Putting the water back

Laura Paskus on an encounter with Jennifer Pitt in the Colorado River Delta:

Walking through the cottonwood forest, Pitt says this landscape was destroyed before anyone figured out what to do about it. When the Colorado River started running dry in the mid-20th century, there weren’t yet environmental laws to temper or stop destructive operations or policies.

“We didn’t have a regulatory framework, we didn’t have courts, and we didn’t have any leverage,” Pitt says. “We figured that out at some point in the mid-2000s and figured out that as a conservation advocacy community our path forward had to be collaboration and cooperation. We had no choice….”

“The perspective on rivers that has allowed us, as a society, to manage them unsustainably—where our demands exceed supply, which has devastated the health of rivers—is also set up to devastate communities,” Pitt says. Fixing rivers means stabilizing water supplies for communities, both urban and rural. As water managers and stakeholders wrangle with policy, infrastructure and water uses and rights, they can also be deliberate about healthy rivers—or, she says, “remnants” of healthy rivers.

Unlike in the past, environmentalists and community advocates aren’t always on the outside, unable to apply the brakes to destructive projects or unsustainable policies, she says. And addressing climate change offers the chance to look at things differently, too.

“All those water management systems that seemed in the past so fossilized and unable to adapt to changing social values are now having to change because of climate change and the declining supply,” Pitt says. “As they’re revisiting the policy, which will change the infrastructure, which will change how water is distributed across economies and societies—now is the time for us to be at the table, helping to find the ways to at least not lose more, and in some cases, to try and rebuild.”

Florence Hawley Ellis

This afternoon I tweeted a picture of this treasure, found in the stacks of the University of New Mexico’s Centennial Science and Engineering Library:

Schulman E. Tree-ring hydrology of the Colorado River basin. University of Arizona; 1946.

Tom Swetnam, a friend who is the former director of the UofA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, recognized the name in the top-right corner: “Looks like that may be Florence Hawley Ellis’ personal copy of Schulman’s classic. From UNM Library?”, with a link to this autobiographical sketch:

I have directed field schools for the Univ. of New Mexico: 1948, 1949, and for 3 seasons in the early 1950s at San Gabriel del Yungue at San Juan, for 5 seasons in the 1950s and ’60s at Sapawe near El Rito, in 1971 at Tsama on the Chama, and since then for Ghost Ranch a number of sessions in Gallina mountain sites and in 1975 and 1976 on Gallina village sites. Before directing field schools I worked with the Univ. of Ariz. in excavations in summers and then with the Univ. of New Mexico in the Chaco where I spent 11 seasons at tree-ring collecting and research, excavations, and directing laboratory work.

Schulman’s work is a treasure for other reasons.

For The New Project, Eric Kuhn and I are tracing the evolution of our scientific understanding of the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin, and Schulman’s 1946 LTRR report is a key milestone in the expansion of the toolkit from the stream gauge record to include paleo-hydrologic reconstructions using tree rings.

I think (commenters who know this literature please jump in) that this is the first published tree-ring reconstruction of the flow of the Colorado River, though Schulman and A.E. Douglass, the founder of the Tree-Ring Lab and basically the whole founder of the dendro thing period, had done unpublished work during World War II to try to help the war effort by clarifying the flow of the Colorado River and therefore the hydropower available for the war effort. And in fact there’s a reference in this monograph to some work Douglass published in 1936 that may have taken a preliminary stab at a Colorado River flow reconstruction. So more to come.

I’m particularly loving this dive into the literature because my first book was about tree rings, and it’s always been one of my favorite bits of science. That this particular copy of Schulman’s work belonged to Florence Hawley Ellis, a pioneer, as well, makes it doubly cool.

Do kids in greener neighborhoods grow up with bigger brains?

This is so far out of my area of expertise that I have no way of evaluating methodology or results, except to point out that it’s worth thinking about the water policy implications:

The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren

Lifelong exposure to greenness was positively associated with gray matter volume in the left and right prefrontal cortex and in the left premotor cortex and with white matter volume in the right prefrontal region, in the left premotor region, and in both cerebellar hemispheres. Some of these regions partly overlapped with regions associated with cognitive test scores (prefrontal cortex and cerebellar and premotor white matter), and peak volumes in these regions predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.

It is at the very least another reminder that my longstanding enthusiasm for water “conservation” may be missing things.

Dadvand, Payam, et al. “The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren.” Environmental Health Perspectives 27012: 1.

The Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s Colorado River allocation

Very little of the Colorado River’s water originates in New Mexico. The San Juan, one of the Colorado’s main tributaries, starts in the mountains of Colorado, cutting through a corner of the state’s northwest desert, before snaking into the canyon country of Arizona and Utah. Yet when the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed in 1948, we were allocated a disproportionately large share of the river’s water.

Back in 2012 and 2013, while still a newspaper reporter, I took a deep dive into the history to try to understand why. It resulted in this:

It was 1948.

Fred Wilson, New Mexico’s representative to the interstate group working to divide up the waters of the Upper Colorado River Basin, was pleading.

“The state of New Mexico wants the Indians to be protected,” Wilson told the other commissioners at the gathering in Vernal, Utah. The federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs had estimated that future water needs for Navajo Nation lands within the state of New Mexico would be substantial. But no deal that did not set aside enough water for both Indian and non-Indian water users could win political approval in New Mexico, Wilson told the other negotiators.

Wilson got his way. The final Upper Colorado River Basin Compact gave New Mexico a large share of water compared with the state’s contributions to the big river’s flow.

New Mexico got the water, but seven decades later a group of non-Indians persist in fighting a rear guard action to try to prevent it from being allocated to New Mexico’s Navajo residents.

The issue has risen again, with a story today by my former colleague Mark Oswald about the latest attempt by Victor Marshall, the attorney for the non-Indian San Juan River water users, to try to invalidate a 2005 agreement finally acknowledging the Navajos’ entitlement to their share of the river’s water.

I spent months examining Marshall’s claims in detail. His legal claims are dubious, having failed repeatedly in court. His hydrologic claims are laughable, aimed at repeatedly exaggerating the size of the Navajo peoples’ share of the water in order to make it seem an unreasonably large share of the state’s water. See here for my attempt at a simple explanation.

But this is about more than law and hydrology. There is an implicitly racist element to this litigation – the implication that in allocating water to residents of the Navajo Nation it is being taken from New Mexicans. These people are New Mexicans. This is simply a legal recognition of water that is rightfully theirs.

New Mexico has an entitlement to this water under the Upper Basin Compact because we demanded it to meet the needs of, and legal obligations to, this group of New Mexicans. The “othering” here is a relic of a painful past.


Is democracy to blame for our infrastructure problems?

In general, if you ask people if they would prefer to pay less, or more, for a given product, the answer is likely to be “less”. Democracy is, at root, the process of asking such a question.

This, Manny Teodoro argues, is at the heart of the U.S. infrastructure problem:

The trouble is that, in too many cases, local democratic governance is a big part of why America faces an infrastructure funding crisis. State and local politicians have been too often unwilling to raise the taxes and fees necessary to maintain infrastructure adequately—even with municipal bond rates at historic lows. National political dynamics make it unlikely that Congress will produce a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bailout. Long-term shifts in national politics might eventually change that picture, but the roads, dams, plants, pipes, and ports don’t care. They’ll continue to degrade without reinvestment.

I’ve written before about a related argument made by Teodoro, a political scientist at Texas A&M, regarding democratic governance and water conservation. More from him on infrastructure problems and new discussions of federal funding initiatives here.

Some thoughts on “the West’s Disappearing Water”

We lost the daily direct flights between Albuquerque and Tucson a decade ago when the economy tanked, which left me in a shuttle yesterday morning at sunup driving north on I-10 from Tucson to Phoenix to catch a flight home after a couple of very intense, very productive days discussing water.*

It’s a beautiful stretch of desert, except when it’s not, capturing my ambivalence about life in the desert southwest – saguaros marching up the sides of rocky desert hills, the dry bed of the Gila River, spreads of nut orchards (pecans?), Central Arizona’s ever-present cotton fields, the spreading sprawl of Tucson creeping north and greater Phoenix heading south.

Tree rings, at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, Tucson

And of course all of this is tied up in my changing understanding of water. At this point in my life, it’s impossible for me not to map water onto the landscape, built or not, or conversely map the landscape onto the water.

It once would have been easy for me to tell this story, about what I was seeing as the Arizona Shuttle driver whisked us up the interstate, past the cotton fields and pecan orchards and sprouting subdivisions. My traditional, old school narrative could have easily riffed on how crazy it all was, that this is a desert and what Arizonans have done makes no sense.

The riff would have included the bizarre sight of “Lake Pleasant” on the north edge of the Phoenix metro area where they (we?) pump Colorado River water up a hill into a dammed desert canyon and then water ski on it (How crazy is that?), or the desert water writer’s obligatory observation about all the pools you see as your plane climbs out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.

173,500 acres of cotton (2017’s harvested acreage, up 34 percent from 2016) in a desert state like Arizona? Really?

Here you have the dilemma – a landscape of saguaros and irrigated cotton. We’ve made some strange choices. And yet those are the choices we made, and the question becomes what to do next.

And here Young John and Old John have parted company.

In my quest to better teach some critical communication skills to UNM Water Resources Program students, I’m in the midst of reading They Say / I Say, a popular text on academic writing. The book’s central bit of business revolves around the importance of having a work of rhetoric engage in dialogue with that which came before – start with what “they say”, and then offer your own argument in response.

in dialogue

For me, to write about the Colorado River Basin, about water in the west, was to unavoidably enter into such a dialogue with Marc Reisner, whose epic book Cadillac Desert profoundly shaped Young John’s thinking. And so in the introductory chapter of my own book, I engaged Reisner in a very explicit way:

Reisner concentrated his fierce critique on what he saw as a corrupt process that overbuilt the West’s great plumbing system. The subtitle notwithstanding, Cadillac Desert spends little time on the “dis- appearing water,” or the actual human consequences of water shortages. But neither did Reisner shy away from apocalyptic rhetoric. In the 1993 afterword to the book’s second edition, Reisner was explicit. California had just experienced what was at the time its worst drought on record, which, Reisner said, “qualifies best as punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.”

Like many who manage, engineer, utilize, plan for, and write about western water today, I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe. I first wrote about water shortage in California during that same late-1980s–early-’90s drought Reisner bemoans. But as drought set in again across the Colorado River Basin in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I was forced to grapple with a contradiction: despite what Reisner had taught me, people’s faucets were still running. Their farms were not drying up. No city was left abandoned.

I began asking the same question, again and again: when the water runs short, who actually runs out? What does that look like? Far from the punishment of an indignant God, I found instead a remarkable adaptability.

Thus when I point out that Arizona’s water use peaked around 1980, before the publication of Cadillac Desert, that last year’s Arizona cotton acreage was just 25 percent of its 1953 peak (source:  USDA), that municipal water use in Arizona’s populated central valleys around Tucson and Phoenix declined from 2010 to 2015 even as their populations continued to rise (source: USGS), I am in a “they say/I say” dialogue not so much with Reisner as with my younger self.

Young John’s riff on the craziness of Lake Pleasant and swimming pools and irrigated cotton hard against the saguaros missed two important things with which Old John has made truce. The first is that the cotton fields and swimming pools bring genuine value to the people who chose them, who would prefer to keep them. The second is that, faced with scarcity, we have shown again and again the ability to back away from the water supply cliff, to use less water in a way that – and this is the crucial point – allows us to preserve a significant measure of that which we value.

Phoenix and Tucson (and Albuquerque), in all their strip malled sprawling glories, are not going away easily, nor need they.

And yet….

At dinner Friday night on Tucson’s west side – an impromptu dendro grad student/postdoc gathering (thanks Will!) – we had enchiladas and chile rellenos and talked megadrought.

Dendro people – those who use tree rings to tease out and help us think about ancient climates – have a particular and particularly useful vantage point on life in the arid landscapes of western North America. I’d make a joke about what a drag they are at parties as they eagerly point out that the west has experienced droughts far deeper and longer than anything in what we call “the instrumental record” – the period for which we have rain and stream gauges to measure how much water we have to work with. And that the risk of megadrought’s return is rapidly rising because of climate change.

But really, I love the people of dendro. Their story matters.

And I do not know how to answer their question about what happens under their megadrought scenarios. I can do some relatively straightforward arithmetic in response – the ability for city people to use X percent less water than they are using today, even after the conservation we’ve already done, the ability for farm communities to continue to exist while irrigating far less acreage. Those are the conversations we’ll need to have, and they are far more robust if we can get beyond the rhetoric of “punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God”.

I am the professional optimist of the Colorado River Basin, until I sit down with the dendro people. This could be hard.

* A huge thanks to Sharon Megdal of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center for hosting the visit and arranging a couple of really valuable chances to talk to members of the University of Arizona community, and Sarah Frederick, Bethany Coulthard, Will Tintor, and Kevin Anchukaitis of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research for some great bonus time.

Water, not for fighting over

While historically, water has been depicted as something that has driven a wedge between communities, “I think it should be something that ties our communities together,” Mueller said. “We all need it, we all depend on it, we all want it in one way or the other. If we can work together (on water) we’re much stronger.”

That’s Andy Mueller, the new director of the Colorado River District.

Hey Tucson, I’ll be yammering at the University of Arizona Thursday

Thursday at 4:

With another dry year setting in across the West, the challenges of meeting the water supply needs of a growing population while maintaining our rural communities and a healthy environment are again being thrown in sharp relief. The continuing decline of Lake Mead has become a symbol of deepening problems, but there are also less-noticed examples of success – in conserving water and sharing in times of scarcity – which we need to understand in order to craft solutions.

John Fleck – A former journalist with 30 years’ experience writing about water in the West. John Fleck joined the University of New Mexico faculty in 2017, where he directs the university’s Water Resources Program. He is the author of Water is For Fighting Over: and Other Myths About Water in the West, an account of the roots of the region’s water problems combined with an optimistic narrative about our growing success in solving them.

Refreshments will be served. (emphasis added)


“drought” – Philp on weather, water, and yesteryear’s language

Tom Philp had a great piece in Water Deeply last week about the language we use:

Water policy becoming a prisoner of its own limited vocabulary, particularly when it comes to the weather. Here is a case that “drought” and “normal” belong in the dustbin of history, for their overuse can lead to the wrong conversation. These words are not so sinister as to be banned from the dictionary. But they tend to miss the mark as to what seems to be happening with our weather this century.

I was thinking about this as I read my morning California Department of Water Resources daily news links:

Drought Headlines

“Drought” is becoming an increasingly unhelpful word, or, as Tom put it,

Meanwhile, we all watch the weather. We all wonder what about the future. And we converse about it in yesteryear’s language.