It’s a dry heat.

A trip down the Library of Congress photo archive rabbit hole this afternoon led me to a bold claim:

In his 1878 book Picturesque Arizona, Enoch Conklin quotes Dr. A. M. Loryea: “The heat in Arizona, though high, is endurable in consequence of the dryness.” This may be the granddaddy to Arizona’s most quoted weather phrase: “but it’s a dry heat, so you don’t mind it.”

That’s from Jim Turner’s Arizona: A Celebration of the Grand Canyon State.

Conklin was of that curious tradition of 19th century travel writing, and along a intriguing sub-thread suggested by his book’s title. The desert was strange and forbidding to Conklin’s east coast audience:

One important desert characteristic to be found largely in Arizona, is the lack of water.

Yet with the arrival of the Southern Pacific in Yuma (“A more propitious or favorably auspicious event will never probably be known in the history of that territory”, Conklin wrote), the desert was newly accessible in a way it had not been before, and Conklin positioned himself as part of a new literary tradition  when he described it as “picturesque” in his title. It’s a tradition enshrined in the Arizona Highways magazine of my childhood, but it was a fresh take in its day.

I stumbled to him after finding this intriguing image:

Looking up the Colorado River from Ehrenburg Creator(s): Conklin, E. (Enoch), photographer Date Created/Published: [S.l.] : Continent Stereoscopic Company, [ca. 1877]

Looking up the Colorado River from Ehrenburg
Creator(s): Conklin, E. (Enoch), photographer
Date Created/Published: [S.l.] : Continent Stereoscopic Company, [ca. 1877]

That’s the Colorado River around Blythe (Ehrenberg – I think it’s really spelled with an “e” – is on the Arizona bank across from Blythe), circa 1877. Conklin seems to have liked the place, and been enthusiastic for its future:


Arizona is the coming land of the artist, as well as of the miner and farmer.

A note on alfalfa export data

There’s a letter to the editor in the latest High Country News (it’s in the paper edition, can’t link yet) that repeats a California water myth that’s just flat wrong – the California Supergiant Alfalfa Water Use Export Myth.

Alfalfa alone is using more water than all the other water uses combined, and most of it is being shipped overseas for use as feed for dairy cows.

No. Just no. In all sorts of ways.

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright Joh Fleck

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright Joh Fleck

Let’s start with the water use. Alfalfa is a major crop in California, with 780,000 acres under irrigation in the 2012 Census of Agriculture. It does, in fact, use a lot of water, but that is just 10 percent of all irrigated acreage in California. That’s nowhere near enough irrigation to take up “more water than all the other water uses combined.” (Source: Census of Agriculture, tables 9 and 36) That’s not to say that California’s alfalfa crop isn’t big. It is very big. But California’s irrigated agricultural economy is huge, with lots of other crops also being irrigated. There is more California acreage planted in almonds than there is in alfalfa. There is more California acreage planted in grapes than there is in alfalfa. (Source: USDA NASS) The notion that alfalfa is using a majority of California’s water is absurd.

But what of the exports? I tried to do my own calculations recently and came up with about 3 percent of U.S. alfalfa. That was not bad.

“Dr. Alfalfa”, Daniel Putnam at UC Davis, ran the numbers last summer on U.S. exports of alfalfa and other hay crops:

Hay exports historically had never been a large component of US hay markets, and still aren’t.   There was a dramatic change in 2007 with increased foreign demand with the largest growth from the UAE and China.

But even with this rapid expansion, exports are still a tiny fraction of the US of hay market – we calculate that total exports of hay at about 3% of US production, and alfalfa hay at 3.5% of US production in 2014.

A lot of the exported alfalfa comes from the western United States, but still a far cry from the myth’s “most of it” – maybe 11.5 percent of all the alfalfa grown in the west, according to Putnam:

The primary recipients of US-grown alfalfa hay are still domestic dairy producers.

Equity versus efficiency

John Whitehead:

Economists are often bad at considering the distributional impacts of policies: To the point that we often ignore issues of equity in favor of the more objective measure of efficiency.  If two policies were to result in the same net benefits to society, but different distribution of those benefits within society, the efficiency-oriented economist would have trouble distinguishing between the policies.

But what if one distribution of benefits (or costs) is socially preferred to another.  Or put a different way, what if society were willing to forego resources (willing to pay?) to ensure a different distribution of benefits (or costs)?  In that case, the distribution of resources might fit within the realm of the efficiency paradigm as now society can be viewed as better or worse off depending on the distribution of resources.

I think what Whitehead is really saying is that narrow definitions of efficiency may miss non-market values that, when properly considered, might shift the analysis of costs and benefits in a helpful way. In other words, to the extent economists are “ignoring issues of equity”, they’re ignoring important non-market values. There’s a shortcoming in their model.

I am quite literally surrounded by economists as I write this. If you see me fire up a flare, send help, preferably a squad of institutional economists who have thought about this question.

Odds favor wet late winter, spring across Colorado River Basin

With the current snowpack in the Colorado Basin watersheds above Lake Powell at 93 percent of average (source: CBRFC), we’re entering the critical time for the 2015-16 water year on the Colorado River.

Today’s forecast from the federal government’s Climate Prediction Center has the odds tipped toward a wet later winter and spring, but not by a lot:

Feb-Apr forecast

Feb-Apr forecast

The usual explain-this-potentially-misleading-map boilerplate….

The CPC divides the historical record into three bins – the wettest third, the middle third, and the driest third. An “EC” (equal chances) forecast – the white bits – means there’s a one third chance of being in each of the three bins. The dark green (“A”) means there’s a 50 percent chance of being in the wet bin. The lightest green means between 33 and 40 percent chance of wet. So this is a relatively modest shift in the odds toward wet for the Colorado River Basin, not a forecast that it will be wet.

Odds now favor a Lower Colorado River Basin shortage declaration in 2018

The latest U.S. Bureau of Reclamation two-year Colorado River operational forecast, released last week, projects that Lake Mead will end December 2017 at elevation 1,074.2 feet above sea level, about 10 inches below the level that would trigger a first ever shortage declaration on the Lower Colorado River. Here’s the legal mumbo-jumbo:

In years when Lake Mead content is projected to be at or below elevation 1,075 feet and at or above 1,050 feet on January 1, a quantity of 7.167 maf shall be apportioned for consumptive use in the Lower Division States of which 2.48 maf shall be apportioned for use in Arizona and 287,000 af shall be apportioned for use in Nevada in accordance with the Arizona-Nevada Shortage Sharing Agreement dated February 9, 2007, and 4.4 maf shall be apportioned for use in California. (emphasis added)

That would translate to a 320,000 acre foot cut in Arizona’s Central Arizona Project aqueduct supply, which carries water to Phoenix, Tucson, and neighboring communities. Las Vegas would also take a 13,000 acre foot cut, though Las Vegas last year is already using a lot less water (it only used 221,000 of its 300,000 acre foot allocation) so this is less important there. I wrote a much longer thing about what 1,075 would mean in practice.

Assuming this hydrology holds, it’s easy to see how the shortage could be avoided. All the lower basin water users are currently scheming to find ways to leave water in Lake Mead, and it wouldn’t take much success along those lines to keep Mead above 1,075. That is what I expect to happen. Also, this is very early, hydrology could push these numbers quite a bit in either direction.

Here’s the latest version of my sorta monthly graph, updated to include the end-of-2017 numbers.

Lake Powell and Mead total storage. Source: USBR

Lake Powell and Mead total storage. Source: USBR


Data from the USBR 24-month study (pdf)

Colorado Basin snowpack lagging, forecast for a wet spring

The snowpack this morning in the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell (source: CBRFC) measures at 90 percent of average for this date, which is a bit nerve wracking with the basin’s reservoirs only half full (source: USBR pdf). The latest forecast runs from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the folks who run the seasonal models, still look encouraging. But we’ll have to be patient. February doesn’t look encouraging, but the models start to turn by March. Scroll down for the maps through May. The colors mean wetter or drier than average, not absolute amount.


February precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

February precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP



March precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

March precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP


April precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

April precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP


May precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

May precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

Source for the maps: NCEP

Adorable dogs protect our waterways from evil quagga mussels

From H2oradio:

When he’s doing his search pattern if he detects the odor that he’s trained to find, which is invasive mussels, he’ll sit down. Then as a handler, I’ll ask him to pinpoint exactly where he found it so he’ll point to it with his nose and then I’ll verify and I’ll look and then he’ll get a reward which is a ball.

The adorable dog’s name is “Hilo”. There are pictures. You will click.

Has the Peripheral Delta Tunnel Canal Thingie paralyzed California water?

OtPR has a super insightful observation about three decades of California water policy:

The Peripheral Canal was voted down in 1982.  My sense is that the possibility of the Peripheral Canal has largely paralyzed California water policy since then (with the possible exception of IRWM).  If the Peripheral Canal had been entirely off the table, the regions would have adapted by now, gone ahead with storm and wastewater reuse or turf removal or whatever needed to happen.  If it had been built, whatever would have become of the Delta would already have happened.  Being in limbo has meant that we never got serious about living without it or adjusted to having it. The gentlemen at that conference have spent their professional lives on trying to make it happen, at the opportunity cost of whatever else they could have achieved. (emphasis added)

Not to be a writerly critic, but I think this might be improved by flipping the voice in the opening sentence from passive to active: “Californians voted down the Peripheral Canal in 1982.” That makes clear the tension at the heart of the problem.