Looking for flexibility within Arizona

Arizona’s current internal political struggles over allocation and management of shortage on the Colorado River illustrate a central dilemma in the basin’s transition from the era of managing development of the river’s water to the era of managing scarcity. While we generally have demonstrated the ability to use less water across a range of water use domains, and have developed the institutional frameworks for changing the overall “Law of the River” allocations among the states and Mexico (buy my book!), sorting out our response within each state continues to be a bottleneck.

In this regard, Tony Davis had a fascinating story last weekend about one effort within Arizona to provide added flexibility within Arizona to reshuffle the allocation deck:

Four Indian tribes owning the biggest and the most shortage-proof share of Colorado River water in the Lower Basin want to spread that booty around Arizona. They’re offering a “drought supply,” backstopping existing supplies now threatened by growth and climate change.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes, commonly called CRIT, want to lease more river water than is delivered each year to the city of Tucson to various water agencies, utilities and the feds. For that, they want more money than they now make from their alfalfa fields, where the water currently goes.

One of the challenges is finding a path forward through new challenges while we’re still constrained by old legal structures never meant to deal with stuff like this. The Colorado River Indian Tribes are looking for a way out of that, and exploring whether there’s a mutually beneficial deal to be had.

The resilience of the U.S.-Mexico Colorado River relationship

In a recent paper in Water International, Jacob Petersen-Perlman and colleagues identified one of the central features scholars have found in their study of international water agreements:

Once institutional capacity is established between parties it has been proven to be resilient over time, even as conflict was being waged over other issues.

Sitting in an overcrowded hotel ballroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, late yesterday afternoon, I was privileged to see that happen. In the midst of bellicose rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA trade battles, of “rapists” and “bad hombres”, representatives of the two nations’ border and water management community signed the final paperwork for the entry into force of a sweeping new Colorado River agreement.

The deal extends the core terms of “Minute 319”, a landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that enabled a rich new suite of collaborative measures to managing the shared river – Mexican storage of water in U.S. reservoirs, shared surpluses and shortages, opportunities for U.S. water agencies to collaborate with their Mexican counterparts on conservation measures and a shared effort to restore water to the Colorado River Delta environment.

Two years of work by Obama administration folks and their Mexican counterparts had led to an near-agreement they came to call “Minute 32x” because of the quirks of the numbering system, but it didn’t quite get over the finish line before the change of administrations.

Former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor, left, and former Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López, at Wednesday’s signing of the US-Mexico Colorado River agreement

Yesterday, despite the fears of many (including myself), we saw the agreement survive, as Petersen-Perlman put it, “conflict … being waged over other issues.” Here was the Trump administration’s new Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, standing at the podium before an international audience praising his predecessor, Obama administration Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who stood quietly leaning against the back wall.

Connor and Estevan López, his Commissioner of Reclamation during the final years of the Obama administration, stood together. They two of them had led a determined push in the months after the election to try to get the deal done before the new administration took office, amid fears that a souring U.S.-Mexico relationship might make a Colorado River agreement impossible.

When I got home last night, I spent some time scrolling back through a bunch of pictures I took on the morning of March 28, 2014, in the Colorado River Delta. I’d been down in the delta working on my book, and a chance meeting with Interior staff in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn in Yuma led to an invitation to ride along with Connor and Assistant Interior Secretary Anne Castle to see water flowing down the river in the famous environmental “pulse flow” that year.

Here’s how I described it in the book:

Connor and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Anne Castle acted like eager tourists, pulling out their cell phones to take pictures at every stop. And as we drove, they reflected on the process that had gotten everyone to this remarkable moment when the representatives of nine states and two nations, plus a larger coalition of water agencies, environmentalists, and community groups, had come together to solve what had seemed an insoluble water-sharing problem—putting water back in the Colorado River delta.

Minute 319 was the logical extension, Connor explained to me, of a process in which water users stepped away from Marc Reisner’s old refrain of the Colorado as the world’s “most litigated” river to the approach of the past two decades—of negotiated agreements to deal with the shortcomings of the current water-management rules. “The Law of the River,” Connor told me, “is pretty all-encompassing, but it still has room for interpretation.”

I love this picture of Mike that I took that day. The excitement at what we were seeing was palpable, infectious.

Mike Connor at San Luis Bridge, March 28 2014

I’m nothing if not an optimist about these collaborative processes – writing and speaking about them, teaching them, advocating for them. There’s another picture I took that day that I also love, one of my favorite moments from the trip:

Kids on the Mexican side of the border, waving at delegation of Americans, San Luis Rio Colorado, March 28, 2014

Kids on the Mexican side of the border, waving at delegation of Americans, San Luis Rió Colorado, March 28, 2014

These kids are literally standing on the border, at a place where there is no fence, them on the Mexican side waving, us on the U.S. side waving back. The canal we’re standing on carries agricultural wastewater across the border, the Colorado River is just down the hill to my right.

I am happy to report that collaboration over the Colorado River withstood the test of the recent shock to the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and has emerged resilient.

Creeping forward on the Colorado River

The Colorado River arrives at San Luis, March 25, 2014

“The network”, as I call the Colorado River governance structure in my book, is gathering this week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to among other things celebrate the signing of a new agreement extending the agreement between the United States and Mexico over water sharing and allocation on the Colorado River.

Two years ago at this time, I was nervous as hell, putting the final touches on a book that argued for the fragile durability (if such an oxymoronic thing makes sense) of the framework of agreements that have held the Colorado River Basin governance process together, prevented it from spinning apart in conflict and litigation:

The events of the last two decades—the 2001 negotiations to wean California of its dependence on surplus water, the 2007 deal to share shortages, the US-Mexico agreement embodied in Minute 319—provide an indication of what the path forward might look like. They do not suggest that the Law of the River’s imperfections and ambiguities are irrelevant. Instead, they suggest that “the network” has come to the shared conclusion that arguing over legal interpretation is the wrong path. Those ambiguities and imperfections are flaws to be corrected through collective action and agreement rather than winner-take-all legal battles.

What we need is a negotiated solution that avoids narrow interpretations of the Law of the River, that reduces allocations broadly, enables trading among water users, and capitalizes on the reality that, as we have seen, communities in the Colorado River Basin have a remarkable ability to preserve their ways of life when supplies run short.

There’s something not quite right about that last paragraph, which I probably dimly realized even at the time I wrote it in 2015, but which I clearly realize now – “a negotiated solution”. In fact, what we’ll inevitably have on this river, I now realize, is a state of permanent negotiation. We can see the specific deals underway now or needed:

  1. the new Minute 323 agreement between the US and Mexico (with its sheaf of side agreements among the many water agencies involved)
  2. The ill-named “Drought Contingency Plan”, an agreement for water users on both sides of the border to take deeper cuts as Lake Mead drops
  3. The sub-agreements needed to make DCP work, including arrangements to do “demand management” in the Upper Basin; the necessary California side deal on the Salton Sea; Arizona’s attempt to sort out its internal politics regarding how the burden of deeper cuts is borne, and who will drive that process
  4. renegotiation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which expire in 2026

We seem to have “1” down, unless something blows up between this morning and the various US-Mexico signing ceremonies over the next couple of days. “2”, a DCP, seems close (though it seemed close back in 2015, when I was nervously wrapping up my book’s manuscript and wondering whether they’d actually do the deal in the time between the manuscript’s submission and publication, or whether the thing would fall apart in that interval). “3”, the deals needed to make a DCP work, still seems hard, which is where the risks lie for “2”.

The last, renegotiating the 2007 Interim Guidelines, is in a sense already underway. In fact, I’d argue that it’s been going on all along, ever since the Interim Guidelines were signed 10 years ago. This, I think, is the central feature of the new shape of Colorado River water governance.

This is the critical piece – a view that all these are really manifestations of the same thing, an underlying, ongoing process of river governance that includes, in part, a process of continuing negotiations. It includes constant evaluation and reevaluation of problems, constant jockeying around possible solutions, which are then slotted into the various decision processes as appropriate.

I’m moderating a panel at the Santa Fe meeting with the provocative title, “Are we up to the challenges?” This is the stuff we’ll talk about.

Preliminary year-end data suggest New Mexico will meet its Rio Grande Compact obligations this year

Preliminary year-end modeling suggests New Mexico is in good shape to meet its obligations to deliver water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact in 2018, according to data presented Thursday by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to the executive committee of the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program.

In a counter-intuitive twist, meeting compact obligations is harder for New Mexico in wet years than in dry ones, because the state’s downstream delivery obligations goes up in wet years. But between the water already delivered down the river to Elephant Butte Reservoir and a reserve still in storage in El Vado Reservoir on the Rio Chama, New Mexico should be able to make its compact delivery books balance, an ISC staffer told the executive committee members.

In practical terms, this means a significant slug of water moving through the system in November and December to balance the books, a trick we’ve seen water managers use in recent years – store as much as they can upstream, then release whatever portion is needed in the last couple of months of the year to meet compact delivery obligations.

In policy terms, it means continued success in bringing water supply and use into balance in the Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico. Since 2000, despite persistent drought, we’ve overdelivered to Elephant Butte by more than 200,000 acre feet.* In addition, the aquifer beneath Albuquerque has risen 15-20 feet thanks to reduced groundwater pumping.

* wonky detail: During that time, our net compact balance with Texas has actually declined. That is not because we are underdelivering, but because of a technique called “relinquishment”, in which we transfer some of the surplus we’ve delivered to water users in southern New Mexico and Texas in return for certain other benefits.


Westlands California water tunnels “no” could be “fatal blow”

This is a big deal:

Citing concerns about costs to individual farmers, Westlands Water District’s board of directors voted 7-1 against participating in the project, known officially as California WaterFix.

Westlands is the first major water agency to vote on the project, and other big districts are expected to make their decisions in the coming weeks. Because the sprawling agricultural district in Fresno and Kings counties would have shouldered about a quarter of the project’s costs, the vote could represent a fatal blow. (emphasis added)

That’s Kasler and Sabalow, the Sacramento Bee’s water team, on yesterday’s stunning Westlands vote.

What we seem to be in, as OtPR noted recently, is a discussion about the best way to bring California’s irrigated acreage into line with hydrologic reality – as in, there’s not enough water to keep irrigating the acreage we now irrigate – how much do we push engineering solutions (tunnels, deeper wells) and how much do we find tools to gracefully reduce the amount of land in production.

disaggregating agriculture

One of the great insights from my University of New Mexico colleague Bob Berrens, chair of the economics department and my predecessor as director of UNM’s Water Resources Program, is the importance of disaggregating agriculture.

Much water policy discussion, rightly, revolves around the agriculture-municipal distinction. With ag getting (and needing) a much larger share of the water in arid western North America, the distinction is important. But this Faith Kearns piece out of California’s Central Valley is a reminder that ag is no one thing:

Small farmers were hit hard by California’s drought. Perhaps none as hard as the Hmong and other Southeast Asian farmers that lease small plots of land, often with declining groundwater levels, shallow wells, and outdated irrigation systems. Yet, many of these small farmers persist, growing an incredible variety of tropical and subtropical crops in California’s temperate climate.

According to a 2007 survey, around 900 out of a total of 1400 Southeast Asian farms in Fresno County in California’s Central Valley are Hmong. The Hmong largely arrived as refugees from Laos after government upheaval in the 1970’s. For many, farming is part of who they are, despite the challenges.

And, the list of challenges for these small farmers can be long: not owning the land they farm, decreasing acres of land to lease due to urbanization and the potential for growing higher value crops than the Hmong specialize in, language and cultural barriers, and competition for groundwater.

Much of the ag around these small farmers is big, industrial scale farming. As California wrestles with the management of its groundwater, it’ll be important to recognize the full range of agricultural water users.

Drought and the Presidency

Putting together a lecture for tomorrow for UNM Water Resources Program students on “drought” –  how we define, measure, and think about it – I noticed that Donald Trump, during a visit to North Dakota, seems to have brought up the issue, to wit:

I’ll take “Presidential comments on drought” for a thousand, Alex!

In bringing you to view the incidents most deserving attention which have occurred since your last session, I regret to have to state that … an unusual drought has prevailed in the Middle and Western States…. I am happy, however, to have it in my power to assure you … that the produce of the year, though less abundant than usual, will not only be amply sufficient for home consumption, but afford a large surplus for the supply of the wants of other nations.

That’s James Madison in his Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1819, in the first recorded reference to drought (down the rabbit hole!) in the UCSB archive of stuff presidents wrote and said.

Not surprisingly, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a great deal to say about drought (think “dust bowl”), and Barack Obama in the waning days of his presidency celebrated the end of the Chicago Cubs’ World Series drought.

As we’ll discuss in tomorrow’s class, it is a word weighted with many meanings.

Tamarisk beetle die-off not saving as much water as expected

The tamarisk beetle, introduced a decade ago to try to beat back an invasive tree clogging western rivers, has not saved as much water as hoped, according to new research by a team led by the USGS’s Pamela Nagler. Nagler and her colleagues used satellite data to estimate tamarisk water use before and after the beetle’s arrival. They found

  • tamarisk wasn’t using as much water as folks had thought
  • tamarisk water use post-beetle was higher than expected because “tamarisk stands tend to regrow new leaves after defoliation and other plants help maintain canopy cover”

We’re not at equilibrium yet, as the beetle keeps expanding its range. More study needed.

H/t the invaluable Brett Walton’s Federal Water Tap.