Trash day: mundane, yet remarkable

A city street, lined with trash cans, as seen from a mountain.

Note the trash cans.

Coming back from a morning hike in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, I rounded a bend to see the scene above.

Note the trash cans lining the street. It is mundane, yet remarkable precisely because of how unremarkable it is. A large community of people has somehow come together, to act collectively, to get rid  of trash. This collective action, the getting-rid-of-trash stuff, depends on the broader collective action of building streets. It also requires a common shared understanding: “In my neighborhood, Monday is trash day.” Which rests on an even broader collective shared understanding – the notion of “Monday”, of a calendar.

The layers of such shared collective actions in this picture go on and on – the power lines running down the foothills behind me as I took he picture, the big water tanks and underground plumbing, the flood control dams at the mouths of each arroyo that allowed those houses to be there without being washed away.

Cities are amazing things, all the more so because of how mundane it all seems.

Opening the gates on the 2024 irrigation season in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley

Irrigation ditch flanked by bare dirt roads and trees with no leaves. A small amount of brown water in the ditch.

First water in the Duranes Lateral, Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 2023

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s crews will usher the first water into the ditches of New Mexico’s middle valley Feb. 26, district Water Distribution Division Manager Matt Martinez told the district’s board at yesterday afternoon’s meeting.

The early water doesn’t go to irrigators right away. It’s needed to “charge” the system, wetting earthen ditches closely connected to the shallow aquifer, testing out the plumbing, finding any problem spots in the distribution system before the first water is diverted to yards, gardens, and crops later in March. Think of it as the middle valley irrigation equivalent of spring training baseball’s “pitchers and catchers report.”

What’s great about the baseball metaphor is the nervous optimism found in both.

Spring training is a time of optimism, the start of a great becoming that’s going to unfold over the coming spring, summer and fall – stiff arms, leafless trees, muddy ditchbank roads, a snowpack building but not yet subject to the vicissitudes of New Mexico’s warm April winds.

Pitchers and catchers can practice their rhythms, getting the signs down, working on the new breaking ball, clearing out the tumbleweeds that accumulated over the winter.

I love first water in the valley.

No Change in Reservoir Storage … and That’s Good News

By Jack Schmidt | February 12, 2024 (cross-posted from the Center for Colorado River Studies)

Nothing really changed in Colorado River Basin reservoir storage during January 2024. That is really good news as the basin prepares for the upcoming irrigation season.

1. Total basin water storage did not significantly change during January 2024 (Fig. 1, blue line). In fact, total basin storage increased a tiny bit—34,000 af (acre feet)—and was 28.0 million af on 31 January. Conditions in the basin remain comparable to conditions in spring 2021. There is no reason so stop our efforts to conserve reservoir storage!

Figure 1

Figure 1. Graph showing total basin storage in 46 reservoirs in the Colorado River basin between 1 January 2021 and 31 January 2024 (blue line). The black arrow points to the previous time when reservoir storage was at this amount. Total storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the same period is shown by the orange line. Compiled from data downloaded at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/hydrodata/reservoir_data/site_map.html

 

2. Although the total storage has not changed, storage in specific reservoirs has been adjusted. Storage in CRSP reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, including Fontenelle (Fig 2, green line) decreased by 109,000 af and has been decreasing since mid-summer 2023. Storage in Lake Powell (Fig. 2, gold line) decreased by 303,000 af. There was no significant change in storage in other Upper Basin reservoirs (Fig. 2., black line). In contrast, storage in Lake Mead (Fig. 2, purple line) increased by 368,000 af. On 31 January, active storage in Lake Mead exceeded active storage in Lake Powell by 1.27 maf; Lake Mead held 9.41 million af and Lake Powell held 8.14 million af. Storage in Lake Mead has slowly been increasing since mid-summer 2022.

 

Figure 2

Figure 2. Graph showing active reservoir storage in different parts of the Colorado River basin between 1 January 2021 and 31 January 2024. The category “other Upper Basin reservoirs” includes Granby, Dillon, McPhee, Strawberry, Starvation, Nighthorse, and 30 others. The category “CRSP reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, and Fontenelle” includes Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, Crystal, Fontenelle, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo.

 

3. Basin reservoir storage continues to be depleted at an unprecedented low rate in comparison to the past decade (Fig. 3), as is also the case for the combined storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell (Fig. 4). On 31 January 2024, the amount of basin storage gained by the 2023 snowmelt runoff had been reduced by 20%.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Graph showing the rate of reduction in basin-wide reservoir storage in each of the past ten years. The reduction in storage in 2023/2024 has been at a much slower rate than in other years. Each year that plots lower than 2023 (blue line) on this graph reflects a higher rate of loss in storage than the current year.

 

Figure 4

Figure 4. Graph showing the rate of reduction in the combined storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell in each of the past ten years. The reduction in storage in 2023/24 has been slower than in any other recent year. Every year plots lower than 2023 (blue line) reflecting a higher rate of loss in storage than in this year.

A dry forecast for the Colorado River Basin. A note on policy implications.

Evaporative Demand Drought Index forecast showing drying out of Colorado and Utah over the next four weeks.

The next month (February-early March-ish 2024) points to drying over the Colorado River Basin snow-making areas.

The UC Merced Evaporative Demand Drought Index (EDDI) points to drying over the Colorado River Basin over the next four weeks.

EDDI is a new experimental tool that offers potential for tracking quickly emerging drought conditions by analyzing the evaporative demand of the atmosphere. It combines how moist things are with how hot and dry the atmosphere is – how much moisture that “thirsty” atmosphere will be sucking up out of soil and plants. (More here.) I’ve started tracking it as an add-on to watching the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center’s runoff forecasts. The forecast is already “meh” (~1maf below average). EDDI suggests we should expect it to get worse.

A Compact Tripwire in the headlights

A reminder of something Erik Kuhn and I wrote about last month:

The Bureau of Reclamation’s January 2024 “Most Probable” 24-month study forecasts that annual releases from Glen Canyon Dam for both Water Years 2025 and 2026 will be 7.48 million acre-feet per year (maf). If this happens, the ten-year total flow at Lee Ferry for the 2017-2026 period will drop to about 83.0 maf, only about 500,000 acre-feet above 82.5 million acre-feet, the first 1922 Compact hydrology “tripwire.”

That line – 82.5 maf feet of Lee Ferry deliveries over a ten year period – has become a dividing line between two contending interpretations of the most important unresolved question in the century-old Colorado River Compact: How much water must the Upper Basin deliver to the Lower Basin? What happens if it doesn’t?

A plea – we need to be having a public conversation about this. The current Upper Basin-Lower Basin negotiations over the Post-Tripwire Colorado River Management Regime appear to have wandered into the Grimpen Mire:

“It’s gone!” said he. “The mire has him. Two in two days, and many more, perhaps, for they get in the way of going there in the dry weather, and never know the difference until the mire has them in its clutches. It’s a bad place, the great Grimpen Mire.”

– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

We keep euphemestically calling them the “Post-2026 Guidelines”, but let’s be real about this.

We are talking here about the Post-Tripwire Colorado River Management Regime.

It could snow a lot between now and summer and bail us out again this year. But we can’t look away from the Tripwire.

The Open Guitar Case

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In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, paying for the water they use

Folks in Colorado’s San Luis Valley are engaged in a bold experiment in western water management – charging farmers for the water they use. Jerd Smith explains:

A new rule approved by the area’s largest irrigation district, known as Subdistrict 1, and the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Water Conservation District, sets fees charged to pump water from a severely depleted underground aquifer at $500 an acre-foot, up from $150 an acre foot. The new program could begin as early as 2026 if the fees survive a court challenge.

The challenge in the valley is that, with climate change inexorably chomping at the Rio Grande, and the groundwater used to replace the river’s dwindling irrigation supplies, there simply isn’t enough water to keep farming all the acreage they’ve got up there.

The valley is operating under the same two constraints that we see up and down the river – less water flowing in, and requirements established in the Rio Grande Compact to pass some of what does come in to folks downstream – Colorado can’t use it all, but must pass some water along to water users in central New Mexico. Those of us in central New Mexico’s “Middle Rio Grande” (the stretch from Cochiti through Albuquerque to Socorro) get to use some, but must pass some of on to farmers in Southern New Mexico. Under the deal now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the southern New Mexican’s (the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and Las Cruces area) must then pass some water across the border to people in Texas and Mexico.

Paying to Reduce Use: Private v. Public Goods

In each of those stretches – Colorado, central New Mexico, and southern New Mexico – we face the challenge of reducing use in order to meet downstream obligations.

In New Mexico, our approach to problems like this has been to treat the water as a private good, and pay its users to not use the water. This year, for example, a pipeline of money from the federal government, through the state, to our local water agency, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, is paying irrigators $700 an acre to not irrigate.

The approach in the San Luis Valley is different. There, farmers who want to pump groundwater (recognizing that groundwater and surface water are an interconnected part of a single system, and that as river flow declines farmers have been pumping groundwater to replace it) have to pay for it. If you want to pump more, you have to pay more. And as it gets scarcer, the price needs to go up.

The legal terminology involving the notion of property rights here is tricky, but as a practical matter this suggests two very different approaches. In New Mexico, we are treating the water as the irrigators property, and paying them to forego its use. In Colorado, they’re treating it as public property, and requiring them to pay if they want to use it.

The Coasian Solution

Students of the Berrens-Fleck Lab will recognize this as a version of the classic problem of assigning the property right, as laid out by Ronald Coase in his classic 1960 paper The Problem of Social Cost. Overuse of water in a climate change-constrained system is a classic “externality” – a burden pushed off onto others, rather than the people who get to benefit from the use of water.

Coase’s answer – “assign the property right!” – has made his paper one of the most-cited papers in the history of papers, and won him a Nobel prize. Coase’s argument is that by assigning the property right, and starting from that point to figure out who pays and how much to solve the problem, we can converge on solutions. You can either make the people being harmed pay to stop the harm, or the people causing the harm pay to stop the harm.

We can, for example, require the factory polluting our river pay the cost of installing pollution control equipment. Or we can make the folks downstream, or the community as a whole, pay. Either way will work. The question of which approach we take is an ethical and political question.

Colorado has chosen (or at least is trying to chose – this’ll end up in court) one approach. New Mexico has chosen another.

Cartoon Coase

This is a cartoon of Coase’s argument. In the paper (which is a terrific read) he’s making a more nuanced argument involving transaction costs. In both the New Mexico and Colorado cases, the cost of setting up the payment system makes actually carrying out the policies we need super hard. But the cartoon helps frame our approach to western water management challenges more broadly.

A container ship in a southwestern desert river.

This image is fake. There also is no Large Container Ships Full of Money Act. I made that up too. It’s really the “Build Inflation Better Act” or something, I can never get that right.

The Colorado example – charge more to use water! – is rare. In the Lower Colorado River right now, we’re paying farmers, through their agricultural districts, giant container ships full of money to reduce their use – the New Mexico approach. We’re treating the water as their property, and paying them not to use it. This is an ethical and political (and possible legal?) choice.

But the key difference between the New Mexico/Lower Colorado approach and the classic Coasian cartoon is who’s doing the paying. In both cases, at least for now, we’re using Other People’s Money (OPM), via the recently passed Large Container Ships Full of Money Act (LCSFMA). Those of us in the West have somehow worked a racket where folks in Maine and Georgia and elsewhere are paying to bail us out of our mess. (To be fair, I’m sure we’re bailing them out in some way too.)

The processes by which we have to figure out how to move all this money and water around – to pay people to not use water, or to charge them for the water they use – are a great example of the power of the deeper insights in Coase’s 1960 paper. Working out the ways things don’t match up to Cartoon Coase is where the real value of the intellectual framework is found.

Sources and Methods

Two huge thanks. First, to Daniel Rothberg, whose Western Water Notes alerted me to the issue. And to Jerd Smith and the Colorado Sun, for supporting and publishing the great water journalism we all need to understand these issues. If you can, I’d encourage you to contribute to one or the other or both, to support the fundamental underlying knowledge base we all need to move forward on climate change and western water issues.

The Magic of Alleys

A blue and red touring bicycle with bags attached to the frame and handlebars is parked against a wooden post in an urban setting. The area is strewn with dry leaves and some litter on the ground. There's a chain-link fence in the background with a concrete post beside the bike. The setting appears to be a neglected urban corner with no people in sight.

A tiny alley, connecting two larger alleys. Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico

The secret corridor proves an amazing fast shortcut to any explorer determined to brush aside low-hanging branches and to risk broken glass and rusted wire. And it offers the probing and poking explorer another view of the chrome-and-glitter commercial strip, even of the regional mall, for it makes clear the stealth with which change comes.

– John Stilgoe, in his book Outside Lies Magic

Off the western edge of Albuquerque’s historic “Old Town”, the plaza settled in the early 1700s, runs an over-named street called “Hollywood Avenue.” It’s not clear when it acquired the name, but it was an unnamed street by the time modern mapping created the legibility necessary to draw property lines so early 20th century governments could tax people to pay for roads, schools, and water management.

Soto Avenue came later, running behind the strip mall along Route 66.

“Avenue” seems a bit grandiose as a naming convention. Both feel like alleys. Hollywood especially is a favorite bike route for detouring around one of those stretches of road urban cyclists will nod about, knowingly – places built for cars that cyclists need to detour around.

But the best bit is the little cut-through between them. Perhaps 50 feet long, accessible only to pedestrians and bicycles, a square wooden bollard on either end. My bike in the picture above is parked a the Soto (south) end.

Bollards are always a clue. Look for the bollards, and when you see them, go that way.

 

Senate hearing next week on Tribal access to clean water: it takes more than just a pile of money

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee is holding an important hearing Thursday on S. 2385, a bill to refine the tools needed to help Tribal communities gain access to something that most non-Indian communities in the western United States have long taken for granted: federally subsidized systems to deliver safe, clean drinking water to our homes.

Inkstain readers should find these numbers familiar:

  • 48 percent of households on Native American reservations don’t have the sort of basic plumbing we all mostly take for granted – piped (and clean!) water into our houses, sanitation systems to take away waste
  • Per the Universal Access to clean water for Tribal Communities project, “Native American homes are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act allocated a lot of money to fix this stuff, but as is so often the case with large government investment efforts, there remain capacity issues associated with getting the money effectively spent. As the Universal Access folks explain:

While groundbreaking and long overdue, the funding now available for construction and repair of domestic water systems in Indian country is not a complete solution. Technical assistance is urgently needed to allow Tribes to plan and design the systems necessary to remedy the longstanding problem of lack of access to clean drinking water and bring those plans to the “shovel ready” stage where they can take advantage of available construction funding. In addition, Tribes need support to develop the managerial, financial, and regulatory capacity necessary for a fully functional and self-sustaining utility. Construction funding is not currently available to connect essential community facilities, like schools and clinics, to centralized water and sanitation, and this support is absolutely necessary to support a basic level of Tribal economic development. Finally, because Tribes cannot rely on the same types and volumes of revenue streams to support operation and maintenance of water systems, initial and temporary O&M assistance helps to ensure that the benefits of the historic investment in infrastructure are fully realized.

This is the sort of bill (there’s a companion on the House side) that makes a huge amount of sense, but could easily get sidetracked in the chaos of Congress. The ideal path is for the crucial vetting to happen in a process such as Thursday’s hearing, and then to attach it to one of those omnibus things that Congress uses these days to get non-controversial stuff done.

Clean water for Native communities should pretty clearly be non-controversial.

Rio Grande flow at Otowi in decline, fancy graph edition

Graph showing decline in Rio Grande flow at Otowi comparing 1980-2000 to 2001 to present. It has gone down.

Changing Rio Grande flow at Otowi over time

I’ve been updating the crufty old code I use to generate graphs to help me (and colleagues) think about river flows.

This one’s a little busy, so maybe for specific nerd colleagues’ use, and not general consumption?

It’s based on a request from a friend who uses these, and asked for a visualization of the wet 1981-2000 period compared to the drier 21st century. This is an important comparison given that a whole bunch of New Mexicans (including me!) moved here in the wet 1980s and ’90s, which created a sense of what’s “normal.”

It’s important to note that this is not a measure of climate, at least not directly. This is a measure of how much actual water flows past the Otowi gage, which is a product of:

  • climate-driven hydrology adding water
  • trans-basin diversions adding water (“trans basin diversion” singular, I guess, the San-Juan Chama Project)
  • upstream water use subtracting water
  • reservoir management decisions moving water around in time (sometimes reducing the flow by storing, sometimes increasing it by releasing)

I get so much out of staring at these graphs. A few bits from this one, which I did a few evenings ago curled up with my laptop in my comfy chair:

  • Look at the curves around Nov. 1 – a drop as irrigation season ends, following by a rise as managers move compact compliance water down the river to Elephant Butte. Makes me curious about what they were doing back in the ’80s and ’90s in November.
  • This year’s winter base flow is low.

At some point soon I’ll get the updated code onto Github, but it’s not quite ready for sharing. (I’m rewriting it in Python, because learning is fun!)

Thanks to the supporters of Inkstain’s crazy busking business model.

New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande: forest of cottonwoods, forest of pecans

Belen AT&SF Rio Grande crossing, looking east, March, 1943. Note lack of trees. Jack Delano, courtesy Library of Congress

 

This Rio Grande crossing, just south of Belen, 30-plus miles downstream from Albuquerque, has changed dramatically since Jack Delano took the picture above in spring 1943.

The Bosque

Irrigation ditch crossing with trees in the background.

Beyond drains, a forest. John Fleck, January 2024

I’ve stared at Delano’s picture often, because of the story it tells – a broad open river valley. It’s nothing like that today.

I pieced together some dirt roads and ditchbanks to visit the site on this morning’s bike ride. I had hopes of duplicating Delano’s picture, but the train traffic made standing in the middle of the tracks seem ill-advised. The picture to the right, facing the river looking east, should give you a feel. The Rio Grande here is now flanked by a magnificent cottonwood gallery forest, with low stands of coyote willow and salt cedar and some other stuff. We call it “the bosque.”

Looking at the picture last night as I was doing the map work to figure a sane bike route to get to the bridge, the date clicked: Spring 1943. In thinking about the modern relationship between human communities and the Rio Grande, 1941-42 is a dividing line – the last big flood years, the floods that drove the major changes in river management that created an ecological niche that the cottonwoods exploited in the second half of the twentieth century with full-throated glee.

Delano’s picture can be misleading. It wasn’t all treeless like that. The 1917-18 Rio Grande drainage survey, which is our best “before” snapshot of the valley, shows clumps of cottonwoods up and down the river. Following the 1941-42 floods, the federal Middle Rio Grande Project reengineered the main river channel with a series of sediment traps on the banks that were intended to push the river into a narrower central channel. In the process, they created ideal seed bed habitat for the cottonwoods to fill in the empty spaces.

The result is a linear cottonwood gallery forest more than 150 miles long. I’ve always called it “continuous,” but I just scanned the whole length using satellite imagery and found two short gaps. So “nearly continuous,” to add precision.

The bosque is often treated as one of the Middle Valley’s great natural treasures, and I don’t disagree. But “natural” may not be quite the right word.

Pecans

Belen High Line Canal, feeding pecan orchards in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley. John Fleck, January 2024

Next stop: one of the most interesting climate change adaptation experiments underway in Middle Valley agriculture.

Past the railroad bridge, I found a ditch crossing and peeled away from the river toward the sand hills to the east, winding through the small farms of Jarales that make this stretch of the valley a lovely exemplar of the “ribbons of green” we talk about in the new book. Nearly all the farms were less than 10 acres – non-commercial, “custom and culture” agriculture, mostly alfalfa or other forage crops, lots of horses. Dodging the one busy highway the best I could, I veered into a neighborhood and under the interstate, where the road kicked up to a geomorphic bench in the sand hills maybe 30 feet in elevation above the nearby valley floor.

The pecans are in the distance in the picture to the right, though you can’t really see them. I was on relatively unfamiliar ground, and was cautious in my interpretation of the “No Trespassing” signs on the ditchbank road. It’s land that was once scrubland just like the land in the foreground. Now it’s irrigated with water from the ditch in the picture, to the tune of more than 1,000 acre feet per year. (We don’t know exactly. We don’t meter this use of water here.) There was a lot of controversy nearly 20 years ago when the land was brought into production. Critics (included regular Inkstain commenter Bill Turner, who was on the MRGCD board at the time) argued it wasn’t entitled to irrigation water from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s ditches. I’m not going to relitigate that argument here. Those objecting to serving the land with MRGCD irrigation water lost. Now the land is home to a fascinating experiment in climate change adaptation.

With a warming climate, the optimal range for pecans has moved north. (UNM Water Resources Program grad Tylee Griego took a deep dive into the pecans’ migration here.)

We have seen a century of failed efforts to foster a commercially successful crop in the valley – wheat, tomatoes, sugar beats, pinto beans, tobacco (!). Pecans are the latest, and rather than climate change making it harder to grow stuff, in this case it has made it easier. By increasing irrigated acreage in the valley. We usually think of agricultural climate change adaptation as “crop switching,” not “crop adding.” In addition to the big orchards by the river, the latest USDA CroplandCROS dataset, which uses satellite data and algorithms to identify crop types, is showing more pecans in small patches across the valley. I don’t full trust CroplandCROS – it gets a lot of pixels wrong ’round here, unfortunately. But this just means more bike rides needed to “ground truth” my blog posts. This is a part of the valley I don’t know as well, so fun ahead!

As I was riding through Jarales this morning and writing this post in my head, I was playing with the theme suggested by the two forests – each spread across a niche created by human alteration of the hydrologic system. Not sure it quite works, but I’ll leave it here.

A note on Jack Delano

Diesel train with Alvarado Hotel in the background.

“Santa Fe R.R. streamliner, the “Super Chief,” being serviced at the depot, Albuquerque, NM. Servicing these diesel streamliners takes five minutes”. Jack Delano’s original caption. Courtesy Library of Congress

Jack Delano’s 1943 trip through New Mexico is worthy of note.

Delano, born Jacob Ovcharov in Ukraine, was one of the Farm Service Administration/Office of War Information photographers whose work dominates our visual understanding of the 1930s and early ’40s in the United States. His photographs of the AT&SF rail yard in Albuquerque, taken on the same spring 1943 trip that he took the Belen railroad bridge above, represent a remarkable documentation of a moment in time, as freight bustled through Albuquerque in service of the war effort.

We tend to think of the classic FSA photography as “documentary” work of the highest order – which it was. But it also was government propaganda – artists paid by the government to tell particular kinds of stories, and share particular kinds of messages.

Much of the classic visual vocabulary of the FSA pictures – think Dorothea Lange – is very much black and white. But with the development of Kodachrome in the 1930s, photographers of the period were beginning to shoot in color too. Most of Delano’s Albuuquerque pictures are in black and white, but his color picture of the Albuquerque rail yard, taken from the Lead Avenue orverpass circa 1943, is a classic.