Historic low flows on New Mexico’s Gila River

Our UNM Water Resources Program students used the Gila River in New Mexico for their spring case study projects, so I’ve made it a habit to watch the USGS “Gila near Gila” gauge. Class is finished, but the habit is not.

Flow there dropped below 30 cubic feet per second this evening.

Update: I didn’t do the analysis right. It’s the lowest on record for this point in the year, not the lowest in general.

If I’ve done the analysis right, this is the lowest recorded flow on the Gila – not just for May 9, but the lowest period.

Record low on the Gila

Records go back to 1927.

Water use is going down

There’s a rock I keep pushing up a hill. But powerful forces are at work, and the rock keeps slipping my grasp and rolling back down. So I chase it down, and start anew.

I’ve given more than 30 public talks around the western United States since my book came out nearly two years ago, and every time I talk I include a bunch of graphs and data making the same point – water use is going down. Across nearly every geography, water source (surface and ground) or class of users. Water use is going down. And nearly every time, I get a combination of skeptical questions and eager followup from members of the audience on this point, whether the audience is water managers, or academics, or members of a more general public.


Here is no less a luminary than the official Twitter feed of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, arguably the most important federal water agency in the western United States:

BRB, I’m headed back down to catch the rock, in the meantime, via Peter Gleick and Brad Plumer, here’s a graph:

What happens if we have another dry year on the Colorado River?

One of the big problems caused by the current breakdown in Colorado River diplomacy is the danger it poses if we have another bad year on the Colorado River.

A new Bureau of Reclamation analysis puts some numbers to the fear – a credible risk that Lake Mead could drop to elevation 1,062 by the end of 2019, just 20 short months away.

This nice chart put together by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, part of Met’s Water Supply Conditions Report (pdf), nicely illustrates what’s been going on in recent years:

Powell inflow, courtesy MWD

There’s a point my friend and book-writing partner Eric Kuhn has been making that shows up nicely in this graph. We’ve had four consecutive decent years. From 2014 to 2017, we have’t been in “drought” (whatever that word even means any more). That string of relatively good years (or at least “not bad years”?)  has enabled the 9 million acre foot per year releases that has so exercised the interbasin conflict between the Central Arizona Project and other basin water users. 9 million acre feet per year – well above the Law of the River-mandated 8.23 million acre foot release from Lake Powell – has bought time for negotiations over new management rules to reduce everyone’s demand on the system. But even with those big releases – the Upper Basin from 2014 to this year has delivered 2.3 million acre feet more than the Law of the River requires – Lake Mead has dropped 10 feet.

The bureau’s April “minimum probable water supply forecast” suggests a risk of a 1.2 million acre foot/13 foot drop in Lake Mead in 2019 if the winter of 2018-19 is another bad one. That “what do we do if it’s another bad year” question was lingering in the background of Monday’s meetings in Salt Lake City among and between Upper Basin water managers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and representatives of Arizona.

No one wants to be in the midst of trying to negotiate new rules while Lake Mead water is circling the drain. There are some incentives to laying down a workable framework, a “Drought Contingency Plan” or whatever, this year, before the frenzy.


2017 Lower Colorado River Basin water use the lowest in a quarter century

Led by California, the states of the Lower Colorado River Basin had their lowest consumptive water use in 2017 since 1992, according to a near-final tally  by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The final numbers won’t be out until mid-May, so could change slightly, but at this point they won’t change much. And they show that, despite the chaotic politics you’ve been hearing about lately, Lower Colorado River Basin water users are pushing their water use in the right direction.

In each case, the three Lower Basin states in different ways and on different time scales have been confronting the reality that they had come to depend on more water than the river could provide in the long run. Policy interventions that include municipal conservation, agricultural conservation, and ag-to-urban water transfers are shifting the water balance in the right direction. With that as my benchmark – cuts from glutinous peak – here then are the near-final 2017 numbers:


  • 2017: 4.027 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 1950
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent


  • 2017: 2.511 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 2005
  • Reduction from peak: 16 percent


  • 2017: 243,000 acre feet
    • Lowest since 2016
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent

At 6.782 million acre feet, that’s the lowest since 1992, before the Central Arizona Project was completed – the last big straw sucking water out of Lake Mead.

When the final numbers are completed, they’ll be published here.

Note for the water nerds: The accounting systems are managed differently for the upper and lower basins, and it’ll be some time before we have comparable data for Colorado River water use in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. For 2015, the most recent year for which we have upper basin data, use by those four states of 3.177 million acre feet (this figure does not include reservoir evaporation, to make it comparable to the Lower Basin data above) was the lowest since 1977. So, also, headed in the right direction.

When people have less water, they use less water.

Some helpful context for understanding the Central Arizona Project managers’ decisions in current Colorado River governance scrap

A guest post from Water Nerd, originally posted in the comments here and lifted, with permission, into a post of its own. It’s a valuable contribution to the discussion of the current scrapping on the Colorado River.


One of the most interesting ideas you discuss in your book is the application of Elinor Ostrom’s economic theories to water management in the southwest. Her idea that there is an alternative to the government regulation versus private property/free markets approach to managing common pool resources is insightful and won her the Nobel Prize in economics. One of the advantages to her collective decision making model is that all parties are vested in the outcomes; because they were engaged in making the rules for management of the resource, they feel responsible for enforcement and for ensuring good outcomes. We have seen this model work well for southwestern rivers and groundwater basins. Perhaps you are right that the rules on the Colorado River are evolving from a rational self interest approach to a collaborative mutual benefit approach.

This bodes well for the health of the river and our ability to solve problems for the benefit of the over 40 million people who depend on the river.

However, one of the disadvantages to the collective decision making model is the “bully problem.” Often, there is an imbalance of power between the parties negotiating the rules. If this is the case, the rules can favor the bully or the party with more power. Perhaps the fracas on the Colorado River system is to some degree a result of this bully problem? Shortages on the lower Colorado River are not shared equitably as a percentage based on each state’s allocation. In fact, under the 2007 Guidelines, Arizona is facing a risk of losing 480,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 MAF entitlement, Nevada’s risk is 20,000 acre-feet of its .3 MAF entitlement, and California’s risk is zero acre-feet of its 4.4 MAF entitlement. Under the draft Drought Contingency Plan, the risk of loss increases to 720,000 acre-feet for Arizona, 30,000 acre-feet for Nevada, and 350,000 acre-feet for California.

What accounts for this imbalance in the sharing of the risks of shortage? What behaviors might you expect from rational actors in such a system? If you removed power dynamics from the equation and designed a system to manage water shortages on a variable system such as the Colorado River, you might design something more like the Upper Basin system – where shortages are shared based on a percentage of each state’s allocation. But the Law of the River is the law, and every state can point to wins and losses. We simply can’t revisit everything that was decided in the last century. Nevertheless, we should not be surprised when the entities or stakeholders who bare an exponentially greater risk of shortage act to prevent or mitigate the harm from that risk.

How much money should be spent on paying those with water rights not to use their water and who should pay for it? In many cases, taxpayers and water users in local jurisdictions are funding a portion of the annual compensated conservation to remedy water scarcity in each state. People would understandably be concerned if their money is being used to fund conservation that increases the likelihood of shortage (based on the mathematical formulas set forth in the Guidelines for determining releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead) and triggers significant negative economic consequences in their region. For example, in Arizona, a farmer, a homebuilder or a homeowner might be asked to help pay for a tribe to leave its water in Lake Mead. This conservation in Lake Mead would benefit the river system overall, but it might result in less water being released from Lake Powell and therefore trigger a Tier 1 shortage, which would cut the farmer’s and the homebuilder’s water supply, and might put the homeowner out of a job. In fact, taxpayers and water users in Arizona might feel that their elected representatives are acting irresponsibly if their money is used to fund something that actually causes rather than prevents shortage in their region. And the cost of funding 480,000 acre-feet of conservation is much greater than the cost of funding 20,000 or zero; the impacts to the local economy are much greater when the risk is exponentially higher.

Furthermore, we must ask what is the problem that we are trying to solve? If we are trying to reduce the structural deficit (over-allocation of the Colorado River supply), the solution and strategy may look different than if we are trying to avoid triggering shortage at Lake Mead. The relative good of the strategy must be viewed in light of the articulated goal. When you consider the costs and quantities at risk, put a human face on the impacts of shortage, and take into account the goal of avoiding shortage at Lake Mead, Central Arizona Project’s desire for a more flexible approach to system conservation, that considers risks, costs, and variations in hydrology, sounds a lot more like wise water management than ‘manipulation of demands’ or ‘gaming the system.’ Couple that with the DCP like quantities (over 300,000 acre feet per year) of uncompensated conservation that CAP and its partners have been voluntarily leaving in Lake Mead each year to prevent shortage, and you might see entities that are putting forth real wet water for conservation instead of bad actors.

If there is one thing that is certain, it is that people will fight for their water. Perhaps if we could get away from pointing fingers and turning people or entities that we must work with for the common good into our enemies, we’ll be able to find collaborative, innovative solutions to the water scarcity and drought facing our region. Maybe we could approach water issues with more humility, worrying less about being right and more about listening to the real concerns of our fellow water users, focusing on problem solving and best outcomes. I hope that we do because the elephants in the room just seem to get bigger while we are running circles around the mice.

Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead on the current Colorado River mess

In his April 16 letter to the Central Arizona Project’s management team, Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead, one of the leaders of the Colorado River water management community for more than two decades, was very explicit in the use of the word “manipulation” to describe what he believes the CAP is doing with its Lake Mead orders.

Lochhead gave a very helpful interview to KNPR in Las Vegas this week suggesting the urgency of the issue – that he believes Arizona’s actions, by pulling water off of the river while at the same time blocking the collaborative solutions needed to deal with shortage on the river, pose a serious threat. Listening to the full 15-minute interview is time well spent if you want to understand what’s going on.

And if you have a few more minutes to spare, Lochhead’s 2003 Denver Water Law Review article is the definitive piece on the evolution of the cooperative norms in Colorado River governance. I relied on it heavily for my book. (I think that link isn’t paywalled, sorry, I can’t tell whether it’s really open access or I have university library privilege cookies.)

California water use – still down

California’s water use: down.

While it’s true that urban water use is not as low as it was at the height of the latest drought in 2015, it is still much lower than in 2013, before Californians were asked to significantly limit their water use. This winter, some media stories highlighted unfavorable month-to-month comparisons—for example, water use in December 2017 was about the same as in December 2013. But what’s lost in this message is that water use in California is normally much lower in winter months, when very little is going to outdoor landscaping. When we smooth out the seasonal differences, water use in 2017 was roughly 13% lower than in 2013—and it has stayed down across all regions of the state (see figure).

That’s Ellen Hanak and David Mitchell at PPIC.

What the Everyone Else in the Colorado River Basin v. Central Arizona Project fracas is really all about

It’s reasonable to ask whether the fracas over Colorado River water management, which has pitted the Central Arizona Project against just about everyone else in the basin, is evidence that the thesis of my book – that we are in an era of unprecedented collaboration in Colorado River governance, that water is not really for fighting over – was wrong.

Lake Havasu and the Colorado River, courtesy Library of Congress

I think it’s the opposite. There would have been a time when it would have simply been assumed that of course the Central Arizona Project would optimize its water orders (a smart friend has steered me away from some of the more incendiary language I had used – “manipulated” or “gamed”) to maximize releases from Lake Powell. The uproar this month is striking precisely because the uproar is happening at all – that in a new era of collaboration, what CAP was doing is an offense to a new cooperative, collaborative norm.

In the “Contemporary Issues In Water Management” class we co-teach (still accepting applications for fall 2018!), my faculty colleague Bob Berrens spends a good deal of time helping students understand a subtle definition of what we mean by “institutions”:

Institutions: The rules, both formal and informal, that both liberate and constrain behavior in repeated choice interactions.

It was a bit of a challenge for me initially to get my head around this when Bob and I began teaching together five years ago, but our ongoing conversation about this issue in the end provided a key piece of the intellectual infrastructure for my book Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West.

Claudia Williamson does a nice job of summarizing the thing in this 2009 paper (for “development” in her sentence below, substitute “successful Colorado River Basin water management”):

Formal institutions represent government defined and enforced constraints while informal institutions capture private constraints. The findings suggest that the presence of informal institutions is a strong determinant of development. In contrast, formal institutions are only successful when embedded in informal constraints.

Central to my book’s myth-busting argument (Water! For Not Fighting Over!) is the evolution in the Colorado River Basin of institutions along two parallel and simultaneous paths. On the formal path, the “government defined and enforced constraints”, you’ll find the big written rule sets developed over the last two decades – the 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines and the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. They were the first two major pieces added to the “Law of the River” since 1968, and they grew out of a process of collaboration and compromise. In parallel to that we have the evolution of what in Bob’s framework we describe as informal rules – norms of behavior that have come to be viewed as the way problems are now solved in the Colorado River Basin. They involve collaboration and effort at shared problem solving – crucial informal norms that allowed the more formal rule sets to be developed.

This is the key to understanding the letter representatives of the Upper Basin states sent to Arizona two weeks ago, triggering the fracas:

This is why pretty much everyone in the basin, including folks in California and Nevada as well as many within Arizona itself, have lined up against the Central Arizona Project’s position on this issue – because CAP’s brazenly public endorsement and defense of a process of managing water orders to maximize releases from Lake Powell, while within the formal rules, violated widely held informal norms of collaboration on efforts to solve the Colorado River’s problems.

Here’s University of Colorado Boulder Colorado Basin scholar Doug Kenney’s explanation in a piece by Luke Runyon and Bret Jasper:

“The [enforcement] mechanism is usually a social mechanism,” Kenney says. “And the mechanism is all of the other parties get in your face and say, ‘Hey, come on. This isn’t really the spirit of what we’re doing here, let’s get back to working cooperatively.’”

Faces will be gotten into next week at a meeting of Arizona and Upper Basin folks in Salt Lake City.

Fulp honored

From the Bureau of Reclamation:

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Regional Director, Terrance J. Fulp, Ph.D., received the Meritorious Service Award from the Department of the Interior this week. Fulp has devoted his 27-year federal career to the Lower Colorado Region by making lasting contributions to improving operations and developing solutions for complicated water issues.

Fulp was at the center of one of the telling scenes in my book:

It was early 2000 when Terry Fulp saw the first glimmer of the problems to come. The hydrologist was part of a team doing the math on a proposal to change the way the federal government operated Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two big reservoirs on western North America’s iconic Colorado River.

In 2000, Lake Mead was full, water lapping at Hoover Dam’s spillway gates. The full reservoir was a reassuring sight for the residents of the water-dependent farms and cities dependent on the Colorado’s supply. But gathered in a nondescript Southern California office park going over calculations with a team of technical experts, Fulp realized that things would not always be this way.

The team had been working “all hours of the day and night” on the final numbers needed for a federal report. As they sat down over pizza and beer one evening, one of the bosses asked a question: “If you could put something on a bumper sticker about what we’ve learned, what would it be?”

Fulp’s answer was simple: “Lake Mead will go down.”