the monsoon arrived, and the citizens of Tucson and Albuquerque did rejoice

The dewpoint yesterday (Tues. June 28, 2016) passed a sort of vaguely science-based but somewhat arbitrary threshold for the start of the monsoon in Albuquerque – three consecutive days above 47F (8.3C):

and thus it begins

and thus it begins

They’re partying in Tucson, too:

The argument for California to make a Colorado River deal

The trick now is for the three U.S. states sharing the Colorado River’s water downstream of of Lake Mead – Nevada, Arizona, and California – to negotiate some sort of a deal that reduces their collective take on the river. That’s trick one. Trick two is for state negotiators to then sell the deal back home to sometimes recalcitrant local water agencies that take a dim view of giving up water.

As, for example, San Diego?

First, the case for a deal:

Under current law, California has first dibs on much of the river’s water. California’s rights to the Colorado are so secure that the Central Arizona Project —a 336-mile series of canals and pipelines that brings river water to 80 percent of Arizona’s population— would have to run dry before California has to lose a single drop.

That is the consequence of a deal worked out in the late-1960s. That might be the law, but it’s now hard to imagine letting civilization in Arizona wither while California is unscathed.

Water officials involved in the negotiations worry that without a new deal, politicians will eventually decide everyone’s collective fates rather than technocrats like themselves with experience managing water.

That’s Ry Rivard getting to the heart of why California looks like it may be willing to make a deal on the Colorado that gives up water to which the state might feel legally entitled. But then:

The San Diego County Water Authority is not involved in the negotiations. Instead, it’s on the sidelines and taking a dim view of the talks. The Water Authority calls them a “dubious closed door process.”

This is one of the key arguments I make in my book (pre-order now!) – the importance of the interface between large scale basin-facing management processes and all the local agencies back home that actually distribute the water. Our success or failure at that interface is precisely our success or failure at keeping the system from crashing.

Lake Powell at its highest level in four years

Despite a below-average year in the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell will reach its summer peak this year at its highest level in four years. That comes despite the fact that, once again, the Upper Basin is releasing “bonus” water from Glen Canyon Dam to prop up water users in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. From Lake Powell Life:

“The silent but important statistic is that Lake Powell has provided extra water to Mead in five of the past 10 years, including the giant release of 12.5 maf in 2011….”

Lake Powell, courtesy USBR

Lake Powell, courtesy USBR

The “bonus water” is part of the agreement under the 2007 “interim guidelines“, which include a Rube Goldberg contraption of a ruleset that governs how much water is released under varying reservoir conditions. The “normal” release is 8.23 million acre feet (I call it “normal” because I despair of finding words that all the lawyers can agree on). This year’s planned release is 9 million acre feet, based on the idea that balancing the contents of the two reservoirs is a good idea.

Powell’s at elevation 3,619 today. That’s nearly a hundred feet above the critical threshold of 3,525, below which Powell starts to have problems generating power and delivering needed water downstream. That sounds like a lot, but remember that Powell dropped near 100 feet in the first four years of the 21st century. As you can see from the graph, Powell’s been rising slowly, but it can drop in a hurry.

Gila River diversion being significantly downscaled

We now have an answer to the question of where the money will come from for a billion dollar diversion to take water from the Gila River, a Colorado River tributary in southwestern New Mexico.


Laura Paskus has the scoop on this week’s decision by the project’s governing body to abandon the Cadillac versions of the project that were under study and stick with a far more modest project:

This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River.

With that vote, the NMCAPE officially rejected earlier large-scale plans, including one with an estimated billion dollar price tag.  By tamping down the budget, the board also acknowledged that the project will be smaller – and not one capable of delivering all 14,000 acre feet of water the state has rights to under federal law.


a monsoon looms

This is one of my favorite weather times of year in Albuquerque, the moment of anticipation when our monsoon looms. As monsoons go, it’s a pretty modest affair, and I’d frequently get crap from Albuquerque Journal readers objecting to the term – it’s not a real monsoon, someone who’s been to south Asia would frequently complain.


The pattern, and the reason the pattern matters culturally, is the same: an arid foresummer, hot and dry with a whiff of danger, followed by a moisture pump streaming up from the ocean and then those refreshing afternoon/evening showers.

monsoon creeping north through Mexico

monsoon creeping north through Mexico

The first thing to watch for is the rain creeping up the Sierra Madre in central Mexico.


And rising dewpoints. Albuquerque’s dewpoints shot up four days ago, and have been staying high since.


Most important, though, is tracking the nights Lissa and I sit in the shelter of our front porch watching the rain splatter our driveway, counting the seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and grinning a bit.

First one of those last night. So check. The monsoon approaches.

Palm Springs, a water conservation success?

Palm Springs, in the deserts of Southern California, would never be mistaken for an actual desert. They dump too much water on their landscaping for that.  But Ian James reports they’re getting better:

May turned out to be a banner month for water conservation in the Palm Springs area, with customers of the Desert Water Agency cutting back by 39 percent and surpassing a state-mandated goal.

Metro Los Angeles – one of the places Californians *do* regulate their groundwater

Steve Scauzillo wrote last week about the Water Replenishment District of Southern California’s decision to invest $110 million in a new wastewater treatment plant, that they might use 21,000 acre feet now discharged to the ocean to recharge regional aquifers instead.

Water Replenishment District of Southern California

Water Replenishment District of Southern California

Formed in the early 1960s, the WRD is the best example of one of the places where Californians do regulate their groundwater. In the rhetoric around California’s groundwater management failures, the Central Basin and West Basin agency, which spans the core of the Los Angeles metro area, is sometimes missed. I suspect that’s because they’ve been doing it for so long it’s just taken for granted. But as California struggles with setting up groundwater management in places it hasn’t done it before, there are lessons to be learned in the places that it has.

I’d love it if you could at this point just buy my book so you could read the chapter about the formation of groundwater governance in this region, but it’s not out yet (preorder now!), so at the risk of giving away important content for free…. Southern Californians created what Elinor Ostrom and colleagues might have called “covenants without a sword“, which is to say binding agreements among water users in the basin to regulate groundwater pumping and collectively act to manage the aquifer through an extensive recharge program along with creation of seawater barriers to prevent saltwater intrusion, but without the heavy hand of the state of California acting as an enforcer (the “sword”). Instead, the water user community polices itself.

West Basin groundwater levels

West Basin groundwater levels

This goes back to the 1930s and ’40s, when communities in West Basin, out near the coast, saw groundwater levels dropping and saltwater intrusion threatening their groundwater supplies. Ostrom’s doctoral thesis documents the struggle to create governance institutions that avoided a “tragedy of the commons”. By the 1960s and ’70s, the communities had set management goals for their aquifer that restricted pumping, managed recharge, and treated their aquifer as a valuable reservoir and storage reservoir that could be used as a sort of “working reserve” that fluctuates up and down in response to the availability of surface supplies. The aquifer is not off limits completely. Rather, it’s managed in conjunction with other supplies to ensure a sustainable water supply for the region.

The Albuquerque example

My own city of Albuquerque has been engaged in a successful aquifer management effort over the last decade (I’ve written a lot about this here at Inkstain, and of course pre-order my book for more, Albuquerque’s success is in some ways both the rhetorical starting point and ending point for the book’s argument) that has some similarities. John Stomp, our water utility’s Chief Operating Officer, spoke to my UNM Water Resources Program class last fall about the new Water Resources Management Strategy now in development, which looks increasingly like what they’ve done in West Basin. (disclosure: In my post-journalism career, I’ve recently begun working with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority doing some technical writing on the WRMS. Disclosure 2: Some of my smart New Mexico water friends are less enthusiastic than I about Albuquerque’s approach, Dennis Domrzalski explains their concerns here.)

The new wastewater recycling Scauzillo writes about is not the first time they’ve done that. In fact, they’ve been doing that for decades, averaging 55,000 acre feet per year. But they also still use some imported water (Colorado River and State Water Project supplies, which come from Northern California). The new project will mean the replenishment is entirely weaned from that imported water.

on thinking the worst

I think we often think the worst of people, and despair of certain political mechanisms, when they don’t deliver what we want. We fear the consequences of political outcomes that don’t reflect our values or interests and – particularly during a heated referendum in which so many people are involved – get a bit of a shock when we see how many people hold opposing views so passionately. For the people most engaged in debate, this can be a visceral experience that reduces our ability to take a step back and give us more time to consider events and their meaning.

Paul Cairney. He’s talking about Britain’s vote this week, but it seems relevant elsewhere.