Bonus water for Lake Mead, with the chance for more next year

Dan Elliott has details on yesterday’s USBR announcement of a 9 million acre foot release from Lake Mead:

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, said it will release 9 million acre-feet from Lake Powell, sending it down the Colorado into Lake Mead, where it will be tapped by Arizona, California and Nevada.

That is well above the minimum kinda sorta required release of 8.23 million acre feet (lawyers from Upper and Lower Basin please argue in the comments about this, thanks). Combined with conservation efforts among users in Arizona, California, and Nevada, this means that Lake Mead will end the year at least 5 feet above last year, and maybe as much as 7.

Oroville’s impact on Lake Mead

Friday’s announcement of an 85 percent California State Water Project allocation was, tentatively at least, good news for Lake Mead.

When the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California gets a small supply from up north via the State Water Project, it needs more Colorado River water. Conversely, with a big State Water Project supply coming out of Oroville Dam and down the Sacramento River to the big south-of-delta pumps, Met can back off on its Colorado River Aqueduct supplies.

The two river and plumbing systems are thus inextricably linked.

Until Oroville Dam’s problems, it looked like a huge State Water Project supply might allow Met to leave as much as 400,000 acre feet in Lake Mead this year. But with state officials managing Oroville conservatively, storing less water to leave more space as a safety buffer, there were fears that a low State Water Project allocation would cut Met’s leave-it-in-Lake-Mead number to as little as 200,000 acre feet.

With an 85 percent allocation, it now looks like that number could go back up to 400,000 acre feet of what is called in the lingo “intentionally created surplus” this year. That’s four feet of elevation in Mead, which is pretty important as we flirt with shortages.

the paradoxes of irrigation efficiency

The University of New Mexico water posse had a great visit yesterday with Christopher Scott, the new director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Scott spoke a couple of times and met with students at our Community and Regional Planning program, who have been doing a lot of work on wastewater reuse (shoutout to Caroline Scruggs, who’s leading this effort, and who hosted Scott).

All-American Canal passing through the sand hills west of Yuma, March 2014 by John Fleck

Scott talked about the work he’s been doing in this same area, which raises non-trivial questions with deep implications for what happens when you “conserve” water – the fact that the water you “save” was often doing something useful somewhere else, whether you meant it to our not. Like a sewage treatment plant outfall into a river. Or, as from this 2014 paper, water leaking from the unlined All-American Canal on the Lower Colorado River that recharged an aquifer:

[I]ncreased efficiency in the Imperial Valley has been pursued largely with the objective of transferring water out of the basin for urban uses – an example of the sectoral paradox, with a resulting decline in local within-basin resilience including reductions in aquifer recharge that had previously resulted from seep- age across the US–Mexico border.

I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was that paper by Scott and his colleagues that introduced me to Bruce Lankford’s idea of the “paracommons”, which I wrote about here (one of my favorite comment threads ever on an Inkstain post there, check out Tom Buschatzke’s contribution), and which was influential in my book’s conclusion. I’d been struggling with the ideas involved – Scott and Lankford provided some conceptual clarity for this passage. When you “conserve” water and leave it in Lake Mead, whose water is it? Yours to use later? A common property of the system as a whole?

Given that, overall, water users are demanding more water than nature is providing, sooner or later the water that is conserved will have to be water that no one will ever get back.

More than a year after I delivered the manuscript for my book, that question remains at the heart of discussions around solving the Colorado River’s problems. It won’t be easily sorted.

“reconciliation ecology” in the rice fields of California

Reconciliation ecology, the field’s founders say, “says we still have time to save most of the world’s species. But to do it, we must stop trying to put an end to civilization and human enterprise. Instead, we need to work on the overwhelming bulk of the land — the places we humans use. We need to make them over so that they can support both us and other species.”

sandhill cranes, Bernardo, NM

Sena Christian has a great piece in the most recent Comstock Magazine that leads us through one of the most interesting reconciliation ecology experiments currently underway in the irrigated landscapes of the American West, a collaboration among farmers and environmentalists on the rice fields of Northern California:

Farmers typically drain the water in late January so the soil has time to harden for the upcoming season. Could they be encouraged to keep their fields flooded a few inches into February and March, to provide surrogate wetlands for birds traveling north along the Pacific Flyway? The Nature Conservancy posed this question when piloting its Bird Returns program in 2014.

Bird Returns essentially rents fields from farmers on a short-term basis, using a reverse auction: Farmers place a bid for what they want to be paid per acre to keep their fields flooded. Sellers with the most reasonable bids and conducive fields are enrolled.

This is a piece of what I’m planning on talking about in a talk next week at UNM’s “Decolonizing Nature” conference in Albuquerque. The premise is that we’re not going to return our rivers to their state before the time-of-lots-of-humans (TOLOH). The large forces unleashed by TOLOH – the influence, for example, of the global price of rice on California’s landscape – are here to stay. How do we move beyond a traditional return-to-nature style of environmentalism to a nature-among-us?


Lower Colorado – America’s “most endangered river”

The environmental group American Rivers today declared the Lower Colorado River America’s “most endangered river“.

The web page announcing this is fascinating. The pictures are not of iconic desert canyons and pristine rivers. They are of farmers. Growing food.

photo by Amy Martin, courtesy American Rivers

A reminder of the multiplicity of values with which we embrace the importance of rivers.

Glen Canyon Dam and the $10 bill on the sidewalk

tl;dr The claims of “Fill Mead First” advocates that we could save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water a year while draining Lake Powell and consolidating all the Colorado River’s water in Lake Mead don’t hold up.

The longer version….

There’s this joke.

Two economists are walking down the street when one spots something on the sidewalk.

“Look,” the first says, “a $10 bill!”

“Nah,” says the second. “If that was a $10 bill someone would have picked it up already.”

The point here is that often what looks like an unexploited opportunity is not as it appears. Maybe you’re just the first person to spot it, so pick it up! But maybe if there have been lots of people passing this way, it hasn’t been picked up because it’s not really a $10 bill.

Glen Canyon by James Fennemore, one of the photographers in the second Powell expedition, 1872

The argument for draining Lake Powell/tearing down Glen Canyon Dam has the look of a $10 bill on the sidewalk – the argument that between evaporation and seepage, so much Colorado River water is being lost now from Lake Powell that the water savings make this a good deal for the basin’s water users.

The latest science suggests that this is not the case – that seepage losses are minimal, and that alternatives suggested by advocates of eliminating Glen Canyon Dam (the “Fill Mead First” proposal, draining Lake Powell and consolidating the Colorado’s dwindling supplies in Lake Mead) have essentially the same evaporation losses, as evaporation goes up in Lake Mead by about the same amount that it goes down in Lake Powell.

The drive to pull down Glen Canyon Dam, deeply rooted in the environmental politics of the West, is about more than simply saving water. Those who advocate it argue, correctly, that it also is about restoring Glen Canyon, one of the West’s great natural treasures, drowned when Lake Powell filled in the 1960s. There is no question that this would be awesome.

But to overcome the opposition of those who benefit from Lake Powell’s water, those who would remove the dam also posit a major benefit of their own – restore Glen Canyon’s magnificence and save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water per year. The savings we’re talking about are the equivalent of Las Vegas, Nevada’s entire supply. Surely that’s worth picking up off the sidewalk?

Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers had a go at this question last week. In a piece written in response to Rebecca Solnit’s widely read and beautifully written ode to Glen Canyon, Eberle took issue with Solnit’s contention that getting rid of Lake Powell would save a bunch of water.

Eberle and American Rivers, an environmental group committed to (as its name suggests) our rivers, thinks this isn’t really a $10 bill:

There are 5 key reasons why the Fill Mead First argument doesn’t hold water, and while each of them on their own could be a good enough reason to look past the reality of the situation, together they make a compelling case for keeping Glen Canyon Dam in place, at least for now.

This is a huge deal.

For one of the nation’s most visible and important river-focused environmental groups to come out against the latest proposal to drain Lake Powell, which has been a lodestar of western environmentalism for more than a half century, took guts.

But I think Eberle is right.

There’s technical detail worth sifting through, and I encourage you to look at Eberle’s piece, as well as an important analysis published last fall by a group at Utah State led by Jack Schmidt. The USU group’s conclusion, in short, was the water savings in draining Lake Powell and consolidating the Colorado River’s water in Lake Mead are not what Fill Mead First advocates have been claiming.

The seepage question – “bank storage” in the lingo of the dam community – was until recently scientifically murkier, but there has always been a strong technical argument that seepage was not the issue that Glen Canyon Dam’s opponents made it out to be. The work by Schmidt and his students supports that argument – that we’re not losing the kind of water to seepage the Fill Mead First advocates have claimed.

But the real kicker for me was the $10 bill-on-the-sidewalk thing.

As a journalist, I often heard from people who would ask, “Why don’t they just do X?”, where “they” are the people in charge who haven’t seen the obvious benefits of X. It’s phrased in the form of a question, but the speaker doesn’t really mean it that way. They really mean “They should do X”, without considering that there may be a good reason why they are not doing X that the questioner just hasn’t understood. One of my journalistic starting points always was to start with the smart people who had looked closely at X already. Maybe there was a good reason X wasn’t already being done.

Think $10 bill on the sidewalk.

The people who have the most to gain from this in water supply terms, the water agencies that would kill for a new source of a few hundred thousand acre feet of water per year, were not pursuing draining Lake Powell. Maybe there was some byzantine politics behind why they didn’t want that water. Or maybe the savings weren’t really there.

We now have a much clearer picture of the issue thanks to the work by Schmidt and his students. Contrary to the claims of Solnit and others that there are big savings to be had through reduced evaporation, Schmidt et al. conclude that, for all practical purposes, “there would be no change in evaporation losses”. The seepage losses, Schmidt found, are minimal. Solnit’s failure to engage Schmidt’s contribution – she asserts without citation that “consolidating water in one (reservoir) would reduce evaporation” without acknowledging that there is new research suggesting otherwise – was a serious flaw.

There is still a deep and important passion in the West about the idea of removing Glen Canyon Dam. It’s a conversation worth pursuing. But those who advocate it need to make the case on its own merits, not based on a false claim that you can restore Glen Canyon and save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water in the process.

It’s not a $10 bill. That’s why no one’s picked it up.

“I just found this route a couple weeks ago….”

One of the great joys of bicycling socially is route sharing.

Albuquerque is a great bicycling city. We’ve got a nice network of trails that are completely separated from streets, including one along the Rio Grande that runs the whole length of the metro area. We’re seeing more and more facilities on the streets as well – protected lanes, bike boxes, that green colored pavement that acknowledges that the bikes belong here too.

With my new job at the university, I can commute by bike – it’s close, and the neighborhood has a high density of cyclists, which increases safety because drivers are used to us. Lots of my students ride.

But inevitably, as you build new bicycle infrastructure, that infrastructure has to end somewhere. The network is increasingly interconnected, but there will always be gaps. “So how do you get from X to Y?” is a common conversation among cyclists – where do you cross Lomas, how do you get up from the river through downtown, and most importantly, always, where do you cross the freeway?

the trick to get from the “Powerline Trail” on Albuquerque’s West side to Atrisco

I still identify a lot of my rides with the people who shared their little tricks for stitching the network together. Last Sunday, my old friend Scot showed me where to “portage” across a big dirt patch to get from Tramway Boulevard to the bike trail that heads back down in my neighborhood. Today it was new friend Dan leading Scot and I through the zigs and zags to connect up the “Powerline Trail” on Albuquerque’s west side (it’s real name is something more poetic, but one of Dan’s tricks when the trail goes through a few awkward zigs and zags on the neighborhood streets was to watch the big overhead power lines – trails follow infrastructure).

The little kink in the route on the map to the right (yes, we are nerds, we GPS our rides) gets you from the Powerline Trail to Atrisco Dr., which you can then follow all the way back, with a few zigs and zags (thanks Dan and Scot!) to the Atrisco Neighborhood, down by the river. The city has a great bike system map, and Scot carries a paper copy. But the wisdom of the zigs and zags comes from the shared knowledge learned by a posse of Albuquerque riders working out the tricky bits and sharing what they learned.

The Copenhagen left

As we were passing under the railroad tracks on Tijeras-Martin Luther King Boulevard, we caught up with a dad riding the bike lane with his two young daughters. They were on their way to a birthday party. We dawdled and chatted before going our separate ways as the dad taught his daughters how to do a “Copenhagen left”.

Passing on the lore.

California’s remarkable resilience in the face of drought

We’ll be analyzing lessons from California’s drought for a while yet. But what I view as the most important lesson is already clear.

The L.A. Times’ Bettina Boxall, one of the state’s most experienced and respected water reporters, summed it up thus:

[O]n the whole, this intricately plumbed state proved to be surprisingly resilient in the face of what, by some measures, was the worst drought on record.

“We did remarkably well,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Despite water shortages, agriculture — the state’s biggest water user — enjoyed record revenues in 2012, 2013 and 2014 thanks to soaring nut and dairy prices.

Though drinking supplies had to be trucked to some rural communities, the effect in most metropolitan areas was mainly limited to people boasting about every drop they saved, tsk-tsking at wasteful neighbors.

The water shortages barely put a dent in the state economy.

“How much reduction in the gross domestic product of California occurred because of a 25% reduction in urban water use? Almost nothing!” Lund exclaimed. “Nobody has even bothered to calculate it, it’s so small.”

slots still available for UNM Water Resources Program fall 2017

UNM Water Resources Program students at the Valles Caldera

We still have some slots available for fall 2017 in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program.

When I left my career in journalism, it was for the chance to join a community of people at the University of New Mexico who are passionate about water. We’re looking for students who think that way too, who are interested in developing the skills and knowledge to help solve the problem of ensuring sustainable and resilient water systems in the West and around the world.

The program is fundamentally interdisciplinary. We’ve got students right now studying the complexities of climate dynamics with UNM’s Dave Gutzler; the challenge of wastewater reused with Caroline Scruggs; the complexities of water law with Reed Benson; the complexities of thinking through what we mean by resilience and how we achieve it with Melinda Harm Benson. The same students. Studying all of these things. We take “interdisciplinary” seriously. (And yes, your tuition includes not one but two Bensons.)

Our core curriculum includes a three broad survey courses.

Our introduction is called Contemporary Issues in Water Management, which I teach along with Bob Berrens, my predecessor as director of the Water Resources Program, with frequent cameos from Bruce Thomson, Bob’s predecessor. Bob’s an economist, Bruce is an environmental engineer, and I’m a former journalist turned professional water wonk. “An economist, an engineer, and a journalist walked into a bar, see, and….” As I said, we take “interdisciplinary” seriously. We cover a lot of ground in a course that’s rooted in an effort to tease out and make sense of water policy and governance is in all its messy complexity.

In the spring semester, students tie physical hydrology and human elements together in the development of a system dynamics model of a watershed. Working with hydrologist Jesse Roach and economist Jinjing Wang, the students this spring are building a computer model of the Gila River watershed in New Mexico to ask questions about human use of water in the region, including its economic and environmental components. Throughout the first two classes, I’m teaching communication at the interface between students’ technical work and the political/policy world in which they’ll be applying it. I’m convinced that understanding deeply how politics and politics work in real world settings is crucial to success in water management. This is my passion.

The third core course is a field course. Students learn to measure water, then spend several days up in the Valles Caldera doing a rapid watershed assessment. See picture above. ‘Nuff said.

With the core out of the way, we then dispatch our students across the campus, assembling what one of this years’ students smartly described as a “choose your own adventure” curriculum tailored to students’ professional goals and personal interests. We’ve got our tendrils in geography, law, engineering, biology, earth science, community and regional planning, and art. Yup. Art. As I said, we take “interdisciplinary” seriously. Water is no one thing.

Students’ capstone for their masters degree is a professional project, which in recent years have ranged from the use of remote sensing to help water managers understand agricultural water use to a look at the prospects for adaptive management of environmental flows on the Rio Chama. This is the coolest part. Lots of examples of our students’ work here.

Know anyone who might be interested? Share this link, and/or have them drop me a line: Details on the program here, and if you’re serious our detailed Program Guidelines are here in pdf with info on admissions requirements, prerequisites, and the path through the university bureaucracy.