20 years and 5,767 posts on, a thank you note to Inkstain readers

Thanks, y’all, for 20 years of stopping by to read stuff here.

There’s a game we used to play back in the day called “googlewhack”. It involved searching for a two-word phrase that was unique – that had never before been catalogued in Google’s even-then-vast archive of humanity’s digital use of written language. We’d stick it in a blog post, claiming the phrase, and revel in the strange wonder of the diversity of language.

Thus it was that in late 2003, I came to own “orbitally aardvark”. Remarkably, I still do. Perhaps not so remarkably? It’s admittedly hard to imagine a sentence in which the phrase might do actual useful work.

L-R, Top-Bottom – Nancy Tipton, Sara Black, Fran Maher, Rob Browman, Donn Friedman

On the occasion of Inkstain’s 20th birthday – Rob Browman and I registered the domain name, according to ICANN records, on Nov. 18, 1998 – we’ve been waxing nostalgic.

Rob, always the photographer even as his skills have wandered through the evolving communication technologies of the last few decades, found a wonderful picture of the Albuquerque Journal’s web team from around that time. On film.

It was a crazy wonderful time of experimentation, naive optimism with little adult supervision. We went all in on the 50th anniversary of the Roswell Incident, and Donn has lovingly curated the Comet Hale-Bopp page through all the server moves that have followed.

Inkstain was nothing more than a little side project then, a spare Unix box wired up to a fledgling Internet so we could experiment, mostly writing bad Perl code, one further step removed from adult supervision. Once we got the domain name registered, we compiled an Apache web server, and Inkstain.net was born.

Its name came from our profession. We were inkstained wretches, passionate about the task of, and opportunity presented by, the privilege of newspapering. We were on fire with the wonderful new opportunities the Internet offered for us to communicate with new people in new ways.

Most of what we did happened on the Journal’s web site – my first blog, Roswell, Comet Hale-Bopp, the news. But we didn’t really want to prank, at least not too much, on the Journal’s production server.

The first prank happened the day after we got the web server up and running. Within minutes, we started getting traffic. Puzzled, we looked at our newfangled logs, learned how to read the “http referer”, and found incoming traffic from Spanish Altavista. (Altavista was a “search engine”.) A bit more sleuthing, and we found that prior to our claiming it, the domain name “inkstain.net” had been registered to a porn site.

This seemed, to us, an opportunity. Audience! Rather than giving the disappointed wankers a standard “404” error page, we offered this. It doesn’t seem to fully work any more – the NSA has changed its web address, I think. But in its day, as our first Internet prank, it seemed a doorway to something special.

Thus began a pattern. The serious newsy experimentation happened on the Journal’s web site, while we played on Inkstain. Scott Smallwood, now at the Chronicle of Higher Education, built a web site devoted to narrative journalism. Rob and others began building photo sites, stuff done outside their journalism work. And in the spring of 2003, I started writing this blog.

I’d already been blogging in several other places and ways. But each of them fell under someone else’s intellectual architecture. As I explained in the first post, I wanted something that was all mine:

By no longer hiding behind the skirts of an existing publisher, I lose built-in audiences, but that seems fine. I’ll still do the other blogs when my whim suits their audience (and in the case of ABQJournal, I get paid for that, which still amazes me). But if Tim Berners-Lee’s original idea of the web as a medium for both reading and writing has any meaning at all, this is it, so my Inkstain web site must reflect that.

By that point in my life, I’d already been typing strings of words professionally for more than 20 years. But it was here, beyond the constraints of any particular publisher or platform or audience, that in partnership with you I found my own voice.

It was here, ten years ago next month, that I began chronicling the decline of the inkstained wretches. There is irony here that needs no further comment, but it was with those “elephant diaries” that I finally felt like I had found a voice that was fully mine.

I also wrote what I judge my finest post:

It is frequently suggested that there are important parallels between the changing business models of the news and music industries, and that there is much we can learn from one another.

I am currently brainstorming ways to get someone to pay me to perform journalism in bars.

I turned my attention to water, something I’d been fascinated with since the beginnings of my journalistic career. Here on Inkstain I could write about it loudly and often, sketching out the ideas that led to a book, which led to a position on the faculty of the University of New Mexico standing before students yammering about water, which it occurs to me is not that far from my suggested business model of performing journalism in bars.

None of this would have worked without you. A writer without readers is, if not nothing, at the very least something very different than what I would be.

So, with this, my 5,767th Inkstain post, I offer my thanks.

Bruce Babbitt: Pinal County Farmers and CAP Risk Setting Off a Colorado River Water War


Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and Secretary of the Interior, has a striking op-ed in tomorrow’s Arizona Republic placing the blame for Arizona’s current Colorado River failures squarely on Pinal County farmers and the leadership of the Central Arizona Project.

Ultimately the responsibility for approving Arizona’s part of the critical Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan lies with the Arizona state legislature. But the two groups now stand in the way of that, Babbitt argues.

Behind this legislative impasse are two groups threatening to block ratification.

The first is the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), a local elected body that distributes our Colorado River water throughout central Arizona.

CAWCD is now reaching beyond its proper role by attempting to intervene in the interstate Colorado River negotiations….

The second threat to legislative ratification of the DCP comes from the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, the Central Arizona Irrigation District and several other agricultural districts located in Pinal County….

In exchange for giving up long-term rights to Colorado River water and pumping more local groundwater, the districts bargained for and received heavily subsidized Colorado River rates to be paid for by property taxes levied on landowners in Phoenix, Tucson and throughout central Arizona.

Now they’re trying to wriggle out of that bargain in a way that threatens the entire Colorado River Basin, Babbitt argues.

As this controversy drags on in successive legislative sessions some are asking, “Why the urgency? Does it really matter that it goes unresolved?”

It matters a lot. If the Drought Contingency Plan is not ratified soon California and the other Basin states may decide to proceed without us. That could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.

Arizona has blundered into Colorado River wars in the past, and we usually lose. We must not go that way again. It is up to the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to promptly ratify the Drought Contingency Plan as negotiated by the Department of Water Resources.


Should Arizona not get its act together, hints of a six-state Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

Elizabeth Whitman had an incredibly important bit of business in her Phoenix New Times setup piece for today’s Central Arizona Water Conservation District meeting on the Colorado River DCP:

“Negotiations in Arizona are at a critical stage,” said Patricia Aaron, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau was “cautiously optimistic,” she added, but, “in the event that Arizona is unable to support implementation of the DCP, Reclamation would need to consult closely with the Governor’s Representatives of the other six Colorado River Basin States.”

On the occasion of Inkstain’s 20th birthday, defenestrating the old Town Lodge

What used to be the Town Lodge, one of Albuquerque’s old Route 66 motels

.”Defenestration” is the word that stumped me, a linguistic failure that hung over my entire journalistic career.

It was a challenge from the late Jim Timmermann, an offhand game in which we’d pick an odd word or phrase and be challenged to get it into the newspaper. A fenestration is, per the Oxford English Dictionary, “the arrangement of windows in a building.” To “defenestrate” is to perhaps remove windows, but more commonly (?):

Usually humorous. To throw (a person or thing) out of a window.

Fenestration and its variants are glorious words that have little place in a daily newspaper. I came close once at a meeting of the Pasadena City Planning Commission, when in the discussion of a building in the city’s historic district the commissioners called for the removal of a number of windows from a design plan. But it was too much of a stretch, because for the game to work it had to not seem forced.

But the proprieties of a newspaper never applied here.

I’ve been thinking about Inkstain’s role in my work as we approach, on Sunday Nov. 18, its 20th birthday. At its founding, Rob Browman and I had a sort of mission statement for the project – where by “project” I guess I mean that we had no real mission and were really just goofing:

Inkstain is dedicated to the proposition that information wants to be free. Roughly translated, that means we put the stuff on here we can’t figure out a way to get paid for.

Plus, there are some things you just don’t want to try on your employer’s production server.

Both Rob and I, I think it is fair to say, built careers out of the pranking that began here. Rob went on to MSNBC in Seattle, won an Emmy for multimedia work, before we lured him back to Albuquerque to manage digital efforts for the Albuquerque Journal.

It was here, after decades of effort, that I finally found voice, learned to write.

On a morning bike ride yesterday, passing the Town Lodge on Central, I saw remodeling underway, that they had removed all the windows and doors. The old motel’s defenestration delighted me, so I circled back to take a picture.

There’s no way anyone’s gonna pay me for that, but the delight’s the thing.

Colorado River DCP: “Arizona will figure it out, Episode III”

Sitting around on a Saturday night listening to WBGO and clearing out my inbox after being away most of the week.

Here, from the solution space, a proposal from Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes to help Arizona reduce its use of the river’s water. The CRIT have some of the bestest most senior Colorado River water rights in the state:

Optimism, amiright?

Colorado River DCP: “Arizona will figure it out, Episode II”

Interesting letter from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board leadership regarding Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. Not sure what this means, seems kind of important. I guess we all need to set aside some time on Nov. 15 to find out.


I try to be an optimist. I really try.

Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan: “Arizona will figure it out.”

At Colorado Mesa University’s Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum this week in Grand Junction, a distinguished panel of the Colorado River Basin brain trust cheerfully dodged an audience question about what the basin states’ Plan B is if Arizona can’t come to the internal agreement needed to sign on to a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

“Arizona will figure it out,” said Chris Harris, Executive Director of the Colorado River Board of California.

That time Lake Mead was full.

With no one from Arizona on the panel to speak for themselves, it’s probably the best answer Harris could have given to an unfair question. Clearly the representatives of the federal government and the other six Colorado River Basin states can see what the rest of us can see regarding Arizona’s difficulties in coming to agreement on how to reduce water use to meet their obligations under the DCP. And they’re smart people, which means we have to believe they’ve thought about what a six-state, Arizona-less DCP might look like. But it would be unwise at this point to talk about it publicly.

Abigail Sullivan of Indiana University and colleagues published a fascinating new paper looking at Arizona’s DCP process that sheds some light on the current situation. It helps explain why a) Arizona’s current efforts to come to an agreement on a DCP have run aground, and b) why there’s reason to be optimistic that Harris’s answer to the question during the Grand Junction conference is ultimately probably the right one, and we won’t have to worry about how Plan B might work.

Sullivan and colleagues identify a window of opportunity that opened in 2016 “tied to declining Lake Mead elevations and perceived harm associated with inaction”. At the time, Arizona was staring at a formal shortage declaration that would have forced mandatory reductions in its supply of Colorado River water. And at the time, it appeared Arizona was on board with the complex shortage-sharing provisions in the DCP, which would importantly for the first time bring California voluntarily into the “we’re all gonna use less Lower Basin water” club.

And then the snows fell, and the window of opportunity closed:

After continuing to decline throughout 2015 and 2016, increased winter precipitation in 2016–2017, combined with ongoing conservation efforts, raised Lake Mead’s elevation to 1089 feet in March 2017. After the period of increased precipitation in early 2017, evidence of short-term thinking related to the DCP emerged. In 2017, there were numerous instances of stakeholders planning or making decisions based on weather, as opposed to climate.

The quotes from Central Arizona Project board meetings in the Sullivan et al. paper are telling:

“My thought is that we leave out one element in all of this and that is – right now we’re hopeful that the weather will solve our problems at least for a couple of years – we’re looking out two years at a time, three years at a time…” Agricultural district representative, January 2017

“This wet winter has fundamentally changed the landscape.” CAP board member, February 2017.

“Today the goals as we understand them, again because the reservoir is in a better position than it was in 2015, is to avoid shortage as long as possible, again mitigating the disparate effects of DCP, having a program that reflects the changes in hydrology.” CAP staff member, August (2017).

In short, when Arizona was staring down a shortage declaration, the state’s water community seemed ready and willing to act. When a wet winter reduced the pressure, factions within the state took up old grievances and defenses of narrow interests.

Beneficial hydrologic conditions lulled stakeholders into a sense of security and short-term thinking corresponded with a retreat from the urgency of completing the DCP. Given that climate change in the Colorado River basin is projected to increase the severity and frequency of droughts (Udall and Overpeck, 2017), it is inappropriate for positive hydrologic conditions for a few months or years to influence water management and drought planning.

That is not going to last.

There’s a powerpoint slide making the rounds based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s October modeling runs suggesting that with even a modestly bad winter this year, Lake Mead could end 2019 in elevation in the 1,060-1,070 range. That’s below the shortage threshold of 1,075. But more importantly, the accompanying low flows into Lake Powell in the Upper Basin would trigger lower releases from Lake Powell, which would push Lake Mead down even further. As a result, there’s a significant risk that Lake Mead could drop into the 1,040s by the end of 2020. Down that path there be a bunch of scary dragons. If you buy the Sullivan et al. argument (and I do), Arizona will soon enough be back in the “crisis/policy window opening” mode, and we’ll get a DCP.

And if we don’t, I am confident the smart people will have a six-state, Arizona-less Plan B. Either way, we’ll get there, just with more or less chaos in the process. As a smart friend pointed out, “Optimistic or pessimistic – isn’t the answer the same? We’ll use the water nature gives us.”

The paper, highly recommended, lots more insights beyond the narrow line of argument I quoted:

Sullivan, Abigail, Dave D. White, and Michael Hanemann. “Designing collaborative governance: Insights from the drought contingency planning process for the lower Colorado River basin.Environmental Science & Policy 91 (2019): 39-49.

The Colorado River and the Last Gasp of the “Lords of Yesterday”


longer: Writing a new “afterward” for the paperback edition of Water is For Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West (DID I MENTION IT’S COMING OUT IN MARCH!!!!), I’ve been spending a bunch of time reflecting on the last couple of years. Writing a book bears a more than passing similarity to parenthood. You do your utmost to prepare your offspring. You send them out into the world carrying your best intentions, and then they life a life of their own, forever connected to you yet beyond your power to do much to influence their trajectory.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, December 2016, © John Fleck

In the winter of 2015, as I was completing the manuscript of Water is For Fighting Over, I was optimistic about our ability to solve the Colorado River’s problems, and I said so, in a very public way.

In the rhetoric of the basin, with declining reservoirs and enduring water allocation struggles, optimism seemed odd. Every time there was news of a new water allocation struggle, I’d get the questions: “Still optimistic, Fleck?” “Turns out water is for fighting over after all” became my standard self-deprecating joke.

I tried to make a point in the book, which in retrospect I didn’t make clearly enough, that the collaboration/negotiation/compromise framework I advocate is not without conflict.

At the scale of the entire Colorado River Basin, in the messy complex of governance that manages decisions about who gets how much of the big river’s water, we have made tremendous progress. Governments have banded together to come up with a plan to reduce California’s overuse of the river, and they’ve developed a deal with Mexico to share surpluses and shortages, and even to spare some precious water to return flows to the Colorado’s parched channel through its old Mexican delta. This was rarely easy, but it resulted in deals that benefited a spectrum of water users and community values.

Underlying both of these models of success is a willingness to recognize water problems and collaborate in solving them, often across geographic, political, and organizational boundaries. Conflict is sometimes a part of these processes, but ultimately success comes by avoiding fights over water.

But these successes have not been enough, something that can be seen most clearly in Lake Mead itself, the first great reservoir that stores the Colorado River’s water for millions of people downstream. Despite the hope offered by the success stories described above, we have not done enough. Lake Mead continues to shrink. Water users continue to take more out of the Colorado River system than nature puts in, keeping us on an unsustainable path. (emphasis added)

Arizona’s current struggles to come up with a plan to reduce its Colorado River water use is a tremendous challenge to my optimism, the latest and most bitter subject of my “water’s for fighting over after all” jokes.

But if you look closely at the lingering obstacles standing in the way of progress in the Colorado River Basin, Arizona is only the most noticeable example of a common type of problem – the last gasp of an old way of thinking about this river system we all love.

My optimism comes from the fact that this old way of thinking is dying.

The great Charles Wilkinson, in his book Crossing the Next Meridian, called them “the lords of yesterday”, an outdated set of resource extraction ideas stubbornly resistant to our new realities. The “lords” are embedded in outdated laws that allocated more water than the river has, and in outdated expectations by communities around the basin that the water promised by those laws will someday trickle through their irrigation headgates or flow from their taps.

At the scale of the Colorado River Basin, we have largely abandoned the lords, in long and difficult revisions to the old “Law of the River” rules that, if we can actually figure out how to implement them, will bring the basin’s water use more closely into line with hydrologic reality.

But we continue to face a problem I talked about in Water is For Fighting Over – importantly, in the book’s chapter about Arizona:

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.

Arizona’s belligerence in the summer of 2015 was a stark reminder of the way domestic in-state politics stands in the way of real solutions to the basin’s problems. Without a change in attitude, Arizona’s belief that “water’s for fightin’ over” could become, rather than a myth, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the next piece of the “grand bargain”, the ill-named “Drought Contingency Plan”, inches toward completion, it is again Arizona that stands in the way. Farmers in Pinal County, staggeringly uneconomical absent massive subsidies to pump Colorado River water their way, are engaged in a bitter “lords of yesterday” fight to expand their subsidies and thwart Arizona’s best efforts to come to terms with a declining Colorado River water supply.

The remaining points of friction share the “lords of yesterday” thinking, what Eric Kuhn calls “keeping the dream alive” – a pipeline to St. George, the expansion of a dam in Wyoming, or the quiet belief that one more Colorado trans-basin diversion might yet be possible.

These represent genuine conflicts. But as I write a new “afterward” to Water is For Fighting Over, I remain optimistic. These are not fundamental challenges to the new use-less-water order we are trying to build. They are instead last gasps of an old way of thinking.

Arizona’s efforts to cope with reduced Colorado River supplies, moving in reverse

Last week’s cancellation of a key meeting in Arizona to work on the state’s plan to reduce its Colorado River water use was an “oh shit, what now?” moment. (Ian James’ story on the cancellation and the current state of the discussions here.)

In the wake of the cancellation, there’s now a new letter, this time from a coalition of central Arizona cities, laying down a marker as cities push back against efforts to move municipal water to agriculture as part of the water use reduction plan.

This is super weird. Everywhere else in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the big complexity of California, finding ways to compensate agricultural communities in return for a share of their water as supplies shrink has provided a difficult but effective path forward. That’s the path Arizona seemed to be on as well, beginning with the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act. That deal provided subsidies to farmers who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford expensive Colorado River water, in return for the farmers accepting lower-priority water that would have to be curtailed if and when supplies ran short.

Now that we’re actually facing that curtailment, some in Arizona are saying the farmers should be propped up, again, by moving water from municipalities to these same farmers.

The new letter, From the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, makes clear that propping up declining Central Arizona agriculture with a transfer of water the municipalities have worked hard and paid much to secure won’t cut it:

The letter follows a similar letter a week earlier from the Gila River Indian Community. Both suggest a level of discord in Arizona that doesn’t bode well for the challenges to come.


Whither the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan?

Writing something new, I’ve been looking back at some stuff I wrote a few years ago about the Colorado River.

The solution is, in a sense, straightforward. Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. It’s possible to apply a simple arithmetic wave of the arm and say, for example, that we could bring the system into balance if everyone used 20 percent less water than they are consuming today. We know from experience, from Yuma to Las Vegas to Albuquerque, that such reductions are possible, that water-using communities are capable of surviving and even thriving with substantially less water than they use today. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.

Where do those rules come from?

From the conclusion to Water is For Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West, by me, 2016, Island Press, out in paperback spring 2019

Turns out it’s hard to write new rules.