Deadpool Diaries: Paying to fallow may not save as much water as we think

Given that we’re about to spend a billion dollars to fallow land to reduce water use in the Colorado River Basin, it’s reasonable to ask how we can be sure we know how much water is actually being saved.

The answer, according to new work by Katharine Wright and colleagues at Arizona State University, may be “not as much as we think.”

Wright and her colleagues looked at the oldest and most well-understood rotational fallowing program in the west – the Metropolitan Water District-Palo Verde Irrigation District deal set up two decades ago to fallow land in PVID and use the water to shore up Met’s Colorado River Aqueduct supplies.

Their key finding: over the time period studied, actual savings were far smaller than MWD’s estimates.

The key difference in their work, as compared to the techniques used to derive official estimates, is an effort to analyze farmer behavior – the choices of which fields to enroll in the fallowing program and farmers’ cropping and irrigation practices on non-fallowed fields. If farmers fallow fields that would have used less water anyway, or use more water on the non-fallowed fields, it could sway the estimates.

In other words, water saved by fallowing is not simply a physical science question. It is a behavioral science question as well.

To be clear, I’m not saying Wright and her colleagues are correct here. The technical details are complicated, and I’m not qualified to judge. I’m saying that this is a serious and importantly, independent effort to estimate how much water is really being saved.

As we prepare to spend a billion dollars to fallow a bunch of land to conserve a bunch of water, we should be attentive to the incentives. Who has an incentive to make the savings we’re getting for our billion dollars look big? Who has an incentive to maximize the amount of water we get in the reservoirs for our billion dollars?

A huge thanks to my colleagues at the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, who have been looking at rotational fallowing here in New Mexico (we’re all wrestling with these questions) and brought Wright’s work to my attention.

And as always, a big thanks to Inkstain supporters, who make this possible.

Deadpool Diaries: The Law of Shipwrecks

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

“That boat is totally fixable.” – Greg

That boat is totally fixable.

– Inkstain reader Greg

This raises a fascinating legal question: whose boat is it?

43 U.S. Code § 2101

The Congress finds that—
(a) States have the responsibility for management of a broad range of living and nonliving resources in State waters and submerged lands; and
(b) included in the range of resources are certain abandoned shipwrecks, which have been deserted and to which the owner has relinquished ownership rights with no retention.

I am not a lawyer, but as I read the statute, the state of Nevada pretty clearly has a responsibility here to protect the shipwrecks of Lake Mead for the enjoyment of all.

Historical Perspective on the Accounting for Evaporation and System Losses in the Lower Colorado River Basin

Over the past year, the question of how to account for evaporation and system losses in the Lower Colorado River Basin has become a hot political and policy topic. With the recent Lower Basin water use reduction scheme, we seem to have set the question aside for now. But it’s not going away.

My Science Be Dammed co-author Eric Kuhn and I have just published a dive into the issues:

Water management of the Lower Colorado River has long sidestepped the questions of how to account for and assess the impact of reservoir evaporation and system losses. To date, the preferred strategy has been to ignore those losses. The hydrologic gap left by this approach, which leaves an imbalance between the water flowing into Lake Mead and the amount released for downstream users, has been covered by simply releasing water stored in Lake Mead from the wet decade of the 1990s ensuring that no user bears the brunt of a legal interpretation that might reduce their supply. This disconnect between the river’s allocation framework and hydrologic reality is the result of longstanding governance failures by the U.S. and the Lower Basin states – Arizona, California, and Nevada – including failure of the U.S. to factor in reservoir and system losses in the 1944 Treaty with Mexico and failure of the states to negotiate a Lower Basin compact to apportion their share of the river.


Deadpool Diaries: June 1 Colorado River system status report

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

I hope someone’s keeping track of the re-submergence of the Lake Mead shipwrecks.

Lake Mead ended May 2023 at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. That’s up five feet in a month, at a time of year when the reservoir is usually dropping, so I guess yay? It’s also up 6 1/2 feet from last year, so I guess yay?

But also worth noting: Mead is down 32 feet from May of 2019, the year the oddly-named “Drought Contingency Plan” was signed. I say “oddly named” because the clear outcome here suggests that our plan for the contingency of drought must have been to drain Lake Mead.

2023 water use forecast

We’re far enough into the year that we can get a pretty good feel for how deeply Lower Basin water users are cutting in response to the current crisis.

Total cuts from the states’ base allocations are 1.079 million acre feet, which is less than the 1.2 million acre feet in Reclamation’s classic “Structural Deficit” calculation, and well below the 1.5 million or more – a 20 percent reduction – that’s been widely discussed as the need in a climate-change altered Colorado River Basin.

Here’s how the cuts are being made in 2023:

  • California: 4.178 million acre feet, a 5 percent reduction from California’s base allocation
  • Arizona: 2.031 million acre feet, a 27 percent reduction from Arizona’s base allocation
  • Nevada: 212,000 acre feet, a 29 percent reduction from Nevada’s base allocation

Those numbers are forecasts for calendar year 2023, based on Reclamation’s June 2 analysis.

We can argue over whether this is “fair” – I’ve made my case here – but the reality is that Arizona and Nevada right now are contributing disproportionately to the cuts needed to save Lake Mead.

A big part of the reductions for 2023 are based on the requirements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan. (Puzzled over why Arizona and Nevada have to make cuts under the ’07/DCP and California doesn’t? California’s power politics in the 1960s gave it higher priority rights.)

In response to the near term crisis on the river, California is taking an additional 5 percent in cuts this year beyond the ’07/DCP requirements, Arizona is taking 6 percent, and Nevada is taking 24 percent.

state base allocation 2023 2023 reduction percent cut from base 07/DCP Cut beyond ’07/DCP
California 4,400,000 4,178,000 222,000 5% 0 5%
Arizona 2,800,000 2,031,000 769,000 27% 592,000 6%
Nevada 300,000 212,000 88,000 29% 17,000 24%


End of year forecast

The latest Reclamation 24-month study has Mead ending calendar 2023 at elevation 1,062.32.

Despite this year’s monster snowpack and the gazillions of federal dollars currently chasing water use reductions, that’s still down 28 feet since the end of 2019, the year the DCP was signed.


A big thanks to my supporters – Inkstain will always be free, your help makes it possible.

Deadpool Diaries: The Case for a Shitty Deal

Wrecked speedboat next to reservoir.

Maybe if Lake Mead rises enough this year the boats will be back underwater and we can stop worrying about deadpool.

I’ve had long conversations this week with smart friends grudgingly supporting of the Lower Basin deal to reduce Colorado River water use over the next few years. Their case for it is simple. Yes, it’s an awful deal in so many ways, but it does have the potential to generate some short term water use reductions and cut the red wire on the ticking time bomb.

SNWA’s John Entsminger made the case this way in an interview Monday with Colton Lochhead at the Las Vegas Review Journal:

“I do think this proposal gives us what we need over the next three years, which is critical,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview Monday. “We have serious work to do in terms of longer-term, more durable solutions to be implemented post-2026. It’s an important deal reached by the states today because it gives us the room to work on those longer-term problems.”

My friends making this argument have a crucial credential that I don’t have in making their “sure whatever, it’s terrible but let’s just smile politely and get on with things” argument: they have been or are in the room for negotiations like this. I’m just heckling from the cheap seats.

Yay savings!

The best thing about the deal is an apparent commitment (see below for my reasons for italicizing) to deeper reductions in Lower Basin water use than folks down at that end of the system have been willing to agree to in the past. Three million new acre feet of savings above and beyond what has already been agreed to falls well short of the two to four million acre feet Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us last year would be needed, but with a big snowpack the numbers have changed.

But the savings fall short of what we know is needed

It’s been clear for as long as I’ve been writing seriously about the Colorado River that, if the Upper Basin meets its (contested) Lee Ferry delivery obligation, the Lower Basin needs to cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million acre feet per year. Permanently. Three million acre feet from 2023-26 falls well short of that.

For more than two decades, the Lower Basin has been dithering over how to make the cuts and in the meantime draining the reservoir, essentially building the time bomb that we’re now trying to defuse.

To be clear, enormous progress has been made in the last two decades to build the necessary institutional widgets to bring the system into balance.I wrote a whole book about it! My purpose in writing the book was to build a case for three things:

  • that fears communities often have about the impact of water reductions are misplaced – that we can all get by with less water
  • that successful institutional widgets had been built based on collaboration and sharing that could allow us to adapt
  • that a lot more work was needed to cut far more deeply than we had by the time I handed in the book’s manuscript in December 2015

But in the midst of crisis, and with a ticking bomb, we still haven’t been able to come up with even the bare minimum that we’ve all known for decades that we need in Lower Basin cuts.

We don’t actually know what the deal is

What we’ve got at this point documenting the deal is a “term sheet” and a round of celebratory press releases. We have no official breakdown of the makeup of the 3 million acre feet – what’s California’s share, Nevada’s, Arizona’s – how much is Imperial and Metropolitan and Palo Verde, how much is CAP and Yuma. We’ve got individual state reps telling reporters (shout out to my friends in the fourth estate for trying to push down the path of actually breaking down the numbers). But that’s not the same thing as all of us being able to look at it in writing rather than passing around news site links, to be interpreted like fragments of a Dead Sea scroll.

The deal at this point is a pile of stuff shrouded in a tarp that we’re not allowed to peak under. We’ve just gotta trust the Lower Basin folks that they’ll actually come up with the water.

The reason, as one of my smart “been-in-the-room-where-it-happens” friends pointed out, is that the actual detailed reductions will need to go before the boards of a bunch of water agencies. Which hasn’t happened yet. Which means there are umpty reasons for this to spin out of control.

It crucially depends on federal money flowing to water users to compensate them for water they don’t use, but as Janet Wilson pointed out this week in the Desert Sun, we’ve already missed the chance to save some of that water this year because of bureaucratic stuff. That process is not going well.

We all remember the ducking and diving around the celebrated “500 Plus Plan”. Know, those of you who know what’s under the tarp, why those of us who don’t are legitimately nervous about your approach to cutting the red wire.

So spare me the celebratory press releases and puff pieces about politicians breaking roadblocks.

Yo, Upper Basin here, remember us?

The “seven state letter” is comical, but also revealing.

Nothing in this letter should be construed as an Upper Basin endorsement of the Lower Basin Plan. However, building on the historical success of the Seven States working together to solve the challenges confronting the Colorado River, the Seven States support the submission by the Lower Division States of the Lower Basin Plan to Reclamation concurrent with the submission of this correspondence.

One imagines federal officials desperate to somehow fly a seven-state flag over the deal, and the last-minute phone calls and emails over the weekend aimed at drafting a letter that says something.

At this point, Upper Basin communities (That’s me! Hi!) are just hostages in the next room, unable to help defuse the bomb and hoping y’all down there can figure out how to cut the right wire.

It’s even worse that y’all in the Lower Basin are demanding that the federal taxpayers kick in a billion dollars or you won’t cut any wire at all.

Wait. Which wire was it we were supposed to cut?

Oh shit. Was it the red wire we were supposed to cut? The blue one?

Deadpool Diaries: “Nice river basin ya’ got there….”

Wrecked speedboat on the shore of a reservoir.

Nice boat ya got there, would be a shame if somethin’ happened to it.

This feels like a shakedown.

Nice river basin ya’ got there. Would be shame if somethin’ happened to it.

For decades, Lower Colorado River water users have been taking more water than the river can provide, threatening their own communities’ futures. Unable to come up with a plan to live within their water means, they’re now asking us to pay them to not crash the system on which we all depend.

The shakedown comes in the form of a letter this morning from California, Arizona, and Nevada to the Department of Interior laying out an agreement that would (as near as I can tell, the letter is light on details) reduce water use in the Lower Basin by 3 million acre feet above and beyond already agred-upon cuts (the 2007 Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan) between now and 2026, with the bulk of those reductions to be compensated with federal money.

Some good things in the proposal

I’ve been putting off reporters today, saying I didn’t want to comment without seeing more detail on the proposal’s water numbers. I stand by that hesitancy. It’s hard to know if the cuts will be enough to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. But there’s some language that is encouraging.

First, the proposal includes a helpful “what if” – if the hydrology is bad and the cuts aren’t enough, the states will come up with “an implementable plan” to keep Mead above elevation 1,000. “If such an acceptable plan, as determined by Reclamation, is not developed, Reclamation may independently take action(s) to protect 1,000 feet.”

But I hope you can see the weirdness here. “If we can’t figure out how to save ourselves from our overuse of water, we give Reclamation permission to save us.”

Second, if the hydrology is bad enough to risk dropping Powell below elevation 3,500, the states are cool with Reclamation dropping releases from Powell as low as 6 million acre feet. Sorta. “If we can’t figure out how to reduce our use enough to save Glen Canyon Dam, we give Reclamation permission to go ahead and save it anyway.”

Other People’s Money, Other People’s Values

In the fall class Bob Berrens and I teach in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, we have a common refrain in discussion of the students’ suggestions for dealing with water shortfalls: “That sounds like a great idea, how are you going to pay for it?” The answer is invariably state or federal money  – “other people’s money”, not the money of the community benefitting from the use of the water and suffering the consequences of shortages.

We spend a lot of time talking about the tradeoff. When you take other people’s money, you also have to accept other people’s values.

Here’s the pertinent language from today’s letter from California, Arizona, and Nevada:

System Conservation up to 2.3 MAF will be federally compensated under Pub. L. 117-169 Inflation Reduction Act Title V, Subtitle B, Part 3 “Drought Response and Preparedness” Section 50233 “Drought Mitigation in the Reclamation States” (IRA Funding).

There seems to be $1.2 billion of that IRA money on the table here, according to the New York Times story.

That’s the shakedown. If you don’t pay us a big pile of federal cash, we’ll just run Lake Mead to deadpool. Or, alternatively, if you don’t pay us a big pile of federal cash, we’ll drag the Colorado River Basin into litigation that will make the river ungovernable, a sort of institutional deadpool. Either way, it’s a shakedown.

There’s nothing here that is any sort of a nod to what we might expect from the Lower Basin in return for our largesse other than, “If you pay us, we won’t crash the thing.”

The Dangerous Precedent

I am sympathetic to the water users whose entitlements were ensured under Article VIII of the Colorado River Compact: “Present perfected rights to the beneficial use of waters of the Colorado River System are unimpaired by this compact.

This is an important protection for Tribal water rights, and also some of the big ag districts. Great! Let the Lower Basin’s junior users work out a deal with the pre-compact rights holders to move that water around. Let’s see a QSA for Arizona. Let’s see QSA II for California. Show us your plan to live within your means, other than “Pay us to live within our means.”

The approach in the Lower Basin states letter – have the federal taxpayers pick up the tab rather than the people who’ve created the mess – sets a dangerous precedent for our approach in the post-2026 Colorado River management world.




The Stotts Lateral: new candidate for “Albuquerque’s Most Urban Ditch”

Graffiti-lined irrigation ditch corridor with bicycle.

The Stotts Lateral, off the 6100 block of North Second, Albuquerque, New Mexico. May 2023

My search for Albuquerque’s “Most Urban Irrigation Ditch” took us yesterday to the Stotts Lateral in the North Valley. The Stotts is about a half mile long, carrying water under the railroad tracks from the Alameda Lateral to the Alameda Drain. The east half is underground. The west half, tiny and concrete-lined, is an urban art gallery.

I’d been there before on one of those “never quite lost but I’ve no idea where I am” bike rides. We’d come in from the back side on one of our searches for safe places to cross the railroad tracks, and I knew it was wonderful and a good place to cross the tracks, but I couldn’t remember quite where it was.

The railroad corridor through Albuquerque’s North Valley matters a great deal for the new book Bob Berrens and I are writing, because you can’t make sense of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande without understanding the way the construction of the railroad in 1880 changed the community’s relationship with the river by changing where we were and what we were doing there.

Our story is thus about the tension between old rural subsistence ways and urbanity/modernity.

On this stretch of Second we’ve got a weirdly lovely little irrigation ditch slipping between Acme Iron and Metal (“the largest scrap metal recycler in New Mexico”) and an aging min-storage lot.

The graffiti along the railroad corridor is, in general, one of Albuquerque’s great art collections. The Stotts Lateral is one of the collection’s great gallery spaces.

I’m pushing our “gardening” metaphor to the breaking point when I say this, but as Scot and I rode down the Stotts yesterday, there was a guy with a spray can in one hand talking on a cell phone in the other, painting a magnificent huge tag. The sweep of his arm, the line confidence as he sprayed almost casually while talking, was like a slow graceful dance.

He was tending this particular garden.

I wonder who Stotts was?



Yes, Cochiti Dam is really five miles long

OK, 4.75 miles. I rounded up.

A skeptical blog commenter suggested I was exaggerating the size of Cochiti Dam.

I was not.

Last year, on a bike ride to explore the area I am writing about for the new book, I rode NM16 up out of the Rio Grande Valley and around the dam’s southeastern flank to get a view of the dogleg at the dam’s southeastern end where it hooks around to dam the Rio Santa Fe. Mostly I ride for fun, but I ride the landscape I’m writing about to get a visceral feel for the subject, and riding around the base of the dam gave me a feel for the scale. But I did go to the maps to measure after I got back from the ride.

The size is variously estimated at 5, 5.25, or 5.5 miles, I think depending of how much of the anchoring work on either end you count. It has been characterized (at 5.5 miles) as “the longest dam in the United States“, though I haven’t done the work to verify that.

The size was an object of enthusiastic marvel (by some) when as it was being built. In a June 1973 “Discover New Mexico” article, the Santa Fe New Mexican gushed about the chance to see the construction underway – the spectacle of the construction of a five mile long earthen dam:

Anyone who fails to drive out to the observation point above the dam-sit, where he can watch construction operations and see the harnessing of the sometimes turbulent, often lazy, Rio Grande, diminishes his knowledge of the Land of Enchantment….

The observation point boasts a comfort station, ample parking space, and a vantage point for watching ant-like objects crawling the length of the earthfill dam. All five miles of it. (emphasis added)

Though, as this morning’s blog post pointed out, the enthusiasm for the dam’s grandeur as it was being built was not shared by the people of Cochiti, on whose land it was built and whose sacred sites it destroyed. No mention of that in the 1973 article.

On Cochiti dam and the notion of “flooding”

Submerged swimming dock in a reservoir with a gorgeous New Mexico sky behind it.

When you hold water behind a flood control dam to protect stuff downstream from flooding, and it inundates a swimming beach, is that a “flood”? Cochiti Dam, May 2023, photo by John Fleck

Rio Grande flow dropped this week through Albuquerque, at a time when we should expect it to be rising with the accelerating melt of an unusually large snowmelt.

What’s up with that?

The answer (see below, I’m can’t figure out how to tl;dr this) is a case study in the stuff we’re trying to explain in our new book.

Otowi, Cochiti

Orange graph on white background showing Rio Grande rising over the last month at Otowi.

A rising Rio Grande.

Upstream at Otowi, as the Rio Grande enters the last narrow canyon before it hits the Albuquerque reach of the river, what we call the “Middle Rio Grande Valley”, the river is rising.

But between Otowi and us, there’s a big dam at a place called Cochiti.

“Big dam” doesn’t fully capture its bigness. I can still remember the visceral reaction when I was wandering the area around the dam’s eastern flank last year and found a vantage point where I could see the whole thing. The crest of Cochiti Dam is five miles long. It dams not one but two rivers, the Rio Grande and the Rio Santa Fe.

The cultural damage its construction caused to the people of Cochiti Pueblo, the Native American  community whose land the dam’s construction slashed through when it was built in the 1960s and ’70s, is incalculably larger.

Here are the words of Cochiti’s Regis Pecos:

To see this construction proceed before our eyes; sacred space and place defined by all those who had gone before violated before our eyes was very hurtful. Unimaginable pain. It was piercing the hearts of our people daily. One of the most emotional periods in our history was watching our ancestors torn from their resting places, removed during excavation. The places of worship were dynamited, destroyed, and desecrated by the construction. The traditional homelands were destroyed. When the flood gates closed and waters filled Cochiti Lake, to see the devastation to all of the agricultural land upon which we had walked and had learned the lessons of life from our grandfathers destroyed before our yes was like the world was coming to an end.

A brief history of the idea of a dam at Cochiti

For the new book (Fleck and Berrens, Ribbons of Green: The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City, to be published by the University of New Mexico Press once Bob and I figure out how to write it), I’ve been working on a chapter about … well, I’m not sure exactly what it’s about yet, which is why I’m working here in the sketchbook.

The first mention of a dam in White Rock Canyon seems to have come from John Wesley Powell in an 1890 report to Congress. The arrival of the railroad in central New Mexico had happened 10 years before, and Albuquerque was beginning to claw its way into modernity when Powell said this:

The canyon walls are hundreds of feet, and in some cases more than a thousand feet, above the waters. White Rock Canyon empties below into a valley which I shall call the Albuquerque Valley. In it lie Bernalillo, Albuquerque, Los Lunas, Socorro, and other towns. Now, all the water that comes out of White Rock Canyon can be used in the Albuquerque Valley. Whoever has control of that point owns that dam site and has the right to take the water out of its natural channel and carry it into canals – has command of all the agriculture of that great district.

“Whoever has control of that point” – that phrase jumped at me off the page, angrily demanding to be admitted to the pages of our book. “Whoever has control of that point….” Because from time immemorial, that point has been a part of Cochiti.

By the 1930s, “Whoever has control of that point….” was the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which built a low irrigation diversion dam – it didn’t impound water or slow flood waters, just created a stable surface for an irrigation head gate.

By the 1960s, “Whoever has control of that point….” was passed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the huge dam that looms over Cochiti Pueblo today.

The notion of “flood control”

I’m rolling all of this around because of two things. The first is some remarkable Congressional testimony from Jose Alcario Montoya, Cochiti’s governor, to members of Congress in 1943 when they were considering construction of a flood control dam to protect Albuquerque. Here’s how I’m excerpting it for the book:

“And so I have heard yesterday here that we are in very great danger from flood and that we are losing land,” said Montoya, whose community sits at the valley’s upstream end 75 miles above Albuquerque. “I do not think it is so that we have lost any land.”

“Suppose the land is on one side of the river and the river cuts over and cuts part of that land away. While it is doing that it is making new land on the other side and so we never lose any. When the river gets down, we use that land again for cultivation.”

The second was a conversation with the person working the entrance booth at Cochiti Lake.

Pooled behind the dam, a modest “recreation pool” allows swimming and no-wake boating. But the booth person explained when I visited that the swimming beach was closed “because of the flood”.

This use of the word was weird.

The reason Cochiti Lake is rising, and the flows downstream of the dam have been reduced, is a decision by water managers to throttle back flows to protect a bridge culvert downstream, in Los Lunas, New Mexico. Last Saturday night, the culvert collapse and swallowed up a bicyclist. (He’s beat up, but OK.)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s fourth definition for flood kinda matches the sense being used for the closure of the Cochiti swimming beach: “An overflowing or irruption of a great body of water over land not usually submerged.”

The point Montoya was making was that if you let a river move around, and then move with it, “flooding” is not a thing that happens. But as soon as we built a city in the place where a river would naturally go during high spring flows, you create “flooding” where in the past it would simply have been a river doing its normal river things.

So you build bridges, and culverts, and a big dam upstream to contain “floods”. Instead of a river’s natural bed, we name it the “flood plain”, which naturally spilled out of my keyboard a few paragraphs ago without me even realizing the semiotic baggage the phrase carried. (See scare quotes.)

And you build a flood control dam. And then you build a swimming beach, and then when the water behind the flood control dam starts to rise because you are trying to protect a bridge culvert in Los Lunas, and inundates the beach, you call that a “flood”.

Sorry this was so long, I didn’t have time to write a shorter blog post. I’ll tighten it up for the book.