All I Want is an Accurate Colorado River Map

1928 USBR map


A guest post by Doug Kenney, University of Colorado

John Wesley Powell, circa 1890

In recent months, we’ve probably all encountered a dozen or more articles reflecting on the 150-year anniversary of the Colorado River voyage of John Wesley Powell.  It’s a story coming from the tail end of an era when map-makers used to be among the most adventurous of all scientists, a task today that can be mostly automated and driven by data coming from a variety of remote sensing technologies.  In comparison to today, Powell’s techniques—albeit exciting—seem primitive and imprecise.  Yet, I’m not sure we have really made much progress.

I say this because I’ve spent half a day tormented by a problem that has already tormented me many times before in my career: where can one find a Colorado River Basin map that is accurate?  It seems like such a simple task, but as others have noted before (namely Sara Porterfield on this blog on April 7, 2018) it is an ongoing problem.  The list of problem areas is long, and many seem to have a strong political motivation:


2012 Basin Map

The most common problem is the treatment of Mexico.  Many maps, including most “official” Department of Interior publications, exclude Mexico entirely, envisioning that the water molecules of the basin dutifully stop their downhill march anytime they approach the US/Mexico border.  At the other extreme are maps that greatly exaggerate the Mexican land area in the hydrologic basin.  As Sara discusses in her post, the decision to include (or not include) Mexico, and how much of Mexico, often is driven by political considerations.  But it also, I’m told, reflects confusion surrounding the USGS shape files regarding lands in northern Mexico.  Where the land is really flat, defining the exact hydrologic boundaries is indeed complicated, but is this really a problem in the GPS era?  I believe the “real” basin map should show a bump of Mexican territory near Nogales and one near the main channel, but frankly, I’m unsure if that’s the true, hydrologic reality.

Salton Sea

A similar problem surrounds the Salton Sea.  Clearly there is a hydrologic connection; the Salton Sea was formed by, and is sustained by, water from the Colorado River mainstem, sometimes through natural processes, sometimes via engineering failures, and sometimes by deliberate management actions.  How best to characterize this connection via a map is unclear to me, but it is also clear that this is an important issue that we ignore at substantial peril.  This was highlighted in the final days of DCP negotiations by the unwillingness of IID to sign onto the historic agreement

Flows to the Sea

Another issue with almost all Colorado River maps is that they show the river reaching the ocean.  Of course, this has not been the reality for half a century.  Those of us “on the inside” in Colorado River matters understand this, but why do our maps keep this secret from the rest of the population?  Are modern map-makers lazy or careless, or do they want to avoid the hard conversations about why more and more of the world’s rivers die an early death miles short of the sea?  About the only map I’ve seen (thanks to a tip from Sara) that tries to show this is on Wikipedia, which the author made using USGS data.

Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin

Another common area of dispute is the so-called Great Divide in Wyoming, a closed basin which Brad Udall tells me is at HUC 140402.  On the Wikipedia map, it’s the bump you see midway between Casper and Rock Springs.  The pattern, it seems, is to omit this area on the older Colorado River Basin maps, and include it on the newer maps.  What happened?  Did the topography of Wyoming change (damn, it’s the Yellowstone supervolcano, isn’t it)?  Did a Wyoming representative decide it was politically useful to instruct the federal map-makers to have the Colorado River Basin appropriate the Great Divide Basin (and if so, why)?  If the map-makers feel it’s appropriate to include the Great Divide Basin, does this modify the case for including the Salton Sea?

And So On….

I’m sure a longer list could be generated, as I’ve heard rumblings of other issues as well. Personally, the one that most intrigues me is the groundwater issue; namely, in regions where surface and groundwater are used conjunctively and/or share a direct hydrologic connection, does a map of either resource individually really show us something useful, or conversely, does it hamstring our ability to make smart management decisions?  Some research suggests that over half the flow of the Colorado River comes from groundwater.  We all like to talk about each year’s snowpack levels, but maybe what’s happening below our feet is worth noting as well?  Similarly, is there a compelling reason for maps to include state lines and the US/Mexico border, but not reservation lands, or is that too slippery a slope leading someone to question the omission of water districts and other jurisdictions of importance?  Where, literally, should we draw the lines?  Do map-makers agonize over these choices?

I know many of my colleagues share these frustrations—I’ve heard them.  And as is the case for me, they do not see this as obscure issues for cartographers to debate; these are issues with real policy implications.  It shapes our thinking about who and what to include in policy and management decisions.  It is something we should do better.  Or, maybe we should just load up our modern rafts with sandwiches and Coors Light, and charge downriver reflecting on those days when map-making was the realm of the most courageous and forward-looking scientists. That sounds easier.  In the meantime, please excuse the maps you see in virtually every Colorado River document since Powell—as best as I can tell, they are all wrong, and on many issues, are getting worse every generation.


Las Vegas Bay: a path into the story of the Colorado River

Las Vegas Bay, as seen in Science Be Dammed

I’m talking with University of New Mexico Water Resources Program students about the Colorado River this week, and pulling together some readings I had occasion to revisit the opening of The New Book:

The boat ramp at Las Vegas Bay, once a shimmering recreation mecca on the shores of Lake Mead, now ends in a row of concrete barricades and desert sand. A short hike through the scrub leads to an incongruous flowing river, the effluent from the Las Vegas metro area’s wastewater treatment plants, flowing the last few miles to Lake Mead.

The floating marina that once anchored Las Vegas Bay here was moved in 2002, towed to deeper water as Lake Mead declined. The great reservoirs integrate the Colorado River’s two stories—nature’s water flowing in, and humans taking it out. Too little of the first, or too much of the second, is in the long run unsustainable. At the bottom of the old Las Vegas Bay boat ramp, you can look up and see which version of the story is playing out etched in the hillsides above, old shorelines long since left dry by Lake Mead’s decline.

It was one of the very last bits of the book we wrote, in mid-December 2018. My co-author Eric Kuhn and I had been holed up for much of the week in a suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, slipping away from the Colorado River Water Users Association downstairs to squeeze in time banging away at the manuscript.

The CRWUA meeting is the most important annual gathering of the Colorado River community, and it was there three years earlier, at one of the free-drinks-and-hors d’oeuvres events that are a CRWUA necessary evil, that a conversation between Eric and I launched what would become the book. So it was a fitting place to launch the final push.

The manuscript had been sorta done for months, but then all of a sudden the book contract->final revisions process had exploded on us in a hurry, with less than a month to respond to reviewers’ comments and polish off the final version. It was a crazy, nervous time.

And I still wasn’t satisfied with the book’s opening.

In our division of labor, Eric was the Colorado River genius (y’all who know him already know that), while I tried to bring a storytelling structure and literary voice to help usher that genius into our readers’ worlds.

We took the book’s opening seriously, had been reworking it since early in the project, trying and discarding a bunch of stuff.

Leaving Las Vegas with the final draft of the opening still hanging, I drove out through Henderson, around Lakeshore Road along the western edge of Lake Mead on my way to Boulder City. When I can I drive to Las Vegas from Albuquerque rather than fly, and often leave some time on one end of the trip or the other to visit Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. This trip, I had a room the night after CRWUA at the old Boulder Dam Hotel, with time to wander.

I’ve been visiting those same places along the western edge of Lake Mead since 2010, grasping for the physical representation of the thing I’ve devoted the last decade to writing about – “The great reservoirs integrate the Colorado River’s two stories—nature’s water flowing in, and humans taking it out.”

old shorelines long since left dry by Lake Mead’s decline

“old shorelines long since left dry by Lake Mead’s decline”

Writing a thing like this is impossible to force, which made this a particularly unnerving moment – a deadline weeks away on one of the most important projects of my life. The trick is to place yourself in a moment and hope that the bucket of intellectual building blocks you’ve got in reserve will fall into the right places around it.

I parked the car at the end of the old Las Vegas Bay boat ramp and walked toward the water.

I can see the mental progression in the cell phone pictures I snapped that day – looking down at the water flowing down Las Vegas Wash, then out at the distant reservoir, then back up at the hillside behind me.

At some point that afternoon I picked up a dead reservoir clam and snapped a picture (Corbicula fluminea or Asian clam, Karl Flessa later told me), then looked again, back up at the hillside. I drove south, stopped again at Boulder Harbor and did the same thing. Once I realized what I had, what I needed to do, I was kicking myself for not bringing the good camera.

To be clear, I’d been standing at the reservoir’s edge looking back up at “the story … playing out etched in the hillsides above” for a while. It’s a fascinating institutional geomorphology, traces on the landscape left by human water management decisions. But it didn’t find its place among my bucket of intellectual building blocks until that afternoon.

Moving beyond the “water wars” frame

To speak of ‘war’ is to invoke images of militaries, violent conflict and destruction on a grand scale. Although we do not deny that water can be a factor – one among many – in some conflicts and mainly at intra-state level, we question why this drift towards water ‘securitisation’ at this time? To align ‘water’ with war is without doubt worrying, for water is an essential and non-substitutable resource needed by all. But to suggest that inter-state water wars are forthcoming is to ignore or undervalue decades of cooperative action. What is being argued here is in support of a more nuanced approach, that is both more evidence-based and constructive, highlighting the many varied and overwhelmingly positive efforts at an international level in support of cooperation within complex shared river basins. Ultimately, we believe that transboundary water cooperation is primarily a development issue and one that should remain in that space.

Why are water wars back on the agenda? And why we think it’s a bad idea! – by Ana Elisa Cascão and many colleagues at the Water Governance Chair Group at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands

More talk of a Colorado River climate change “grand bargain”

the Colorado River “grand bargain” discussion draws on our new book

The Denver Post’s Bruce Finley took a deep dive in today’s paper into the idea of a Colorado River “grand bargain” that might trade off the Lower Basin’s right to make a “call” on the river if flows at Lee’s Ferry drop against an Upper Basin cap on future development:

The grand bargain concept arose from increasing anxiety in booming Colorado and the other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — about their plight of being legally roped into sending more water downriver, even if dry winters, new population growth and development made that impossible without shutting faucets.

California, Arizona and Nevada, the lower-basin states that for years have siphoned more than their allotted one-half share of river water, face greater uncertainty and painful weaning from overuse.

What Finley characterizes as “serious behind-the-scenes contemplation” of the “grand bargain” is driven by increasingly clear hydrologic reality. There has always been less water in the Colorado River than the planners thought when they allocated the river’s water in the first half of the 20th century, and there is even less water now as climate change saps the river’s flow.

While lots of people talked to Finley about it, none of the basin officials would commit to actually liking the idea. (Becky Mitchell, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, offered my favorite faint praise – “an interesting thought exercise”.)

It’s an idea that’s been floating around for years, but Eric Kuhn and I, co-authors of a new book coming out in the fall, gave it a fresh push this summer. From Finley:

The grand bargain gained traction this summer at a University of Colorado Law School forum, following circulation of a paper by former Colorado River District manager Eric Kuhn and reporter-turned-water-analyst John Fleck of the University of New Mexico that articulated the concept.

They cast the bargain as a crucial recognition that the river on average holds about 2.5 million acre-feet less water than state negotiators put on paper in the 1922 compact.

The grand bargain “is a long-term sustainable solution” to Colorado River Basin problems “providing flexibility and security for water uses in the basin, including recreational and environmental flows, while recognizing that there is less water in the system than what was contemplated when the Law of the River was conceived,” they wrote.

Our “fresh push” includes the white paper Finley mentioned, which draws on the material in our new book.

I wrote obliquely about the “grand bargain” in my last book, which came out three years ago.

Within the network of state and water-agency representatives working on Colorado River Basin problems, there is a clear recognition that eventually some sort of “grand bargain” will be needed that finds a way to reduce everyone’s water allocation. To keep the system from crashing, everyone will have to give something up. But each of the participants in that core network also understands the dilemma that follows: each
must then go home and sell the deal in a domestic political environment that views the river’s paper water allocations as a God-given right.

I’m no longer sure that bit is right, about the “clear recognition” that some sort of grand bargain will eventually be needed. What you see in the quotes in Finley’s story is a tension between the reality of water allocation on the Colorado River and the “but ya gotta sell the deal back home” part.

For the last book, Water Isn’t Really For Fighting Over, I’d written a much longer bit that ended up on the editing room floor. I dug it out this afternoon to reread. I see why I abandoned it – the complexity was daunting, and I still find the nuances of the “grand bargain” hard to explain. But the kicker went to the heart of where we’re at now:

Water managers hate risk. What if there were a middle ground, a deal that shared the risk?

The “grand bargain” does just that. But it is so politically sensitive that you don’t hear it talked about much. It doesn’t really have good “lies you can tell back home” that would make its unpleasant reality, advantageous though it might be, politically saleable.




The Bicycle of Theseus and the Paradox of Identity

Screenshot, Smart, Brian. "How to reidentify the ship of Theseus." Analysis 32.5 (1972): 145-148.

Smart, Brian. “How to reidentify the ship of Theseus.” Analysis 32.5 (1972): 145-148.

In the fall of 2003, I bought a new bicycle.

I wore spandex and those practical (albeit a bit silly) cyclist’s shirts with pockets on the back for snacks.

the bike of Theseus

In the years that followed, I rode that bicycle a great deal. While my data are imprecise (my crazy data nerd spreadsheet has all the miles, but does not distinguish which of my bicycles I was riding on any given day), I can comfortably say I rode that bike the equivalent of more than once around the circumference of the earth.

I love(d?) that bike.

I am older now, enough so that the sort of zooming I did then – “light and quick” is how I described it – is of less importance. A change was appropriate. I settled on a new steel frame from All-City, and ace mechanic Brett at Two Wheel Drive took all the kit – wheels, shifters, handlebars, etc. – from the old bike and put them on the new bike.

Or was it a new bike?

“Oh, like the ship of Theseus?” said Reed.

Me: “Umm, yeah, I guess?” (Further research was needed.)

The story is that Theseus, back in the day, did awesome stuff, really heroic (slaying of monsters and the like), in a ship. Anchored in Athens harbor post-monster slaying as a sort of monument, it began to decay, as ships do. The Athenians, in a quest to preserve it, replaced the bits as they decayed, until over time none of the original ship remained.

So was it still the ship of Theseus?

Since I bought the bike you see above back in 2003, I’ve replaced bits and pieces. Two years ago, with a new frame, it had reasonable “new bike” credentials. But the wheels I ride today are the same ones I rode in 2003, as is the seat post.

A couple of weeks ago, Brett replaced the derailleurs for me – I’ve now got super low old man climbing gears – and today I finally gave in and bought a new seat bag for my goathead response kit.


the bike of Theseus

Worth noting: the cactus in the background. Also the same?

Colorado River water reduction rules: not quite voluntary, not quite mandatory – “vandatory”!

After Friday’s blog post and some intemperate tweeting about whether the Colorado River Drought Contingency plan cuts about to go into effect were voluntary or mandatory, a friend involved in the negotiations explained that they actually came up with a word for this: “vandatory”.

The idea was that everything they all agreed to in DCP was voluntary to enter into. But once signed, fulfilling its terms then becomes mandatory (i.e. contractually binding and now mandated by congressional directive to the Secretary).

I’m gonna get my “CLOSE IS NOT DONE” tattoo lasered off and replaced with one that says “VANDATORY”.

A decent (not great, but decent) water year on the Colorado was not enough to stave off mandatory cuts

a screenshot of the actual historic text message

Walking across the University of New Mexico campus yesterday afternoon on my way to orientation for our incoming UNM Water Resources Program students, at precisely 3:10 pm MDT, a friend sent me a historic text message: “1089.4”.

Translated from the native language of the Colorado River Water Nerd, “1089.4” means “The surface of Lake Mead in the Bureau of Reclamation’s August 24-month study is forecast to end the year at less than 1090 feet above sea level, triggering the first mandatory cuts in the long history of the Law of the Colorado River.”

Below we will discuss quibbles with two of the words in that sentence: “first” and “mandatory”. But in my struggle to distill the complex into overly simple messaging that I can bang home in the style of the newspaper writer I once was – yes, this is historic.

This almost didn’t happen. When the DCP was signed in May, the Bureau of Reclamation was forecasting that Mead would end the year at elevation 1084.9, more than five feet below the trigger for mandatory cutbacks. Yesterday’s forecast was nearly five feet higher, just barely below the cutback trigger. But we’ve had a really wet year, haven’t we?

But 2019’s been really, really wet, right?

Not exactly. Some really helpful back-and-forths by email and telephone the last few days with Colorado State’s Brad Udall and my coauthor Eric Kuhn (buy our book, soon) has convinced me that a lot of the rhetoric about a giant snowpack and booming runoff, including some of my own, has not held up terribly well. Here’s a super helpful graph Brad made showing elevations in Lake Powell:

Elevation of Lake Powell, courtesy of Brad Udall

Yes, Powell is up this year, but it’s just a 22 percent above the long term average, nothing like 2011 and not all that much higher than 2017. I guess it seemed to me like a lot of water because the 21st century has been so dry.

Long term Colorado River flow

The main reason Mead is ending the year so much higher than the May forecast is a) a reduction in Lower Basin use as compared to the May forecast, and b) an increase in tributary inflow below Glen Canyon Dam. That combination came within half a foot of Lake Mead elevation of saving me the need to write this tangled blog post.

I prefer to call the DCP cuts “mandatory”

There’s been a weird linguistic thing going on in the news coverage of 1089.4, with some writers characterizing the coming reductions of water use as “voluntary”. It’s easy to get sidetracked in a twisted binary linguistic argument about whether the cuts are “mandatory” or “voluntary”, which is best sidestepped by being explicit about the actual characteristics of the thing that is happening here.

In recent years, including this one, the states of the Lower Colorado River Basin have been doing a bangup job of using less water. No one is forcing them to, so the term “voluntary” seems to pretty clearly apply. Importantly, this means that they are not required to do this, and there are no guarantees that in coming years they would.

In May, all the states signed an agreement explicitly laying out rules that would cut their water use when Lake Mead is below 1090.  Lake Mead will be below 1090. So the rules now require Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico to reduce their water use. Rather than hope for voluntary reductions in 2020, we can all count on the cuts because the rules require them. This carries an important characteristic of “mandatoriness” to me.

Did the states agree to the rules? Yes. Does that make them voluntary? Sure, whatever, I guess this has some characteristic of voluntariness too. But by this linguistic argument, we’d have to call Interior Secretary Gale Norton slashing California’s deliveries to L.A. through the Colorado River Aqueduct Jan. 1, 2003 “voluntary” because California had agreed in 1928 to the rules Norton was invoking. All the mandatory cuts we can see out there in the future of the Law of the River – an Upper Basin Compact call being the most obvious – would under this linguistic interpretation count as “voluntary” because they grow out of enforcement of rules to which the states had previously agreed.

It is the case that the states did come together to agree to these cuts, and there is voluntariness about that process that matters. Still, the fact that we now have enforceable rules that create requirements seems the salient point here, whatever words we use to describe them.

But is this really the first time we’ve had mandatory cuts?

So I guess now that I think it through, that “first time” thing was a bunch of crap designed to sell newspapers. As I acknowledge above, Gale Norton forced California to reduce its Colorado River water use from more than 5 million acre feet to 4.4 million acre feet back in 2003.

In thinking it through to write this post (folks this is why I blog) I’ve clarified my own thinking from the bombastic “OF COURSE IT’S MANDATORY” thinking of intemperate afternoon tweets. The voluntariness of what is happening now, as compared to what happened with California in 2003, seems relevant.

Maybe we could call it the first time the states have voluntarily agreed to mandatory cuts?

* “Ill-named” because this isn’t about drought. This is about us using too much water.

Water is no one thing

fountain at the University of New Mexico

the cool of a fountain

Headed out across campus in a quest for coffee this morning, I had occasion to stop and rest at the little courtyard fountain on the south side of the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman library.

In a neat thesis a couple of years ago, UNM geographer Susanna Diller identified three core values of fountains:

  • a proxy for nature
  • an aesthetic landscape feature
  • a site of relaxation

I’ve been thinking about fountains as I prepare for the arrival next week of a new cohort of UNM Water Resources Program students. As a communicator, I think a lot about “framing” – the importance of the first thing you say as you launch a communication process, the way it sets up all that follows.

The UNM Duck Pond as a Framing Device

The courtyard fountain is one of two on this part of campus, which sports a lovely patch of lawn and a duck pond. (Or maybe three fountains? The duck pond has two fountainy things spurting water.) We pump groundwater from an aquifer 400-plus feet below us to feed these fountains and water these lawns, and the question of their value – the value of water in this particular use – is the starting point for a lecture I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks.

I happen to love the fountains. This is, to me, a valuable use of water. Lots of people seem to agree. When I was writing my last book, I’d often spend weekend afternoons in the office writing, I’d always go for walks around the duck pond, and I’d always see people there enjoying them. These were people who had sought out the campus on a weekend to hang out by the fountains.

But I also understand that some people do not share my views – “an economic drain and an unethical space”, as one person argued.

That goes to the heart of the question the entering UNM Water Resources Program cohort of 2019 are about to tackle: given that water is scarce, how are we to balance the competing, often conflicting, values we all hold about water?

Alfalfa in the desert? Lawns?

I’m working out some schtick for the first lecture that I’d like to try out on y’all, if you don’t mind. It involves the duck pond.

As I said before, I find the duck pond to be of tremendous value. And it is a public good – I don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy it, and my use of the duck pond does not preclude others from using it as well. The duck pond is, to use the terminology we’ll be teaching this fall, “nonexcludable” (no one can be prevented from enjoying the pond) and “nonrivalrous” (the enjoyment of one pond user does not prevent its enjoyment by others). Water as a public good. (I hope you’re taking notes, WR571 students.)

But the value I find in that water is of a very particular sort.

On the tail end of a hot Saturday bike ride, I might find myself riding through campus on my way home (true this, I nearly always cut through campus on my bike rides, because duck pond). Should my water bottles be empty (true this, a common state of affairs at the tail end of a hot bike ride) I would place a great deal of value on water I could drink.

You’ve seen the duck pond, right? Ick! And the buildings are generally closed summer weekends, so refilling at a drinking fountain is not an option.* At that moment, I’m willing to shell out a buck fifty for bottled water at the Kwik-E-Mart. True this. I often refill this way when I’m out riding and there’s no public drinking fountains to be had.

So the value of water here is no one thing. It’s almost like the “duck pond public space enjoyment” and the “it’s hot and I’m really thirsty” are describing a relationship with two entirely separate things. We call them both “water”, but as we move through a complex discourse about competing values for “water”, we need ways of disentangling what we mean by “water” and its value.

We have:

  • water inside our houses (drinking, cooking, cleaning and the like)
  • water outside our houses (watering our yards)
  • water to grow crops
  • water left in the river for the river’s own sake

Historian Christopher Hamlin has written (sorry, not sure where there’s an ungated copy) about the 19th century linguistic transition between “waters” and “water” – between thinking of water as many things and an “essentialist view” of water as one thing.

This is the course we’re setting out on as a new group of Water Resources Program students arrive – to tease apart the differences and begin thinking about how water managers cope. It’s an exciting time.

* At this point, for Prof. Fleck’s clever lecture trick to work, he must ignore the fact that he has a key to the building where his office is located, adjacent to the duck pond. The drinking fountain at the end of the west hallway is definitely excludable as to the general populace, but not to a faculty member with a key. (Extra credit – there’s also a bathroom at that end of the hall. Discuss.)