Friendly reminder: don’t freak out when Lake Mead drops below 1,075

Lake Mead at 1,075. Source: USBR

Lake Mead at 1,075. Source: USBR

Your friendly reminder: don’t freak out when Lake Mead drops below surface elevation 1,075 in the next few days. We don’t have a Lower Colorado River Basin “shortage”* yet, and likely won’t have for a couple more years.

What counts is the August forecast of the January 1 level. Mead is forecast to drop below 1,075 this summer, but is almost certain, absent some sort of “water knife” attack to release water from the dam, to be back above 1,075 by August. Here’s the pertinent language from the 2007 Interim Surplus Guidelines (pdf):

In the development of the AOP, the Secretary shall use the August 24-Month Study projections for the following January 1 system storage and reservoir water surface elevations to determine the Lake Mead operation for the following Calendar Year….

In years when Lake Mead content is projected to be at or below elevation 1,075 feet and at or above 1,050 feet on January 1, a quantity of 7.167 maf shall be apportioned for consumptive use in the Lower Division States of which 2.48 maf shall be apportioned for use in Arizona and 287,000 af shall be apportioned for use in Nevada in accordance with the Arizona-Nevada Shortage Sharing Agreement dated February 9, 2007, and 4.4 maf shall be apportioned for use in California.

The June forecast (pdf) projects 1,083 on Jan. 1. That’ll could go up again in the next few months’ forecast reports because June has continued to be wet in the Upper Colorado River Basin. We’ve gone from a year that was projected to be below 50 percent to a possible “normal” (median) flow this year into Lake Powell. That’s 1.4 million acre feet above the June 1 forecast.


* I think I’m going to start putting scare quotes around the word “shortage” after a conversation with a smart friend who points out that the word implies some deviation from what ought to be. We need to get used to variability as the normal state of affairs in the Basin, which sometimes includes less water.

Santa Barbara starting back down desal path

Living near the ocean, in terms of water supply, is a blessing, but maybe an expensive one? The Santa Barbara, Calif., city council yesterday (Tues. 6/16/2015) voted to spend the $$$ to restart its old desalination project:

The City Council agreed to spend $3.7 million in the design phase of the project. However, this is just a fraction of the amount of money that will be needed to power up the entire desalination plant.

Restarting the desalination plant will cost approximately $55 million, and more than $4 million a year to operate it.

Santa Barbara Water Resources Manage Joshua Haggmark says that’s a sizable amount of money, however, based on the information he has, restarting the desalination plant is the only choice the City has.

Ocean water desalination in affluent coastal communities is a bit of a yo-yo: build plant in drought, don’t need it on the wet side of the cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat, as the Pacific Institute’s Amanda Pebler explained last summer:

The idea of building seawater desalination plants during a drought is not a new one. In 1991, a desalination plant in Santa Barbara was constructed in response to the 1987-1992 drought. Once the plant was completed, abundant rainfall rendered the plant cost-inefficient, and it shut down in 1992. Currently, costs to restart the plant are being assessed as the technology and infrastructure are dated and would incur new capital investment. Likewise, six seawater desalination plants were built in Australia in response to the Millennium Drought. Today, four out of the six plants are left idle due to the availability of cheaper alternatives. These examples should serve as cautionary tales.

More good Pacific Institute background here. (pdf)

Kenney on the West’s water problems

The University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, who tends to be pessimistic about the Colorado River Basin’s water management problems, did find something optimistic to say in a Guardian op ed today:

The situation isn’t hopeless. In Southern California, for example, the massive Imperial Irrigation District transfers water to drought-stricken communities in Los Angeles and San Diego. And on the Colorado River, the states today seem much more inclined to bargain than to litigate as some states run short while others are fine…. There’s just enough flexibility in the system, and just enough financial incentives, to allow some water to be reallocated through water markets, but such efforts are slow, costly and controversial. And political leaders have been given just enough rope to speak of modest reforms, but only if they can guarantee no reduction to their constituent’s current water supplies. (Emphasis added, that last point seems really important.)

Doug’s not as optimistic as I am about the potential for progress down this path:

[I]n a region facing drought, climate change and population growth simultaneously, the pace of change and the ambition of the proposals are too modest to head off some needless pain and suffering.

The full piece, which explains the roots of the mess, is worth a read, as is Doug’s work with the Colorado River Research Group and the Colorado River Governance Initiative.

(Disclosure: Kenney and the University of Colorado Getches-Wilkinson Center at which he is based have twice covered my travel expenses to participate in their annual summer conferences, including a really great one last week.)

One California policy response to rural water problems

California, in the depths of drought, is pushing for a modest policy initiative that could help deal with the problem of poor rural communities running short of water.

In the depth of New Mexico’s 2013 drought, I got really interested in the communities that were, and more importantly were not, running out of water. What was the difference?

The root answer, of course, was water. There wasn’t very much of it around. But given that reality facing so many communities, what separated those that were, and those that were not, running out? The answer I found was this vague thing folks have taken to label “capacity”. All the communities running out were rural, and rural is mostly far less affluent than urban here in New Mexico.

In a similar drought a decade earlier, more than 50 rural communities had run out of water – dry enough that they needed to truck water to fill their needs. In 2013, far less trucking was needed. What had happened in the interim? The answer is capacity building. There was a concerted effort, with outside funding (state and federal) to help communities. There wasn’t any one size fits all. Sometimes it meant supply diversification (a second well). Sometimes it meant better maintenance of the well. And sometimes it meant banding together, creating interconnections between neighboring systems. All that takes money, both for physical capital and also for human capital.

That’s the sort of thing state officials in California are pushing for:

The Brown administration is pushing late-emerging budget legislation to let state officials force the consolidation of troubled water systems with larger, better-funded agencies, with the goal of improving Californians’ access to safe drinking water after four years of drought.

Proponents say the measure would help people around the state, many of them poor, who depend on small agencies that have little wherewithal to deal with water shortages and quality problems.

Lower Colorado shortage now unlikely in 2016, maybe not in 2017

Our big wet May looks to have all but eliminated the possibility of a Lower Colorado River Basin shortage in 2016, and it now looks like a better than 50-50 chance we won’t have one in 2017 either, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly outlook, published this afternoon (pdf).

A shortage is triggered if Mead drops below a surface elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level on Jan. 1. Details here on the criteria and timing of shortage declaration – it doesn’t happen simply when it hits 1,075, but rather when it starts a new year at 1,075. The latest forecast calls for Mead to be at 1,081.58 on Jan. 1, 2016, and 1,077.59 on Jan. 1, 2017.

There are still big problems, but May’s amazing weather appears to have put them off for a bit. The forecast suggests that, based on current inflows from upstream, Lake Mead is just gonna keep on dropping. They call it the “structural deficit“, a formula that allocates more water to downstream users (California, Nevada, and Arizona) during a “normal” year than flows in from upstream. But “normal” really involves a range of possible inflows, and the big May means some bonus water in Mead over the next 18 months.

Lake Powell is now forecast to end the 2015 with a surface elevation 15 feet higher and 1.3 million acre feet fuller than forecast a month ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly outlook, published this afternoon (pdf). We’ll have a more detailed probability calculation later this week, but this significantly reduces the chance of a Lower Colorado River

Update on Arizona v. California

Tony Davis asked Arizona officials if they had any actual evidence that California was trying to steal their water. Their official statement:

“ADWR is not aware of any California efforts intended to take a portion of Arizona’s water supply directly. However, any changes to Colorado River operations could affect everyone who relies on the River. ADWR is always cognizant of that possibility and will consider the possibility that a proposal could have unintended consequences for Arizona water users.”

“ADWR fully supports the statements made by Governor Ducey. California has put themselves into a dire situation and we anticipate that the federal government will want to help California, which could come at Arizona’s expense. As the governor stated, Arizona should not be punished for doing the right thing.”

Background here

Water policy innovation in Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife”

The Water Knife

The Water Knife

Fiction can provide a useful framework for thinking through alternative approaches to real problems. In that regard, I’m enjoying Paolo Bacigalupi’s new novel The Water Knife.

Set in the near future Colorado River Basin, the book makes water management seem genuinely exciting. I’ll avoid spoilers, but try to give some flavor.

The opening scene involves the general counsel for the Southern Nevada Water Authority winning a court curtailment order against an Arizona community whose junior water right use is apparently interfering with Las Vegas’s senior supply. The lawyer hands off the paperwork to the SNWA water rights enforcement team, which takes to the sky in a squadron of armed helicopters and blows up the junior users’ water treatment plant. This assures that water is not taken out of priority.

Bacigalupi here calls on a couple of important water policy tools that advocates frequently point to in discussing possible solutions to our water problems. The first is clear adjudication of water rights priorities, determining who stands where in line with respect to their neighbors when water runs short. This is currently unevenly applied in the western United States. The second is the idea of interstate movement of water – in this case Nevada claiming priority over an Arizona user. This is sometimes advocated, though not currently allowed under the law.

These tools, while beyond the way we currently do things, are not conceptually new. People have talked about them for years. The real policy innovation is the part where water agencies employ armed militias to blow stuff up. This is not currently permitted under the “Law of the River”.

Water nerds are gonna love this book.

Water for the 1 percent

Oh my, this Rob Kuznia piece in the Washington Post. People will click:

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” (emphasis gleefully added)

Water in the desert: San Luis Valley, Colorado

Center pivot irrigation, San Luis Valley, Colorado, June 2015, by John Fleck

Center pivot irrigation, San Luis Valley, Colorado, June 2015, by John Fleck

On my way home from Boulder Saturday, I diverted off the interstate and up over a low pass into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, where the Rio Grande (or its Mexican name, the Río Bravo) starts its long, frequently interrupted journey to the sea.

It’s a broad, flat, high desert valley, 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) in elevation, less than 10 inches of precipitation a year on the valley floor. But between groundwater and the river, it’s become a robust agricultural region. According to the new basin plan (pdf, a part of Colorado’s water planning effort), farmers in the valley have 523,000* acres under irrigation, which is comparable to the vast acreage of the Imperial Valley in southern California. But it’s a different kind of farming. With a shorter growing season, San Luis Valley alfalfa growers, for example, get a yield of 3.15 to 4.5 tons per acre. In desert climates of the lower Colorado River, where there is nothing one might call “winter” to get in the way of crop production, you can get something close to twice as much alfalfa per acre. But there’s a relationship between the consumptive use of water and the amount of crop grown. To first order the farmers in San Luis both use less water per acre and make less money per acre than the farmers in Imperial. (I don’t know of any dollars/crop per unit of water comparisons – that would be interesting.)

San Luis Valley ditches

San Luis Valley ditches

The governance structures also are different. In headwaters regions, you have many diversions from the many tributaries that gather the water. You have many governance structures to match that. So in the San Luis Valley, you have six major ditches, each with its own governance structure, and many more small ones.  In the lower reaches all the waters have collected into a single river and you have more centralized diversions, and more centralized governance structures to match – in Imperial, for example, the Imperial Irrigation District. The Rio Grande is a lot like the Colorado in this regard.

The other thing about the San Luis Valley that’s different from Imperial is that the high mountain valley, as you can see from the picture, is gorgeous. It’s been wet this spring, and the Rio Grande was big when I crossed it at Alamoso, but the gauges suggest it was a lot bigger upstream, before the farm ditches snagged their share. I’ve a fondness for the low desert farm valleys like Yuma and Imperial, but I realize that is not universally shared. It’s an acquired taste.

* The Census of Agriculture puts the acreage at 387,000 acres (pdf), illustrating the maddening difficulty of figuring out how much land is under irrigation in the West. In putting together this post I reread the methodological bits in Mike Cohen’s invaluable Pacific Institute report on Colorado Basin ag, which would be hilarious if the process he describes were not so painful.

** Thanks to Matt Hildner who covers the San Luis Valley for the Pueblo Chieftain for helping me understand a bit about how valley plumbing works.

Arizona – a century of fear that California wants to steal its water

In the fall of 1934, Arizona Gov. Benjamin Moeur dispatched the Arizona National Guard to the banks of the Colorado River near its junction with the Bill Williams to try to block efforts to build what would eventually become Parker Dam. Their fear: that the Colorado River Aqueduct, which would tap into the new reservoir, would steal Arizona’s god-given Colorado River water, siphoning it off to dreaded Southern California.

Arizona Republic, 1965

Arizona Republic, 1965

It’s the most dramatic case of a longstanding Arizona tradition – the fear that California is out to steal Arizona’s water*. It is good to see, in Brandon Loomis’s Arizona Republic story today, that Arizona is not straying from its roots:

Arizona currently has 9 million acre-feet in the ground, having socked it away in aquifers during years when the river provided more than it needed. Californians are starting to look at that cushion as their potentially their own, (Grady Gammage) said, while others question why some Arizona farmers are growing cotton with water that could save California food crops.

“That is penalizing us for being responsible,” he said, “and rewarding them for being irresponsible.”

Phoenix water services director Kathryn Sorensen said the state’s water providers are starting to talk about a California threat. One potential area of concern is a California drought-relief bill now being envisioned in Congress.

“California has not shared what they’re doing,” she said.

* To be fair, California did succeed in snagging a lot of the river’s flow and, more importantly (as Brandon’s story explains) a deal under which Arizona bears pretty much the entire risk for shortage in severe, sustained drought.