My escape from the newsroom

Laura Paskus did a lovely job chronicling my post-newspaper-journalism (post-journalism?) life and thinking about water and the news, no longer the old nickname – “the harbinger of doom”:

“I began to realize there was this other story about people not running out of water,” he says.

Locally, for example, he points to a drop in Albuquerque’s water consumption. At the same time, as the city relied less on groundwater pumping and more on water from the Rio Grande, the aquifer started recovering.

“By the end, I was chafing under the constraint of what a newspaper story should be – 600, or maybe 750 words,” he says. Short, to-the-point, and focused on a crisis. In general, newspapers aren’t in the business of peddling stories about complicated issues and the subtle, nuanced solutions people devise.

Despite the nickname, Fleck just isn’t a gloomy guy. The grind of it all began to wear on him.

In Colorado, overcoming water’s “use it or lose it” problem

Brent Gardner-Smith shares news of an effort around Carbondale, Colo., to leave more water in the Crystal River in times of drought:

CARBONDALE — In an effort to leave more water in the lower Crystal River in dry years, a growing number of irrigators in the watershed are considering entering into non-diversion agreements and are reviewing ways to deliver water to their crops more efficiently.

The agreements would be a product of discussions surrounding the recently released Crystal River Management Plan, which sets a goal of adding 10 to 25 cubic feet per second of water into the river during moderate and severe drought years.

The additional water could come from paying irrigators to reduce their diversions by 5 to 18 percent, depending on conditions, and by helping irrigators improve irrigation ditches and installing sprinkler systems.

This is made possible to 2013 Colorado state legislation that creates a legal framework under which farmers could reduce water use in situations like this without jeopardizing their underlying water rights, creating a path around the thorny “use it or lose it” problem. (Background on the law from a University of Denver Water Law Review summary of the legislation here.)


Pushing back against the water conflict narrative

A big thanks to J.R. Logan for this piece,which talks about the New Mexico acequia water governance model as an alternative to the “water’s for fighting over” narrative:

Ledoux says sharing water has always been customary. Taking more than your fair share would have simply been wrong. This notion of sharing is not intrinsic to water law in the American West. In fact, it’s just the opposite. But some believe the collaborative approach modeled by the acequias is a more logical and sustainable way to administer water in an increasingly challenging environment.

The “some” in that “some believe” includes me (shout out to J.R. for including my thoughts in the piece):

Fleck says these partnerships go largely unnoticed because they’ve managed to avoid the conflict narrative that dominates discussions in the region. By approaching the issue more optimistically, Fleck hopes to build momentum for new, more creative collaborations. “It’s really important that we nurture those and pursue them,” Fleck says, noting that climate change and continued population growth will likely make water management in the Southwest more challenging.

I wrote a book about that. Available for pre-order now.

A new, less doomy cover for my book

Striking the right tone in my about-to-appear-on-the-shelves book on Colorado River water management was tricky. The problems are serious, but I am optimistic about our ability to solve them, and in the book I try to lay out both the nature of the problems but also what the solutions can and do look like. It’s not hard to find doom out there, it’s in the description of the solution space that I think I have some contribution to make. So I’m pleased with the final cover design the team at Island Press has come up with:

Water is for Fighting Over

Water is for Fighting Over

The old cover (you can still see it on Amazon – pre-order now! – the new one hasn’t migrated upstream to retailers yet) looked a lot more doomy – this strikes a more hopeful tone.

Groundwater in the San Luis Valley – it’s not always a tragedy of the commons

Via High Country News, Paige Blankenbuehler revisits the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, to see how an innovative collective effort to reduce pressure on an agricultural aquifer is faring:

Today, four years into the operation of the project after it launched in 2012, the aquifer is rebounding. Water users in sub-district 1 have pumped one-third less water, down to about 200,000 acre feet last year compared to more than 320,000 before the project. Area farmers have fallowed 10,000 acres that once hosted thirsty alfalfa or potato crops. Since a low point in 2013, the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, the sub-district project plans to fallow a total of 40,000 acres, unless the ultimate goal of rebounding the aquifer can be reached through other conservation efforts, like improving soil quality and rotating to more efficient crops.

The plan’s proponents say it provides a template for groundwater management in other arid communities whose agricultural economies are imperiled by drought. “The residents of the valley know that they are in this together, and that the valley has overgrown the water available to us,” says Craig Cotten, Almosa-based division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “This is a water user-led solution, which makes it unique. I really think this can be a model.”

Blankenbuehler’s story is part of the Small Towns, Big Change project, a collaboration of between the Solutions Journalism Network and a group of innovative local and regional media outlets.

Lower Colorado water use forecast to be lowest in two decades

We’ve had a healthy freakout over the last couple of weeks about the fact that Lake Mead, the nation’s largest and iconic water supply reservoir, is (again) at its lowest point in history (meaning the lowest since they built it in the 1930s). Brad Plumer has a good summary of what’s what. It’s an important symbolic milestone, suggesting that we’re heading into unsustainable water use territory by taking more water from the system each year than is returned by rain and snow upstream.

But in the midst of the freakout, there’s an important point that’s worth attention. The latest forecast for 2016 shows Colorado River water use in Nevada, Arizona, and California on track to be the lowest since the early 1990s. (I’ve plotted this back to 1970 because that’s a good starting point for the “modern era” of Colorado River water management.)

Colorado River water use

Colorado River water use

Under the current Law of the River framework, the three Lower Basin states are in theory entitled to 7.5 million acre feet of water. They’re only forecast to take 7.031 maf (data pdf here). What’s going on? A series of voluntary agreements aimed at slowing the decline of Lake Mead – an actual reckoning in on-the-ground water management of the reality that there is not enough water in the system for business as usual. Arizona, with the greatest risk because of its large take on the river and junior priority, is forecast to take 93 percent of its 2.8 maf allotment. California is taking 94 percent of its 4.4 maf allotment, and Nevada is forecast to take just 87 percent.

These cuts are not enough. Lake Mead is still forecast to drop another 2 feet in 2016. But the conservation measures being implemented in the Lower Basin states are unquestionably slowing Mead’s decline, demonstrating the institutional learning necessary for the Colorado River-dependent states to figure out how to survive on less water, and most importantly demonstrating that there can be a way to avoid the “tragedy of the commons” conflict path.

New Mexico’s Rio Grande has lots of water in it right now

The Rio Grande through Albuquerque has been rising for the last week or so, and is now about to make a good-sized jump in flow as water managers push some extra flows from storage behind upstream dams to encourage our beleaguered silvery minnow to spawn. From a notice sent out this afternoon by Mary Carlson at the Bureau of Reclamation:

The release from El Vado to Abiquiu is currently at 2,000 cubic feet per second. That will double by Wednesday and then will begin dropping back down to about 2,000 cubic feet per second by Friday. It will remain at that level for a couple of weeks. This flow, which is beneficial to the ecosystem of the Rio Chama, includes the bypass of the inflow to El Vado Reservoir as well as the scheduled release of water stored with approval of the Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. This agreement allowed for the storage of close to 40,000 acre-feet of water in El Vado between May 2 and May 20….

The release from Abiquiu Reservoir is scheduled to rise to about 1,800 cubic feet per second by Wednesday and continue for approximately two weeks. The release from Cochiti Dam will be close to 3,300 for about two weeks. This flow will also benefit the entire ecosystem and is aimed at signaling the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow to spawn. Minnow numbers have been low in recent years as the drought has continued. However, a better spring runoff last year helped support a slight improvement in minnow abundance. Monitoring for silvery minnow eggs will be conducted throughout this operation.


Rivers of New Mexico

Albuquerque sewage outfall

Albuquerque sewage outfall

I ended up by happy accident on a morning bike ride yesterday at Albuquerque’s sewage treatment plant outfall, which is the largest Rio Grande tributary between the Rio Chama and the U.S.-Texas-Mexico border. It’s just a short run from the culvert you see to the river, which is immediately behind where I was standing when I took the picture. I’ve always wondered what would happen if, instead of a short rock-lined channel to the river, you let the water meander through the bosque. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, I try to get out to Las Vegas Wash, where treated wastewater makes for great bird habitat as it makes its run to Lake Mead.

the future of journalism has different names

A couple of my friends, journalists, have started a neat new side project:

The guys said they were from Puebla, a picturesque state in central Mexico whose colonial capital is a tourist gem — although much of the countryside is impoverished. Puebla has a long tradition of sending men and women north: There are so many poblano immigrants in New York that Spanish-language TV sometimes refers to the city as “Puebla York.” The guys told us they were lost. They needed to get to Arizona and didn’t know which way was north. We pointed them in the right direction. The oldest was 27; the youngest was 16.

Click for the pictures. I’ll wait.

It’s work that doesn’t quite fit into the newspaper where they work, but it’s worth sharing, and as I remodel my own career, I’m empathetic to the motivation – having something to say that doesn’t fit into the cubbyholes the existing media environment has to offer.

newspaper on driveway

newspaper on driveway

A lot of my friends are doing this. Consider Jeff Proctor’s work on the criminal justice system or Laura Paskus on climate change in New Mexico – both with a home at New Mexico In Depth. These two projects have a lot of the look and feel of traditional journalism, but they are deeper and more thoughtful than the beat reporting you’ll read in your local paper. This is not a knock on the beat reporters or the local newspaper. This is recognizing the intrinsic limitations and experimenting with a new avenue, a new form.

But also consider the work Scot Key is doing at Better Burque. I don’t know of anyone else in Albuquerque who’s writing deeply about pedestrian safety:

Pedestrian deaths are happening so often they largely aren’t even worth reporting.

The latest update from the UNM Geospatial and Population Studies Traffic Research Unit shows 24 pedestrian deaths in the first four months of 2016, a rate on par with the highest number of such deaths in recent years, 74, in 2014. Since 2010, 303 pedestrians have died on New Mexico roads.

Barela’s death, like many others here and around the country, happened in a low-income area with very poor road infrastructure. That low income folks walk more is common sense; that the roads in poor areas of town are the least hospitable to walkers is anything but.

Journalism? I don’t know, you tell me, or tell me why the label matters. Scot, who is a bicycling buddy, is a retired middle school teacher. What are the fundamental characteristics of teaching? Ideas->brains. What are the fundamental characteristics of journalism? Ideas->brains.

There are important implementation details. What are the ideas? Are they good ones – useful, beautiful, productive? This is a tricky bit. And then, what are the pathways to brains? Which brains do you want to reach?

I used to work for a company that printed my words on paper and threw them on tens of thousands of driveways. Scot was paid to stand in front of young people and talk to them for hours on end. Those were sweet gigs. If the pathways don’t exist, or stop working for us – ultimately I had things to say that didn’t work via the old paper-on-driveway path, I’ll let Scot speak for himself about his decision to leave teaching – how to build them? This also is a tricky bit.

But at root it’s the same basic task.

On the Great Lakes, a trans-basin diversion discussion

For those of us in the western United States accustomed to the large scale movement of water from one river basin to another via tunnels, pumps, and the like, the current discussion about water supplies for Waukesha, Wisconsin, is a fascinating case study.

As I write this, I’m drinking from a glass of Albuquerque tap water, a portion of which came through 26 miles of tunnels burrowing beneath the Continental Divide, bringing water from the Colorado River Basin (specifically the San Juan sub-basin) to the Rio Grande Basin. We do this stuff all the time out here. If you live in Colorado’s urbanizing Front Range communities, you probably get a portion of your water from across the Continental Divide. Likewise L.A. and San Diego. The Colorado River Compact even defined the “Colorado River Basin” as “all of the drainage area of the Colorado River System and all other territory within the United States of America to which the waters of the Colorado River System shall be beneficially applied.” (emphasis added) My glass of water is clearly beneficial (it being warm this afternoon in Albuquerque) so I’m in the basin!

Around the Great Lakes, they take a dim view of such generous terms for the definition of a watershed, with a 2008 binational compact “that, among other provisions, effectively bans water users outside of the Great Lakes Basin from withdrawing Great Lakes water.” That’s Circle of Blue’s Codi Kozacek in a piece last week talking about the lively discussions about whether Waukesha can “export” Great Lakes water to meet its municipal needs:

Waukesha, home to 70,000 people, is located 27 kilometers (17 miles) west of Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin. In its application for an exception, the city proposes to take an annual average of 38.2 million liters (10.1 million gallons) of water per day from Lake Michigan, transport it through a pipeline to the city, and pipe the treated wastewater back to the Root River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

The city of Waukesha is outside the basin, but the county in which it sits straddles the low divide that separates the Great Lakes Basin from the Mississippi River Basin (it’s awful flat up there). The fact that the county is partially in the basin is what makes it potentially eligible. Given how easily we move water vast distances from one watershed to the next out here in the West, their discussion is a fascinating contrast.