May 27 webinar: Coping With Megadrought in the Colorado River Basin, featuring me

I’ll be I’ll be yammering about the  Colorado River basin, sneaky droughts, and megadroughts with the folks at NIDIS (the National Integrated Drought Information System):

As the Colorado River Basin experiences 2020’s “sneaky drought” amid a long term pattern that looks increasingly like one of the region’s millennial “megadroughts” that last decades, water managers are working on ways to adapt. Where are we seeing success, and which communities are vulnerable as climate change continues to eat away a river on which 40 million people depend?

Presenter: John Fleck, Director, University of New Mexico Water Resources Program

Wed. May 27, noon MDT in your computer box

Should we replace the Colorado’s “Law of the River”? Thoughts from Kathy Jacobs….

Had occasion to revisit this written several years ago by the University of Arizona’s Kathy Jacobs, it seems very much on point as we pursue the next set of Colorado River negotiations:

There has been an unending chorus of people who are convinced that the “Law of the River”—the numerous contracts, laws, court decisions, and regulations that apportion the water and govern the use of the Colorado among the seven basin states and Mexico—is broken. They argue that this governance structure will never survive the realities of drought, climate change, over-allocation, tribal water needs, and the demands of the federal Endangered Species Act, and that it is imperative that a new management regime be developed.

The reality of what has evolved over the past 20 years between the basin states and the federal government is a mutual understanding that negotiated side agreements can relieve some of the pressures on the unwieldy system. Most major players agree that taking apart the existing foundation of the interstate water management system would lead to chaos, which is why so much effort has been put into protecting the existing system, despite its obvious flaws. The desire to manage within and around the existing system has actually led to the most innovative solutions, whether it is shortage sharing to protect Las Vegas and the lowest priority users, or interstate water banking, or agreements with Mexico to store some of its water in US reservoirs. Whether the system survives another 20 years is another question, but it might be a good bet.

My Dad’s painting of the Grand Canyon, on CBS This Morning Saturday (also me, yammering about the usual stuff)

Dad’s painting on the national news

In the Time of Pandemic, the bottom half of one of my favorite paintings by the artist R.J. Fleck (my late father) has become a feature of my Zoom lectures, and webinars, and now an appearance with John Blackstone on CBS This Morning Saturday.

It’s the Grand Canyon, and I said some stuff about the Colorado River, so full circle I guess?

Here’s the whole painting, it’s not dated, but I’m guessing it’s the mid to late 1950s based on what I know of the trajectory of my father’s work:

by R.J. Fleck

on the importance of tribal participation in Colorado River governance

Dennis Patch (Colorado River Indian Tribes) and Ted Kowalski (Walton Family Foundation) in the Arizona Republic:

Tribal nations have historically been left out of planning and negotiations that develop river management across the Colorado River Basin. Meaningful tribal inclusion going forward will not be an easy task.

It requires leadership from all involved to authentically understand each other’s interests and responsibilities. It requires sharing expertise to build tribal capacity so that we are in equitable positions to negotiate. Diversity, equity and inclusion enhance the process for all of us.

“sneaky drought” in the Colorado River Basin

Eric Kuhn’s been calling this a “sneaky drought”:


It’s been particularly sneaky in part because the forecast seemed OK back in March, and then we all got distracted by a global pandemic and the collapse of our economy. While our eyes were averted from mundane things like how much snow there was in the mountains and how much we could expect to melt and flow into our rivers, the forecast has been tanking. I honestly hadn’t been paying close attention.

The official forecast won’t be out until early next week, but the preliminary numbers suggest inflow into Lake Powell, the upper of the Colorado River’s two primary storage reservoirs, will be a million acre feet less than we thought it would be a month ago. “We’re talking about 4.5maf,” Eric said when he and I were talking this afternoon. “That’s low. That’s ugly.”

Courtesy Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

An April-July inflow of 4.6 million acre feet, which is what the preliminary modeling suggests, would be just 58 percent of the long term mean.

Courtesy Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

It’s been a particularly vicious year in the southern Rockies, which feed the San Juan River.

Huge thanks the crew at NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, who do a great job of forecasting, and also a phenomenal job of communicating that forecast information. They’re having a webinar Thursday at 10 a.m. MT if you’d like to distract yourself from all the epidemiological bad news with some hydrologic bad news.

Kuhn and Fleck talk about “Science Be Dammed”. May 6, in the cloud.

Between trying to figure out how to work with graduate students I can’t see in person, and starting nervously at our pantry counting cans of beans, it’s been hard to do any of the work that has sustained me these last many years. Thinking, and writing.

As the fog settled in back in March, one of the first things to disappear was an appearance by Eric Kuhn and me at the Tucson Festival of Books to talk about Science Be Dammed. Ben Wilder from the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson was going to host, and it was going to be fun!

As we emerge from the fog, our friends (and publisher!) at the University of Arizona Press have rented a hall, as it were, in the cloud. May 6, maybe 9 a.m. Arizona time, maybe 10 a.m. Albuquerque and Glenwood Springs time, I’m a little confused about exactly when this is happening, but I’m sure if you click through and sign up that’ll all be sorted out.

Please do join us.

Maybe the 1905 formation of the Salton Sea wasn’t the result of engineering incompetence?

Jenny Ross has a fascinating new paper suggesting we reconsider the story we all thought we knew about the formation of the Salton Sea:

It is widely thought that the Salton Sea was created accidentally in 1905-07 because of engineering negligence in the diversion of Colorado River water for agricultural use in California’s Imperial Valley. This is a misconception. Scientific data and historical records establish that formation of the Salton Sea was not accidental. The lake formed during 1905-07 in the same manner that numerous other large Salton Basin lakes did for at least tens of thousands of years from the Late Pleistocene through the late 19th century: as a result of the lower Colorado River’s natural hydrodynamic regime, floodplain morphodynamics, and established avulsion style in combination with changes in streamflow attributable to regional hydroclimate. A large body of scientific and historical evidence indicates the 1905-07 Colorado River flooding into the Salton Basin and the creation of a large lake there would have occurred regardless of man-made modifications to the river’s natural levee and distributary channels. In fact, the flooding would likely have been even worse in the absence of human intervention.

I love it when the stuff we thought we knew turns out to maybe be wrong!

Ten years ago today, a drive down a Yuma levee that changed my life

Morelos Dam, April 2010, by John Fleck

April 20, 2010, I took a drive that changed my life.

Around the back of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Area Office, helped by a map hand-drawn by Jennifer McCloskey, then the Yuma Area Office manager, I headed up a dirt road onto the levee that borders the eastern edge of the Colorado River as it makes its way south between the United States and Mexico.

Later that day, I headed north to Las Vegas. Always the storyteller in search of an angle, I walked after dark up to the strip to see the Bellagio Fountain. Here’s how I described it in a blog post time-stamped at 10:43 p.m. that evening:

LAS VEGAS, NEV – The distance between Morelos Dam on the lower Colorado and the Bellagio Fountain is profound. Morelos spans the U.S.-Mexico border, with the wheat fields and onions of the Yuma County Water Users Association behind me as I took this picture and Algodones on the far bank. Most years, Morelos is where the Colorado River effectively finishes its now futile run to the sea….

After some more stops to see the Lower Colorado’s plumbing, I made a beeline for Las Vegas. The contrast could not have been more stunning – up through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, all mesquite and creosote, with occasional glimpses of the river strip in the distance, then through a ridge in the mountains, from quiet desert to this….

It is followed by the first of the umpty pictures I have taken in the years since of the Bellagio Hotel’s fountains as I returned again and again over the years to both places trying to make sense of the distance between the two.

Here is how I described that first levee drive in Water is For Fighting Over, the book that grew from the seeds planted on that April 20, 2010 drive:

Driving the Yuma County levee past Morelos Dam in 2010, I saw the last trickles of water from leaks in the dam and a shallow water table disappear within a few miles into a sandy, dry channel. This great river, the Colorado, around which I have spent much of my life, whose water I have showered with and drunk, which has grown the food I eat and floated my boats for hundreds of miles, simply disappears into the desert sand.

Storytelling as a vocation carries risk – the risk that a story often enough told becomes a substitute for the thing beneath it. Such is my story about Jennifer McCloskey’s map and my drive down the levee that spring morning. We hope that our bearing of witness is true to the thing, but it is always different than the thing. I wrote about this a year later in another context:

There’s an odd sort of detachment in the act of bearing witness for posterity instead of simply being in the moment. I know it professionally. I’m not a photographer, but I’ve been rethinking this because I’ve started taking pictures in my newspaper work recently. That fundamentally changes what has always been, for me, the act of bearing witness. Being at a “thing” when I’m working is different, the way I try to see more, remember and annotate and prepare for the retelling even as I’m experiencing. Instead of just being there and enjoying.

That trip to Yuma back in the spring of 2010 was my first attempt to learn the things I needed to bear witness to the Colorado River. I view this, still, as a work in progress.