U.S.-Mexico Colorado River deal is close

With a Senate Hearing tomorrow and a meeting of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Thursday, we’re starting to see the public rollout of a Colorado River management agreement between the United States and Mexico that now looks like it’s on track to be signed within the next few months.

The biggest clue that this could really happen is that they’ve changed the name from “Minute 32x” to “Minute 323”. The placeholder “x” meant the agreement would be signed sometime, changing it to a “3” suggest people are confident enough that it’s really going to happen soon that they’ve assigned it a number and put it in the queue.

While the full agreement has not been made public, the negotiating team has put together a detailed set of talking points to be taken to the various water agency boards and state agencies on the U.S. side. Here’s the copy included in the CAWCD board packet for Thursday’s meeting:

 

Quibbling aside about whether or not we’re in fact in an era of “historic collaboration on the Colorado River” (really, Gary, “fake news”?), this is evidence that we are, in fact, in an era of historic collaboration on the Colorado River.

Embedded in the deal are two important pieces.

The first is Mexico’s continued participation in the current binational water conservation scheme, in which water users in both the United States and Mexico agree to curtail their water use as Lake Mead drops. This is the follow-on to Minute 319, the historic 2012-U.S.-Mexico agreement that broke down the key barriers to international management on the river.

The second piece is what’s called in the new minute the “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan”, which is the international flavor of what’s known by the norteños as the “Drought Contingency Plan”. This is the agreement that ratchets up the conservation, making deeper cuts to water use sooner. One of the lawyers in the audience will probably lecture me if I call this piece “contingent” or “trigger” or whatever, but the fact is that this language lays out the details of Mexico’s participation in the new DCP scheme, but it doesn’t take effect until folks on the U.S. side approve the DCP.

Its inclusion here, and the fact that it’s now being made public, is crucial evidence that folks in the United States have settled on the final terms of the deal and we’re not just in the “working out the formalities” part of the process. There’s always been a chicken/egg problem about which would come first, the DCP or the U.S.-Mexico minute, because each depends on the other. The solution has been a contingent minute (don’t scold, lawyer friends) through which Mexican participation is contingent on the separate deal within the U.S. being signed. The only way folks are willing now to go forward with the U.S.-Mexico piece is because they’re confident that the U.S. piece will follow.

These “minutes” (they function kinda like amendments to the U.S.-Mexico treaty, but don’t call them that the lawyers will scold you) part part of a trend away from conflict and toward collaboration as the Colorado River crosses its international border. They add a crucial piece – a joining of water management institutions across the international border in an effort to manage the Colorado River as one river.

Together, these steps demonstrate the extraordinary pivot on the Colorado River from Mark Reisner’s “most litigated river in the entire world” to a system in which the parties stay out of the courts and international tribunals and negotiate mutually beneficial agreements to deal with the Colorado’s problem of overallocation.

Lots more in the agreement, including more provisions for environmental flows in the Colorado River Delta and cross-border water conservation collaborations.

This is a big deal.

citrus and swimming pools

Some evenings I curl up with a laptop and cruise Calisphere’s orange create label collection. Absent some years away for college, I spent the first three decades of my life in Southern California’s “citrus belt”, that source of the region’s wealth and culture reaching east from Pasadena across the foothills of the San Gabriels to Riverside, Redlands, and most importantly San Bernardino, the city of my mother’s birth. I’ve now lived in Albuquerque more years than I lived in Southern California, but the place made me, though I’m only now, distanced by the second half of my life, coming to understand it.

When you’re a kid you don’t think about this stuff, you just hang out at the pool and cut through the groves on romps around the neighborhood.

So now, I stare at orange crate labels.

Title: Crate label, "College Heights." Washington Navels Date: 02/19/2008 Collection: Riverside Public Library Citrus Label Collection Owning Institution: Riverside Public Library Source: Calisphere Date of access: July 24 2017 20:28 Permalink: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt7x0nd752/?_pjax=%23js-pageContent

College Heights Washington navels

I grew up in Upland, one of the early irrigation colonies that transformed climate, mountain-front runoff (ground and surface) and eastern capital into citrus wealth in a tidy, organized community I never fully understood while I was in it.

In the backyard of my childhood home was a small concrete pipe, emerging vertically from the ground, capped, with simple metal valves.

By the time we lived there the pipe was dry. Once, it brought water to the citrus grove that was the ancestor of our neighborhood in the Upland foothills – “San Antonio Heights”. Concrete feeder pipe beneath the groves held water under modest pressure. Larger standpipes known as “gate stands” spaced along the line held valves that, when turned, would release the water to the outlets like the one in my backyard. My sister, Lisa, remembers the gate stands in the groves still operating down the hill from our house, remembers wanting to turn them, but they were always locked.

Water leaves traces in this way, on our landscape and in our lives. Many of these traces are obvious – the alluvial fan on which our home and the groves before it were built, sands and gravels and cobbles eroded by Southern California’s big winter storms, splaying out from the San Gabriel Mountains. Some are less so – the hidden pipe beneath our backyard and the landscape it helped create.

Our backyard still had a few of the old citrus trees. Our next-door neighbor repurposed the water supply to a suburban pool. My dad was an artist, drawn to Southern California in the years after the Second World War, part of a wave of creative energy drawn by a culture of art and freedom that the newcomers then remade. Our neighbor, with the pool, was a union steelworker. His adult stepson was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. Southern California defies easy explanation.

Frank Sinatra's Twin Palms Estate, a spectacular example of mid-century architecture in the heart of Palm Springs, California

Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate, Palm Springs, California. Carol Highsmith.

Dad and our neighbor built steps over the low back wall, and summers were spent either in that pool or the others maintained by the families of my childhood chums. This must surely have been paradise, that “reasonable facsimile of Eden”, to quote Reyner Banham, that comes with pouring water on desert land.

After returning from the diaspora of college, I began my career as a professional writer at a small newspaper in the town of Claremont, next to Upland. The College Heights packing house, seen in the orange crate label above, was a few blocks from the newspaper where I worked, a vacant relic of the community’s citrus past. Today it “is the largest historic building in the Claremont Village and one of its hottest attractions. A century of architecture comes alive with fine dining, jazz concerts, stand up comedy, hip boutiques, wine tastings, art classes, art walks and festivals.”

The web page is decorated with pictures of lemons.

When I was beginning my writing career in Claremont, I bought a nice typewriter and rented an upstairs room in the Arbol Verde neighborhood on the east edge of town, the old “barrio” that was at the heart of the area’s segregated and deeply racist agricultural labor structure. It was my Eden’s original sin, its purpose lost with the decline of citrus, turned into a neighborhood where a self-consciously poor young writer could afford a room.

Climate, soil, and water defined the geography of the citrus belt – climate because it had to be above the valley freezes that were death to the fruit, soil and water because the well-drained alluvium was perfect for irrigation with the water from the mountains above, either surface or groundwater. I had no idea then it was such a special place, it simply was, but I know now that it combined eastern capital and racist labor with the geography’s bounty to create the solid American affluence into which I was born.

Carey McWilliams (a radical to whom I was not exposed in the sanitized history of my childhood) wrote in 1946 of his “apprehension that all is not well, that some vital quality of the land has been subverted”:

The incessant pumping of underground waters, and the ever-expanding demand for water in large urban centers, makes one wonder just how real and enduring are these beautiful groves.

McWilliams’, in his Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, offers up a grim conclusion about the sustainability of the enterprise:

Puzzling over the same question, a character in Howard Baker’s novel concluded that “the people were powerless to change the desert very much,” over the long reach of the years.

I’m more optimistic than McWilliams about our post-desert trajectories, but the groves that spread south in the 1970s from my childhood home are gone. Note the pools.

 

Arizona misters and the value of water

When we think today about Arizona’s water problems, we imagine large lawns in sprawling suburbs in and around Phoenix, golf courses, and “misters”—those devices that fritter away water into the hot desert air to cool the customers eating at outdoor restaurants in the Valley of the Sun.

Me, in Water is For Fighting Over

Arizona misters

Lissa and I slipped away for a long weekend in Arizona before I dive into a new semester and a busy autumn. It’s hot as hell here, which means hotels are cheap, and we’re ensconced for a few days in a luxury we otherwise could not afford. Three floors down from our room, by the pool, is an outdoor bar. With misters.

The place has four pools, a waterfall, and a mountainside of saguaro. It is ripe for thinking about our complex cultural relationship with water.

One of my trip books is the architectural historian Reyner Banham’s 1971 classic Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. (Thanks to the amazing librarians at UNM’s Fine Arts Library, who were able to track it down for me because I really wanted to read it and they are librarians.) Banham, a Brit, brought a bemused enthusiasm to the task of making sense of the architecture and urban form of Los Angeles. Water, while only briefly  discussed, is foundational:

Whatever man has done subsequently to the climate and environment of Southern California, it remains one of the ecological wonders of the habitable world. Given water to pour on its light and otherwise almost desert soil, it can be made to produce a reasonable facsimile of Eden.

For Banham this is not without moral weight:

But to produce instant Paradise you have to add water – and keep on adding it. Once the scant local resources had been tapped, wasted, and spoiled, the politics of hydrology became a pressing concern, even a deciding factor in fixing the political boundaries of Los Angeles. The City annexed the San Fernando Valley, murder the Owens Valley in its first great raid on the hinterland waters under William Mulholland, and its hydrological frontier is now on the Colorado River.

Banham is writing about my beloved L.A., and much of what he has to say is unique to that place. But a significant fraction generalizes to the other great cities of the arid and semi-arid Southwest – the relationship of architecture to the out-of-doors, the critical role of the freeway in the evolution of the urban form, and most certainly our relationship with water.

Driving into Phoenix on a trip last January, I experience a remarkable moment. It was a feeling of calm familiarity with the urban landscape that hit me suddenly and deeply, in a momentary flash. A split second later the cause emerged into my conscious brain – eucalyptus trees along the freeway, the tree of my childhood, a non-native that is so ingrained in my Southern California aesthetic as to seem completely native, Australian import that it might be.

Here in urban Arizona, eucalyptus and palm trees make a strong showing, one reasonably water-wise – the eucalyptus – and one profoundly not. Palm trees use a lot of water. Banham describes that mixing as “this promise of an ecological miracle that was the area’s first really saleable product – the ‘land of perpetual spring’.” Again “the area” Banham is describing is greater Los Angeles, but here in central Arizona where the hydrological frontier of the Colorado River pushed with the completion of the Central Arizona Project in the 1990s, the story is now much the same. There is much continuity among the stories of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque, which I have come to think of as my cities.

On the hillside above our embarrassingly swanky resort, a small waterfall bursts over a small cliff, cascading down a rocky creek that winds past the first two swimming pools, under the hotel lobby, and out into an infinity pool overlooking the golf course.

This is a desert. Suffice to say there are pumps involved.

I have become cautious about imposing my values about which uses of water are OK and which are not. The gardens flanking the fake waterfall and creek are beautiful, a botanical garden of native vegetation well adapted to the arid climate, but far more lush, thanks to the added water, than on the real native creeks you can hike in the canyons to the east and west.

We’ve done some crazy shit with our water here in the arid Southwest. But misters?

governance, adaptation, and climate change

Much of the “cultural cognition” problem around our climate politics and discourse derives from the politics of “mitigation” – the fact that the tools needed to reduce greenhouse gases are politically (culturally?) abhorrent to some, who in response dismiss the underlying science of climate change.

This has the effect of foreclosing the second crucial climate change response, which involved the role of government, politics, policy, and community in taking the steps needed to adapt to the change that’s clearly already upon us.

OtPR does a terrific job outlining the problems in a discussion of Devin Nunes, a congressman from California’s Central Valley:

There is a whole suite of reasonable preparations and solutions that the southern San Joaquin Valley will need desperately.  Some of those are best done by government. When the governmental representative is denying the entire concept, I’m pretty sure that he’s not allocating more money to researching tree strains that require less chilling hours.  Governments were needed to manage the thousands of cow carcasses; this is foreseeable, and a good representative could have been working on getting plans in place.  Researching Valley Fever and asthma, planting urban trees, fighting fires, cutting down dead trees in the Sierras to protect communities.  An elected representative that is watching reality closely, with a scientific understanding of the phenomenon, would be bringing money and plans home to the district.

New Mexico’s dysfunctional water rights administration

The Albuquerque Journal’s Mark Oswald notes a remarkable milestone that passed today:

SANTA FE — A water-rights lawsuit that is said to be the nation’s longest-running piece of litigation reached a crucial milestone here Friday, with a judge’s final decree that added only five pages to the thousands upon thousands generated since the proceedings known as the “Aamodt Case” started in 1966.

In what U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson and lawyers called a momentous occasion, the judge’s decree adjudicates water rights among four Indian pueblos and non-Indian residents in northern Santa Fe County.

It took 51 years to sort out who is entitled to how much water in the Pojoaque Basin north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. 51 years. It is not a very large basin.

In a paper published a few years back, my University of New Mexico colleague Reed Benson had this to say about the “doctrine of prior appropriation”, the legal tool by which we are supposed to be determining water rights in New Mexico and across much of the western United States:

As a legal doctrine, PA has lost its force. Like the centenarian who founded the company but now has only an honorific title, Prior Appropriation has more symbolic importance than practical influence.

So we slog through “settlements” like Aamodt, and we wrestle poorly with what we here in New Mexico call “Active Water Resource Management“, a sort of alternative administration scheme that we pronounce “A-worm” without a trace of irony and we muddle along. Because chrissakes 51 years? For one of the smaller, easier basins?

birds and water in a changing West

Audubon has an excellent new report on risks to birds, and all that go with them, along the rivers and arid landscape lakes across western North America. Lots there, but I think this bit is especially important:

Without reform, today’s water management framework could lead to severe water shortages to large numbers of people and economic production, likely resulting in political crisis. In that circumstance, it will grow increasingly difficult to advocate successfully that water should remain or be restored in rivers for nature’s sake. An important step in protecting the birds of the Colorado River Basin is thus to improve the reliability and resiliency of the water supply for people as well as nature.

This is a critical point in thinking about contemporary water/environmental politics. It’s not enough to simply say “But the birds!” Environmentalists’ greatest chance for success requires helping ensure reliable supplies for the people, because without that the environment will always take the hit.

Will an informal norm work here, or do I need a city permit for my amplified event?

Wandering the neighborhood on this morning’s bike ride, I ran across this sign:

city permit needed for amplified events

I’m reading Robert Ellickson’s 1991 book Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes. It’s a fascinating bit of legal scholarship about how residents of Shasta County, in California, manage the problems posed by cattle wandering off the ranch and onto other folks’ ranchettes, or alfalfa pastures.

The legal structures, distinctions between “open range” and “closed range” and related rules about fencing requirements and liability, are byzantine. So what Ellickson found was that, rather than resort to courts and laws, residents just kinda sorted things out in practical ways that tended to respect cultural norms of neighborliness. Framed in the context of the economist Ronald Coase, the “transaction costs” of taking the lawyerly path are just too damned high. Framed in terms of game theory, repeated interactions with your neighbors make the lawyerly path awkward and unproductive.

This seems not to be working in the Fair West neighborhood.