fighting off the desert with fake water

Meadow Lake

We come to a desert but it is not to our liking. One wonders why, then, we came to a desert, but no matter. We can engineer our way out of this:

Meadow Lake was never much of a meadow. It was too wild, too wide, its sage-studded plains golden with buffalo grass and endless sunshine spilling, sparkling toward the blue shadows of the Manzano Mountains to the east.

But there had been a lake.

In 1967, the lake – fed by eight wells and stocked with trout, bluegill and catfish – had been the focal point of a 1,700-acre community planned by Albuquerque developer D.W. Falls.

That’s my colleague Joline Gutierrez Krueger in a sad piece about the ambitions of land development on the greater Albuquerque metro area’s south side. Journal photographer Dean Hanson added some nice ruin porn of the gutted mobile homes that are, along with crime, now Meadow Lake’s hallmark. And no lake.

As so often is the case, we learn late that can’t engineer our way out of this.

Welcome, pulse flow readers. Buy my (old) book!

It occurs to me that the brief and delightful pulse flow of clicks to this blog reading my recent coverage of what’s going on in the Colorado River delta might be potential book buyers. (Duh. Marketing is not my strength.)

It’s called The Tree Rings’ Tale, a science book for kids (middle school aged, 13 years old give or take) about weather, water and climate, especially here in western North America. Yes, it has John Wesley Powell’s grand adventures, and also Connie Woodhouse’s more recent grand adventures. (Connie uses tree rings to figure out how much water was in the Colorado River back before we had stream gauges. She’s not as famous as John Wesley Powell, but her stories are pretty great and important too.)

It includes a lot of hands-on science, too, like how to record the rain and snow in your backyard.

If you buy it on Amazon via the link above, I get a little piece of the action, which is nice, but if there’s some bright youngster in your life who you think my enjoy it, the best thing would be to support your local bookstore and order it through them.

land and water: Colorado River pulse flow arrives at Laguna

Colorado River pulse flow at the Laguna CILA environmental restoration site. Picture by Tomás Rivas of the Sonoran Institute

Colorado River pulse flow at the Laguna CILA environmental restoration site. Picture by Tomás Rivas of the Sonoran Institute, used with permission

Folks on the Colorado River delta “pulse flow” science monitoring team sent around a few pictures yesterday taken by the Sonoran Institute’s  Tomás Rivas of the water arriving at the Laguna CILA environmental restoration site. The beauty of this picture for me, beyond the obvious sight of water in a formerly dry delta river channel, is that despite taking a site tour two weeks ago, I don’t recognize the spot where the picture was taken. Water changes everything. Here’s one of my pictures from our tour.

Scientists and journalists tour Laguna Cori restoration site in the Mexican Colorado River Delta, which awaits its first flows. March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

Scientists and journalists tour Laguna Cori restoration site in the Mexican Colorado River Delta, which awaits its first flows. March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

Imagine that now filled with water!

As I’ve written previously, Laguna CILA is one of the restoration sites that takes advantage of the high water table in stretches of the levee-pinned delta river channel to bring back native riparian vegetation. The idea here is that a pulse of “nature” in the form of water flows like this can help regenerate willows, cottonwoods and the like, which can then get their roots down into the water table and sustain themselves. Here’s how Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund and a group of colleagues explained it in back in 2000 (pdf), in one of the early academic papers explaining how it might work:

Annual flood events are not necessary for survival of these native tree species: they are capable of surviving at least a three-to-four-year interval between major flow events in the flood plain. Pulse flows of 260,000 acre-feet, released at a rate of 3,500-7,000 cubic-feet per second, are sufficient to inundate the Delta’s floodplain within the levees, sustain riparian corridor vegetation, and stimulate seed germination.

Much has changed since that was written. In 2000, the Colorado River’s reservoirs were mostly full, which made carving out a modest chunk of water to serve society’s environmental values seem more possible. The reservoirs are now half empty, which makes the political and policy challenge far greater. The flows in the current pulse are substantially less, but the water is now hitting sites that have been engineered to take better advantage of it.

This is fundamentally new territory. You drive across the farm fields of Mexicali and San Luis and see an agricultural technology that’s been optimized over a century to grow the most food and fiber with the least inputs. This thing that we’re seeing, in essence farming nature, is a new gig. Much study yet to come….



after the rush, getting down to the science

Ultimately, what’s going on down in the Colorado River right now turns on a complicated mix of politics and science. The politics involves how much support advocates can gain for environmental restoration of the troubled system, on both sides of the border. The science supports those decisions After the rush of excitement about the historic release of a small environmental “pulse flow” into the Colorado River delta, most of the reporters (including, sadly, me) are gone, and the scientists are getting down to their work.

As of yesterday, the water had reached past a major dry stretch, and was approaching the crucial Laguna restoration sites, according to an email last night from one of the project scientists.

Sandra Postel, who thankfully has remained has a nice look at the scientists getting down to the science:

On Wednesday this past week, when the advancing Colorado River met up with the higher water table of Reach 4, delta scientists breathed a sigh of relief.

“It was very exciting to see the leading edge get connected to Reach 4,” said Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, a wetlands ecologist and bird specialist with the Mexican conservation organization Pronatura Noroeste. Hinojosa has been working in the delta since 1998.

The swallows and cinnamon teals were not here this morning, Hinojosa said, standing near the location where the flowing river met the channel filled with groundwater. “They came after the water arrived.”

“We’ll be tracking birds very carefully,” Hinojosa added. “They are good indicators of system health.”

Hinojosa and his colleagues were doing this work from the moment the release started. In the first days of the release, as the water was making its way past the groundwater “hole” near the San Luis Bridge, I caught up with him after the group had just completed a bird survey: wigeons, cinamon teal, blue-winged teal, ruddy ducks, lesser scaup along with coopers and sharp-shinned hawks following the water (and their lunch) downstream). They even say coots, which had lost their happy shallow home in the pool immediately behind Morelos Dam, riding the pulse flow down on cattail rafts. And carp “this big”, he said, his hands held apart fisherman-style to indicate a very large fish floating through a previously uninhabitable desert.

Osvel Hinojosa (second from right, in broad-brimmed hat) and crew as the pulse flow approaches San Luis, March 25, 2014

Osvel Hinojosa (second from right, in broad-brimmed hat) and crew as the pulse flow approaches San Luis, March 25, 2014, photo by John Fleck

declining Colorado River Basin groundwater reserves

Colorado Basin groundwater declines, courtesy Chris Austin

Colorado Basin groundwater declines, courtesy Chris Austin

New data from NASA’s GRACE satellite, which scientists use to track changes in groundwater storage, shows some remarkable declines in the Colorado River Basin, according to a recent presentation by Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine to a California legislative committee (huge thanks to Chris Austin for catching this and bringing it to my attention):

“Unfortunately, looking beyond our borders isn’t going to help – just like in California, the Colorado River basin is in long term decline,” Mr. Famiglietti said, presenting a slide showing the total water storage for the Colorado River basin. “When we separate the surface water storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the groundwater storage, we get the graph on the bottom, which is showing us what’s happening. With Lake Powell and Lake Mead’s storage, not much of a trend albeit there’s a recent decline, but the important thing to recognize here is that the groundwater losses from the Colorado River Basin in this time period completely swamped the losses and dominated the total water storage change. They are far bigger than the surface water changes. The message is that we pay all this attention to surface water management, and while no one’s watching, the groundwater is being depleted at a rapid clip.”


the value of water depends on how dry it is

Variability is at the core of water management. When it’s on the dry side of the range, some folks are willing to pay a lot for water. But if that involves big capital expenditures, are you willing to sit on the cost when things get wet? Brett Walton explains how this is playing out in Queensland:

Queensland spent big during the decade of drought that choked Australia at the turn of the 21st century.

The northeastern province built a $AUS 2.6 billion facility to purify and reuse sewer water and a $AUS 1.2 billion plant to remove the salt from seawater. Both were completed in 2008, but the desalination plant did not begin operating until 2009.

But just a few years after completion, the rains returned, reservoirs refilled, and cheaper water supply options became available. The shine has worn off these capital investments now that the plants sit unused while still requiring hundreds of millions of dollars annually in debt payments and maintenance costs.


A river means different things to different people

The Havasu News-Herald, which serves Lake Havasu City along the Colorado River, assured its readers today that the environmental pulse flow, which is passing through on its way from Hoover Dam to the Colorado River delta, shouldn’t have an impact on Lake Havasu recreational boating:

Lake Havasu will remain at normal water levels during the next six and a half weeks as the Minute 3:19 Pulse Flow brings water to the once-parched Colorado River Delta in Mexico, according to Bureau of Reclamation Water Resources Specialist Aaron Marshall.

Marshall said normal water levels at Lake Havasu approximately range between 445 feet and 449 feet above sea level. As of Thursday, the lake’s water level was at about 447.5 feet, which is about a foot less than a week ago.

“Fluctuations of a few feet are normal for our operations in Lake Havasu,” Marshall said. “The pulse flow will not have any effect on the lake’s elevation changes.”