Annals of Indian water: “hot, scorching sands”

Whitehorse Lake, Navajo Nation, January 2014

Whitehorse Lake, Navajo Nation, January 2014

Most of the land in these reservations is and always has been arid. If the water necessary to sustain life is to be had, it must come from the Colorado River or its tributaries. It can be said without overstatement that when the Indians were put on these reservations they were not considered to be located in the most desirable area of the Nation. It is impossible to believe that when Congress created the great Colorado River Indian Reservation and when the Executive Department of this Nation created the other reservations they were unaware that most of the lands were of the desert kind — hot, scorching sands — and that water from the river would be essential to the life of the Indian people and to the animals they hunted and the crops they raised.

U.S. Supreme Court, in the decision of Arizona v. California, 1963

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: forest health = watershed health

From last Sunday’s newspaper, a solutions-oriented piece on an effort to scale up forest and watershed restoration in the mountains around me:

Trees being cut last week on Forest Service land near the Sandia Crest Road can be used as firewood, but there is not enough money to be made from cutting the small timber clogging the unhealthy forests to make such work self-supporting, Racher said. “There’s not enough value in that wood to pay for what needs to be done,” Racher said.

That is at the heart of the Forest Trust, which is attempting to raise $15 million per year in government money and private contributions to pay to expand the work, said Laura McCarthy, director of New Mexico conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group.

Desert Poor

dead pickup truck in a desert arroyo, somewhere - anywhere - in the southwestern U.S.

dead pickup truck in a desert arroyo, somewhere – anywhere – in the southwestern U.S.

Wandering up an arroyo this evening after dinner. Seen through a barbed wire fence festooned with ominous “no trespassing” signs, behind some trees, old junk cars, classic American desert poor.

Total storage behind Hoover, Glen Canyon Dams

While all eyes have been on Lake Mead’s bathtub ring, Lake Powell is forecast to rise by nearly 1.4 million acre feet by the end of September. But Mead’s 2 million acre foot drop will more than offset the increase, leaving us with the lowest end-of-year total storage in the two reservoirs combined since 1967, when they were first filling Lake Powell:

Total storage in Mead and Powell

Total storage in Mead and Powell

Data courtesy USBR, my summary spreadsheet is here.

Tucson considering potable reuse

It’s always interesting to see who, among western municipal water agencies, is considering paying top dollar for the next acre foot of water. Today’s episode comes from Tucson, where Tony Davis explains discussions of turning wastewater into drinking water. The usual “yuck factor” discussion of course is engaged, but the really interesting part to me is the price:

Wastewater recycling is a very expensive, at times controversial, process, costing many times more than the delivery of Central Arizona Project water to Tucson.

It could, for instance, cost anywhere from $1,500 an acre-foot to $3,300 an acre-foot to treat effluent for drinking, the city’s effluent recycling plan says. Pumping CAP water uphill for more than 300 miles from the Colorado River, by contrast, costs $146 an acre-foot for Tucson Water today, and could rise to $157 an acre-foot in 2015.

But as effluent’s use for drinking grows around the arid Southwest, it’s a water supply that many local officials say is inevitable, given the region’s ongoing drought and population growth. They see it as the region’s only sustainable, locally generated water supply, particularly given the strains on the Colorado River due to continued drought.

And as always, it’s important to remember that wastewater almost always isn’t really being “wasted”. It’s already going somewhere, being used for something:

The city of Tucson is entitled to take 21,000 acre-feet of that — enough to serve at least 50,000 homes if the water was drinkable — but it currently takes only about 13,400 acre-feet for turf irrigation or to recharge for future use.

The remaining 11,700 acre-feet of city-owned effluent rolls down the Santa Cruz River — a boon for cottonwood and willow trees that support bird life, to be sure. But Tucson Water’s recycled water master plan sees that differently: “A significant portion of the city’s entitlement left its service area as surface flow after it was discharged to the Santa Cruz River channel without further physical or economic benefit to the city.”



Michael Campana on stocks, flows, and Colorado River Basin groundwater research

Michael Campana offers some cautions about over-interpreting what the Castle et al. paper on the loss of Colorado River Basin groundwater is telling us. It’s a question of stocks versus flows. The GRACE measurements that have gotten such extensive attention can tells us the latter, but not the former:

Why is such a number – the groundwater stock – important? In my class I likened it to managing a checking account without knowing the balance (S; the stock) but just the deposits (I; inflows) and withdrawals (O; outflows). As long as I = O, you’re fine, regardless of the S (we’re assuming no fees or problems with crediting deposits and floating checks). You may feel uncomfortable but you’ll be okay. However, as soon as O > I in a given time period you had better start worrying simply because you don’t know how long you can keep running a deficit before hitting bottom. That’s the problem we have with groundwater in many places.

In the CRB, as in many other groundwater basins, we are likely in the O > I phase, but we don’t know how much water is in storage. But we need to know the storage to properly manage the groundwater.

There is much more in the post worth reading if you are interested in what we know and don’t know about Colorado River Basin water.

In the United States, irrigation’s eastward spread

Fascinating piece by Brett Walton about the eastward spread of U.S. irrigation:

The canals, reservoirs, pumps, and pivoting sprinklers that transformed the American West in the 20th century from desert and grassland into the nation’s primary fruit and vegetable producing region are spreading eastward.

From the Deep South, the Mississippi River Delta, and across the Midwest, the basic equipment of modern irrigated agriculture is producing more reliable harvests, more productive use of scarce water supplies, and bigger paychecks. Just as in the West, eastern farmers also say irrigation is a tool for managing risk, providing insurance against erratic rainfall and rising temperatures brought by a warming world.

Significant implications, the entire thing is worth a click.

Colorado River System Conservation Program gets formal green light

The Bureau of Reclamation this evening sent out its official public announcement of the Colorado River System Conservation Program.

The program has been simmering for months (see here, here and here for previous public discussions), but this evening’s announcement marks the final signing of the deal by federal officials. The program is a partnership of the basin’s four largest municipal water agencies – the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Project, Denver Water and the Southern Nevada Water Authority – and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. From the formal announcement:

Central Arizona Project, Denver Water, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority are partnering with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to contribute $11 million to fund pilot Colorado River water conservation projects. The projects will demonstrate the viability of cooperative, voluntary compensated measures for reducing water demand in a variety of areas, including agricultural, municipal and industrial uses.

This is a small but very significant step forward. Previous conservation efforts were funded by an individual water agency, with water conserved banked in reservoir storage for later use by that agency. In this program, the water conserved will simply become “system water” for the benefit of all.

Significantly, the announcement says pilot programs will be conducted in 2015 and 2016. (I had been hearing water managers talk about the possibility of getting something underway this year, but it looks like July 31 is too late for that.)

Also, there’s some nuance here about who will built the institutional widgets to carry this out. In the Lower Basin, it will be the Bureau. In the Upper Basin, it will be some sort of state-managed effort that I don’t fully understand. There’s apparently been a lot of sensitivity on the question of who’s driving this bus in the Upper Basin:

In order to ensure that local concerns are addressed, and that there is equity and fairness among all parties, in the Lower Colorado River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation will manage the conservation actions in Arizona, California and Nevada in a manner consistent with past programs, while in the Upper Basin, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Upper Colorado River Commission will have a direct role in program efforts.

I don’t have a copy of the full agreement yet. I’ll post more when I have more details. I can’t find a copy of the full news release on the web yet, so I’m posting it below the fold:

Continue reading ‘Colorado River System Conservation Program gets formal green light’ »