Are U.S. states finally responding to the press of water scarcity?

Brett Walton:

California, its hand forced in 2014 by a nasty drought, brought its groundwater laws out of the Gold Rush era and into line with nearly every other state in the Union. New York’s Democratic governor banned fracking for natural gas, in large part because of concerns about water pollution.

Kansas debated how to cope with a shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, its main source of irrigation water. Voters in California, Florida, and Maine endorsed new state spending on water conservation, water treatment plants, pollution cleanup, and river restoration. And more than one dozen states, spooked by drought and needing guidance, discussed or submitted new water plans.

Taken together, these actions represent an awakening in the United States that water supplies are not as abundant as once thought. A series of severe droughts in recent years — from Texas in 2011 to the Midwest in 2012 to California today — is the frontline reality of a hotter, drier era that is forcing state leaders to take stock of their water assets and reevaluate laws, regulations, and investment strategies.

More is coming in 2015.

As outlined by Walton, much of the action involves spending on water infrastructure, but there are new planning efforts underway as well:

[S]everal states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, and Montana among them — will be finalizing water plans that were introduced in 2014. Both Arkansas and Colorado are proposing multibillion dollar infrastructure projects. In Arkansas’s case, new canals will wean farmers from unsustainable groundwater use. In Colorado, the growing cities of the Front Range are looking to move more water across the continental divide, from the Colorado River Basin.

But even there, as you can see, spending on infrastructure is a big part of the answer.

As usual, Brett’s article is worth a click and full read read.

The Half Has Never Been Told

I guess it’s as good as any starting place here to say that Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is one of the best book’s I’ve read.

The Half Has Never Been Told, Basic Books

The Half Has Never Been Told, Basic Books

I come at this from the privilege of growing up in white American suburbia. Baptist’s book suggests this is my story, that the great economic engine that provided the foundation of my affluent American life grew out of the economics of slavery and, more specifically, torture. It seems fair to ask me to confront that, to think through its implications.

The core of Baptist’s argument is that the explosion of the global economy in the first half of the 19th century was built on the backs of slaves:

The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved African Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds. Eighty percent of all the cotton grown in the United States was exported across the Atlantic, almost all of it to Britain. Cotton was the most important raw material of the industrial revolution that created our modern world economy. By 1820, the ability of enslaved people in southwestern frontier fields to produce more cotton of a higher quality for less drove most other producing regions out of the world market. Enslaved African Americans were the world’s most efficient producers of cotton. And they got more efficient every year, which is why the real price of the most important raw material of the industrial revolution declined by 1860 to 15 percent of its 1790 cost.

Half of the strength of Baptist’s argument is on display in passages like this, the thorough and dispassionate language of the economic historian – pounds of cotton per year per “hand”, the enslaver’s term for the means of cotton production. As I understand Baptist himself and other discussions about the book, in this argument he is challenging a historical orthodoxy – the argument that slavery was an immoral economic dead end, a poor means of production practiced in a backwards culture that was doomed by its internal inefficiencies, left stranded by the industrial technology and cultural and economic innovations that made America great. Here is Baptist’s characterization of that orthodoxy’s central assumption:

The first major assumption is that, as an economic system – a way of producing and trading commodities – American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories of industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies … that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy – one of the central stories of American history.

In fact, Baptist argues, slavery was at the heart of the nation’s economic explosion. Much as William Cronon did with the expansion of agriculture in Nature’s Metropolis (another favorite book), Baptist shows how innovations in finance and capital (debt financing and mortgages on slaves), often driven by northerners who were allowed to be aloof from the immorality while profiting, enabled slavery’s expansion.

If this was just economic history, it would not have the power that it does. Just as Baptist marshals economic data, he also marshals the stories of slaves, and the technology of torture, both social and physical, that tore them from families as slavery spread across what was then “the southwest” of the United States, from Georgia all the way to Texas, and increased their efficiency in picking cotton by whipping them if they didn’t meet quotas:

Try as he might, Campbell could pick no more than ninety pounds between first light and full dark. But the planter, “Belfer,” had told the young man that his daily minimum was one hundred pounds – and that on this day he would “have as many lashes as there were pounds short”.

It forced the burden of innovation – clever ways to pick more – onto the enslaved, and Baptist rightly calls it what it was – a technology of torture. It proved remarkably efficient. In the 1820s, Baptist documents cotton picking rates of 100 pounds per person per day. By the 1850s, the rate of cotton picked had doubled. The physical machinery – “the basic mechanics of arms, backs, and fingers” – remained unchanged. Yet the efficiencies of what Baptist calls “the whipping machine” steadily improved as the enslavement of more and more African Americans spread across the growing nation. This is not the static economic and moral backwater doomed by its own inefficiencies that the orthodoxy would argue, but a dynamic, vibrant, growing thing. Treating it both as technology (and therefore central to our economic history) as well as torture (and thus central to our moral history) is what gives this book its power.

You can see where Baptist’s questioning of the orthodoxy is headed:

If slavery was outside of U.S. history, for instance – if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth – then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasured piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans.

I’m not sure what to do with this in this winter of our national racial discontent, but as Ta-Nehisi Coates argued last summer in the Atlantic, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Almonds, water policy and cropping decisions

In the Colorado River Basin, I’ve been arguing that if you want to think hard about water policy, you have to be thinking hard about alfalfa. Out in California’s Central Valley, as Felicity Barringer explained last week in her last story for the New York Times (sad face), you’ve got to be thinking about almonds:

Almonds “have totally changed the game of water in California,” said Antonio Rossmann, a Berkeley lawyer specializing in water issues. “It’s hardened demand in the Central Valley.”

Farmers are planting almonds because, as permanent crops, they do not need to be replanted after every harvest. They have been steadily taking over from cotton and lettuce because they are more lucrative. “That’s the highest and best use of the land,” said Ryan Metzler, 45, who grows almonds near Fresno.

The problem is that not only do almonds and pistachios, another newly popular nut, need more water, but the farmers choosing permanent crops cannot fallow them in a dry year without losing years of investment.

Despite drought, almonds in California are on the move. Western Farm Press reported earlier this month that acreage continues to grow, and nurseries are back-ordered.

I’m not sure what “thinking about almonds” means in terms of water policy – which is to say, what is the policy lever attached to the almond discussion? The growth of almond acreage is clearly constraining the degrees of freedom available to California to respond to climate variability, making the system more brittle. If “resilience” is a system’s ability to absorb a shock while retaining its essential functionality, increasing almond acreage seems to be reducing California’s resilience. Alfalfa, in comparison, seems to be tailor made for resilience policy, allowing quicker crop shifting, drought tolerance, and opportunities for transactions to move water around. Almonds seem not to share this resilience characteristic.

What’s the appropriate policy response to California’s almond shift?

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: first-ever San Juan Chama Project shortfall

basinThe standard Bureau of Reclamation map of the Colorado River Basin has a series of red-dashed slivers beyond the physical boundaries of the basin itself, the places where we’ve chosen to artificially extend the watershed’s boundaries. In the process, we have created entire communities dependent on the success or failure of the basin’s water management policies.

One of those slivers, slicing through central New Mexico, includes my house. I live outside the basin proper, but my morning coffee is made in part with Colorado River water. Yesterday, via a dam across the Rio Grande at the north end of Albuquerque, my local water utility diverted 46.6 million gallons of water, a significant portion of which was diverted from the Colorado River Basin for use in my coffee.

This has always been the starting point for all this crazy Colorado River stuff I do, this notion that we’ve plumbed together this super-watershed and we’re now all in this together. Which is why I wrote this story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal:

The San Juan-Chama Project, which delivers water from the mountains of southwest Colorado to central New Mexico, had the first shortfall this year in its four-decade history after three consecutive years of bad snowpack.

Water managers say the impact on Rio Grande Valley water operations was small, but the implications are significant – a demonstration that a supply once seen as dependable backup to a faltering Rio Grande might not be as reliable as once thought.

“It’s one of those things that was always a theoretical possibility, but nobody thought it would come to pass,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which serves farmers.

On New Mexico’s Rio Grande, a brutal four years

With a sub-par snowpack once again in New Mexico’s high country, I got a Twitter question this morning about the last time we’d had a good snowpack. My favorite came in 2008, when I was just starting to track this sort of thing closely:

SAN MARCIAL— Water was already lapping at the side of the levee last week as Carolyn Donnelly drove down a dirt road parallel to the Rio Grande. The road runs along the top of a levee built in the 1950s to hold back the river. But Donnelly, a hydraulic engineer whose job is to help manage the unruly river, uses the word “levee” cautiously.

A, for the good old days, when spring runoff lapped at the sides of levees. The last decent runoff we had was in 2010. The brownish-yellow is the median, the blue line is actual:

Runoff at Albuquerque, 2008 - present, courtesy USGS

Runoff at Albuquerque, 2008 – present, courtesy USGS

As Chris Cervini said, “That’s a brutal last four years.”

Lake Mead in 2014 headed for second biggest drop in modern era

With just a few days left, it looks like Lake Mead will end 2014 down 19 feet, which would be the second biggest one-year drop of the “modern era” (the years since completion of Glen Canyon Dam upstream damped down the river’s ups and downs).

Lake Mead annual elevation change

Lake Mead annual elevation change

With inflow largely regulated by Glen Canyon Dam and outflow largely determined by downstream use, Mead is plumbing. Climate plays a role here, but climate is heavily buffered by management decisions, so to understand what’s happening we need to look at institutions as much as the weather upstream.

Here are the key factors responsible for this year’s big drop:

  • Less inflow than usual – a release of only 7.48 million acre feet from Lake Powell, rather than the usual 8.23 maf, in conformance with rules aimed at keeping levels in the two reservoirs balanced (background here)
  • More outflow than usual – the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been cashing out some of the credits it had built up under the water banking scheme known as “Intentionally Created Surplus”, so water left in Mead in previous years as a hedge against drought is being used. Also, Mexico took out some of its banked water for last spring’s Minute 319 environmental pulse flow.

The previous pre-Glen Canyon Dam record for biggest one-year drop came in 2002, the last year in which California was allowed to use excess supplies before it had to curtail its usage to stay within its legal 4.4 million acre feet per year allocation.

All this is very orderly, and was expected, but that makes it no less unsettling if you’re Las Vegas or Arizona, looking at threats to long term water supply as Mead continues to drop.



the dwindling of California’s “wretched little mud-holes”

John Van Dyke, in his epic visit to the deserts of western North America a century ago, wrote harshly of their springs:

Occasionally one meets with a little stream where a fissure in the rock and a pressure from below forces up some of the water; but these springs are of very rare occurrence. And they always seem a little strange. A brook that ran on the top of the ground would be an anomaly here; and after one lives many months on the desert and returns to a well-watered country, the last thing he becomes accustomed to is the sight of running water.

In every desert there are isolated places where water stands in pools, fed by underground springs, where mesquite and palms grow, and where there is a show of coarse grass over some acres. These are the so-called oases in the waste that travellers have pictured as Gardens of Paradise, and poets have used for centuries as illustrations of happiness surrounded by despair. To tell the truth they are wretched little mud-holes; and yet because of their few trees and their pockets of yellow brackish water they have an appearance of un-reality.

The real palm springs

The real palm springs

Wretched or not, I have loved them all my life – the turn of a bend on a desert canyon trail, to come upon a grove of cool palms. Which is why Ian James’ story in the Desert Sun this morning made me so sad:

As a boy in the late 1940s, Harry Quinn hiked with his family to a desert spring in the Santa Rosa Mountains where cool water flowed into an oasis filled with tadpoles.

Now the spring is dry. The tadpoles and toads are long gone. Four palm trees remain in the dry canyon, two of them dead.

“This was a special place,” said Quinn, now 75, as he walked through the remnants of the oasis known as Dos Palmas. “You just can’t come here and get a drink anymore.”

There’s some science here – dwindling snowpack feeding the aquifers that find their way to the fissure in the rock, warming temperatures, that sort of thing. But mostly for me it’s just sad, one more piece of my childhood fading into the past.

Lake Mead: 40 percent full, or 60 percent empty?

Annie Snider left an excellent summary in our Christmas stocking of the state of play on the Colorado River. Lake Mead approaches the end of the Calendar year at elevation 1,087 feet above sea level, which is nearly 20 feet below last year at this time, as basin water managers scramble to build new institutional widgets aimed at propping up the lake’s level against looming shortage declarations. A deal signed this month takes the next step:

All sides agree that the deal, signed during the users’ conference here, won’t begin to solve the basin’s overarching problems. For one thing, users have only mapped out the path to 750,000 acre-feet of those reductions and are back-weighting the targets.

But it does suggest states are prepared to share the pain rather than battle over the remaining water in court.

It also follows an earlier agreement among water users in the Lower Basin this summer to conduct an $11 million conservation pilot program (Greenwire, Aug. 1).

“I think the significance of the system conservation agreement isn’t the volume of water; it isn’t the amount of money; it’s not even the parties who are there,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“It’s the fact that for the first time on the river, we see major water users acting with the basin as a whole in mind and getting to that equilibrium and treating the system as the beneficiary rather than acting in their own local best interest and trying to put water in their bank accounts.”

Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor at the San Luis Bridge, March 28, 2014, watching the delta pulse flow

Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor at the San Luis Bridge, March 28, 2014, watching the delta pulse flow

But Snider quotes Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor sounding cautious:

Michael Connor, the Interior Department’s second in command, who helmed Reclamation for more than four years, had tough words for his former colleagues in the basin.

If conditions worsen without consensus from the states on what to do, the federal government will have to step in, he told them at the conference.

“We need more urgency, more definitive commitments and more collaborative agreements,” he said. “Without proactive agreements, I fear the Colorado River Basin will return to its past and replicate what still goes on in many basins, which is conflict, litigation and gridlock.”

The entire piece, which seems to be out from behind the E&E paywall, is worth reading.