On the Gila River in New Mexico, a “field of dreams” argument

From Brett Walton’s piece on a proposal to divert water from the Gila River in New Mexico (in the Lower Colorado River Basin), an old school argument for building western water infrastruccture:

Gutierrez does not believe that the unit cost for water — what a city or a farmer will pay for an acre-foot — is required information. He believes that contracts for the water before construction begins are unnecessary as well. “There’s already a need,” he said. “Once the water is available people will use it.”

Is this Field of Dreams assumption — that if the project is built, someone will pay for the water — sufficient for the commission to continue pushing for construction?

“That assumption is enough for me,” replied Gutierrez, who talks about investing the AWSA money and using the returns to help finance the project. “It may not be enough for the environmental community.”

The piece is interesting throughout.

A window of opportunity to move the Colorado River dialogue forward

The long awaited “Moving Forward Phase 1” report on opportunities for managing water in the Colorado River Basin plopped into public view this afternoon.

I’m going to use the prerogative of a journalist no longer beholden to daily deadlines to wait until I’ve actually had time to review and think about the 448 page report about before writing about it. (Ah, the luxury.)

All-American Canal, above Bard, California

All-American Canal, above Bard, California

My quick reaction after a quick trip through the executive summary (and with a knowledge of how long it took to get the report out the door – the release was originally planned for December) is that it’s as interesting for what it doesn’t recommend as for what it does. By that I mean that actually solving the basin’s problems will require more than a report with a list of recommendations that we can all charge out and implement. You’re not going to see an “X million acre feet out of municipal use by taking the following steps, and Y million acre feet out of ag.” Those numbers must emerge from difficult tradeoffs and negotiations and institutional evolution over time, a process of innovation and experimentation. In that regard, the most interesting comment in the flurry of news releases that hit my inbox this afternoon came from David Festa at the Environmental Defense Fund: “With so many interests coming together with a shared sense of responsibility and opportunity, we can indeed move forward. We don’t have time to lose. Securing new funding sources and implementing pilot projects are key next steps.” In other words, this is about process. We have to do some stuff in order to learn how to do more stuff.

It’s worth sharing in the meantime comments from a group of prominent Colorado River Basin scholars who have had the time to review it. They argue in a new white paper also out today that we have a “window of opportunity” opening to shift the dialogue over the overtaxed river from “resource management” to “use management”.

The release of the new paper from the Colorado River Research Group coincides with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s “Moving Forward” report, the followup to its 2012 Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study.

Here’s the meat of the new CRRG white paper:

The challenges facing the Colorado River Basin are varied and significant. In particular, population growth, drought, and climate change all are likely to further strain the regional water budget unless our management of water uses evolves to match our expertise in managing water resources. Fortunately, there’s also no shortage of viable, cost-effective solutions, and the many reforms enacted during the past decade have opened a short window of opportunity for basin residents to consider what a lasting solution might look like. It’s clear that any real solution must take advantage of the many inefficient water uses that persist throughout the basin, which are every bit as much of an opportunity to embrace as a problem to lament.

It looks to me like the CRRG folks don’t think the new Bureau report goes far enough – focusing on quantifying past municipal conservation successes, for example, without quantifying expectations of future progress. Again, from the white paper, discussing the work of the municipal conservation work group:

To date, that workgroup has focused on documenting the effectiveness of past and planned conservation efforts in the major metropolitan areas serving over 29 million residents—more than 85 percent of all municipal water users served by the Colorado. Preliminary findings suggest conservation and re-use programs active since 1990 have reduced 2010 M&I demand levels by nearly 2.4 million acre-feet/year.

On the downside, this level of water demand savings was sufficient only in “partially attenuating the effect of population growth on M&I water use.” And in the next two decades (2010 to 2030), the workgroup suggests a much more tempered estimate of potential savings: roughly 700,000 acre-feet/year. While it’s true that conservation can become increasingly difficult as the most egregious wastes of water are eliminated first, we suspect that this modest savings projection—just like previous M&I demand estimates in the basin—is heavily influenced by the risk-aversive nature of water providers who understand it’s much safer for them to over-estimate (than under-estimate) demand.


But my inbox also is full of enthusiasm for the Moving Forward report, in the form of press release quotes:

John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority

There is a shared risk and shared responsibility among all water users associated with proactively managing the water supply and demand imbalance. Municipal and agricultural conservation and reuse have been used successfully in the past across multiple use sectors and are key elements in resource plans that will undoubtedly be critical programs in the future to provide sustainability of the river and its many resources.

Tina Shields at the Imperial Irrigation District:

There are opportunities to do more in all sectors to enhance western agriculture, environmental values and provide flexibility for growing water needs through voluntary incentive-based efficiency and conservation programs.

Jim Lochhead, Denver Water

Continuing drought conditions in the Colorado River basin, combined with the California drought, are a sobering reminder that the time for action is now. Doing nothing is not an option. Throughout the basin, and across all water sectors, we face a challenge to step up and lead. We can take control of our destiny, or we can allow drought and climate change to overwhelm us.

The Bureau’s Terry Fulp:

The impacts of the ongoing drought are widespread and are currently being addressed at the local and regional levels. Looking ahead to the longer-term challenges facing the Basin documented in the 2012 Study, it is clear that these challenges must be tackled collaboratively involving all sectors of use. The Phase 1 Report is a critical first step towards this level of collaboration.

Maybe a second diversion to get New Mexico’s share of Lower Basin Colorado River water?

With critics saying there’s no way New Mexico can get 14,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River, as promised in the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Avelino Maestas reports that state officials are talking about a second diversion, on the San Francisco:

The Gila River may not be able to supply the 14,000 acre feet of water guaranteed to New Mexico under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, and a second diversion project will likely been needed on the San Francisco River to make up the difference….

“The Act allows New Mexico 14,000 acre feet of annual use,” Roepke said. “It’s not possible to get that, I believe — without causing severe environmental problems — entirely off the Gila River. So, if New Mexico is going to enjoy the full 14,000 acre feet, yes, you’re probably going to need, at some point, a unit on the San Francisco River.”

Albuquerque’s water use continues to decline

Since I left my job at the Albuquerque Journal, I’ve not been devoting the obsessive attention to local water that I did when I was, y’know, paid to. But a boy has to have a hobby, right? So this week I emailed David Morris at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority requesting a copy of the agency’s monthly report to the state of New Mexico on the total volume water pumped for the first four months of 2015.

Just for old times’ sake.

What does it show? That my community’s water conservation binge has slowed a bit, but hasn’t stopped. The downward trend hasn’t matched the numbers we saw in 2013-14, when a one-year drop of more than 8 percent in consumption pushed total water use to its lowest level since the 1980s (despite a population 70 percent larger) and wreaked havoc on the agency’s budget.

Total use for the most recent 12 months is down another 1 percent.

The agency’s crazy conservation budget-driven problems I wrote about ad nauseam when I was at the newspaper haven’t gone away. A rate hike last year helped, but it looks like the trend for the current fiscal year is to once again fall behind the annual budget projections. According to the most recent quarterly financial report, (I hope this link works – click on the attachment C-15-4):

First quarter rate revenues are $6.2 million above the actuals for the same period in FY/14…. Revenues are projected to increase at a minimum of $1 million a month due to the increase in the base rate, however at this time the projection for rate revenue is $2.5 million less than budgeted….

In the midst of all the bad drought/water news, it’s important to remember that there are significant municipal conservation success stories out there, like Albuquerque’s, from which we can learn and take hope. But the problem of getting rate structures right to continue to cover fixed costs as water sales decline remains a problem.

P.S. I love the comments on that old story. This whole “use less water, have your rates go up” thing is a real political problem. But despite the raft of comments stories like this often generated, I can only recall one (or maybe two) instances in the entire time I was covering the agency when residents actually came to a meeting to take to the podium and argue against a rate increase. The dominant public comment we heard, especially from civically active people who understand the agency’s budget like my friend Elaine Hebard (quoted in the above story), was that the rate increases weren’t enough to cover a rising backlog of unmet infrastructure needs.

Mulroy: We’ve built one giant watershed

Pat Mulroy in the Las Vegas Sun on the interconnected west-wide artificial watershed we’ve built for ourselves, and why efforts to solve the Sacramento Delta’s problems matter to the rest of us:

From the vantage point of Sacramento, the Colorado River may seem distant and disconnected to the challenges in the delta. Yet, the two watersheds — their communities and their futures — are inextricably tied. This drought would be devastating the California economy were it not for the Colorado River. Water held in reserve behind the Hoover Dam by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been sparing the Western economy from unimaginable hardship.



I’ve the privilege of giving the commencement talk for the University of New Mexico Biology Department’s graduation ceremony tomorrow, and I’m nervous as hell. It’s such an honor to be asked, and feels like such a hopeless task – hard to match words to the measure of the importance of the day. (“A commencement speaker is like the corpse at a funeral,” a friend told me in what is certainly a very old joke. “It’s important that it be there, but you don’t want to linger over it too long.”)

I’m going to talk a bit about curiosity. It’s on my mind partly because I’ve just read the fun new book A Curious Mind, which my friend Charles Fishman wrote with Brian Grazer. But mostly it’s on my mind because of an old story tied to the UNM biology department that I love to tell.

It was ten years ago in early spring, and I was out in the Albuquerque bosque, the riverside woods along the Rio Grande, with a never-quite-retired ecologist named Cliff Crawford. Much of what we know about the strained and troubled ecosystem that is our bosque is a result of the work of Cliff, some smart colleagues, and a long tradition of inquisitive students. I was writing a feature about some work Mary Harner, one of the Cliff’s students, was doing, and she invited him along for the field trip.

We were visiting at that precious spring moment when the first clumps of leaves begin to appear on the cottonwoods, the moment when its color palette begins turning from the browns of winter to the great green of summer. Some trees had a few leaves, most did not.

It wasn’t pertinent to the story, just my own curiosity, when I pointed at one of the clumps of leaves and asked Cliff, “What makes the tree decide when to do that?”

I expected an answer about day length, or changing temperature, or the rise in groundwater levels adjacent to to the river as spring runoff swells the Rio Grande. Instead from Cliff I got this: “We don’t know!” With a look of delight on his face.

Here was a man, late in a long and distinguished career, who had spent much of it working in this very field area, who remained delighted by the things we do not yet know.

In defense of Imperial Valley farming

Tom Philpott, who through his Mother Jones pieces has aimed aimed his considerable knowledge of our food system at California’s water problems, sets his sights this week on the Imperial Valley of southeastern California where, as he notes, “Imperial Valley’s farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California’s total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado.”

Water and food in the Imperial Valley, March 2014, by John Fleck

Water and food in the Imperial Valley, March 2014, by John Fleck

It’s important to consider Imperial’s water use in discussing California (and the Colorado Basin) water problems. But by focusing on the arithmetic of water use and agricultural production rather than the institutional mechanisms of water allocation, Philpott has missed important lessons to be drawn from Imperial about how to solve the water problems we face.

The key fact missing from Philpott’s analysis is the fact that Imperial does not use its full 3.1 million acre foot allocation. Last year it took just 2.5 million acre feet (source pdf). One can argue about whether that is or isn’t still too much water to pour on crops in a desert, but it suggests that something important is going on down there that we need to understand if we’re serious about rethinking allocation among agricultural and non-agricultural water users in California and the rest of the arid West. In Imperial, reallocation is already underway in earnest. How has that happened, and what can we learn from it as we try to broaden the conversation?

The answer is that reallocation does not happen by simply looking at the numbers and deciding, “That’s too much water over there. We need to reduce that.” The reallocation happens through a process of institutional adaptation, a complex interplay among municipalities and their water agencies, and farmers and their water agencies.

At Imperial, this started back in 1988, when the first ag-to-urban deal was signed between the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It’s a complicated deal with a lot of moving parts, but basically Met agreed to fund irrigation distribution system improvements in return for access to saved water.

Subsequent deals have involved canal lining large and small, and have grown to include fallowing and the transfer of water for environmental flows to the Salton Sea. This has been at times ugly, with hostile politics and litigation, at times prodded by threats from state and federal authorities alleging Imperial is not being sufficiently frugal with its water use. It’s still very much a work in progress. But it has resulted in a set of institutional arrangements that have already substantially reduced water use in the Imperial Valley.

The last time the Imperial Irrigation District took its full 3.1 million acre feet was in 2002 (the river was running surpluses back then – everybody in the Lower Basin was getting a shitload of water in 2002). But look what has happened in the years since. Imperial’s water use has gone down, while its agricultural productivity (revenue figures in the graph have been adjusted for inflation into 2013 dollars) has gone up:

Imperial Valley water use and farm sales

How has this happened?

Philpott singles out Imperial’s winter vegetable production for criticism:

Thus the Imperial’s titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California’s Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn’t rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.

But the data suggest that, far from being the problem, winter vegetables are a potential solution – to the maintenance of viable agricultural communities in Imperial in the face of reduced water supplies. From the 2002 Census of Agriculture to the 2012, vegetable acreage has increased from 75,000 to 126,000, while alfalfa and other forage crops grown to feed mostly dairies has gone down (305,000 acres to 246,000 acres).

Importantly, as Josué Medellín-Azuara recently explained, vegetable production generates far more jobs per unit of water in agricultural communities than alfalfa.

This is not to say that Imperial, as an enormous user of water, does not deserve scrutiny. But it suggests our scrutiny needs to include a close look at the institutional arrangements behind these trends toward decreasing water use and increasing agricultural productivity. The institutional arrangements were used to reduce the amount of water, and then the farmers figured out what to do with the water that remained. There is something to be learned here.

A note on data: Philpott repeats the widely cited statistic that “the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter.” For my book research, I’ve been spending entirely too much time digging through ag census and other data trying to sort this out, and I think it’s wrong, but I’m having a hard time quantifying what the right number might be. Imperial and neighboring Yuma County, across the river in Arizona, grow a lot of winter vegetables. The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported 126,000 acres of vegetables in Imperial and 100,000 acres across the river in Yuma. That’s essentially all winter stuff, so to the extent we’ve got a winter vegetable center down there, it’s a unified one that spans the river in both California and Arizona. (In fact, the lettuce packing houses are over in Yuma, and much of the lettuce comes from that side of the river.)

Imperial grows carrots in a bigger way than Yuma, and appears to grow more broccoli.

Winter cabbage, which Philpott cites specifically, comes primarily from Florida according to the USDA’s annual vegetable shipping reports (source pdf). Acreage in lettuce, which is the biggest component of the winter fresh vegetable supply chain, is higher on the Yuma side (71,000 acres in Yuma compared to 42,000 in Imperial, according to the Census of Agriculture).

So I don’t know what the real number is, in part because “two-thirds of the winter vegetables” is not specific enough. But you pretty clearly have to lump in Yuma to get to a big proportion of our overall winter salad needs.

update: Updated to reflect the fact that the 2002 surplus was a Lower Basin phenomenon. In the Upper Basin, 2002 was a very tough year.

An example of why groundwater regulation is hard

OtPR today offers a list of generally poor rural communities that have seen domestic wells go dry as relatively affluent almond farms pump down regional aquifers to keep their orchards alive during the drought. It’s not hard to see why this is wrong:

This economic model, in which powerful outsiders come in, displace the natives and destroy local natural resources (the aquifers) to provide cheap unprocessed goods to a foreign country is pure colonial extraction. I don’t see how it is different from slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon to provide cheap beef or cutting hardwoods like teak out of tropical forests. Mostly I am just stunned that my state is on the receiving end; I thought we were first world. I guess anywhere can be exploited if they aren’t willing to protect their poor or their natural resource.

But regulating groundwater to prevent this has always posed a dilemma. Preventing pumping that might impair a neighbor’s well seems like a reasonable approach to regulating in a situation like this. But one of the results of such an approach is that the shallowest well defines the extent of aquifer use that will be allowed. The implication could be that usable water remains out of reach because it lies below the level of that shallowest well.

Joseph Dellapenna explains the Nebraska Supreme Court’s 1978 answer to this problem:

The court went on to hold that when an overlying owner using groundwater for domestic purposes is compelled to deepen a well to another level because of heavy pumping from the aquifer by another overlying owner, the owner making the deepening of the well necessary would have to compensate the owner whose well needed deepening.

Makes sense.