The newest Colorado River management widget: the “System Conservation Program”

tl;dr The new Colorado River conservation program may not conserve a whole lot of water. But growing the “civic community” needed to solve the basin’s water problems may be far more important.

Longer Version:

The Colorado River Pilot System Water Conservation Program crept forward last week, in the process demonstrating an endearing quirk of Colorado River Basin water governance – no one is in charge. This no-one’s-in-chargeness is one of the central themes of my book. With the System Conservation Program, the folks not in charge are handing me an easy story line.

The news was the announcement Wednesday (press release here, scroll to the bottom of this post for the full solicitation document) of a “Funding Opportunity for Voluntary Participation in a Pilot System Water Conservation Program.” It’s a modest effort among basin water agencies to pool some cash to “conserve Colorado River System water for storage in Lakes Powell and Mead.” The $11 million involved is not nearly enough to fill the empty reservoirs, and no one expects that it should. Rather, it is an experiment in the construction of a new kind of water management widget aimed at staving off a particular kind of disaster – a tragedy of the commons among the nine states (seven in the U.S., two in Mexico) trying to figure out how to share the shrinking river.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

When I say “no one is in charge,” I’m not describing a state of either anarchy or chaos. It’s actually a pretty orderly system. Rather, the system operates via a set of emergent properties based on existing rules and institutions, developed collectively, and people who know one another and are trying to figure out how to solve problems together by collectively developing new widgets. As opposed to, say, Secretary of the Interior Jean-Luc Picard just saying, “Make it so.”

Here’s how the newest widget would work. The big municipal water agencies representing the basin’s four largest metro areas – Southern California, Phoenix-Tucson, Las Vegas and Denver – pool money in a fund to pay farmers or cities to do something (the request for proposals doesn’t specify what) to “develop short-term pilot projects that keep water in Lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and compensated mechanisms.” In other words, we’ll pay you to cut your water use and leave the water in the river, so it can get to the reservoirs. (The proposal letter says the water could come from cities or farms, but who are we kidding? The water’s gonna come from farms. I promise to correct this post if I turn out to be wrong on this.)

It is being done this way because everyone knows there are problems (chiefly not enough water), but no one has the authority to impose solutions, to mandate that water users use less in a way that’s binding across the basin, leaving any individual user with the classic “tragedy of the commons” dilemma – if Phoenix gets real and slashes its use, that would just leave more surpluses for L.A. The two alternatives, therefore, are to continue draining the reservoirs, with confusion and uncertainty about who would bear the brunt of shortages once the shit gets real, or some sort of collective action where everyone gets together and agrees on a plan to avoid said shortages. But wow, that’s sure hard to do.

If you look at the history of basin management widget invention over the last 15 years, the major innovations have emerged from fuzzy collective negotiations that are difficult for outsiders like myself to fully understand. The 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, which led to a significant reduction in California’s overuse of surplus water, grew out of seven-state/federal negotiations that dragged on for a painful decade. (See Jim Lochhead’s remarkable history for a great picture of how that deal went down). The 2007 shortage sharing agreement, similarly, was a seven-state/federal affair, with the tent expanded in important ways to include environmental interests in the discussion. I don’t think that story has been written yet. (Buy my book! As soon as I finish writing it!)

Minute 319, which took some important steps toward clarifying U.S.-Mexico issues of surplus and shortage sharing, was nominally a nation-to-nation negotiation, but it was managed such that the tent was even bigger, including states, water agencies, and environmental non-governmental organizations on both sides of the border. Big, big tent. (See Dan Tarlock, unfortunately behind a paywall, for a lot of that story.)

I’ve been collecting and misusing jargon to make sense of this stuff faster than I can understand its significance (“network governance,” “polycentric governance,” “social capital,” “institutions, both formal and informal”, “social-ecological systems,” “sustainability,” “resilience”). My flavor of the day is “civic community,” from Paul Sabatier and colleagues’ introduction to their book “Swimming Upstream”:

[W]e conceptualize a collaborative process as essentially a set of rules regarding the types of participants, their entry and exit from the process, their authority to undertake tasks, and how their actions lead to policy outcomes…. One causal pathway leads from process and context to “civic community,” which includes human capital (e.g., knowledge about watershed conditions), social capital (e.g., networks of reciprocity), trust of others, legitimacy concerns, and attitudes toward collective action. These civic community variables are conceived as both an end in themselves and a means to better policy outputs.

Sabatier and colleagues are focused on smaller watersheds and a different family of issues, but I think it generalizes

Lake Mead, December 2011

Lake Mead, December 2011

A lot of this is formal, but a lot is informal. As I’ve explained this process in a series of talks I’ve been giving this fall, I’ve been using some schtick about “solving the Colorado River’s problems in hotel bars”. That captures the fuzzy nature of the interactions among the players and how solutions depend in part of the kind of shared understanding that develops through personal relationships among the participants. Plus I have multiple actual hotel bar stories. (They’ll be awesome. Buy my book!) I’ve treated this problem-solving approach as a good thing, but some smart critics of my argument have pushed back, noting the implications of cronyism and who gets left out because they’re not among the cool kids invited to the bar after the day’s meeting. I think that’s a fair criticism, and I think it extends to some of the private grumbling I hear about the System Conservation Program. We have a long history in the Colorado River Basin of decision making that fits the Sabatier model described above, but in which the only participants in the “civic community” were the old “water buffalos”, big powerful water interests, who long marginalized Native American communities, environmentalists, and recreation interests.

We have to remain wary about who’s not being invited to the bar.

But with that caveat, the System Conservation Program has some important characteristics that make it a promising problem-solving model.

The first is the way the big municipal water agencies stepped forward together. This effort – each put down $2 million – sends a “we’re all in this together” message. Up until now, water saved was water saved individually. Under this effort, water saved belongs to all. The fact that the munis are leading also is a recognition that they are the ones who are vulnerable. They’re owning up that that. A corollary to this is the Upper Basin/Lower Basin component. Up until now, each basin has mostly dealt with its problems separately. This is a related version of the “we’re in this together” message.

Lake Mead, Oct. 17, 2010

Lake Mead, Oct. 17, 2010

The second very important characteristic is the program’s potential to build bridges between the big players and smaller agricultural water agencies, who haven’t typically been in the hotel bar. The jargon here is “polycentric governance”, the need to get the links right between basin actors at all scales. Look at the list of players who are getting the System Conservation Program notification letter, which ranges from the big boys and girls like the Southern Nevada Water Authority to the little Bard Water District on the Arizona-California border.

One positive outcome from this would be that it works – that the players figure out how to operate the necessary contracting and water management tools needed to set sane prices, measure outcomes and ensure saved water actually ends up in the reservoirs.

But failure at those outcomes would not necessarily be failure. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to try something else, and if this process can also maintain and enhance a functional “civic community” with a shared understanding of the basin’s problems and a desire to work collectively to fix them, woot. We’ll need it for building the next widgets, which will certainly be harder.

And even if the pilot program works, come to think of it, we’ll still need to design more widgets. We’ll never solve the Colorado River once and for all, we’ll just need to keep adaptively managing it. So maybe the “civic community” part of the System Conservation Program is the most important piece of this, period.

In her speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, Elinor Ostrom put it this way (pdf):

A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.

Which bar shall we meet at? What time?

Solicitation letter

Coachella: More California drought resilience

In the latest episode of “whos’ not running out of water in California?” we join Ian James for a visit to the Coachella Valley:

[V]ast amounts of water are still flowing as usual to the farms of the Coachella Valley, soaking into the soil to produce lemons and tangelos, grapes, and vegetables from carrots to bell peppers. Some farms are still using flood irrigation, inundating the furrows between rows of date palms and other crops with pools of water.

The lucrative farming industry in the desert has been left untouched by the drought because the area holds longstanding rights to water from the Colorado River and is one of the few places in the state where water remains relatively cheap and plentiful.

So, diversity of supply is one resilience tool. But are the right policy tools in place to make this work in the face of deeper supply problems?

Rettberg said it seems especially inappropriate to be slapping fees on landowners who conserve water during the drought.

“There’s not any way anyone can cut back because you’re penalized,” she said. “Why are they encouraging people to waste instead of going the other way?”

California: drought resiliency

To follow up on my post earlier in the week asking that we look beyond Porterville to California communities that aren’t running out of water, and think about what they’ve done to build resiliency in drought, here’s Steve Scauzillo:

In 1991, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River into Southern California, sold 2.5 million acre-feet or about 6 billion gallons to a population of about 14 million. In 2014, under extremely dry conditions, it will sell 2 million acre-feet to many more people — 19 million people, according to Jeff Kightlinger, MWD general manager.

Reductions have come from low-flow shower heads, high-efficiency toilets and, more recently, replacing turf with drought-resistant landscaping.

Some call those measures “low-hanging fruit” because they don’t require lifestyle changes. While Southern Californians have been through the drought drills many times in the last 30 years, this one could be worse.

“We have done a lot in Southern California to use less water and conserve. But a lot of what we have done has been relatively easy to do,” Feldman said. “The next steps will have to be a bit more dramatic.”

virtual water, dairy style

Moving large quantities of water long distances is expensive. But there are alternatives:

The third-generation dairy farmer was forced to idle a quarter of his 1,200 acres in Tulare County, land that once also bristled with wheat and alfalfa. Now he is buying feed from out of state, paying record-high prices to contractors in Nevada, Texas and as far as Australia for alfalfa hay and corn silage.

Moving the water itself from Australia to California would be prohibitively expensive, you understand. But the alfalfa, apparently less so.

Understanding California’s drought: the “Porterville problem”

I imagine that if I was a reporter in California, trying to cover the drought, I’d end up in Porterville too.

It’s the little community in Tulare County where the taps have gone dry. Jennifer Medina of the New York Times took us there this week, and for residents of a nation used to running water and flushing toilets in our homes, it’s a striking story.*  Type “Porterville” and “drought” into Google News and you’ll find the story being told again and again, so much so that the local paper did one of those “meta” stories describing the attention when two TV crews showed up on the same day :

The dire situation many East Porterville residents have found themselves in from three years of drought got the attention Tuesday of the CBS Evening News, as well as an Australian television crew.

But I think it is instructive that, when outsiders want to tell the story of Californian residents running out of water, they seem to have just one place to go. The same thing happened in 2012 in Texas, as national media descended on the little town of Spicewood Beach, because like Porterville, it seemed to be the only place actually running out of water.

The journalistic risk here is twofold. First, you risk leaving national readers with the impression that “Californians’ taps are running dry,” when mostly they’re not. This is a classic problem in newspegged journalism – we also gravitate toward the worst, and leave distant observers with the impression that that is all there is. Second, you miss important pieces of the drought story, because the difference between Portervilles and non-Portervilles is critical for making drought response policy.

To be clear, there have been lots of stories from lots of parts of California’s Central Valley about farmers running out of water for their crops. That’s a broad story. But the implication of the Porterville story is that most home water users aren’t running out. I think that’s an equally important story.

  • What went wrong in Porterville that isn’t happening elsewhere, and what have other communities done right?
  • What is the role of poverty in the Porterville case, and the other communities that find themselves on the verge of water supply troubles?
  • What has happened in urban and suburban California that has kept the big water supply systems from running out?

Hector Becera of the Los Angeles Times had a good story last month that got to some of this. He looked at communities that have made it onto the state’s “high risk” list but didn’t run out:

For some communities, earning a place on the list was the impetus to address problems that should have been fixed long ago. Some drilled new wells, built storage tanks or connected their water systems with larger ones and got off the critical list. Other communities were saved by late spring rains that filled reservoirs and other water supplies.

Fourteen communities, though, remain on the list, approaching a crisis point and trucking in water while they work to find a solution.

Tim Quinn, the executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies, said communities that have made the list are often small and isolated, and they relied on a single source of water, such as a stream, without backup sources. But he warned that if the drought continues, larger communities could face their own significant problems.

I took a crack at this last year when we were busy doing the same thing in New Mexico:

But like Sherlock Holmes’ curious case of the dog that did not bark in the night, a key part of the story of the drought of 2013 in rural New Mexico may be the communities that have not been in the news, because they have not run out of water.

While solid numbers are hard to come by, some in the state’s water management community say they believe there are fewer small community water problems in 2013 than in the last major drought, of 2002-03. With the severity of the current drought, water tables all across New Mexico are dropping. But many communities threatened by drought last time around have upgraded their systems, making them more resilient.

I think this is a part of the story that deserves more attention.

* An important coda: There are in fact, lots of Porterville-like communities in Indian Country, where aridity and poverty combine to leave homes that have never had running water. See, for example, Whitehorse Lake.

“drying up the streams” – Elwood Mead

Elwood Mead

Elwood Mead

To water many western valleys will involve drying up the streams that flow through through them, and this physical fact ought to be faced frankly and honestly.

That’s Elwood Mead, sounding an awful lot like a proto-environmentalist, in his 1903 book Irrigation Institutions. Mead, who headed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from 1924 to 1936, oversaw plenty of drying up. He headed the agency when Hoover Dam was planned and built. But he wasn’t being a proto-environmentalist, just a pragmatist, in pointing out that people living downstream of the nation’s big irrigation works needed to recognize the fact that the water might no longer reach them, and that the nascent legal structures for water allocation at the time would need to recognize this reality.

Gordon Jacoby and the Colorado River: “predicting hydrologic bankruptcy”

In my world, the 1976 tree ring analysis of the Colorado River’s long term flow done by Charles Stockton and Gordon Jacoby stands as one of the great works of policy-relevant science. But by the time I came on the scene, “Stockton and Jacoby”* (pdf) was just a marker, a signpost along our path to understanding the mistakes we made in allocating the Colorado River’s flow. I’d never looked at the details of how the work came about until we got news today of Jacoby’s death, and some reminiscing by some of Jacoby’s colleagues sent me down the rabbit hole of history to the wonderful story Jacoby told to oral historian Ronald Doel in 1996.

Stockton and Jacoby, 1976

Stockton and Jacoby, 1976

The National Science Foundation was funding a broad research effort into the impacts of the completion of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell. Jacoby thought tree rings might be an interesting tool for understanding the long term history of flows on the river:

[I]n doing some of the water aspects, I heard somewhere — I can’t really cite a specific reference — this idea of using tree rings to find out about water supply. They realized first you have to know how much water is going to come into this reservoir. And I heard somewhere this concept of using growth rings of trees to estimate stream flow. And so I went and talked to Chuck [Charles] Stockton at the tree ring lab in Arizona and he’d been working on the Colorado River flow. So in the next contract that I put in, I put in a subcontract for us to work together on this.

Their findings were disconcerting.

The Colorado River’s allocation of 7.5 million feet annually for the Upper Basin, 7.5 million for the Lower Basin, with another 1.5 million acre feet tacked on for Mexico, had been negotiated during an unusually wet time. A very unusually wet time. Here’s their graph:

Lee's Ferry flow, Stockton and Jacoby, 1976

Lee’s Ferry flow, Stockton and Jacoby, 1976

Jacoby describes the response when he first presented the results, at a meeting of the AAAS in 1975:

At the end of my talk I think there were one or two agency people in the audience actually jumping to their feet and yelling; an interesting scene. I think I was predicting hydrologic bankruptcy with relation to these ideas and real stream flow. And so that got a lot of people excited.

There’s a history of great science in the years since clarifying the paleoclimate record and refining our understanding of the Colorado River’s flow, especially Woodhouse et. al in 2006. But Jacoby’s basic message still stands.

* If anyone has a link to a web-based copy of the original report, please share in the comments? Thanks.

update: Thanks to Kevin Anchukaitis, here’s a link to the original (big pdf).