The Ghost of a River, Part II

Riding my bike late this morning, I stopped to admire a roadrunner in the trail.

Roadrunner with fish.

As you can see from the picture, it’s a ratty bit of trail (Gritty? We have more words for the sublime than the mundane.) flanked by the freeway to the north and a treeline to the south bordering old farm fields, a remnant of what this valley once was.

I waited and watched, and when the bird finally emerged into the sun, I could see that it was carrying a small dead fish in its beak.

What to make of this, a desert bird carrying a fish on an urban bike trail?

Much of Albuquerque’s valley floor is covered with houses now. These aren’t recent tract homes. Suburbia in its modern form has been overtaking the farms of the valley here for a very long time. But if you look closely, you can see traces of the old irrigation ditches. Sometimes it’s just a treeline that follows the path of a long-gone irrigation system. Often it’s still a ditch – water still flows through this valley in ditches maintained by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, some the same ditches the water has traveled for more than three centuries. The ditches have become an urban amenity, a park-like setting in the midst of the arid high desert, flowing through neighborhoods that are sometimes wealthy and sometimes not.

neighborhood ditch

On time scales not that hard to imagine, the land on which these neighborhoods and this bike trail sit, where the roadrunner carried a fish back to the nest for its babies, was the river itself. The “river” as it now flows, controlled by dams upstream, reduced in size by farming in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, and hemmed in today by levees, was about a half mile behind me as I straddled my bike and pulled out my cell phone to snap a picture of the roadrunner.

A few years back, we had a fascinating environmental politics kerfuffle here in Albuquerque over plans to build a trail through the woods that flank the main river channel through the center of town. A Republican mayor was pursuing the trail, with strikingly virulent opposition from a coalition led by the local chapter of our Sierra Club. “The thing that makes the Bosque the place that we all love is that it is an unsurpassed urban space for the enjoyment of nature,” the campaign’s leader, Richard Barish, wrote. “Any project should not diminish that experience of nature.” It was old-school environmentalism, about saving the wild places among us, and for a segment of the community it resonated, leading to the largest level of local environmental activism I can remember in my years here.

I will declare my view of this controversy clearly here: moments before I came upon the roadrunner, I had been riding what we have come to call “the mayor’s trail” through the woods of the bosque, and I loved it. The Rio Grande is up, swelled with the biggest spring runoff in a decade, I had to take two detours to get around the places where water had swamped the trail, and it was delightful. The new trail is one of the best places in all of Albuquerque to get down to our river, and I delight in getting down to our river.

But I am also mindful of the important questions the environmental historian William Cronon raised in his famous 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness“:

By teaching us to fetishize sublime places and wide open country, these peculiarly American ways of thinking about wilderness encourage us to adopt too high a standard for what counts as “natural.” If it isn’t hundreds of square miles big, if it doesn’t give us God’s eye views or grand vistas, if it doesn’t permit us the illusion that we are alone on the planet, then it really isn’t natural. It’s too small, too plain, or too crowded to be authentically wild.

I was reminded of Cronon’s essay by a conversation with Samuel Truett, a University of New Mexico environmental historian and former student of Cronon’s who I  met by chance on a walk to the river Friday afternoon. We were both speakers at the fascinating Decolonizing Nature conference organized by colleagues at the university. Feeling a bit socially overwhelmed (I am an introvert, these things are wonderful but exhausting) I snuck out and walked to the river, which was just a few hundred yards from the hall where the conference was being held.

In my talk, I reminded the audience that the river was not merely “over there”, across a fence, a bike trail, a ditch, and a levee. Were it not for human intervention, it would be flowing over the land where the buildings of Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center, the lovely conference site, now stands. We were in the Rio Grande.

Colorado River flowing beneath the I-10 bridge at Blythe, February 2015

This is at the heart of what I’m trying to think through for my new book. “The Ghost of a River” is as good a working title as any right now. It’s rooted in my shifting understanding of rivers, in the pain of first seeing the end of the Colorado River at Morelos Dam – “This great river, the Colorado,” I wrote in my book, “around which I have spent much of my life, whose water I have showered with and drunk, which has grown the food I eat and floated my boats for hundreds of miles, simply disappears into the desert sand.”

Walking down into the bosque Friday afternoon, I led a group of folks from the Decolonizing Nature conference to a spot where overbanking water from this year’s big runoff had reclaimed a low spot that was likely the path of an old irrigation system that predated Conservancy District, levees, cities. It is impossible to separate the “natural” from the human here. My new project involves an effort to ignore the distinction and think about rivers in their human form – an irrigated lettuce field in Yuma every bit as much a part of the Colorado River as the water flowing through the main channel beneath Yuma’s old railroad bridge.

One of the people with us – I did not get his name – was puzzled by this river, shallow water barely moving. It was not what he had expected when led on a walk to “the river”. I explained that the “river” he was expecting was just over there, beyond those trees, but that there was no way to get to it without getting your feet muddy, because the river had reclaimed the bosque at our feet.

I love the bosque, the trees of the river corridor itself. I love that there’s a nice manicured trail through it so that I can ride my bike. I love that in places the river has reclaimed the trail, delighted by my need to detour. I’m increasingly interested in inquiring into the idea that the spiderweb of pipes and canals that move water through the human systems we’ve built around it is in some sense part of what we mean by “the river” now too.

Somewhere off the bike trail, that roadrunner found a little fish in an irrigation ditch. Is this “natural”? Dunno, but it’s interesting.

because science

My friend and collaborator Becky Bixby, a University of New Mexico biologist and the associate director of our Water Resources Program (she is our program’s science brain), on why she wasn’t at the March For Science yesterday:

UNM’s Becky Bixby won’t be at the march. But that’s only because since the beginning of the semester, she’s been planning a field trip for her aquatics class to the Jemez Mountains.

“I decided not to cancel because I have 22 students signed up to go who will learn how to sample, who will learn how a river works,” said Bixby, a research assistant professor with UNM’s biology department and the associate director of the university’s Water Resources Program.

“With environmental sciences, we use basic science to help with things like management,” Bixby said. “Especially in New Mexico, aquatic science helps us maintain the health of our water and our rivers, and if you want to take it all the way up, it affects human health.”

Not all her students will end up studying biology or going into water resources or environmental science. Some are studying in the pre-pharmacy and pre-dental programs. Her goal with the class is to nurture good citizens who are well-informed about local aquatic science issues.

“Some people think that all scientists need to have PhDs,” she said. “And it’s not true.”


Bonus water for Lake Mead, with the chance for more next year

Dan Elliott has details on yesterday’s USBR announcement of a 9 million acre foot release from Lake Mead:

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, said it will release 9 million acre-feet from Lake Powell, sending it down the Colorado into Lake Mead, where it will be tapped by Arizona, California and Nevada.

That is well above the minimum kinda sorta required release of 8.23 million acre feet (lawyers from Upper and Lower Basin please argue in the comments about this, thanks). Combined with conservation efforts among users in Arizona, California, and Nevada, this means that Lake Mead will end the year at least 5 feet above last year, and maybe as much as 7.

Oroville’s impact on Lake Mead

Friday’s announcement of an 85 percent California State Water Project allocation was, tentatively at least, good news for Lake Mead.

When the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California gets a small supply from up north via the State Water Project, it needs more Colorado River water. Conversely, with a big State Water Project supply coming out of Oroville Dam and down the Sacramento River to the big south-of-delta pumps, Met can back off on its Colorado River Aqueduct supplies.

The two river and plumbing systems are thus inextricably linked.

Until Oroville Dam’s problems, it looked like a huge State Water Project supply might allow Met to leave as much as 400,000 acre feet in Lake Mead this year. But with state officials managing Oroville conservatively, storing less water to leave more space as a safety buffer, there were fears that a low State Water Project allocation would cut Met’s leave-it-in-Lake-Mead number to as little as 200,000 acre feet.

With an 85 percent allocation, it now looks like that number could go back up to 400,000 acre feet of what is called in the lingo “intentionally created surplus” this year. That’s four feet of elevation in Mead, which is pretty important as we flirt with shortages.

the paradoxes of irrigation efficiency

The University of New Mexico water posse had a great visit yesterday with Christopher Scott, the new director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Scott spoke a couple of times and met with students at our Community and Regional Planning program, who have been doing a lot of work on wastewater reuse (shoutout to Caroline Scruggs, who’s leading this effort, and who hosted Scott).

All-American Canal passing through the sand hills west of Yuma, March 2014 by John Fleck

Scott talked about the work he’s been doing in this same area, which raises non-trivial questions with deep implications for what happens when you “conserve” water – the fact that the water you “save” was often doing something useful somewhere else, whether you meant it to our not. Like a sewage treatment plant outfall into a river. Or, as from this 2014 paper, water leaking from the unlined All-American Canal on the Lower Colorado River that recharged an aquifer:

[I]ncreased efficiency in the Imperial Valley has been pursued largely with the objective of transferring water out of the basin for urban uses – an example of the sectoral paradox, with a resulting decline in local within-basin resilience including reductions in aquifer recharge that had previously resulted from seep- age across the US–Mexico border.

I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was that paper by Scott and his colleagues that introduced me to Bruce Lankford’s idea of the “paracommons”, which I wrote about here (one of my favorite comment threads ever on an Inkstain post there, check out Tom Buschatzke’s contribution), and which was influential in my book’s conclusion. I’d been struggling with the ideas involved – Scott and Lankford provided some conceptual clarity for this passage. When you “conserve” water and leave it in Lake Mead, whose water is it? Yours to use later? A common property of the system as a whole?

Given that, overall, water users are demanding more water than nature is providing, sooner or later the water that is conserved will have to be water that no one will ever get back.

More than a year after I delivered the manuscript for my book, that question remains at the heart of discussions around solving the Colorado River’s problems. It won’t be easily sorted.

“reconciliation ecology” in the rice fields of California

Reconciliation ecology, the field’s founders say, “says we still have time to save most of the world’s species. But to do it, we must stop trying to put an end to civilization and human enterprise. Instead, we need to work on the overwhelming bulk of the land — the places we humans use. We need to make them over so that they can support both us and other species.”

sandhill cranes, Bernardo, NM

Sena Christian has a great piece in the most recent Comstock Magazine that leads us through one of the most interesting reconciliation ecology experiments currently underway in the irrigated landscapes of the American West, a collaboration among farmers and environmentalists on the rice fields of Northern California:

Farmers typically drain the water in late January so the soil has time to harden for the upcoming season. Could they be encouraged to keep their fields flooded a few inches into February and March, to provide surrogate wetlands for birds traveling north along the Pacific Flyway? The Nature Conservancy posed this question when piloting its Bird Returns program in 2014.

Bird Returns essentially rents fields from farmers on a short-term basis, using a reverse auction: Farmers place a bid for what they want to be paid per acre to keep their fields flooded. Sellers with the most reasonable bids and conducive fields are enrolled.

This is a piece of what I’m planning on talking about in a talk next week at UNM’s “Decolonizing Nature” conference in Albuquerque. The premise is that we’re not going to return our rivers to their state before the time-of-lots-of-humans (TOLOH). The large forces unleashed by TOLOH – the influence, for example, of the global price of rice on California’s landscape – are here to stay. How do we move beyond a traditional return-to-nature style of environmentalism to a nature-among-us?


Lower Colorado – America’s “most endangered river”

The environmental group American Rivers today declared the Lower Colorado River America’s “most endangered river“.

The web page announcing this is fascinating. The pictures are not of iconic desert canyons and pristine rivers. They are of farmers. Growing food.

photo by Amy Martin, courtesy American Rivers

A reminder of the multiplicity of values with which we embrace the importance of rivers.

Glen Canyon Dam and the $10 bill on the sidewalk

tl;dr The claims of “Fill Mead First” advocates that we could save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water a year while draining Lake Powell and consolidating all the Colorado River’s water in Lake Mead don’t hold up.

The longer version….

There’s this joke.

Two economists are walking down the street when one spots something on the sidewalk.

“Look,” the first says, “a $10 bill!”

“Nah,” says the second. “If that was a $10 bill someone would have picked it up already.”

The point here is that often what looks like an unexploited opportunity is not as it appears. Maybe you’re just the first person to spot it, so pick it up! But maybe if there have been lots of people passing this way, it hasn’t been picked up because it’s not really a $10 bill.

Glen Canyon by James Fennemore, one of the photographers in the second Powell expedition, 1872

The argument for draining Lake Powell/tearing down Glen Canyon Dam has the look of a $10 bill on the sidewalk – the argument that between evaporation and seepage, so much Colorado River water is being lost now from Lake Powell that the water savings make this a good deal for the basin’s water users.

The latest science suggests that this is not the case – that seepage losses are minimal, and that alternatives suggested by advocates of eliminating Glen Canyon Dam (the “Fill Mead First” proposal, draining Lake Powell and consolidating the Colorado’s dwindling supplies in Lake Mead) have essentially the same evaporation losses, as evaporation goes up in Lake Mead by about the same amount that it goes down in Lake Powell.

The drive to pull down Glen Canyon Dam, deeply rooted in the environmental politics of the West, is about more than simply saving water. Those who advocate it argue, correctly, that it also is about restoring Glen Canyon, one of the West’s great natural treasures, drowned when Lake Powell filled in the 1960s. There is no question that this would be awesome.

But to overcome the opposition of those who benefit from Lake Powell’s water, those who would remove the dam also posit a major benefit of their own – restore Glen Canyon’s magnificence and save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water per year. The savings we’re talking about are the equivalent of Las Vegas, Nevada’s entire supply. Surely that’s worth picking up off the sidewalk?

Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers had a go at this question last week. In a piece written in response to Rebecca Solnit’s widely read and beautifully written ode to Glen Canyon, Eberle took issue with Solnit’s contention that getting rid of Lake Powell would save a bunch of water.

Eberle and American Rivers, an environmental group committed to (as its name suggests) our rivers, thinks this isn’t really a $10 bill:

There are 5 key reasons why the Fill Mead First argument doesn’t hold water, and while each of them on their own could be a good enough reason to look past the reality of the situation, together they make a compelling case for keeping Glen Canyon Dam in place, at least for now.

This is a huge deal.

For one of the nation’s most visible and important river-focused environmental groups to come out against the latest proposal to drain Lake Powell, which has been a lodestar of western environmentalism for more than a half century, took guts.

But I think Eberle is right.

There’s technical detail worth sifting through, and I encourage you to look at Eberle’s piece, as well as an important analysis published last fall by a group at Utah State led by Jack Schmidt. The USU group’s conclusion, in short, was the water savings in draining Lake Powell and consolidating the Colorado River’s water in Lake Mead are not what Fill Mead First advocates have been claiming.

The seepage question – “bank storage” in the lingo of the dam community – was until recently scientifically murkier, but there has always been a strong technical argument that seepage was not the issue that Glen Canyon Dam’s opponents made it out to be. The work by Schmidt and his students supports that argument – that we’re not losing the kind of water to seepage the Fill Mead First advocates have claimed.

But the real kicker for me was the $10 bill-on-the-sidewalk thing.

As a journalist, I often heard from people who would ask, “Why don’t they just do X?”, where “they” are the people in charge who haven’t seen the obvious benefits of X. It’s phrased in the form of a question, but the speaker doesn’t really mean it that way. They really mean “They should do X”, without considering that there may be a good reason why they are not doing X that the questioner just hasn’t understood. One of my journalistic starting points always was to start with the smart people who had looked closely at X already. Maybe there was a good reason X wasn’t already being done.

Think $10 bill on the sidewalk.

The people who have the most to gain from this in water supply terms, the water agencies that would kill for a new source of a few hundred thousand acre feet of water per year, were not pursuing draining Lake Powell. Maybe there was some byzantine politics behind why they didn’t want that water. Or maybe the savings weren’t really there.

We now have a much clearer picture of the issue thanks to the work by Schmidt and his students. Contrary to the claims of Solnit and others that there are big savings to be had through reduced evaporation, Schmidt et al. conclude that, for all practical purposes, “there would be no change in evaporation losses”. The seepage losses, Schmidt found, are minimal. Solnit’s failure to engage Schmidt’s contribution – she asserts without citation that “consolidating water in one (reservoir) would reduce evaporation” without acknowledging that there is new research suggesting otherwise – was a serious flaw.

There is still a deep and important passion in the West about the idea of removing Glen Canyon Dam. It’s a conversation worth pursuing. But those who advocate it need to make the case on its own merits, not based on a false claim that you can restore Glen Canyon and save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water in the process.

It’s not a $10 bill. That’s why no one’s picked it up.