When the Rio Grande goes dry

A dwindling Rio Grande. Albuquerque, New Mexico, Aug. 1, 2020

Long story short, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque has dropped to its lowest levels for this time of year since the 1980s.

The flow at the Central Avenue Bridge when I stopped to look on this morning’s bike ride was just 108 cubic feet per second. The last time it’s been that low at this point in the year appears to be 1984.

The reasons behind the low flows are a combination of hydrology and institutions. The hydrology – the water nature delivered us this year – is crappy small. The institutions, meanwhile, place primacy on the continued human use of what meager flows we do get.

To be clear, I am not making a normative statement when I say that. Those institutions reflect society’s values, and we clearly get tremendous value from that water in the alternative uses to which we put it. What I’m really interested in is thinking through and making the tradeoffs explicit.

Welcome, then, to a new semester of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program‘s Contemporary Issues in Water Management class, which starts up in a couple of weeks. This year’s students will be joining my UNM colleague Bob Berrens and I in exploring the questions of how and why rivers go dry.

Bob and I have been busy getting ready for the strangest of fall semesters as we head into our eighth year teaching the foundational course in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. We’ll be doing it nearly entirely remotely, with readings and recorded lectures and Zoom meetings galore.

Evening walks (Bob and I are neighbors and close friends) have become a respite from the respective craziness of our university duties – I’m the director of a small graduate program, Bob (a resource economist by academic background) is chair of the Department of Economics. Figuring out how to keep our faculty and students moving in the midst of a pandemic that has effectively shut down the physical university is a great challenge. Walking and talking about what we are teaching has become our respite as we learn to speak loudly through masks across a social distance that felt awkward at first but now comes naturally.

A couple of our students, Tylee Griego and Talisa Barancik, funded through the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, spent the summer assembling datasets on agricultural water use along the Rio Grande – in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, where perhaps half a million acres is irrigated, and here in the Albuquerque reach of the river, where we irrigate another 50,000 to 60,000 acres.

One of the things Bob helped me understand early on in our intellectual partnership is the importance of disaggregating agricultural water use in our policy analysis. People farm in many ways and for many different reasons, and treating it all as “ag water” misses important distinctions that have profound implications for management.

Up in the San Luis Valley, agriculture is a central pillar of the regional economy – “money farming,” I call it. Here in what we call the “middle valley”, stretching from Cochiti in the north to Elephant Butte Reservoir in the south, agriculture on net loses money. On the majority of the middle valley’s acreage, people are farming here for other reasons than cash income. Farm size seems to be a critical variable to measure this. Here in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley, the number of farms is going up, while net cash farm income goes down. That has enormous water policy implications. Money farmers are more likely to sink deep wells and overpump aquifers, which we’re seeing in the San Luis Valley. Farmers here, farming increasingly tiny parcels with a job in town – “custom and culture” farmers, to borrow a phrase I learned from The Nature Conservancy’s Martha Cooper – are more able to simply go without.

Riding bikes to check Saturday (important field work as well as important pandemic mental health management) my friend Scot and I rode down the San Antonio Arroyo, a concrete-lined flood control channel that has been repurposed by folks in the west side neighborhood around it into a nice walking path to the river. As you can see from the picture above, what water remains in the Rio Grande has broken into braided, meandering shallows. What fish remain have become easy pickings for egrets in the shallow water.

The Albuquerque Drain, where the Barr Canal splits off to farms on Albuquerque south side, east of the Rio Grande

Downstream, meanwhile, we found the Albuquerque Drain, which parallels the Rio Grande’s eastern edge through our city’s downtown area, carrying more water than the river’s main channel. If getting water to irrigators is one’s goal, the valley’s agricultural ditch system is more efficient, with lower evaporation and other system losses, than the main river channel.

This is, in fact, an enormously clever adaptation to scarcity if our institutions and community values support human use of water. I’ve been riding my bike a lot in the Time of Pandemic on the valley ditchbanks. They are unusually dense with neighborhood walkers, and despite the impact of drought and climate change-driven aridification, the valley is green. It’s lovely.

This is the heart of the question Bob and I want our students to think through this fall – how did those institutions get to be the way they are? How might they change in the future as the community’s values change? Who is being left out as we make these decisions?

I’m not gonna lie, this pandemic is shitty in so many ways. My problems are small compared to the tragedies faced by many. It pains me to not be able to sit down with our new group of students in two weeks to begin our great adventure together. But I think Bob and I have done some good work to ready some really good questions for them to think about – questions to which we don’t know the answers.

Congress and the Yuma Desalting Plant

It’s hard to know whether Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally’s “Water-Energy Technology Demonstration and Deployment Act” is a serious bill. Congress doesn’t do much of anything these days, so probably not. But, serious or not, it is a very bad idea masquerading as a good-sounding one.

The good-sounding idea is the creation of a partnership between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Energy to do neat stuff involving water and technology and energy demonstration etc. The bad part is a congressional intervention to goose the restart of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant.

I’m all for having a conversation about restarting YDP. But Congress is a lousy place to do it.

The Yuma plant has a long and checkered history. Completed in 1992 to desalinate agricultural drain water on its way to Mexico, the YDP has essentially never been used. This has always pained Arizona, which suffers under Law of the River math that leaves it increasingly vulnerable to Colorado River shortages. The details are crazy complicated, but essentially every acre foot of water cleaned up at the YDP and put to some human use is an acre feet less risk to Arizona.

So from Arizona’s perspective, what McSally is trying to do makes sense. Not “Water-Energy Technology Demonstration and Deployment” sense, but Colorado River water shortage sense. But there are important environmental tradeoffs, which is why the YDP has always been part of the broader discussions among states, national governments on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and environmental groups.

The problem is that every acre foot of water cleaned up at the YDP and put to some human use is lost to one of the last fragments of habitat in the Colorado River Delta.

The tradeoff is the Ciénega de Santa Clara, an environmental haven that is currently the beneficiary of the water that would otherwise go to the YDP. Here’s Audubon’s Jennifer Pitt explaining its significance:

Mexico manages the Ciénega de Santa Clara as a federal natural area with the highest protections of its Biosphere Reserve program, and it is listed in the International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Notably, the Ciénega is home to 70 percent of the world’s remaining population of the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, listed as an endangered species in the United States. Indeed these birds travel back and forth between the two countries.

The Colorado River is so completely developed that it no longer flows down its final 100 miles. The water supply for the Ciénega de Santa Clara originates as Colorado River water that, after irrigating farms in Southern Arizona, flows as brackish water too salty for farming and then drains into a canal that has fed the Ciénega for nearly 50 years. Senator McSally’s legislation would eliminate this water supply, and destroy the Ciénega.

I happen to agree with Jennifer on this, but it’s a reasonable thing to debate. Is it better to continue to send this water to the Ciénega, or to clean it up and put it to human use?

In my 2016 book Water is For Fighting Over, I drilled down into the history of YDP as an example of the benefits of considering tradeoffs like this in the context of the broad collaborative framework of Colorado River problem-solving. This is the part where all the interested parties get together to work through the tradeoffs. An important part of this collaborative tradition in the Colorado River Basin is the norm that members of Congress don’t try run bills that do an end run around the process, trying to advantage their state at the expense of others.

As one of my friends complained in the face of a similar example some years back when a member of Congress (yeah, from Arizona) tried a similar move, it’s just not the way we do things on the Colorado River.

“I say, roadrunner once, roadrunner twice….

Walking in our neighborhood these covid summer nights, a friend and I have been counting roadrunners.

They are incongruous, relic dinosaurs as apex predators (but what of the hawks, and cats?) in our suburban neighborhood.

Early in the pandemic, we’d see one or two. Rarely zero, but rarely more than one or two. We’d see bug hunting and bird hunting (an epic standoff between a pair of roadrunners and a curve-billed thrasher comes to mind) and mating rituals.

The mating rituals must have been successful, because now we see families of three. I lose track, but my friend thinks six last night (or was it seven?).

One, two, three, four, five, six

Jonathan Richman was of course not thinking about the southwestern desert bird when as a 19-year-old proto-punk half a century ago (are we that old?) he wrote one of my favorite songs.

I say, roadrunner once, roadrunner twice

I’m in love with rock and roll, and I’ll be out all night

It is, Bill Janovitz has written, “more of a chant than a song,” earnestly unadorned.

Here’s one of my favorite versions, Richman and Modern Lovers bass player Ernie Brooks playing at Coney Island High for Joey Ramone’s 47th birthday party:

The strummed single chord (briefly a second now and then, even more briefly a third) – cheerfully driven – Richman’s eager joy at the world around him – “gonna drive past the Stop-‘N’-Shop”!

An anthem for this strange summer.

Science Be Damned

When USGS reports a century ago suggested there wasn’t enough water to meet the allocations of the Colorado River Compact, the politicians just kinda pretended they weren’t there. I wasn’t done this blatantly:

Hours after President Trump assailed guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening schools, Vice President Mike Pence, appearing with the White House coronavirus task force, announced the agency would issue new recommendations next week, saying they don’t want the guidance to be a reason why schools don’t open.


Elephant Diaries Revisited: the end of McClatchy

Newspapers for sale at a grocery, 324 East Sixty-first Street, New York, New York. Walker Evans, 1938. 

My memory is vivid of the moment I realized newspapers – my vocation, my dream, my way of life –  were fucked.

I think it was the spring of 2008. Prices for oil and related commodities were spiking. To help write about it for the Albuquerque Journal, I’d signed up for UNM economics professor Jennifer Thatcher’s upper division undergraduate resource economics class. To help make sense of it all.

Dr. Thatcher had drawn a graph of supply and demand under monopoly conditions, showing how a monopolist can charge more, pocketing the excess producer surplus.

My employer, the Albuquerque Journal, had in a sense been such a monopolist. It was a complicated affair because Albuquerque had until early 2008 been a two-newspaper town. But the two papers, the Journal and the spunky afternoon Tribune had shared the same printing plant and back office functions in a “joint powers agreement” that pooled the capital needed to bundle information for widespread delivery.

In the Age of Newspapers, the only real way to the get news was in a bundle, wrapped in a rubber band and thrown on your driveway or plucked from a news rack. But by 2008, newspapers’ monopoly power had long been collapsing, with Internet news access rapidly unbundling the thing. The February 2008 end of the Tribune was only beginning.

As Dr. Thatcher sketched the graph, I could see that triangle of producer surplus – the extra loot you could get by being the only one with hugely costly printing presses – collapsing, and along with it my world – “the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind,” in the memorable words of Michael Hirschorn in the January 2009 Atlantic.

Up until that moment, I had been an enthusiastic believer in the search for alternative business models. But in that one graph, I could see that, at the scale and in the places I cared about, it was likely an impossibility.

In December of that year, I launched what I still see as some of the best writing of my life, something that I came to call “the Elephant Diaries“:

The bottom line is that we probably did not deserve the money we made all those years, when we had a quasi-monopoly on daily information delivery, and (more importantly) on advertising delivery. The newspaper has always been an odd product – a bundle of only vaguely related goods that you’re forced to buy as a package. That’s a terrible idea, but it worked for years. The civic mission – the wretch sitting in the city council meeting, or poring over campaign finance reports, or shivering in the cold at dawn at the scene of some horrible accident, the formal witness to mark the passing of the deceased – piggybacked on the revenue generated by the fact that most people really want sports pages and comics and that dreadful little box that every day delivers starlet gossip.

It was lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff, because the best evidence available (especially web traffic) suggests not very many people actually read it. But it’s there, and its presence is nevertheless central, I believe, to the civic dialogue, to the lives of our communities. Now that economics is what matters, the stuff that was noble but not profitable is what will go. Roger Ebert was right last week to bemoan the loss of the thoughtful, but, dude, not enough people are apparently reading that shit any more to pay for people like you and I to keep doing it.

The decline, I now understand, was more complicated than the simplistic Internet narrative I knew then. You can see it in the history of the Pasadena Star-News, my first daily gig:

Ridder Newspapers bought the Star-News in 1956 and Bernard J. Ridder took over as publisher. Ridder merged with Knight to form Knight Ridder in 1974. The paper was sold off in 1989 to a company owned by William Dean Singleton; the Thomson Corporation bought majority control of the paper a year later. Thomson sold the Star-News to Singleton’s MediaNews Groupin 1996, which went on to become part of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

The plunder, long before the Internet collapsed the monopoly, seems in retrospect inevitable. It was, as I wrote in 2009, “lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff”. I was there when Singleton began the plunder, and fled to Albuquerque about the time he handed the Star-News off to Thomson.

I was reminded of all this today when I read about the fate of McClatchy newspapers, the Sacramento Bee and its family. From March Tracy in yesterday’s New York Times:

The McClatchy family has been in journalism since 1857, when its flagship publication, The Daily Bee, chronicled the latest for residents of Sacramento in the wake of the gold rush. Now, in keeping with a trend that has placed hundreds of American news outlets in the hands of the finance industry, the McClatchy Company and its 30 newspapers are likely to end up the property of a hedge fund.

In the years that followed, seeing the sketchy future ahead, I began exploring a career in water management, gave serious consideration to enrolling in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. (Really. Not making that up.)

It seemed better than the alternative:

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.


New Mexico’s Rio Grande is dwindling

2020: a year with no spring runoff on the Rio Grande

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority announced today that it will temporarily stop diverting water from the Rio Grande for our drinking water, shifting entirely to groundwater to meet municipal supplies through the summer. In itself, it’s no emergency for city water supplies – the groundwater is the reserve for use in dry years, when surface supplies are insufficient. But it’s a signal about how truly awful a year this is on the Rio Grande – we’ve done this sort of dry year shift to groundwater before, but as near as I can tell never this early in the year.

We are in the midst of what David Gensler, the water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, told the Albuquerque Journal’s Theresa Davis is “probably the worst we’ve experienced here in at least 45 years.”

The graph above tells the story – the black line is this year, amid an envelope of relative normalcy. We got no appreciable spring runoff peak. None.

Much of the water flowing through Albuquerque right now is water being released from previous years’ storage. Gensler’s Conservancy District will largely have run through that storage by mid-July. With a bunch of decisions yet to be made, including how water stored by the federal government for Native American communities will be doled out, it’s not clear when the bottom will drop out of that already meager flow. But know that it will drop out.

How low matters? It’s an arbitrary question, but for the graph below I chose 122 cubic feet per second, simply because it’s the cutoff point the Water Utility used to inform its decision to suspend diversions and switch to groundwater. How many days per year did the flow drop below 122 cfs?

Low flows in Albuquerque over the last half century. This is data from the Central Avenue bridge.


You can see that most years in the 1960s and 1970s saw many weeks of flows this low at the Central Avenue Bridge in Albuquerque, during a time when far more water was diverted from the river into the irrigation canals that flow through the valley – more water in the main canals, less in the river itself. Low flows in those days were far more common through Albuquerque than upstream of the big irrigation diversions.

Our management philosophy has changed since the 1980s, with a more efficient system of irrigation water delivery leaving far more water in the river itself. But this is an extraordinary year.

I’ll be watching closely to see how many days below 122 cfs we have this year.

Seeing Like a State: the corner of Ortega Road and Guadalupe Trail

Guadalupe Trail at Ortega Road in Albuquerque’s North Valley – here, it is a street

Some years ago, when I first began riding bikes in Albuquerque, my office chum Jimmie took me riding south through Albuquerque’s Rio Grande valley floor along a street called Guadalupe Trail. It’s not a street I would have found by myself – following the contours of one of the early acequias, the irrigation ditches that spiderweb across what was once the river’s flood plain, stopping and starting as it jogs around modern neighborhoods built where the valley’s farms used to be.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott describes the Flemish city of Bruges in the 1500s:

The fact that the layout of the city, having developed without any overall design, lacks a consistent geometric logic does not mean that it was at all confusing to its inhabitants. One imagines that many of its cobbled streets were nothing more than surfaced footpaths traced by repeated use. For those who grew up in its various quarters, Bruges would have been perfectly familiar, perfectly legible. Its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements. For a stranger or trader arriving for the first time, however, the town was almost certainly confusing.

To borrow from Scott, then, Guadalupe Trail, following the contours of an old irrigation ditch, “could be said to privilege local knowledge over outside knowledge.”

When the modern Ortega Road was slapped down atop the old north valley maze – it’s not clear when, but old aerial photos show it was a dirt farm road by 1949 – it ran dead straight for its two-mile run across the valley floor. It is so legible to outsiders that the modern state has added speed humps to discourage automobile drivers from speeding.

It’s been ages since I’d ridden Guadalupe Trail, but in the Time of Pandemic, with a need for calm and a lot of miles in my legs, I’ve been following the contours of the old dirt ditchbanks. South of old Guadalupe Trail’s intersection with modern Ortega Road, it becomes what its name suggests – in the midst of a modern city, an old dirt trail.

Why I hate “Drought Contingency Plan” (the name, not the plan)

“We really need to call [what we’re experiencing] aridification — the drying out of the Colorado River Basin because of climate change, we can’t just call it ‘drought’ anymore,” Fleck said. “It appears to be this permanent phenomenon that’s lowering the lake levels. You should not expect it to return to high lake levels over long periods of time. That’s just not something we can expect to happen.”

Via Lexi Peery, KUER

Tradeoffs: Colorado River water, flowing down the Rio Grande

Imported Colorado River water flows down the Rio Grande. Albuquerque, New Mexico, June 19, 2020

Faced with the challenge of teaching some or all of our coursework this fall on line, my University of New Mexico Water Resources Program colleagues and I have been having a think about what we’re trying to accomplish.

A lot of the thinking revolves around translating our educational goals from face-to-face classroom discussion to the new “modalities”, as the current edu-speak puts it. But it’s a useful moment, as I head into my eighth fall teaching , and my fifth as the program’s director, to also have a think about the underlying goals.


As is my way – always, but more so in the Time of Pandemic* – I had occasion to stop on Friday’s bike ride to look at the Rio Grande south of the Albuquerque’s old Route 66 bridge.

The flow’s been hovering around 500 cubic feet per second, which is low for this time of year. It is what we’ve come to call an “institutional hydrograph”.

2020 runoff on the Rio Grande – a year with no spring pulse

The hydrograph is a familiar graph to folks in water management (or studying it!) – time along the x axis, flow on the y axis. The graph above is an example of my attempt to place the current year (the black line) into historic context. We’ve had a gauge at the Central Avenue Bridge since the mid-1960s, and you can see the “normal” pattern: low flows through the winter, then more water in spring as the mountain snows melt.

This year, not so much.

A look at the gauges upstream tells the story: almost no natural flows coming into the valley from either the Rio Chama or the main stem of the Rio Grande. Almost all of the water flowing into the valley right now is coming from storage in El Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs, and a big chunk of that is Colorado River water, imported via the San Juan-Chama Project.

We call it an “institutional” hydrograph because of the role of water management institutions in shaping it. We write rules, create government agencies to implement those rules, and through those government agencies build physical plumbing to move water. The rules both create the plumbing, and create the decision-making framework for determining how much water moves through it.

The rules are how we mediate the tradeoffs.

In this case, the set of rules that determine flows in the Colorado River – the 1922 Compact, the Upper Basin Compact, the Colorado River Storage Project Act – both enabled construction of the San Juan-Chama Project and determined how much water we would move through it. The water is then handed off to more rules that govern Rio Grande water allocation and delivery, along with the plumbing that brings some of that imported Colorado River water to my home and garden.

And, in the process, keep some water flowing past the Central Avenue Bridge.


* I checked my Strava maps – three bike rides to the river last week, eight total crossings. It has to be an even number or I’d never get home.

March 1985: when everything on the Colorado River changed

Brett Walton had a great bit of business in yesterday’s Circle of Blue story on 2019’s remarkable drop in Colorado River Lower Basin water use:

The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.

Which led, over on the twitter, to a discussion involving the LA Times’ Sammy Roth and others about how people were talking, and thinking, about the milestone back in 1985 when the Central Arizona Project first switched on.

As we were working on our book Science Be Dammed, Eric Kuhn and I often turned to newspapers of the day to see what people were saying publicly about the events we were studying, as they were happening. For the 1985 milestone, we turned to the LA Times’ Bill Boyarsky. From Chapter 18 of the book:

With hindsight, it is possible to date the beginning of the twenty-first-century changes on the Colorado River to March of 1985, when Arizona pumped the first water from Lake Havasu into the Central Arizona Project canal. “Now as a trickle but soon as a torrent,” Bill Boyarsky wrote from Phoenix in the Los Angeles Times, “Arizona is finally taking its share of the Colorado River, and the impact will be felt from here to the Pacific beaches.” Boyarsky’s warning was explicit—the surplus water that until then had flowed west to Southern California would now be headed east, toward the Phoenix metro area, which was growing at a rate of more than 75,000 people a year.

In 1985, California took 4.8 million acre feet of main stem water from the Colorado. In 2019, it took 3.9 million acre feet.