort of thing far too deep and boring for a newspaper, but that fascinated me. And Ed himself was bigger than life, brash and friendly and deeply supportive and loyal. Once you were in the family, you were in. And always with the hat.

He died Friday, suddenly, and we’re incredibly sad. Services are Tuesday in D.C., and there’s no way I can make it, but know that I’ll be there in spirit.

Southern California water: “the best talent of the country”

From the beginning, it was clear that solving Southern California’s water problems would require “the best talent of the country”:

Walter C. Mendenhall, from USGS Water-Supply and Irrigation Paper No. 138

Walter C. Mendenhall, from USGS Water-Supply and Irrigation Paper No. 138

That’s Walter Mendenhall, from a series of U.S. Geological Survey papers published in 1905 inventorying the groundwater resources of the greater Los Angeles Basin’s groundwater resources (before we thought of it as “the greater Los Angeles Basin”). (Water Supply Papers 137, 138 and 139)

For my book, I’ve been tracing what we knew when about the viability of Southern California’s groundwater and the eventually need to import water that ultimately led southern California to build three great artificial rivers. By 1905, it was already clear that groundwater pumping in parts of the region was unsustainable. Here’s Mendenhall:

At these places, therefore, it is evident that there should be no further increase of the drafts upon the underground waters, and that the reclaiming lands from these as a source should cease.

When Southern California water flowed freely. 1905, USGS Water Supply Paper 138

When Southern California water flowed freely. 1905, USGS Water Supply Paper 138

Remarkably, given the urban landscape of the region today, this was farm country. In the Santa Monica area, Mendenhall inventoried 4,000 acres under irrigation. In the Redondo Beach area, there were another 3,280 acres being irrigated with sewage and 8,250 acres from wells. Already, overuse of groundwater and upstream diversions of the Los Angeles River (which fed the aquifer) were reducing the flow from artesian wells, forcing farmers to pump. But Mendenhall concluded that in the Santa Monica-Redondo area:

With continued reasonable use of the underground waters of this area, then, it may be concluded that although the remnant of the coastal plain artesian basin included in it will probably disappear, because the basin is especially sensitive to distant diversions and developments, the ground waters generally will not suffer a serious permanent shrinkage.

Like much that you read from that time, it was clear more water was needed for agricultural development in the arid West. The notion of a great city, of suburban lawns spreading to the horizon? Not so much. But however they were planning on using the water, it was clear from Mendenhall’s time that there was a problem.

In California, the worst drought in a really long time

Defining drought is a tricky business, but I think Daniel Griffin and Kevin Anchukaitis have come up with a reasonable one – three years of persistent low soil moisture. By that measure, the drought in Central and Southern California is…. Well, I’ll let them tell it (pdf):

We demonstrate that while 3-year periods of persistent below-average soil moisture are not uncommon, the current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years.

That’s from “How unusual is the 2012-2014 California drought?” They used tree rings. Published today in GRL.

update: The irony of having this paper go public on a day when it’s raining like hell in California was not lost on Dan and Kevin. Dan offered this:


The Tumbleweed Snowman: An Immigrant Tale

Tumbleweed Snowman, December 2014

Tumbleweed Snowman, December 2014

A riff in the morning paper on Albquerque’s beloved Tumbleweed Snowman, after spending the morning watching the flood control authority crew do his final assembly:

Tumbleweed origin stories differ, but only slightly. German-Russian Mennonite farmers are believed to have inadvertently brought the seeds of our modern tumbleweed, also known as Russian thistle, mixed in with flax or wheat seed packets they brought when fleeing the Russian czar in the 1870s.

The wheat, a hard red winter wheat, turned out to be well adapted to the harsher climates of the western Great Plains and changed farming there forever, according to journalist Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” a history of the Dust Bowl and Midwestern farming. The tumbleweed, meanwhile, tagged along for the ride, moving easily with the humans as they remade the continent.

Its most common means of spreading was to hitch rides on the expanding railway system, Lowrey said, and it made itself at home in the arid West, especially in areas that are heavily grazed. “They like the aridity and they like disturbance,” he said. “The overgrazing in the West has been perfect for them to spread.”

As an aside, I love my job.

Sacramento, gettin’ serious about water

Sacramento holds by far the largest body of unmetered water connections in California – about 62,000. These customers are allowed to consume all the water they want and pay only a flat monthly rate of about $41 for an average home. With a few exceptions, all other California communities are entirely served by water meters that measure how much customers consume and bill them accordingly.

But Sacramento hopes to beat a state deadline of 2025 to get its customers metered!

“the robbery of Arizona’s birthright”

The people of Arizona have come to look upon the officials of California, and particularly those of the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles as diabolical schemers who are dedicated to the robbery of Arizona’s birthright.

That’s sometime Arizona political scientist Dean Mann, talking about the 20th century California-Arizona tussle over the Colorado River’s water, in his 1963 book Politics of Water in Arizona. At the time, just before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Arizona v. California, Arizona was pretty clearly losing said tussle.

My question to the Arizonans in the audience – are y’all still pissed? Does Mann ring true today?

Colorado River Research Group

Jack Schmidt, one of the members of the new Colorado River Research Group, at the normally dry San Luis bridge in the Colorado River Delta, March 28, 2014

Jack Schmidt, one of the members of the new Colorado River Research Group, at the normally dry San Luis bridge in the Colorado River Delta, March 28, 2014

A new collaboration among some of the serious names in Colorado River Basin water science and policy today launched a new project, the Colorado River Research Group. If you follow Colorado River issues and western water science policy, it’s a list of names (pdf) you’ll be familiar with and, more importantly, that you’ll want to listen to: Robert Adler, Bonnie Colby, Jonathan Overpeck, Karl Flessa, Doug Kenney, Dennis Lettenmaier, Larry MacDonnell, Jack Schmidt, Brad Udall and Reagan Waskom. Importantly, this is not just physical scientists, but also social scientists. (I love y’all, physical scientists, but I’m convinced that the real action right now is on the law and policy side.)

Here’s how they describe themselves:

The Colorado River Research Group (CRRG) is a self-directed team of veteran Colorado River scholars assembled to provide a non-partisan, academic voice on matters pertaining to science, law and policy on the Colorado River, helping all those with a stake in the river identify, justify and implement actions consistent with long-term sustainable management. The CRRG provides an independent and knowledgeable voice that is insulated from political constraints, sectoral alliances, and other pressures that might impede the full consideration of relevant ideas and viewpoints.

Their initial white paper (actually, kinda khaki? – here’s the pdf, color descriptions welcome) outlines some key policy principles:

  • “The solutions that are most cost-effective, reliable, equitable, and quickly implemented are those focused on conservation, reallocation, and voluntary shortage sharing.” Augmentation? Not so much.
  • Solutions for shifting water use patterns have to be supported by incentives, something we really have’t done to date. They make this interesting point: “The historic failure to manage water with respect to sound economic principles is not merely a problem to lament, but is an opportunity to exploit moving forward. Innovative mechanisms for trading water, money and shortage risk can protect regional economies and can help remove the historic view of water as a zero-sum game.”
  • Solutions have to be “flexible and iterative”. Adaptive management and resilience and stuff.
  • “Everyone who has received benefits from the river has a responsibility to support solutions through conservation, funding and other suitable mechanisms. No water user should expect a ‘free pass’ in implementing management reforms.” (If I had a dollar for every basin water manager who pointed to the great stuff his or her agency has already been doing by way of the ‘free pass’ thing for future management decisions, I’d have some dollars.)
  • And a bottom line: “Without a significant infusion of new funding, lasting and sustainable solutions will not be achieved. To date, the amount of money invested to protect and restore the river is woefully inadequate, and is dwarfed by the resources spent to facilitate overconsumption.” Amen.

updated to include Jonathan Overpeck in list of participants