Bathtub Ring, and yet more thoughts on why Lake Mead is dropping

Here’s my obligatory picture of Lake Mead’s bathtub ring, as seen this afternoon from Hoover Dam:

Hoover Dam, Lake Mead bathtub ring, February 23, 2015. Elevation 1088.97

Hoover Dam, Lake Mead bathtub ring, February 23, 2015. Elevation 1088.97

The surface elevation this afternoon was 1,088.97 feet above sea level, the lowest it’s been at this time of year since 1956. It has dropped 20 feet since this time a year ago, which is among the biggest one-year drops in history.

The reason for the big one-year drop has interesting policy implications.

One of the innovations in the 2007 shortage sharing agreement among the federal government and the seven basin states was the creation of “Intentionally Created Surplus” water management widget, a tool to free Lower Colorado River Basin water users from the tyranny of “use it or lose it”. Its purpose, according to the decision document that created it (pdf), was to “minimize the likelihood and severity of potential future shortages” by allowing water users to bank unused water in Lake Mead:

ICS may be created through projects that create water system efficiency or extraordinary conservation or tributary conservation or the importation of nonColorado River System water into the Mainstream. ICS is consistent with the concept that entities may take actions to augment storage of water in the lower Colorado River Basin.

The 2007 agreement anticipated use of things like fallowing, desalination and canal lining to create ICS credits.

One of the big ICS users has been the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which by the end of 2012 had banked 489,389 acre feet of ICS credits in Lake Mead. But with drought hitting California and Met in a big way, in 2013 the agency began taking its banked water out, withdrawing 93,858 acre feet in 2013 and another 331,965 of ICS water in 2014.

This is a smart water management tool, allowing MWD to build some resilience by saving water now in order to consume it later. But it offers zero overall net basin water conservation over longer time frames – water conserved in one year is simply used in a later year. ICS simply moves water in time. That 331,965 acre feet Met took out last year above and beyond its normal allocation is five feet of elevation it put in in previous years and withdrew in 2014.

ICS is a cool tool, but the only thing that will keep Lake Mead from dropping is a new class of policy tool that would allow conserved water to stay in the reservoir for good.



“half-told stories about the value of water”

Parker Strip, Colorado River on the Arizona-California border, February 2015, by John Fleck

Parker Strip, Colorado River on the Arizona-California border, February 2015, by John Fleck

PARKER STRIP – In 2005, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the 16 concessionaires leasing BLM land along this strip of the Colorado River reported more than 4 million “visitor days”, people like these motorboaters enjoying a warm (but not hot) late winter day on the river.

That’s a mobile home and RV park called Echo Lodge Resort on the far bank, the California side, that reported 609,577 of those visitor days. These pockets of land along the river have the feel of the Southern California beach communities of my youth, shacks wedged into every buildable chunk of land within striking distance of the water.

It’s early in the season – still too cool to water ski, I’m told, but that will come. This is the stretch of the Colorado that Philip Fradkin, writing with despair, described nearly four decades ago as “charnel river“:

It is the river as theater, where each of the 125,000 weekend visitors compressed into the fourteen miles, and huddled as close as possible to the cool water, can act. To be a protagonist, rather than part of the supporting cast, one needs a sleek water-ski boat in the shape of a tapered arrowhead and powered by a jumble of chrome.

As I drove the Parker Strip Saturday, I was thinking about a conversation with a member of my braintrust who complained about a central dilemma – the way we stumble forward in our water policy discussions amid “half-told stories about the value of water”.

By the time the Colorado River gets here, it has become, in Fradkin’s words, a “river no more”. At this point, downstream from Parker Dam, Los Angeles and central Arizona have already taken their cut. The water flowing past Echo Lodge is being carefully meted out largely for farmers in the river valley to the south, and in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, and Mexicali.

The precision with which water is quantified here is exquisite, with releases from Parker Dam just upstream measured to an accuracy of less than one half of one percent – 20,818 acre feet released Feb. 21, the day I drove the Parker Strip. Every drop is tagged in the riverine accounting system.

Fradkin comes from a world – it’s the entire premise of one of the best of the Colorado River books
– in which the river has value for its own sake. He deplores, without feeling a need for argument, the water-skiing-and-beer culture and the river-turned-irrigation system on which it depends.

Those 4 million visitors likely disagree.

Fountain Hills, Maricopa County northeast of Phoenix, February 2015

Fountain Hills, Maricopa County northeast of Phoenix, February 2015

There’s no one right answer here, no one “right” value of water. We have a diverse society, with people valuing water different ways. On this trip I’ve  visited the Colorado River Indian Tribes, where some of the oldest, most senior Colorado River water rights are irrigating 58,000 acres of the most beautiful alfalfa fields you’ll ever see, lush and green and growing food for livestock that we then mostly turn into food for people. I also spent time in Phoenix, where a culture of imported water and fountains combines with a delicate water policy dance around both embracing and denying the problems posed by scarcity. I was there for meetings with folks working deeply and carefully on the scarcity side of things, but then there’s the fountain at Fountain Hills, which sends a very different message.

When I shared a picture of the fountain, one of my tweeps responded with a friendly welcome to Phoenix followed by “#recycledwater”. Which is true, but only complicates things with yet another half-told story. It’s a pretty cool fountain, but some people in Phoenix are recycling their treated sewage by putting it back into the aquifer for future use.

My Colorado River origin myth

BLYTHE, CALIF. – It’s not quite the way I remember it. I suppose it never is.

Quechan Marina, Blythe, Calif., by John Fleck, February 2015

Quechan Marina, Blythe, Calif., by John Fleck, February 2015

I’m on a reporting trip. I had some meetings in Phoenix today, then made a freeway dash out to the Colorado River for a few days of journalism-by-wandering-around. I ended up this evening near sundown in Blythe, Calif., dumped my stuff at the motel and headed out to the river to try to find a spot I remembered from my youth.

Blythe is on the California side of the river where Interstate 10 crosses, with a freeway fast food/motel strip and the sort of beleaguered economy you see in the desert ag towns of the Lower Colorado. Average per capita annual income here is $16,329, just 55 percent of the state average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I have a few different stories about why my life is so entwined with the Colorado River. This is one of them.

The little marina, out by the freeway bridge, is not where I remember it being. When I was 14, in the summer of 1973, my friends and I from Boy Scout Troop 623 of Upland, Calif., spent a day learning to paddle our canoes there before setting off on the grand adventure, a week’s paddle from Blythe to Imperial Dam. I remember the marina being on the south side of the freeway, though I’m sure it’s always been on the north, but whatever. It is one of the happiest memories of my life, and I’m sure that part is accurate, even if I got the side of the freeway wrong.

It was hot as blazes – August in the desert of the Lower Colorado! – but we were paddling on the river, which is like a slow-moving lake here. No wild rapids. Jumping out of the canoe and into the water while floating idly was part of the deal, as was hopping out to drag the boats across bars. I’m sure I’m remembering that part right.

Alfalfa, Blythe, Calif., February 2015, by John Fleck

Alfalfa, Blythe, Calif., February 2015, by John Fleck

One of the things I didn’t remember was the alfalfa field to the north of the marina, which has a lot to do with why I’m back. The Palo Verde Irrigation District has some of the oldest water rights on the river, which are mostly used to grow alfalfa and cotton (some recent acreage numbers here). In 2014, PVID farmers consumed 424,561 acre feet of water (data here in pdf). Palo Verde is also home to one of the more interesting water management innovations on the river, a fallowing program with urban L.A. water users that leaves land out of production so water can be transferred for municipal use. When I was there today, you could smell freshly cut alfalfa as I drove east out of town in search of my memories.

I don’t remember the graffiti under the freeway bridge, either, though I’m sure there was some. Why would there not be?

I’ve realized of late that while I say I’m working on “a book about the Colorado River,” in fact I’m working on a book that’s primarily about what happens to the water once we remove it from the Colorado River. The river, as a human construct, extends in my mind to the things we’ve built on its back. So it’s interesting that my project’s origin myth, that teenage float down the river from Blythe to Imperial Dam, was about the river still in its channel. I’ll have to work this idea over some more, see where it fits.

Megadrought paper: message received, now what do we do?

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains Benjamin I. Cook, Toby R. Ault, Jason E. Smerdon, Science Advances 01 Feb 2015:

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains
Benjamin I. Cook, Toby R. Ault, Jason E. Smerdon,
Science Advances 01 Feb 2015:

The new paper by Ben Cook and colleagues clarifying our understanding the risk of megadrought in the southwestern United States has rightly gotten a lot of attention. Combining paleo records and modeling of a changing climate under rising greenhouse gas scenarios, Cook and his colleagues have created some scary reading:

[F]uture drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.

My question to you, dear readers: What are the policy implications? In what way is this actionable? If you’re Terry Fulp at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Regional Headquarters in Boulder City, Nev., or Jeff Kightlinger at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or Kevin Kelly at the Imperial Irrigation District, what would you be doing different today, now that you have had a chance to read Cook et al., that you weren’t already doing a month ago, before the paper came out?

jfleck’s water newsletter

Last year, I began experimenting with a sort-of-weekly (except when it’s not) emailed water newsletter. I’ve got a few reasons for doing it:

  • Some people read blogs, some people do twitter, some like email, I’m trying to reach folks where they’re most comfortable.
  • Marketing! I’m going to have a book to sell soon, and a self-selected mailing list seemed like it might be useful.

I never really advertised it, but now I am. You can see the latest issue here, and sign up like so:


Bad January, worse February in Colorado, Rio Grande basins

Courtesy PRISM

Precip anomaly, Courtesy PRISM

January was bad for snowpack and therefore spring runoff in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. February has been worse. But we don’t use water at the basin scale, we use it one irrigation district and city at the time. Here I will attempt to sum up the current snowpack and water supply situation and share some thoughts about who is at risk, and who isn’t.

tl;dr: The Lower Basin – Arizona, Nevada and California – should be nervous about future risk, but this year they’ll be fine. For the Upper Basin, especially western Colorado ag, this is bad news now.

Across the interior West, February has been dry, but it’s the temperature anomalies that are killing us. Durango, which is a nice bell weather bellwether near the San Juan headwaters, and just over the divide from the Rio Grande headwaters, has had just one overnight low that was colder than average since the first week of January. Overall temperature anomalies for the first half of February across all of the Colorado River and Rio Grande high country have been at least 7F above average, in many cases more than 10F above average. This has been an epic warm spell.

temp anomaly, Courtesy PRISM

temp anomaly, Courtesy PRISM

The result is a steady decline in the runoff forecast. The various basin forecasters run automated regression models, based on current snowpack, which provide a good snapshot of the change situation. They are all trending down. On the Rio Grande, projected flows at Otowi (the key measurement point in central New Mexico) have dropped from 49 percent of the 1981-2010 mean to 44 percent. On the Colorado River, unregulated flows (total available water) has dropped some 270,000 acre feet. That’s more than the entire annual consumptive use of the Las Vegas metro area, “lost” in just two weeks.

So who is at risk from all this?

Let’s start with Las Vegas and the other water users of the Lower Colorado River Basin. In addition to Vegas, this includes Phoenix, Tucson, and Los Angeles/San Diego. More importantly (in terms of the volume of water used), it includes the Imperial Irrigation District and a lot of other farmers in the LoCo desert basins. For them, at least for this year, the dwindling snowpack means nothing. With two big upstream reservoirs as buffers, the water allocation rules call for full deliveries this year for all the Lower Basin water users. In the longer term, however, a shortfall upstream moves us closer to the point where Lake Mead drops so low that we could see a shortage declaration in the next few years. At that point, supplies available to Arizona and Nevada are reduced first. (What happens at that point is crazy complicated, see Brett Walton for the best explanation of the details.)

The Upper Basin is different. I had an interesting conversation recently with someone working in water in the state of Colorado who noted that the view of shortage is very different up there. While Lower Basin folks are all in a lather about the possibility of shortages at some point in the future, in the Upper Basin, where you’re getting your water directly from the mountain snowpack, shortage is imposed by nature and happens all the time.

There, you have smaller irrigation districts near the headwaters, farmers pulling directly from depleted streams. You can see what happened to them during comparable bad times during the drought of the early ’00s. In wet years over the last decade, farmers in the state of Colorado used 1.5 million to 1.6 million acre feet. In drought years, they used 1.2maf or less. This is not operating rules imposing shortages because there is not enough water in a reservoir. This is hydrology – if there isn’t water flowing down the river, the field goes dry.

So if you’re in Phoenix and worrying about this, it’s OK to worry, but also be thankful that you’re not trying to make a living farming on Colorado’s west slope.

Las Vegas, Nev.: “Splendid Climate and Pure Water”

Getting mentally packed for a reporting trip later this month to southern Nevada, I ran across this delightful bit of business, from (I think) 1904:

Early 1900s newspaper advertisement, courtesy  Las Vegas Clark County Library District

Early 1900s newspaper advertisement, courtesy Las Vegas Clark County Library District

William R. Clark, a U.S. Senator from Montana, had bought an old ranch in the valley in 1902, land that became the staging area for the Union Pacific’s construction of a rail line connection Salt Lake City with Los Angeles.

The railroad was completed in 1905, but according to Eugene Moerhring’s history of Las Vegas, a fellow named J.T. McWilliams bought land west of the tracks even before it was completed, pushing a competing townsite which he advertised in Southern California newspapers. You don’t have to drill far for that water!

Lake Powell and the Colorado River Basin’s disappearing 2015 water

January precip

January precip

The Colorado Basin’s two primary reservoirs lost, on paper, a million acre feet of water because of January’s dry snowpack, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That’s the difference between what we expected to end the current water year with based on the January forecast, versus what the forecast looks like today, a month later. The Bureau’s monthly “24-month study” (it comes out once a month and projects conditions for the next two years, hence the name – pdf here) anticipates 1.162 million acre feet less water in Lake Powell than was expected just a month ago.

As currently forecast, that means Lake Powell is expected to drop 8 feet in elevation in 2015, while Lake Mead drops 7 feet.

January temps

January temps

The reason? A warm, dry January. Click to embiggen the maps, but you can just squint and see what’s going on here with those maps that the climate pattern over the last month was not kind to the water-providing region.

For residents of the “but it’s been raining down here in Tucson” part of the basin, Tony Davis explains:

Total rainfall at Tucson International Airport from October through January topped 6 inches — 6.04, to be exact. That is the wettest for the period since 8.05 inches fell between October 2000 through January 2001. The normal for the period is 3.33 inches. The record, from back in 2014-15, is 10.79 inches.

In the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, however, snowpack levels on Feb. 1st were only 79 percent of normal, down from 100 percent of normal on January 1. The forecast for river runoff into Lake Powell for April through July dropped in the same period from 91 to 73 percent of normal.