Why don’t they redo the Colorado River Compact?

Koda, co-author with Bob Berrens and John Fleck, of the forthcoming book The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City, to be published as soon as we can write it and find a publisher.

My co-instructor Bob Berrens and I added a slide this morning to our welcome lecture for first-year students in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, hoping to foreshadow two questions we’ll be asking the students over and over and over and over this semester:

Bob: That sounds great, how are you going to pay for it?

John: X sounds great, why don’t they just do X?

The welcome lecture includes all the usual “read the syllabus”, and “no this won’t be on the quiz, we don’t have quizzes”, and such, as we shove aside the bureaucratic detritus of academia so we can get down to the business of talking about water.

The headline for this year’s class (yes, I am an inkstained wretch, see blog title, our syllabus has a headline) sums up the dilemma:

There’s less water. What do we do?

There’s less water. What do we do?

It’s the ninth or tenth time we’ve taught the class together, depending on how you count, and we love doing it because we are good friends who have spent the better part of that decade talking about water in and out of class, we still don’t really understand all the things, and teaching helps us sort through our own confusions.

We have our lists of things we hope to share with the students – the challenge of market and non-market values of water, the strange land of municipal pricing, the even stranger land of agricultural water use in its many forms and flavors, the tools of water measurement, the wisdom of Elinor Ostrom and Ronald Coase in analyzing water governance structures, the story of the orange groves of Upland, California, where I grew up.

Through it all, as we’re building the scaffolding, we’re also asking the students to use that same scaffolding to begin to analyze a question. A month or so back, while walking with Bob’s dog Koda around Altura Park (which sits midway between our two houses), we settled on this year’s question.

There’s less water. What do we do?

As the reservoirs behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams on the Colorado drop to record lows, as irrigators in central New Mexico struggle to water crops after an early start and early end to their irrigation seasons, as I spend countless hours with reporters from across the country looking for help understanding all of this, as my own river goes dry, it remains the central question. And I do not know the answer.

I’ve got some schtick involving case studies I’ve written over the years about successful conservation and collaborative water-sharing agreements, and about the importance of being attentive to science, however inconvenient. I will happily share all of this with our students over the coming semester. I really believe it, and I think it’s all important, and I feel so privileged that students want to sit and listen to me yammer on about it for hours on end!

But I’m mindful of Bob’s and my questions, which really are important – how are we going to pay for the things that need to be done, and why haven’t they been done already?

Let’s assess the farmers to to pay for it.

The point of Bob’s question is the more obvious – many solutions we might contemplate are costly, and understanding how we pay for them (or fail to come up with a mechanism to pay for them) are at the heart of many of our dilemmas. We need to think through these questions carefully. This is central to the new book Koda, Bob, and I are beginning to write. Bob’s insights about financing mechanisms are one of his most important gifts to my thinking.

Why don’t they build a pipeline/canal to the Mississippi?

My question – why don’t they do “X” – is more obscure, because in one common usage it isn’t really even meant as a question. Often, a person posing it really means “X should be done“. But I’ve found it incredibly useful, going back to a long career in journalism, to really try to pose it as a question – to really understand the reasons X has not been done.

In some cases, upon closer inspection, I find they haven’t done X because it’s a really bad idea for reasons I hadn’t thought through. In other cases, I find that X has costs, or downsides, that I hadn’t thought through. In other cases I find obstacles that, however good an idea X is, must be overcome.

Sometimes (see above), X hasn’t been done because we have no way to pay for it. I’m pretty sure it was Koda who pointed out that Bob’s question is really a particular case of my more general formulation.

I pretty much never find that they haven’t done X because it never occurred to them.

Darkness at the park

At Bob’s suggestion (I have found these to be useful), I was rereading this morning a 1959 essay by Charles Lindblom called “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’“. It provides a great framework to explain why, the more time I have spent in the study of water policy and governance, the less clear the answers have become.

Lindblom suggests that our desires for an omnisciently rational policy making process, while widely expected, is impossible – because of bounded rationality, and lack of clarity about how to weigh relative values (shared and unshared). So we end up muddling.

During the pandemic’s darkest last winter, Koda, Bob, and I were walking around the park in the cold dark of night. Halfway down the park’s north side, Koda alerted – there was something in the park. We couldn’t see it, but we have come to understand that Koda is far smarter than we.

I guess that’s my hope for the semester, that Bob and I might walk down the side of the darkened park and get some help from our students in seeing what is there.


  1. Loved the Headline. That got me going. My own thoughts here.

    Dr. Gleick: Loved your article. Several takeaways there but the bottom line is the amount of electrical power that will make it happen. Most people do not appreciate the massive amounts of power that is required to move water up a grade. I’m thinking primarily about the power used in the CAP system. They have to pump during the off-peak hours to keep electrical costs reasonable. My own story here is telling people how in the 90’s when the pumps started up at 8 & 9 PM respectively, the lights would dim in nearby Lake Havasu City for about 15 seconds as the pumps came on line. The Generators at nearby Parker Dam would also groan due to the surge in power requirements. The CAP Mark Wilmer Plant is the largest single user of power in the state of Arizona. The ‘lift’ is a total of 824 feet. If memory serves me, I believe the average amount of water pumped was roughly 1700 CFS. Doing the math on this you can see that pumping any amount of water over the Rocky Mountains would be a costly task requiring a large infrastructure. It’s probably not too well known that Reclamation was a partner in the former Page Navajo Power Plant. The power from this plant was to augment the power needs of the CAP project.

    LET’S ASSESS THE FARMERS TO TO PAY FOR IT: John, you literally had me rolling in the aisles with this. Pardon the pun, you have a ‘dry’ sense of humor in this. Without BuRec’s different irrigation projects as the cornerstone, do you think that private irrigation districts would have invested the money? The Farmer pays very little in the total costs (in the big picture) for the water that is delivered to their farms. Speaking of Farmers, you would be very hard pressed to find a more successful business than Farming in the SouthWest. They don’t have to worry about the lack of rain (like the Midwest Farmer does). They order the amount of water they need on the exact time they need it. How many cuttings of Alfalfa can they get a year? Much more than your average Farmer in the Midwest. I remembered two cuttings when I worked on the family farm in Minnesota when I was a kid. Farming in places supported by the Colorado River is more like big business. In the days of family owned Farms (let’s use Blythe CA as an example), the town thrived. Look at life in Blythe today. It’s dying. Sure there is still robust farming happening in the Palo Verde Valley but the town is losing business on a yearly basis. The big employer is now the Prison Facility. The situation isn’t any rosier on the Arizona side of the river either. The thing that scares me is when the surface water is cut back, will the Farmers revert to pumping ground water from stressed Aquifers?

    One thing that you mentioned John was, “The more you became aware – the more murkier the details became.” Bingo! This is something we ran across as we started to collect more detailed hydrological data using newer and more capable equipment. You actually see things that you didn’t see earlier. That opened eyes on the true nature of things and also brought out any misconceptions that we had earlier. My own analogy on the same lines was, “The deeper you dig – the more dirt you will have to deal with.” So true with Data Collection.

    I’d actually love to sit in on some of these discussions and listen to the viewpoints…

  2. 1. Reallocate the amount of water available to each state, Indians and Mexico.
    2. As British Columbia did, create a program of water fees and licenses. Google it. Could be state by state and/or all Basin.
    3. Trim the non- tributary side canyons off Lake Powell with dredged dams. Reduce evaporation and raise the main channel water elevation. To help hydro.
    4. Cover parts of the lakes with solar panels to reduce evaporation and make electricity. Start near the dams where the power lines are.
    5. Invite (insist) the Federal Gov to handle negotiations.
    6. Set time tables for the work.
    7. Raise money for more efficient irrigation such as buried drip tape.
    8. Stop development throughout the basin.
    9. Reduce population where possible. Heat will do that anyway. Ban air conditioning for being environmentally unacceptable.
    10. Stop the pumping of ground water.
    11. “Population will move to the water.” That is back east. Prof. Duane Vandenbusche.
    12. Stop saying nothing can be done.

  3. I’d be interested in jfleck’s take on an opinion that seems to be (slowly) gaining ground. Most of the water used in NM (and the SW in general)is for agriculture, and commercial agriculture on its current scale is really an idea that goes back to the Bureau of Reclamation’s fever dreams in the 1930s, after two of the wettest decades we can find in soil moisture indicators.

    There’s still a fairly comfortable level of water available for residential and commercial activities;’ does anyone think that the (slowly) growing populations of our (larger) population centers are going to accept being told to cut back on water use when they drive past flood-irrigated fields of alfalfa et al. ?

    Certainly right now all the legal frameworks are on the side of agricultural water users (even if the actual supply of water is not). But is this really likely to remain the case if the current drought continues for another decade?

  4. Pingback: “What happens if I turn here?” – jfleck at inkstain

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