conservation undercuts the desalination business model

“Decoupling” – when resource use is no longer inextricably linked to population or economic growth – is a central feature of water management right now in the western United States. (See here for a deeper dive.)

The LA Times’ Bettina Boxall had a great story over the weekend that illustrates its impact on a proposal to spend a gajillion dollars to build a desalination plant to provide water in Orange County, California. The problem? Because of conservation, and other lower cost alternatives like the use of treated wastewater to recharge aquifers, potential customers may not need the water:

Conservation is driving down demand at the same time there are plans to expand Orange County’s long-standing program of replenishing the groundwater basin with highly treated wastewater.

“You can stack up some really easy projects that are being contemplated … and all of a sudden we don’t see a need for this project at all,” said Paul Cook, general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District.

Colorado River deal – not there yet, but close, and probably inevitable

tl;dr There won’t be a grand bargain to reduce Colorado River water use before next month’s inauguration. But that doesn’t mean the grand bargain is dead. In fact, it is inevitable.


Lake Mead, December 2016

LAS VEGAS – When Jeff Kightlinger said during a public session yesterday at the Colorado River Water Users Association that a long-awaited deal to reduce water use on the river would not be completed before next month’s change in administration, it offered a very public answer to the question many of us brought to the Las Vegas meeting:

Would negotiators get a deal done before the Obama administration leaves office?

no, but….

Kightlinger’s short answer was “no”, but it’s misleading if we stop there (as I did in yesterday’s blog post). There’s a lot going on, and reason to be hopeful.

The annual CRWUA meeting is the traditional point in the calendar when big Colorado River deals are announced, but despite being very close, it’s been increasingly clear over the last few weeks that the final details remain out of reach.

The group of people I describe in my book as “the network” – has been red-lined in recent months, trying to work out the details of a complex deal to reduce the use of Colorado River water in California, Arizona, Nevada, and possibly Mexico. When I call my friends in the network lately, they’re almost always in airports or hotels or not answering my call because they’re in meetings.

The deal is the closest we have yet come to a formal recognition, attached to substantive actions, that the laws governing the Colorado River allocate more water on paper than nature provides in practice. For much of the last century, we’ve dodged the problem as population and therefore water use slowly grew into the available supply, but in the 21st century we’ve overshot, the big reservoirs (Lake Mead outside Las Vegas and Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border) have been drained to meet the demands of the basin’s farms and cities.

Commissioner of Reclamation Estevan López, speaking this morning at his final CRWUA, had perhaps hoped to be able to hand over the moment to one of his bosses to announce an agreement. He called the moment “bittersweet”. “We’re not there yet,” he said of the deal. “That’s the bittersweet part.”

López then went on to outline the major terms of the deal on which everyone seems to agree – larger cuts in water deliveries as Lake Mead drops, with the cuts first felt in Arizona and Nevada, and eventually in California. (I won’t rehash, you can find details here.)

protecting 1,020

López described what may be the most important feature of the deal – an agreement to “protect 1,020”, meaning that the Lower Colorado River Basin’s water users would agree to extraordinary water use cutbacks to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below the critical elevation of 1,020 feet above sea level.

At 1,020, there’s less than a years’ water left in the reservoir. A recognition that 1,020 is even possible, let alone that we have within view a plan to deal with it, is something that would have been unthinkable in Colorado River Basin management as recently as a decade ago, when the last grand bargain on the river, the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, was being negotiated.

López called the nearly-done agreement “an emergency brake”, “a parachute”, “a way to slow things down”. Pick your metaphor, but whatever it is it is the clearest recognition in the history of Colorado River management that there is not enough water to use in the ways to which we have become accustomed.

There is, as Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor told reporters during a news conference yesterday, “a very good framework in place”.

But it is not yet done.

what happens next

I don’t fully understand why, other than that there are a lot of niggling details still being sorted, including the fate of the Salton Sea and Southern California’s desire for clarity on the Sacramento Delta, another of its water supply sources. (see here for more on that stuff) In addition to the deal itself, there are a series of side agreements required among the players, which in some cases must be approved by water agency boards, and a requirement for a vote of the Arizona state legislature. So even when the final agreement is agreed to, there remains work to turn the ideas into a substantive, binding deal.

I asked one of my friends working on the negotiations, one of the members of “the network”, whether she was going to make it home for Christmas, and she looked at me like I was crazy. As we near the change in administration, the frequent flier miles will continue to accumulate.

Connor said the goal is to have the package in good shape as it is handed off to the new administration. Whether it then would stall as the new federal team gives it a look is anyone’s guess at this point. Talking to people at all points of the political spectrum, it seems as though there is no clear “Democratic” or “Republican” position on this. Colorado River governance has never broken down along partisan lines. Given the names being mentioned in CRWUA hallway gossip for key Trump administration posts, there’s a good chance we’ll have folks in key positions who already understand the river and the deal.

Or not. Who knows what Jan. 21 holds?

the inevitability of a deal

But given the hydrologic reality, this deal or something very much like it appears inevitable. There seems to be no interest among the network’s members in litigating who gets how much water, and every incentive to do a deal that provides some certainty, even if the reality of less water is an unpleasant response.

There will be no Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan before the end of the Obama administration

“We are not going to get the Drought Contingency Plan completed.” That was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Jeff Kightlinger this morning during the opening panel at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas.

It was a very public expression of something that has been increasingly clear in recent weeks – that the intense negotiations to work out details of a broad plan to reduce Colorado River water use in Arizona, Nevada, and California haven’t converged on a solution.

In the public session this morning, two key unresolved issues loomed over California’s participation:

  • a plan for the Salton Sea, which will soon be significantly diminished as the huge ag->urban Imperial Irrigation District->MWD/San Diego water deal reduces ag runoff to the sea.
  • a commitment to action on the Northern California Bay Delta, hub of California’s water system. Without a clear solution to MWD’s Bay Delta water reliability problem, it’s harder for that huge player in these discussions to make a commitment to more flexible use of its Colorado River water.

Behind the scenes, there is a lot more complexity that is causing this deal to drag on, including discussions within Arizona about how to deal with shortages that state’s water users would have to take on to prevent Lake Mead from crashing. There’s also a huge chicken-egg problem with a parallel negotiation underway with Mexico. The goal is to get Mexico to join in the shortage sharing provisions with U.S. water users. But can that deal be signed soon – ahead of the Jan. 20 change of administration – without also getting a deal within the United States?

How Arizona plans to help reduce the pressure on Lake Mead

With the Colorado River water management community converging on Las Vegas this week, we are likely to learn more about whether or when we’ll see a deal on the long-awaited “Drought Contingency Plan” to reduce Lower Basin use of water from Lake Mead.

Under the DCP, which has been in nearly final form for the better part of a year, the three Lower Basin states – California, Nevada, and Arizona – agree to reduce their use, banking unused water in Lake Mead to keep that reservoir from crashing (details on the agreement here). The catch has long been how water users within each state would divvy up the who’s-not-using-water part of the deal.

The Phoenix City Council will get a briefing tomorrow (Tuesday, Dec. 13) on the details of the deal. The staff report prepared for the meeting’s agenda packet lays out the basics of how this will work within Arizona:


What remains unclear to me is how much money this entails, how much the federal, state, and local contributions might be, and who within Arizona is on board with this approach and who might still object.

Click the “view entire document” link to read the full report, it has lots of helpful detail on the DCP as a whole as well.

Water as a tool for Middle East peace

Comments from an interesting workshop in Tel Aviv:

Rather than cling to an “all or nothing” peace process, the international community should promote smaller advancements in areas such as water, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel said at seminar in Tel Aviv on Thursday. “We’ve spent too much time promoting an Israeli-Palestinian solution that is all or nothing,” he said.

“We have got to revise our approach to the peace process, which would allow us to address the issue of water and a number of other issues also,” he continued.

“What we need to do is build up basic confidence on the ground through an approach of small steps.” Faaborg-Andersen was speaking at a roundtable discussion titled, “Can Water Bring the Political Process to a Safer Shore?”

the resilience of Las Vegas and water

When I was writing my book, I wanted to talk about water use in cities through the story of a single city, and I chose Las Vegas (Nevada, not the one in New Mexico) intentionally as a rhetorical device. One of the writer’s tricks is to start readers on familiar terrain and lead them to a new and different place. Las Vegas and its reputation for profligate excess is familiar terrain for a lot of people. I wanted to start there and lead readers to rethink their ideas about what counts as resilience, to rethink Vegas.

I’ve got a piece up today at The Urbanist that grew out of a lecture I did a few weeks back to UNM Water Resources Program students offering a layer below the book’s Las Vegas chapter. We’ve been talking about water governance this semester, and I laid out an argument that the evolution of water governance structures in Las Vegas have made that community more resilient in the face of pressures on its water supply:

The ability to band together to take collective action for the common good is a key to resilience in human systems.

In some sense, that’s the broader theme of my book – that successful institutions are the key to resilience.

Is Colorado River water responsible for 15 percent of U.S. crops?

I’ve seen this more than once:

Fifteen percent of all U.S. crops are grown with irrigation water that originates in the Colorado River Basin.

That’s from an Alternet piece, and it’s a number I’ve seen repeated many times (see here, here, here for just a few of the many examples).

I am skeptical. I’ve been unable to find anyone who cites an original source, but the data I’ve been able to find suggests it’s off. By a factor of a lot.

The best attempt I’m aware of to quantify total agricultural production in the Colorado River Basin was done as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Moving Forward report (pdf). They went through Census of Agriculture data county by county and concluded that total agricultural production attributable to Colorado River water, both crops and livestock, was on the order of $5 billion.

Total ag production for the United States as a whole for the same year they used for the calculations was $297 billion. That’s around 1.7 percent by this measure.

The salient feature of the basin here is that it is largely an arid and/or mountainous region, and the river’s water only allows for the irrigation of a small portion of the land. Exports from the basin (which are considered in the Bureau of Reclamation analysis) expand the arable land to which Colorado River water is applied, but don’t change the numbers all that much.

Here’s a way to get a sense of the scale. According to the Moving Forward report, Colorado River water irrigates 4.7 million acres of cropland both in the basin and as a result of out-of-basin diversions. Consider that Iowa alone has 24.5 million acres of harvested cropland. For the U.S. as a whole, the number is 310 million acres. Colorado River Basin agriculture makes up about 1.5 percent of U.S. harvested cropland, which matches up pretty nicely with the 1.7 percent share of ag revenue.

This is not to say that agriculture in the Colorado River Basin is not important. A lot of my book is devoted to a defense of the importance of Colorado River Basin ag.

As I said, I’ve been unable to find an original source, just an echoed stat. I’d love to hear from anyone, especially folks who have been using this number, who has some idea of where it came from. Maybe I’m missing something?

California’s Bay-Delta and the Endangered Species Act

California's Bay-Delta, courtesy CADWR

California’s Bay-Delta, courtesy CADWR

Ellen Hanak and colleagues at the Public Policy Institute of California stuck their necks out last week with a scheme to move California’s Bay-Delta water conflict forward. It has a number of elements – I’d like to focus here on its proposal to “manage water for ecosystems, not just endangered species”:

To improve the effectiveness of environmental investments, California will need to move away from viewing water and land management activities in the Delta primarily through the lens of the Endangered Species Act. Instead, environmental managers should allocate water and restoration funds based on greatest overall ecological returns on investments.

This does not mean abandoning threatened or endangered species, but rather refocusing recovery efforts on ecological health, based on realistic assessments of the benefits of environmental water allocations.

The ESA: old, creaky

Environmental management via the 1973 Endangered Species Act has come to dominate the interface between environmental values and extractive human water use in the western United States. But it’s a pretty frustrating interface. The statute is old and creaky – a “static law meeting a dynamic world”, to slightly paraphrase UC Berkeley’s Holly Doremus (pdf).

The ESA’s language gives a nod to overall ecosystem health:

The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved…. (emphasis added)

But its implementation nevertheless tilts toward a species-centric approach rather than a broader ecosystem perspective. That leads to the situation in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande, for example, where we expend intense effort on providing environmental flows to a relatively small section of the river where the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow still survives, while largely writing off vast areas of the minnow’s original native habitat because the fish had been extirpated from those stretches of river long before it was declared endangered.

a new direction for the ESA?

The Hanak et al. piece echoes a strong thread in recent environmental policy scholarship on the ESA’s shortcomings. Here’s what my University of New Mexico colleague Melinda Harm Benson* wrote about this back in 2012:

[T]here is a need to shift management strategies from a species-centered to a systems-based approach. Chief among the shifts required will be a more integrated approach to governance that includes a willingness to reassess demands placed on ecological systems by our social systems. Building resilience will also require more proactive management efforts that support the functioning of system processes before they are endangered and on the brink of regime change.

I don’t understand the details of California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem well enough to opine on where it stands on Prof. Benson’s “brink of regime change” spectrum. But it seems as though more flexibility in defining and pursuing environmental goals there may provide some room for solutions that meet a broader range of our values and needs.

* shameless plug

Prof. Benson is in UNM’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, doing a lot of really interesting work in this area if you’re looking to further your education. In addition to her home base in geography, she’s also closely affiliated with our Water Resources Program, an interdisciplinary graduate program that mixes hydroscience with law and policy.

Albuquerque averages nearly 300 sunny days a year.