Colorado Basin snowpack lagging, forecast for a wet spring

The snowpack this morning in the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell (source: CBRFC) measures at 90 percent of average for this date, which is a bit nerve wracking with the basin’s reservoirs only half full (source: USBR pdf). The latest forecast runs from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the folks who run the seasonal models, still look encouraging. But we’ll have to be patient. February doesn’t look encouraging, but the models start to turn by March. Scroll down for the maps through May. The colors mean wetter or drier than average, not absolute amount.


February precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

February precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP



March precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

March precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP


April precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

April precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP


May precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

May precipitation anomaly, courtesy NCEP

Source for the maps: NCEP

Adorable dogs protect our waterways from evil quagga mussels

From H2oradio:

When he’s doing his search pattern if he detects the odor that he’s trained to find, which is invasive mussels, he’ll sit down. Then as a handler, I’ll ask him to pinpoint exactly where he found it so he’ll point to it with his nose and then I’ll verify and I’ll look and then he’ll get a reward which is a ball.

The adorable dog’s name is “Hilo”. There are pictures. You will click.

Has the Peripheral Delta Tunnel Canal Thingie paralyzed California water?

OtPR has a super insightful observation about three decades of California water policy:

The Peripheral Canal was voted down in 1982.  My sense is that the possibility of the Peripheral Canal has largely paralyzed California water policy since then (with the possible exception of IRWM).  If the Peripheral Canal had been entirely off the table, the regions would have adapted by now, gone ahead with storm and wastewater reuse or turf removal or whatever needed to happen.  If it had been built, whatever would have become of the Delta would already have happened.  Being in limbo has meant that we never got serious about living without it or adjusted to having it. The gentlemen at that conference have spent their professional lives on trying to make it happen, at the opportunity cost of whatever else they could have achieved. (emphasis added)

Not to be a writerly critic, but I think this might be improved by flipping the voice in the opening sentence from passive to active: “Californians voted down the Peripheral Canal in 1982.” That makes clear the tension at the heart of the problem.


Albuquerque’s water use dropped another 3 percent in 2015

Albuquerque water use

Albuquerque water use

The great decoupling between Albuquerque’s growth and its water use, with total use down another 3 percent in 2015, continuing a trend that over two decades has led to a 24 percent drop in water use, even as population has grown 25 percent. I don’t have population numbers yet that I need to do the calculation right, but my preliminary estimate is that we’re down around 131 gallons per capita per day of water use (or better, depending on the final population numbers). That is a very low number. When our conservation efforts got underway 20 years ago, we were using 250 gpcd.

This decoupling stuff is everywhere. I’m currently looking at a dataset from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that shows 2015 consumptive water use at its lowest since 1991, even as population has grown by 3 million people in Met’s service area.

As the graph shows, most of Albuquerque’s savings have been in outdoor water use, which is down 36 percent since 1995. Water nerds will recognize the importance of that, because it’s the outdoor use that’s fully consumptive. Albuquerque is one of those communities that returns its treated sewage to the system for full reuse (in our case it is returned to the Rio Grande where it is available for ecosystem, agricultural, and municipal use downstream). So in trying to manage our long term supplies, it is that outdoor consumptive fraction that matters the most. That the water we really use up rather than just borrowing from the system and then returning.

Also worthy of note: in 2015 the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority pulled 1,358 acre feet of water from the aquifer that had been stored through percolation in previous years. It is a small amount, just a proof-of-principle project, but is the first recovery from an aquifer storage-and-recovery project in New Mexico history. I know, y’all in other western states who have been doing this for years are all, like, “Wait, they’re only now starting to do that?”

On building journalistic pirate ships

In the waning days of my career as a newspaper reporter, my colleagues and I talked a lot about pirate ships.

The notion came from a piece David Carr wrote shortly before the death of Ben Bradlee, in which Carr described Bradlee as a pirate, and the Washington Post as his ship. I think it was Jeff Proctor who first called it out:

Pirate ship, York, UK

Pirate ship, York, UK

We were tethered to an institution and model that just weren’t working for us, that increasingly felt ill suited to the kind of stories we wanted to tell. So we’d sit at lunch and swap dreams about building pirate ships. Mostly the work involved continuing to ride on the staid S.S. Albuquerque Journal, borrowing skiffs and going on little raids. (Someone should teach a class in journalism school about the art of the “budget note” – the delicate dance between the one-sentence blurb you write in the morning to get a story the green light and the final version you turn in on deadline. I’ve always felt it was one of my greatest journalistic skills.)

It was a decent model for a long time. But the institutional constraints were substantial. For me, it was the form of the newspaper story. It was ill suited to the depth and complexity of the issues I was trying to understand – demanding of narrow story lines and uncomfortable with uncertainty. For others, it was the Journal’s politics and self-understanding of its audience.

Inspired by Jeff and others, I built a pirate ship, a hull patched with a book contract and a university faculty gig and the time to pursue the odd curiosities that somehow brought y’all to my door (thanks for stopping by!).

I’m delighted to report that Jeff’s now built his pirate ship, with the announcement today of The Justice Project, based at New Mexico In Depth. I’ll let Jeff explain:

To me, the justice system offers the widest lens through which to examine issues of fairness, class, race and ethnicity, access, state power, transparency and how the U.S. Constitution is applied. And the stakes could not be higher: the safety of the public, people’s livelihoods, freedom vs. imprisonment — even, in many instances, life and death.

Jeff is one of the most morally passionate and talented journalists I’ve every had the privilege of working alongside. I’m very much looking forward to this.

More California state money for the Salton Sea

California Gov. Jerry Brown has requested $80 in his new budget for dust mitigation and habitat restoration at the Salton Sea, Jesse Marx and Sammy Roth report:

That’s less than the $150 million local officials wanted, but still far more than the state has ever allocated for restoration projects at the dying lake. The money would come from the $7.5-billion water bond that voters approved in 2014, also known as Proposition 1.

The $80 million would help local agencies complete two plans to address the looming health and environmental consequences of the lake’s slow decline, which is expected to accelerate in 2018 when Colorado River flows are cut off. Those plans involve building a series of wetlands and canals to ring the current shoreline, surrounding a smaller, saltier center lake.

The problems of the Salton Sea are one of the critical unresolved loose bits in long term adaptation to water scarcity on the Colorado River.


Note to self: invest my next $31.8 million in Palo Verde real estate

All the cool kids seem to be buying up real estate in the Palo Verde Irrigation District. First it was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has upped its stake in the Colorado River farming valley to 22,000 acres. Now comes news that Almarai, a dairy company, bought 1,790 acres to grow food for its cows. I have no idea whether $18,000 an acre is a good price for California farmland with senior water rights. I do know that, based on the Law of the River, is there’s any water at all leaking through Hoover Dam, Palo Verde is among the first in line to get it, so Almarai’s lucky cows will be first in line to be fed while all those loser cows with junior water rights will be off to the hamburger grinder.

alfalfa exports

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright Joh Fleck

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright John Fleck

Almarai’s dairies are in Saudi Arabia, which does complicate the already complicated conversations we have about the use of Colorado River Basin water. Concerned about the overuse of water there, they are essentially buying virtual water here. How much? In 2014, consumptive water use in PVID average about 4 1/2 feet (4.5 af/acre), meaning this is the equivalent of ~8,000 acre feet of water, or about 1/10th of one percent of the U.S. water use on the Lower Colorado.

I don’t worry much about the export part. We use water to produce all sorts of things in our economy that we then export (computer chips in Chandler and Albuquerque, to pick the low-hanging fruit). We also import all sorts of “virtual water” from other countries in the form of food grown and products made there. It remains the case that the vast majority of the alfalfa grown in this country (97 percent by my calculation) is eaten by domestic critters, so it’s not like the export market, whether to China or Japan or Saudi Arabia, is a major driver at this point in the use of water on alfalfa fields in the United States.

the future of Palo Verde

The more interesting thing, it seems to me, is the future of farming in the Palo Verde Valley. As we head into a Water Knife future of armed helicopters defending the Law of the River, the attractiveness of Palo Verde land for its water rights is becoming an increasingly edgy topic for the community around Blythe, California. Met has tried to provide assurances that it plans to keep its PVID land in production, and I take the agency at its word. Clearly other folks were in line to try to buy the land when MWD swooped in and grabbed it. Those other buyers seem to have had other ideas, which apparently pointed toward shutting down farming and moving the water elsewhere. Nervous or not, Met seems preferable to the alternatives. To now have another couple of thousand acres bought up by Almarai, which seems to be committed to growing food on it rather than selling off the water seems to be to Blythe’s benefit.

But if I was in Blythe, I’d be nervous too.

Low-flush at the Home Depot: bending the water use curve down

U.S. per capita water use has been declining for two decades

U.S. per capita water use has been declining for two decades

Every toilet currently in stock at my local Home Depot has the EPA WaterSense label, even the cheapest ones, meaning they uses 1.28 gallons per flush or less. This is a big part of why we see water use – on a per capita basis, but also in some cases on an absolute basis – going down in the United States.

The current U.S. legal standard, set in the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (signed during the first Bush administration), is 1.6 gallons per flush. Prior to that, most toilets used more than 3 gallons, some of them 5. The EPA program simply offers a catchy label and bragging rights for going lower, but if my Home Depot is any indication it appears to have caught on. The ’92 federal law also set standards for urinals, faucets, and showers. The result is that every new plumbing fixture in an old building uses less water than the one it replaces, and every new building starts off with a baseline water use far lower than the old stuff.

You can see the curve start to bend down in the 1990s, which I think must be related to the new plumbing standards.

states’ tougher standards

total U.S. municipal water use is now declining

total U.S. municipal water use is now declining

A number of states, including California and that drought-plagued bastion of liberty Texas, have made the lower EPA number a state mandate, along with tougher standards for other fixtures.

You can see how, over time, that would push down per capita use. But population’s still growing, right? The USGS’s 2010 Water Use in the United States report, however, documented an important milestone. For the first time in the data (which goes back to 1955), total municipal water use actually went down, even as population rose by more than 10 million since the 2005 report. Conservation reductions are outpacing population growth in the United States.

Work begins this year on the next iteration of the USGS series. I’m looking forward to seeing whether 2015 continues the trend.