Stationarity and snowmelt in the Pacific Northwest

We have a mismatch between 20th century plumbing and a 21st century climate.

Stationarity is Dead

Stationarity is Dead

USGS hydrologist Paul Milly and colleagues in 2008 threw down a marker in a Science paper arguing that human interventions (intentional and not) have rendered a basic premise of human water operations invalid. The premise is “stationarity”, the idea that with data from a sufficient long stretch of time, we can understand the range of variability to be expected from, say, the runoff in a mountain stream – the boundaries of wet and dry years, warm and cold ones (the jargon here is a “probability density function”, or “pdf”):

Under stationarity, pdf estimation errors are acknowledged, but have been assumed to be reducible by additional observations, more efficient estimators, or regional or paleohydrologic data. The pdfs, in turn, are used to evaluate and manage risks to water supplies, waterworks, and floodplains; annual global investment in water infrastructure exceeds U.S.$500 billion.

But what if we move the baseline, and past is no longer prologue? Milly and colleagues argued that we have, that “Stationarity is Dead”.  Brett Walton’s Circle of Blue story this week on the shift from rain to snow snow to rain in the Pacific Northwest as climate warms offers a great case study in the implications:

Without an adequate snowpack, operators must hold more water in reservoirs in the winter so that supplies are available for cities, farmers, and fish later in the year. But the move to fill reservoirs in the winter also increases the chance of flooding if a big storm arrives.

Brett’s full story is worth a click.

Regional water governance: Rio Rancho, Albuquerque and the question of scale

Let’s talk about “polycentric governance” and the problem of regional water institutions, shall we? Because here in New Mexico, we seem to have this a bit messed up, and my book research is leading me into some compare-and-contrast exercises that might be useful in thinking our dilemma through in more detail.

"Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30" by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-30″ by © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dennis Domrzalski, writing in ABQ Free Press in December (pdf of the issue here), highlighted a great case study of the problem. Albuquerque, Domrzalski pointed out, has been enormously successful in reducing its use of groundwater, spending vast sums on a new system to use imported Colorado River Basin water instead. The aquifer beneath the city is rebounding as a result:

But now, water authority officials say that $450 million San Juan-Chama investment by Bernalillo County and Albuquerque residents – as well as their conservation efforts – are being negated by groundwater pumping by the ever-growing city of Rio Rancho.

“Polycentric governance” is the social science jargon for one type of solution to what I’ve been shorthanding as the “no-one’s-in-chargeness” problem facing a lot of water management.

The classic formulation of the problem is Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons“, where a hypothetical Albuquerque gets all thrifty and preserves the resource only to have avaricious Rio Rancho suck all the savings away. One answer (it works in Hardin’s grazing pasture example, harder to operationalize in the Rio Rancho-Albuquerque case) is to privatize the resource and let the owner sell. The other approach is to have a centralized government authority ride herd over the resource. In the Rio Rancho-Albuquerque case, that might be a New Mexico Office of State Engineer administering water rights. (Insert joke about sale of large bridge here, or see Rio Rancho flack Peter Wells’ “Hey, we’re just following the rules” explanation in Domrzalski’s story for a sense of how well that’s working out.)

The late Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, beginning in the 1960s, suggested a third path, which has come to be called “polycentricity”: “a social system of many decision centers having limited and autonomous prerogatives and operating under an overarching set of rules” (quote from Aligica and Tarko). The question here is the institutional framework from which those rules emerge, and through which they are enforced.

Ostrom first fleshed these ideas out in her 1965 doctoral thesis on the formation of what is today the West Basin Municipal Water District on the coastal plain west of Los Angeles. Individual cities were pumping the hell out of the aquifer in a race to the bottom, salt water intrusion was increasingly becoming a problem as you got close to the coast, and they had to figure out how to create some sort of a collective solution. The individual city water management units stayed the way they were, but they created an umbrella organization to coordinate pumping and water importation on a regional basis. (The West Basin story is getting a whole chapter in my book. It’s a great early example of overcoming the no-one’s-in-chargeness problem.)

In the West, there are other examples.

  • In metro Las Vegas, a bunch of competing water agencies banded together in 1991 to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which acts as a go-between with the federal government for water from Lake Mead and also provides a framework for collective action on water problems, even as the individual member agencies still maintain their autonomy.
  • The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California acts as a big super-agency floating above individual agencies that retail water.
  • Arizona formed the Central Arizona Water Conservation District in the early 1970s to act as a go-between with the feds for Central Arizona Project Colorado River water. (One member of my brain trust questioned whether it’s reasonable to call CAWCD “regional governance.” I reserve the right to revise and extend here. :-)

Here in the Middle Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico, we got nuthin’. There are three large water agencies – Rio Rancho, Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (which serves ag water). We’ve got a bunch more small agencies. We’ve got individual pumpers (including the university, where my office sits). The actions of each can impact the others, but there’s no institutional framework in place for collective self-government at the points where those actions interact via the system’s real world hydrology. One might argue that the New Mexico Office of State Engineer should provide that framework by regulating water pumping rights, but the aquifer numbers speak louder than words here.

We need some polycentric governance.

The municipal water conservation story

Municipal water demand in the West, according to Gary Woodard of Montgomery and Associates in Tucson, has become decoupled from population growth. Here’s a teaser from a talk he’s giving next month in Tucson:

The talk, entitled “The surprising slide in domestic demand: Be careful what you wish for,” focuses on the declines in municipal water demand in the Southwest, which have occurred over the past 30 years for both indoor and outdoor uses. Because this declining trend has often exceeded population growth, utilities are now delivering less water to more people. Woodard will discuss the factors that have profoundly affected demand — higher efficiency standards for appliances and fixtures, the declining appeal of turf and pools, the growing interest in sustainability, and shifting household demographics. He will also discuss the consequences of this trend and their implications for those who were planning for growing — not declining — demands.

Bruce Finley reported in the Denver Post yesterday on that Colorado front range city’s experience with the phenomenon:

Whatever the reasons, water use in metro Denver has dipped to 40-year lows.

The total amount residents used in December decreased to 3.19 billion gallons, and in January to 3.36 billion gallons — down from previous winter highs topping 4 billion gallons, utility officials said.

The last time December use dropped this low was in 1973 when Denver had 350,000 fewer people.


More on the early snowmelt

Albuquerque meteorologist Brian Guyer, who seems to be as obsessed as I am with the early snowmelt, plotted up the latest flow in the Azotea Tunnel* this year, compared with the long term median:

Azotea tunnel, courtesy of Brian Guyer

Azotea tunnel, courtesy of Brian Guyer

* Azotea delivers New Mexico’s San Juan-Chama Project water from a trio of streams in southern Colorado.

Why pumping ocean water into the Salton Sea wouldn’t work

From yesterday’s New York Times:

The problem with using ocean water to replenish the lake is that current agricultural runoff adds three million to four million tons of salt per year, Mr. Shintaku said. The same amount of ocean water would add about 10 times as much salt. As the water evaporates, the salt would be retained and the lake would become even saltier.

The first thing we do, let’s plant a lawn

"Las Vegas, Nevada. A worker's wife watering a newly planted lawn around one of the thousand demountable houses built adjacent to the Basic Magnesium Incorporated plant in the southern Nevada desert", Fritz Henly, December 1942, Farm Security Administration, courtesy Library of Congress

“Las Vegas, Nevada. A worker’s wife watering a newly planted lawn around one of the thousand demountable houses built adjacent to the Basic Magnesium Incorporated plant in the southern Nevada desert”, Heinle Fritz, December 1942, Farm Security Administration, courtesy Library of Congress

Basic Magnesium Inc. was a water materiel plant built in the desert south of Las Vegas in the early years of World War II. Its owner built a company town to house workers. This picture (which I love) says something powerful about the motivations and practices of turning a pre-fab desert shack into a home.

Very early runoff for the San Juan-Chama project

Today’s high in Durango was 59F (15C), 18 degrees above the 1981-2010 average for Feb. 8. In the mountains to the east – the mountains that provide Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama drinking water – the snow has already begun to melt.

The snowpack there is lousy to begin with – 62 percent of normal for this time of year at the sites measured with automated SNOTEL gauges. But the first week of February is ridiculously early for the Azotea Tunnel, which brings SJC water under the continental divide and drops it into the Rio Grande Basin, to begin flowing.

azotea It’s not a lot of water right now, a peak of ~23 cubic feet per second this morning. But the normal for this time of year is zero, and the tunnel typically doesn’t break 20cfs until the second week in March. This is basically a month early. I went back to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data on this, and found that only five times during the last 30 years has there been any flow at all in February.

The worry here is not early melt. We’ve had that pattern for a while, with more of the snowmelt coming in March-May, and less in June and July. The early melt water coming through the tunnel will end up in Heron Reservoir, part of usable supply for Albuquerque and the other SJC water users. The worry is that weather this warm, dry and early could start a round of early sublimation – snow evaporating into the dry air before it has a chance to melt . This has been a repeated problem in recent years, with warm dry springs eating into the snowpack, turning lousy years (with too little snow) into even worse years (with even less runoff that you’d expect given how much snow we have gotten).

Bad water on the Texas-Mexico border

The Texas Tribune (which I will never forgive for hiring my pal Jolie McCullough away from Albuquerque) is crowdfunding what sounds like a very interest bit of water journalism:

Despite decades and billions of dollars spent trying to provide Texans living along the Mexican border with reliable access to clean drinking water, hundreds of thousands of residents there — the vast majority of them low-income Latinos — still don’t have this certainty. We need your support to find out why.


NM Drought: it depends on where the rain is falling

January was wet in southern New Mexico:

Courtesy High Plains Regional Climate Center

Courtesy High Plains Regional Climate Center

But the farmers of the southern part of the state are among those with the highest drought risk this year. How could that be? Diane Alba Soular does a nice job of explaining that it’s snow in the mountains, which creates Rio Grande runoff, that matters. Rain at the farm itself only helps at the margin:

King said precipitation in Las Cruces isn’t the solution to a large-scale drought.

“Any precipitation is good, but we’re talking a much more long-term and profound drought we’re in,” he said. “One little dusting is not going to cure it.”

Faubion said while recent localized storms in Doña Ana County help in a way because they add moisture to the soil. So, when river water is released from reservoirs later this year, less of it will soak into the ground. Also, the soil moisture can help dormant crops, such as alfalfa and pecans, and some crops that are grown during the winter, he said.

That’s why the mid-range forecasts for the rest of February aren’t super helpful:

8-14 day outlook

8-14 day outlook



New life for one of the West’s zombie water projects?

Ute Pipeline, map courtesy USBR

Ute Pipeline, map courtesy USBR

I have long assumed that the Eastern New Mexico Water Supply Project, also known as the Ute Pipeline, was one of those zombie water projects that never quite dies but will never be built, either. The idea is to build a pipeline from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s Ute Lake on the Canadian River to bring water to eight eastern New Mexico communities, the largest of which is Clovis. The ISC built the reservoir for just such a purpose, but the water users lack a pipeline to get water from reservoir to lake.

Like much in western water, the idea has been that the federal taxpayers will foot the bill. Of the current estimated $523 million cost for the pipeline, $393 million is supposed to come from the feds. Until today, I thought this year’s federal spending on the project was going to be $47,000, which is a rounding error in a $500 million project, and a sign that the feds are not really serious about building this, but are unwilling for political reasons to zero it out.

But today Reclamation threw another $700,000 into the pot for work on the pipeline in the current fiscal year. It’s part of $96.9 million in bonus money Congress gave Reclamation for western drought and rural water infrastructure. Here’s Estevan López’s statement that accompanied the spending plan Reclamation released today for the new money: “Reclamation and its partners are confronting a growing gap between supply and demand in river basins throughout the West,” López said. “The funding released today will help us meet immediate needs and support long-term infrastructure and environmental needs of key water projects.”

So I guess the Ute Pipeline is a key water project, though it’s worth noting the size of the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2016 request for the work: $47,000. At this rate, it’s gonna take a while.

More info:

addendum: Credit for the “zombie water project” name to Peter Gleick, I think. Denise Fort and Barry Nelson several years ago wrote a useful overview (pdf) a few years back that included a lot of projects of this sort.