Aldo Leopold’s birthday

In honor of Aldo Leopold’s birthday, some jfleck abqjournal nostalgia with this old favorite from 2009, in which I tracked down a bird in the University of New Mexico’s research collection that Leopold “collected” back in 1919:

Aldo Leopold's Wilderness

Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness

Years ago, my parents gave me “Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness,” a slim volume of Leopold’s early writings.

In it is an account of a fall day — Nov. 23, 1919 — spent dove hunting near Tomé Hill. Pondering what the dove’s natural enemies might be, he described watching as a Sharp-shinned Hawk swooped down on “an apparently healthy grown dove in a cornfield.”

“I killed the hawk,” Leopold wrote, “and found the fresh blood and dove feathers on his claws, but could not find the dove.”

When I began my search for Leopold, I asked Witt and his colleagues at UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology whether they had any specimens in their vast research collection of plants and animals that might have been collected by Leopold himself.

Witt, who is the curator of birds, took me into the collections area and began rummaging through the drawers looking for a Sharp-shinned Hawk that, according to the museum’s computer database, had been collected by Leopold.

He pulled out drawer after drawer until he finally zeroed in on the bird he was interested in — dry, stuffed with cotton, it still had the sleek look of the lethal predator it had once been.

There was no name on the tag attached to the bird’s ankle, only this explanation of where and when it was collected: Tomé Hill, Nov. 23, 1919.

To what extent does water conservation reduce resilience?

If we don’t get things right, water conservation can actually make us less resilient in the face of variability and climate change, the University of Arizona’s Christopher Scott and colleagues argue in a recent paper. It’s the case for being wary of “demand hardening”, and it raises interesting questions about current Colorado River Basin conservation efforts:

[I]rrigation efficiency without caps on use – or limits to area expansion – may increase production (and productivity), but it undermines the resilience of basins under conditions of water scarcity. Eliminating slack in the system through stringent water conservation and allocation of savings to new uses can result in the “hardening” of demand that will entail crop loss or irrigated area restrictions under future conditions of water shortage. This is particularly true for the integrated management of water and land to meet ecological flow requirements under changing climate scenarios. Thus, a basin’s capacity to meet human and ecosystem water needs often follows a moving target.

The paper, which looks at the Imperial Valley and the Guadiana Basin shared by Spain and Portugal, argues that the key is to ensure that conserved water is really saved, not merely shifted to new uses (expanded agricultural or, in the case of Imperial, urban use):

Policy mechanisms to reserve surplus water in the reservoir or aquifer instead of expanding irrigation include regulated controls on irrigated area, price incentives, and provision of information to support farmer and irrigation district decision-making to better adapt to future contingencies…. Investing public resources to anticipate and offset the effects of water scarcity ex ante represents a more effective adaptive response to drought than ex post mitigation efforts.

Here are the questions this raises about the current Colorado River water conservation efforts now underway. The oldest and most well-developed effort, the shift of water from Imperial Valley to the cities of coastal California, seems vulnerable to the criticism Scott and colleagues are making. They call this “the sectoral paradox, in which savings are reallocated to alternative uses (e.g., water transferred from Imperial Valley to San Diego city).”

The two newest efforts, the basin-wide System Conservation Program and the Pilot Drought Response Actions program, seem aimed at meeting the criteria sketched out in Scott et al.’s conclusion – putting the surplus water in a reservoir, rather than devoting it to new uses.

In the Colorado River Basin, though, the line between putting water into a reservoir versus devoting it to a new use is fuzzy. The reason Lake Mead is empty is because of the previous expansion of new uses in excess of currently available supply, so in some sense water put in the reservoir now is just backfilling behind what are already too many new uses for the system to cope with. But the distinction’s still helpful, because we are where we are now, and Scott et al. offer a useful framework for looking at conservation efforts.

The paper is “Irrigation efficiency and water-policy implications for river basin resilience“, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1339-1348, 2014, doi:10.5194/hess-18-1339-2014

We’re using less water

Water use is dropping, both per capita and in total. Courtesy Gary Woodard, Montgomery and Associates

Water use is dropping, both per capita and in total. Courtesy Gary Woodard, Montgomery and Associates

Gary Woodard argues that we need to stop worrying so much about running out of water and do a better job instead of planning for the fact that we’re using less:

Stories about the alarming state of water in the West seem to be everywhere. Prolonged drought, scant snowpacks, receding reservoirs, rampant groundwater overdraft, and devastating forest fires all fuel the debate about whether, and to what degree, climate change may be reducing our water supplies. The sense of gloom is deepened by stories about the challenges of supplying ever-increasing water demands. These articles — many penned by east coast journalists — cite growing populations and new water uses, including sustainable energy production and environmental mitigation efforts. They often reflect a belief that sprawling, desert cities are inherently unsustainable

Fortunately, these stories are dead wrong. Rather than struggling to meet growing demands, many Western water providers have been surprised, perplexed, and even challenged by decreasing demands, which have shrunk revenues, left infrastructure unused, and confounded long-term planning.


Stuff I wrote elsewhere: another dry year on the Rio Grande?

The January forecast is out. It is too early to panic, but not to early to have this concern duly noted:

With a bad snowpack so far, even a wet spring may not be enough to forestall the fifth consecutive year of below-average runoff on the Rio Grande, according to forecaster Angus Goodbody with the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore.


Add money, move water

Interesting tidbit out of California’s San Joaquin Valley:

Pasture owners around Oakdale willing to go without water will be paid for fallowing their land this year, Oakdale Irrigation District directors decided Tuesday.

The water saved by idling fields will be sold to thirsty out-of-county water agencies. OID landowners volunteering for the deal could collect millions in “cash incentives” and funds to pay for conservation practices on their private properties.

The publicly owned irrigation district expects to sell the saved water for a whopping $400 per acre-foot. OID customers have been paying an average of only $4.30 per acre-foot to irrigate, but water-starved farmers elsewhere – like those in Fresno County’s Westlands Water District – apparently are willing to pay 93 times more than that.

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: watershed health and governance models

This looks like a story about forest health, fire risk, and restoration. And in a way, I guess, it is. But beyond the specifics of the challenges they’re trying to address, the underlying governance issues that the folks at the Rio Grande Water Fund are tackling are the fascinating part:

What McCarthy did next sets her effort apart. Eschewing the traditional politics of forest problems – pointing a finger of blame at state or federal agencies for not doing enough, or pushing for the establishment of yet another government effort – McCarthy began patiently building an entirely new institution to tackle the problem.

Colorado River federal policy in the CRomnibus

Reed Benson has read the CRomnibus, the ginormous federal spending bill approved late last year as Congress was heading out the door, and helpfully digested some of the key water policy bits so the rest of us don’t have to. For the Colorado River, the bill…

allows the Bureau to “fund or participate in pilot projects to increase Colorado River System water in Lake Mead” and Upper Basin federal reservoirs “to address the effects of historic drought conditions.” This authority allows Reclamation to provide grants for certain non-federal projects, or for renewing or implementing existing “water conservation agreements.”

When Congress did Big Things - Boulder Canyon Project Act, circa 1928

When Congress did Big Things – Boulder Canyon Project Act, circa 1928

A couple of things of note. One is the practical – this seems to provide the necessary legal mumbo jumbo to allow system conservation efforts to proceed, or at least a part of them, at some scale (I reserve the right to revise and extend this – I need to do more reporting on the details and implications here).

Second is governance. One of the interesting questions right now is where the governance comes from as Colorado River Basin folks grapple with the institutional arrangements necessary to take the next steps in providing resilience in water management for the umpty million people and acres of ag trying to figure out how to share the river’s water in an age of scarcity.

There was a time, in the golden age of Reclamation, when the governance derived from acts of Congress. The Boulder Canyon Project Act (1928), the Colorado River Storage Project Act (1956) were examples of Congress doing Big Governance. Stuffing tiny enabling language into a massive must-pass appropriations bill is a stark reminder that governance on this stuff will not be coming from Congress. If we need new institutional arrangements, we’re going to have to build them ourselves.

The sorry state of Elephant Butte Reservoir

Elephant Butte Reservoir, the main storage reservoir on the Rio Grande that provides irrigation and municipal water for southern New Mexico, the El Paso, and Juarez areas, starts the new year at just 13 percent capacity, down a hair from last year at this time.

Elephant Butte

Elephant Butte

Some data points as we ponder a new water year in New Mexico:

  • Elephant Butte has dropped year-over-year in 11 of the last 15 years.
  • In the Butte’s biggest year in the last 25, 1991-92, it gained 338,000 acre feet. It would take five consecutive such years (Phil King at New Mexico state calls ‘em “cabin crushing snowpacks“) to refill the Butte.
  • With the first three months of the accumulation season behind us, the current snowpack above Otowi (a key indicator for the supply in the coming year) is below average. (The cabins thus far appear safe – no crushing risk to date.)
  • The Rio Grande in Albuquerque this morning was down when I went for a Saturday morning bird walk (pretty sure I saw geese wading) – 320 cubic feet per second, less than half of normal for this time of year. The low water left sandbar islands exposed, and they were kissed with last night’s light snow, and they looked lovely:
Rio Grande, Central Avenue Bridge, Albuquerque, January 2014

Rio Grande, Central Avenue Bridge, Albuquerque, January 2014

Megdal on the lower Colorado’s “structural deficit”

Arizona’s superwaterwonk Sharon Megdal on the Colorado River’s “structural deficit”:

We have a problem. Arizona, California and Nevada together use more water than normally flows to us. This is called structural deficit. It’s like living on a budget that regularly exceeds your income.

The piece has lots more in it, a good lay primer on Arizona’s water problems, on which I recommend you click.