Recycling the beer

We have faculty affiliated with the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program working on public acceptance of wastewater recycling and reuse. We have faculty who make beer. This is a story for us:

Pima County water officials want to organize a statewide brewery competition where beer-makers compete using purified wastewater….

The goal of the “Brew Challenge” is to sway public perception of so-called “potable re-use” and tap an unused water source.

The jokes here really just write themselves. But in my new academic life in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, this is one of the interesting projects we’re working on – bringing my communication skills and background to research into questions of public risk perception and acceptance, overcoming the “yuck factor” associated with purifying sewage for direct potable reuse.

The beer idea seems brilliant.

Audubon hiring someone to help save the Salton Sea

Audubon is looking to hire someone to help save the Salton Sea. It’s a great twofer – you get to help the birds, and if you succeed you also get to help save Colorado River manage as a whole, as the two are integrally related. If we fail to get the Salton Sea right, everything else, throughout the entire Colorado River Basin, gets a whole lot harder*. More here.


* I hate to keep being a shill for my new book (no I don’t), but I explain the connection between the Salton Sea and broader management challenges, you should read it!

Steven Pinker on the how news misleads

News is a misleading way to understand the world. It’s always about events that happened and not about things that didn’t happen. So when there’s a police officer that has not been shot up or city that has not had a violent demonstration, they don’t make the news. As long as violent events don’t fall to zero, there will be always be headlines to click on.

That’s Steven Pinker, in a great interview with Julia Belluz at Vox.

I came to this insight late in my journalism career,  and it was central to my decision to quit my newspaper job, go off and write a book, and now launch a new career in academia. Journalism no longer seemed well suited to the task at hand. Here’s how I explained it in the opening chapter of Water is for Fighting Over:

Like many who manage, engineer, utilize, plan for, and write about western water today, I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe…. But as drought set in again across the Colorado River Basin in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I was forced to grapple with a contradiction: despite what had Reisner taught me, people’s faucets were still running. Their farms were not drying up. No city was left abandoned….

When people have less water, I realized, they use less water.

In spite of the doomsday scenarios, westerners were coping, getting along with their business in the face of less water…. I have witnessed this resilience time and again as I travel the hydraulic landscape of the western United States. This book chronicles my attempt to understand and explain where that ability to adapt comes from, how it works, and how we can call on it to get us through the hard times ahead.

Writing about people not running out of water proved a challenge. I hope I pulled it off.

La Niña watch

This is your semi-regular, repetitive reminder that El Niño and La Niña don’t matter a hill of beans, in statistical terms, for the Colorado River Basin as a whole.

The Climate Prediction Center has issued a La Niña watch. That means cooler temperatures across the equatorial Pacific, which tends on average to influence the North American storm track, pushing storms, on average and in bulk, sorta north. Sorta. Maybe. That means it tends to be a bit drier across Arizona and New Mexico on average, sorta maybe. But as you get farther north, where most of the Colorado River Basin’s water originates, dunno. Hard to say much in a predictive sense, as one says again and again:

Courtesy CBRFC

Courtesy CBRFC

on the Lower Colorado, the weekly human hydrograph

I love this:

Thursday is the lowest release for the week, so starting late Thursday the water begins to drop in the river, with the lowest flows on Saturday. If you are a recreational water user — skiing, fishing, pleasure boating, or jet skiing — less water means more sandbars or exposed debris to avoid. You may ask why the releases are not kept at a uniform flow? Farmers are people, too, with families and other responsibilities. Irrigations are scheduled so that they can also enjoy other activities on weekends. By Monday morning, water releases are at their full flow for the week.

the long shadow of Marc Reisner and Cadillac Desert

Water is for Fighting Over

Water is for Fighting Over

It is impossible, I have found, to write seriously about water in the western United States without being in conversation with the late Marc Reisner and his classic Cadillac Desert, published thirty years ago. It’s assessment of our problems is foundational, and even if I disagree with some of what he had to say (as I do), Cadillac Desert is one of the great American books, and I must assume that most people who read me have already read him.

Henry Brean did a nice piece this morning in the Las Vegas Review Journal about my new book Water is For Fighting OverHere’s Henry’s kicker:

Most books about the Colorado River offer a pessimistic view, including the seminal work on the subject, Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert.”

Fleck jokes that his book is more like “Volvo Desert.” The future river he envisions is sturdy, reliable and built to survive a crash.

And then there is this kind review just posted on Amazon:

“Water is for Fighting Over” is worthy of placement on the shelf next to “Cadillac Desert.”

Cannot escape Reisner’s shadow.

The University of New Mexico Water Resources Program: playing water management’s long game

On the Public Record posted yesterday soliciting water management recommendations for the new presidential administration (and offering some of their own). As happens with that smart blog and audience, cool ideas quickly emerged – better use of remote sensing to measure water use in something closer to real time, municipal leak detection, planning grants for local-level water management, and on. I offered this:

Fund educational opportunities in technical and policy and management skills to build capacity among the next generation of water managers, with special emphasis on members of currently under-represented communities. So that all the cool stuff other people are suggesting in this thread can be well used/executed.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot in the year and a half since I left a career in newspaper journalism and began heading down this strange new path I’m on. I left to write a book, because I’ve been a journalist all my life and that’s what one does. But as I was working on the book, holed up in an office in the little corner of the University of New Mexico economics building occupied by UNM’s Water Resources Program, I was increasingly struck by the opportunity I’d stumbled into.

UNM water resources students measuring the Rio Grande

UNM water resources students measuring the Rio Grande

Let me explain the WRP.

We’re a small program that grants interdisciplinary masters degrees in water management. We provide students with a grounding in both the technical aspects of water management – hydrology, climate, geochemistry, modeling – as well as the policy aspects, stuff like law and governance. If you look around New Mexico water management, you see our graduates’ fingerprints on things that matter. Santa Fe’s Buckman Direct Diversion, which helped that city diversify its water portfolio and reduce its dependence on groundwater? One of our grads helped develop that project. Albuquerque’s effort to expand aquifer storage and recovery? Yup, one of our grads. The struggle to get the Air Force to deal with groundwater contamination from an old fuel spill on Albuquerque’s south side? Quietly, one of our grads tenaciously pushed that rock up the hill.

Water management’s grand gestures are the ones we notice (Hoover Dam, the San Juan-Chama Project, Adams Tunnel), but mostly water management is the accumulation of zillions of smaller things done by motivated people who care. In working with Water Resource Program students, I began to see the opportunity to help with that part of the project of making water management work. The students are smart and engaged and passionate, which offers enormous leverage.

As I was finishing the book late last year, I jumped at the chance to expand my teaching role in the program. One thing led to another, and I began this week as the program’s director.

This seems a good use of my time.

Despite drought, the value of California farmland is rising

California’s epic, headline-grabbing drought has not dented the value of the state’s farm land.

According to a new USDA dataset released today, California cropland rose 2.1 percent in value per acre in the last year, and 16 percent since 2012. Despite drought, California cropland remains at $10,900 an acre the second most valuable in the nation behind New Jersey. (New Jersey? Ag econ nerds please help in the comments.)

One might hypothesize that groundwater pumping on irrigated land is the explanation. (I did, in fact, so hypothesize.) But one’s hypothesis might be wrong. Non-irrigated California cropland is rising more quickly in value than irrigated land – but both are going up.


I’m the new director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program

When Bob Berrens invited me three years ago to join him in teaching a class on contemporary issues in water management in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, I was hesitant. I was pretty busy – working full time at the Albuquerque Journal, trying to write a book. But heck, it seemed like fun, so I figured I’d give it a shot. (My joke has been that the real hook was university library privileges. There is truth in that joke.)

One thing led to another. The Water Resources Program gave me an office, I quit my newspaper job to finish the book, I expanded my teaching role, I started working more closely with the program’s terrific graduate students, and now this:

John Fleck has been appointed director of The University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. Fleck is Professor of Practice in water policy and governance in the university’s Department of Economics, and has been the Water Resources Program’s writer-in-residence since January 2015.

“UNM’s Water Resources Program is a unique interdisciplinary program with faculty contributors from across campus,” said UNM Dean of Graduate Studies Julie Coonrod. “While many faculty members work across disciplines, John Fleck truly thinks in an interdisciplinary way. This rare quality, along with his highly-regarded reputation in the western water community will provide strong leadership for this graduate program.”