The Ghost of the Herrera Ditch

1936 map of Albuquerque's Central Avenue Bridge

Atrisco, circa (I think?) 1936

It’s taking me a while to figure exactly what “the new book” is about.

In an early manifestation (I recall such things based on the names of computer file folders of my scribblings) it was called “the ghost of water”.

The idea was to find threads of the past in the stuff we built to manage our relationships with water, traces remaining of human-built water courses long gone, and of the things we did with the non-human built water courses.

Two stories, or maybe three.

River Westbourne

Westbourne River, in a pipe

A decade ago, when Lissa and I had gone to London for a couple of weeks on a lark, I visited the Sloane Square underground station to see the River Westbourne, carried over the tracks in a big steel pipe.

I’d stumbled in a London bookshop on a slim volume on the city’s lost rivers. Book in hand, Lissa and I wandered from our hotel down to the Thames to the Walbrook Wharf. It was the river that flowed through the old Roman London (the walled city, hence “wall brook”). Its outfall today is at Walbrook Wharf, where container ships fill daily with London’s garbage for the trip to Essex. Seems fitting.

Guerilla historian and urban explorer Steve Duncan wrote this bit:

[C]ities are organic growths that re-use and build on their past. Therefore almost nothing in an older city is going to be perfect, because the systems and infrastructure in use are so often leftover from an earlier period of growth. It’s imperfect, but nonetheless I love seeing the sort of cut-away view of both the history and the physical structure of a city that you get from seeing old underground systems in a modern city.

For “underground” here, substitute “water”. I realized on that London trip a decade ago that the ghosts of water were always there, and that they were a story worth trying to tell.

I also realized a guerilla historian would be a cool thing to be.


I grew up in a California community called Upland.

Photograph of the interior of a citrus packing house in Ontario, ca.1905. Several men man the sorting machine in the foreground which has chutes which spill into bins full of oranges. Several other men are visible standing in the background. A huge stack of orange crates towers over the operation behind. Legible signs include: "Upland Citrus Ass'n, North Ontario, Cal."

Packing citrus, Ontario California, circa 1905. Photo courtesy University of Southern California Libraries

It was, in the 1960s of my youth, on the fringe of the suburbs extending east from Los Angeles, part of the great citrus empire that grew in Southern California after the glorious invention of refrigerated rail shipment brought the exotic delicacy of navel oranges from California to the eastern market.

Upland was part of an irrigation colony developed by the Chaffey Brothers, who brought a convergence of hydraulic engineering and institutions. The engineering got water from the foothills onto the fertile alluvial fans of my childhood, but you needed institutions – the tools of collective action – to make the whole thing work.

The ghosts were there in my backyard, a little concrete irrigation turnout that once watered the citrus trees that had been carefully preserved as our suburban home was built atop the old farmland. It was long after, as I began learning and teaching about water management institutions, that I realized the ghosts of the institutions mattered ever bit as much as the physicality of the thing. For across the street from my childhood home was a tiny reservoir, and it still delivered water – not to groves now, but to homes – courtesy of the San Antonio Water Company, the ghost of the Chaffey brothers’ institutional innovations.

The Ghosts of Institutions

1934 USGS Topographical map of Old Albuquerque, the Rio Grande, and Atrisco

1934 USGS Topographical Map of Old Albuquerque, Atrisco, and the Rio Grand

The shift here – from the physical ghosts of water past to the more ephemeral ghosts of institutions – is the critical piece for understanding where the new book is headed.

Still feeling weak from my CRWUA Covid but desperate to get out and get some exercise, I threw the bike in the car this morning and drove down to the river. Or, more particularly, to Atrisco, next to the river.

It’s at the spot where Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge – Route 66 – crosses the Rio Grande. But, more importantly for out story, it’s where three old ditches that once irrigated what we now call Albuquerque’s “South Valley” had their headings.

Was a time, in the 1700s, when this was the region’s largest population center – the Spanish villages of Atrisco, Pajarito, and Los Padillos. These communities had the best access to sheep and cattle grazing lands to the west. Villages with subsistence farming on the valley floor. Three ditches – Arenal, Atrisco, and Rancho de Atrisco – all had their headworks along a quarter mile stretch of the river bank here. The ditches, providing irrigation water for those subsistence farms, were at once physical and institutional plumbing, the collective action required to dig and maintain the system going on for centuries.

In the 1930s, the individual, community-based systems were taken over by a new collective, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, based on the realization that managing the relationship between the Rio Grande and a growing city required collective action at a larger scale – the individual ditch institutions were incapable of acting at the scale for providing flood control and drainage to the community, which were increasingly the most pressing tasks.

But here’s the interesting ghostly part.

Again and again looking the old maps, I find clusters of ditches with headings near the same spot on the river, each branching off to irrigate a separate down-valley village’s farms. The sophisticated engineers of the 1700s could see, as the river rose to spread across the valley floor during high spring runoff, where the high ground was. The Rio Grande provided a level. Above it was the place to build a village, or el camino, or the headworks of a ditch, which would then follow the contour of the land.

The chapter I’m working on is in terrible shape right now, which is always the case before they get good. But I notice myself writing, over and over again, about this “high ground” thing, ghosts on the landscape of a river we can no longer see and communities adapting their way of life around it.

The title of the post comes from the Herrera Ditch, which my maps show as an abandoned ditch running through what is now an Atrisco neighborhood, just north of El Super, as its name implies, a market – with a great taco bar. (And if you’ve read this far, Bob S, in season they do chile roasting in the parking lot.)

I couldn’t find a trace of the abandoned reach of the Herrera.

This is actionable information. Ghosts remaining are important, as are those obliterated by the erosion of time.

Ribbons Green

The book is Ribbons of Green, which Bob Berrens and I are writing for the University of New Mexico Press. It’ll be a while yet.

Dead Pool Diaries: Colorado River 2022 Year in Review

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

A looming, invisible threat

A review of Calendar year 2022 on the Colorado River

Colorado River reservoir storage dropped 3.1 million acre feet this year, but there is a proposal now being circulated among the Basin States to cut use by that much to bring the system into balance.

Total Storage

Total year end storage in Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and a handful of key Upper Basin reservoirs (Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo)

  • end of 2022: 16.5 million acre feet
  • end of 2021: 19.6 maf
  • start of the 2000s: 51.8 maf

Source: USBR Hydrodata

a looming, visible threat

Lower Basin Use

Total Use by the Lower Basin States: 6.669 maf, 89 percent of their base allocation of 7.5 million acre feet under the Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. The state by state breakdown:

  • Nevada: 223,512 acre feet, 74.5 percent of their base allocation
  • Arizona: 2,015,097 acre feet, 72 percent of their base allocation
  • California: 4,430,670 acre feet, 100.7 percent of their base allocation

This is Arizona’s lowest withdrawal from the main stem of the Colorado River since 1992.

Mexico received 1.45 million acre feet, 97 percent of their base allocation under the US-Mexico treaty.

Source: Dec. 31, 2022 USBR Lower Basin end of year tally

Total Upper Basin Use

We don’t know yet. It takes a while for the Upper Basin Consumptive Uses and Losses reports to emerge.

I’ll leave a “maybe 4 million acre feet?” placeholder here for now.

Lake Mead Shipwrecks

Total Lake Mead Shipwrecks – sunken speedboats emerging as the reservoir wastes away – that I saw on my pre-Colorado River Users Association bike ride earlier this month: 3.

Cuts needed next year to stabilize the system

Per Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, testifying before Congress last year, we need 2 to 4 million acre feet of cuts to stabilize the system.

There was a proposal discussed at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month (in closed basin states meetings, not in the open sessions) that calls for 2.6 million acre feet in Lower Basin cuts from the 7.5 million acre foot AZ v. CA baseline and 500,000 acre feet in Upper Basin contributions.

That would be a 1.8 million acre foot cut from 2022 levels in the Lower Basin, and another 500,000 acre feet in the Upper Basin.

The proposal came from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and seems to have been embraced by the other states not as the solution, but as the starting point for a discussion over the next month, with the hope of a Basin States “consensus proposal” by the end of January. This is a good sign. Daniel Rothberg of the Nevada Independent kindly posted the full proposal, as submitted by SNWA Dec. 20 to Interior in response to the agency’s request for comments on its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and Colton Lochhead covered it for the Review-Journal.

I’m hoping to write more about this last bit as soon as my Covid fog clears (caught it at CRWUA and I’m mostly laying around feeling sorry for myself, doing crosswords, not riding my bike, and thinking and writing poorly, hence the brevity – perhaps that’s not a bad thing – I successfully did the Friday New York Times crossword, which I’m usually not smart or patient enough for).

2022: My Year of Riding Everywhere

2022, the year of Squadrats

No bad days on the bike.

At the risk of a tortured metaphor, rides are the warp threads of the loom of my life, bound firm in the frame of the loom as I weave the day’s events around them – the places I go, the things that I do, and the rides that get me there and back.

I remember lunch with my friend Liz – and the bike ride I took to get there, winding through the industrial freeway zone, cranes and graffiti and homeless encampments, on the way to the restaurant.

I remember pre-dawn breakfasts at the Frontier with my friend John, clipping on the lights and bundling against the cold, locking up next to a homeless guy’s epic touring rig, always parked at the same spot, and he’s always sitting at the same spot, sipping coffee to warm up, able to look out the window to keep an eye on the bike.

I remember the conference in Salt Lake City and not one but two epic rides on the way there, in the San Juan Basin and along the Colorado River. The conference in Boulder and the loop with Eric around Dillon reservoir, the ride to the conference from the hotel in the morning and the long walk back to the hotel with my friend Bill, walking the bike through a delightful throng of Deadheads converging for the evening’s merriment, because Boulder, amiright?

I especially treasure Sunday rides with my friend Scot which, absent my crazy Colorado River conference schedule or Covid, anchor each week, foundational.

The joy of the ride to work, and the ride home (I exploited a cool new alley cut-through this year, just a few blocks from my house, how had I missed it all these years?).

Some days I lock the bike at the law school rack, but more often it’s propped up against the bookcase in my office. A happy object always.

Riding everywhere

Tiling Albuquerque – a map of the places I rode in 2022 in Albuquerque


Some years ago I dug through all my old devices and hard drives and cloud services and assembled a relatively complete record of all my bike rides since 2008, what I call “the GPS era” – 5,176 rides, 39,365.1 miles.

All that data sits in Strava, and Strava makes it relatively easy for developers to build creative new products, which has lead to all sorts of mappy game innovations.

In 2020, I was already riding a lot when pandemic isolation turned the bike rides into a desperate, manic adventure. I’d discovered Veloviewer and “tiling” – using our bikes’ GPS records to keep track of where we’d ridden and, more importantly, where we hadn’t.

A map of Albuquerque showing, in blue, streets John Fleck has ridden

In blue, the Albuquerque streets I’ve ridden.

In 2021, I added Wandrer – keeping track of which streets I had and, more importantly, hadn’t ridden.

This year I added Squadrats, which is the most fun of all. Veloviewer’s squares are a bit less than a mile on a side. Ride (or walk or whatever) anywhere in a tile and you’ve got it. The big tiles are pretty easy to get. In Albuquerque, I quickly filled in the entire city.

So after a couple of years of working on it, the only new Albuquerque tiles left required some epic explorations to the west, some clever work to thread through to the south without trespassing on Pueblo lands, and increasingly lengthy adventures to the north.

I’m getting old for “lengthy adventures”, frankly.

And then I found Squadrats. It takes the Veloviewer-sized tiles and doubles (octuples?) down, dividing each tile into 64 mini-tiles. The result was a year of joyous riding going back to all the little tiny bits of Albuquerque I’d missed. Using the standard Open Street Map grid, it divides up squares that vary by latitude, but here in Albuquerque they’re about 800 feet on a side. Filling in a map at that density requires geographic intentionality, focus.

Farm field, irrigation ditch, and junk yard

The rural-junkyard interfaced.

Thus a “wrong turn” down the cart path at Los Altos Golf Course (“I’m sorry, it looked like a bike path.”). A flood control tunnel in the far northeast. The junk yard hard against an irrigation ditch and alfalfa field in the South Valley. Places I’d never have gone in the pre-Squadrats era.

Even before tiling, our practice of riding in weird places has always encouraged strange encounters.

My favorite was the time the caretaker at the Albuquerque Dragway politely informed us one Sunday morning that we weren’t supposed to be there. “Chased out” is too strong a word for the encounter as he rode up on his ATV. It was a polite exchange, though it was hard to make the “wrong turn” argument given that we’d lifted our bikes over a locked gate to get in. He then escorted us out and, in answer to our question, pointed us to a good spot to hop another locked gate to trespass on his neighbor’s property.

Good guy.

This year’s best Squadrats tiling adventure involved being politely told we had to leave Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park (“So sorry,” we said, pointing helplessly at our mobile phones, “Google made it look like this was a road.” Works every time.), then circling around the far side and sneaking back in.

Tiling can feel a bit rascally. That’s a part of the fun.

Fleck’s Squadrats map. New mini-tiles for 2022 in green.







At CRWUA, inklings of a Colorado River compromise

two lawn chairs on the Lake Mead shoreline

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead

I came away from a week in Las Vegas more hopeful about a deal to prevent a Colorado River crash than I have felt since the ominous day last March when Lake Powell dropped below elevation 3,525.

The annual meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association is a bit like the shadow puppets of Java – projections onto a public stage of things hinted at but largely unseen behind.

On display in public this year, in the formal CRWUA panels, was a frank discussion of the river’s problems that I found unprecedented.

Behind, in the realm of the puppeteers, was even more frank talk about the shape of a deal that would be needed to halt the reservoirs’ declines. It’s still a longshot, with a narrow path to success and a very tight deadline – whatever “consensus plan” the seven Colorado River Basin states come up with has to be delivered to the Department of Interior by the end of January.

But going into CRWUA, I could see no path. Now one is dimly visible.

Managing based on inflow, rather than reservoir levels

A Kuhnian paradigm shift?

At the heart of the art of the possible here is shift in the discussion of a management framework, from the well-worn path of management by reservoir levels (if Powell “x” and Mead “y”, do “z”) to a system based on inflows. If less water flows in, you have to take less water out.

Phrased that way, it sounds so obvious, but it’s a major shift from the way the system was built and has been managed for a century. The reservoirs were built to store surplus when it’s wet to be used when it’s dry. I try not to use the phrase “paradigm shift” loosely, and it’s not entirely clear that it applies here. But the change that we’re seeing bears a lot of the hallmarks of the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s original formulation of the concept – the accumulation of enough anomalies that you can no longer stick to the old way of thinking.

I point here, by way of metaphor, to the accumulating shipwrecks emerging from the shores of Lake Mead.

What the hydrologists call the “mass balance problem” makes this inevitable. In the long run, you can’t take more water out of a reservoir than flows in. But the realization earlier this year that Reclamation’s engineers are uncomfortable using Glen Canyon Dam’s lower elevation outlet works has place the mass balance barrier squarely within the range of the next few years’ planning. If you believe them (and, importantly, the Department of Interior seems to), then there’s no way around shifting pretty quickly to a management regime in which the water you release from Lake Powell has to match up each year with the amount that flows in.

So what changes in river management when you shift to an inflow-outflow regime?

As soon as you adopt a policy that says that releases from Lake Powell are essentially limited to what flows into the reservoir – which is the practical equivalent of “protecting elevation 3,490” or whatever line the river management community chooses above that to offer a safety buffer – 3,525 used to be the number people talked about, but we blew right through that last March – you trip two significant management triggers:

  • you face the very real prospect of Colorado River flows past Lee Ferry dropping below the 10-year standard set by the compact, triggering either a compromise or a very ugly legal fight
  • you face the very real prospect of deep cuts for water users in the Lower Basin, because you pretty quickly turn Lake Mead into an inflow-outflow system too – and/or very ugly legal fights

I could have written all of that before CRWUA began. In fact, I did.

But going into CRWUA I believed the only way to tackle those problems was with a federal intervention. Now there seems a hope of a collaborative solution – of which I’m a big fan.

Relaxing the Lee Ferry Constraint

There were encouraging signs this week that compromise might be possible on the first point, that the Lower Basin might agree to look the other way at a Lee Ferry shortfall, if the Upper Basin states are willing to get past their “it’s a Lower Basin overuse problem” mantra of recent years and kick in some reductions of their own. My read on the situation is that it won’t take a lot of water – folks in the Lower Basin get the fact that it’s primarily their problem. But I’m not in the negotiating room. This will almost certainly be harder than my usual naively optimistic expectation, right?

Cutting Lower Basin Use

Regardless of how the Lee Ferry thing plays out, the hydrologic reality is that there will have to be deep Lower Basin cuts – far deeper than anything contemplated to date. The fact that extreme scenarios are being discussed among the states, rather than having state officials step aside and make the federal government impose them (or, in reality, as newly named Upper Colorado River Commission member Anne Castle reminded us, having climate change impose them) was encouraging to see in the shadows of the CRWUA puppets visible to us outsiders.

That’s incredibly important to the Lee Ferry point, because if the Lower Basin can get together and take on the herculean task of coming up with a formula to agree to the necessary cuts rather than having them be imposed, the Upper Basin is more likely to be willing to contribute without their longstanding worry that anything they kick in will just be sucked up and used in the Lower Basin.

In other words, legitimate action by the Lower Basin states makes Upper Basin action more possible.

My twinkly collaboration fanboy smile should not mislead you into thinking this will be painless – there will be a lot less water for cities and agriculture, and it would be a legal and moral failing if Tribal sovereigns are not brought into this discussion. All of those things make this really hard.

What Happens Next

All of this – an implicit relaxation of the Lee Ferry constraint, voluntary deep cuts in the Lower Basin, and an Upper Basin commitment to contribute some water – seemed to me beyond reach before we gathered at CRWUA. But behind the scenes there was serious, good faith attention to all of them, without the people making the proposals getting laughed out of the room. As Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger told the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, the basin states are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”

Responses to Interior’s request for comments on its crisis-management-in-real-time planning effort are due Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if any of the Basin States offer up a formal first pass at a plan. And Reclamation has asked the states to provide a consensus scheme by the end of January.

Heading into CRWUA, I believed no such consensus was possible. I’ve updated my priors.

If elevation 3,490 is Lake Powell’s new “dead pool”

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

Lake Mead shipwreck

LAKE MEAD – The Park Service has cut a raggedy new dirt road (“4×4 recommended”) north of Hemenway Harbor along Lake Mead’s receding shoreline so you can still get in to go fishing and do the beach thing.

Mead was at elevation 1,043 and change as I rode it on my bike yesterday afternoon, with lunch and time on my hands to ponder the stakes. You could see the uppermost Las Vegas water pipe, exposed to the winter air, and the stranded intake from the World War II-era Basic Magnesium factory.

I passed three Lake Mead shipwrecks, the media icons of the great collapse, ruin porn of the Colorado River. I was happy, I guess, to finally bag the pictures for myself. I guess?

It was my annual pre-Colorado River Water Users Association Lake Mead visit – a bike ride along the reservoir, a trip to Hoover Dam, some quiet time in Boulder City before heading into the madhouse of Las Vegas and CRWUA and a Colorado River in crisis.

Managing in crisis mode

The challenge right now is a very practical one. We’ve no longer time the sort of vague generalizations I got when I turned to ChatGPT for help – “Implementing stricter water usage regulations and reducing water waste can help bring the supply and demand of the Colorado River into balance.” Great. Thanks. How we gonna do that?

The Colorado River brain trust has to write new rules, and it has to write them now, in a very specific way, with little time or room for error.

I have long had a dodge when reporters or my students or whoever asked me what I think we should do: It doesn’t matter what I think we should do, I would tell them. What matters, I would say, is what emerges from the seven states and the federal government, and increasingly the Tribes and others who who now, rightly, find themselves at the negotiating table(s).

Unfortunately, what has emerged from that process is shipwrecks emerging from Lake Mead.

So I’ve dropped the shield and begun thinking about how I would rewrite the rules, if anyone asked me. Come to think of it, the Federal Government has asked me, along with all the rest of you, via this Federal Register notice. You’ve got a week left before your assignment is due.

Basically, we need to do two things.

First, we need to rewrite the rules governing releases from Glen Canyon Dam to protect Lake Powell from reaching critically low levels that, by forcing the use of the dam’s lower outlet works, might threaten the structural integrity of the dam. We do this by setting a maximum release from Powell based on the current year inflow.

Second, we need rules to cut far more deeply into Lower Basin water use, like right now – far deeper than the rules we’ve got now. They’re just not sufficient. We have to include evaporation and system losses as part of each Lower Basin state’s allocation.

Saving Glen Canyon Dam

Section 6, Interim Guidelines

Section 6C and 6D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines is the critical first step.

This is where the current rules lay out how much water is to be released each year from Glen Canyon Dam. Note the quaintly anachronistic “Lake Powell Active Storage” column on the right, with “dead pool” – zero active storage – at elevation 3,370.

If Reclamation decides it doesn’t trust the dam’s outlet works, which sit down there, then suddenly “active storage” doesn’t start until elevation 3,490, the level of the power plant intakes.

For now at least, 3,490 is the new dead pool.

That would mean that at elevation 3,525, rather than having 5.93 million acre feet of “active storage” – the amount of water above “dead pool” – we’ve really got less than 2 million acre feet of really actually usable, releasable water in Powell. The whole notion of “balancing” active storage in Mead and Powell, so central to the ’07 Guidelines, now has to look completely different.

When you get close to dead pool, you’ve got a “run of the river” system, which means that the only water that leaves a reservoir is the amount that comes in. Given that we’re apparently redefining that for Powell on the fly, the new versions of 6C and 6D somehow have to restrict releases from Powell to not much more than comes in. Basically starting now, and for the foreseeable future, until we can begin to refill Powell or drill some new tubes at the bottom that we trust.

A simple approach to the new rule here might be rewrite the release rules when you’re in the “Mid-Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,575) and the “Lower Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,525) to cap releases to inflow minus evaporation. That would set a sort ratchet that would prevent a further decline in Lake Powell below its current dangerously low levels.

You could start the year by capping Powell releases at the 24-month study’s “minimum probable” unregulated Powell inflow level, with the option of raising the release an April review based on the “most probable” unregulated inflow. Minus evaporation. You’d have to subtract evaporation from that.

Other than that, the 6C and 6D rules could stay the same.

Saving Lake Mead

As the modeling presented by Reclamation in its webinars two weeks ago shows, if you operate Powell the way I describe under low flow scenarios, you can crash Mead in a hurry. We need rules that are ready for that.

the Lower Basin “structural deficit”, reified

Taking evaporation and system losses off the top before we begin handing out water is a start. The “structural deficit” is real, it’s a result of not taking evaporation and system losses into account, and it’s written in shipwrecks emerging from the depths of Lake Mead.

Right now evaporation and system losses are in the ballpark of 1 million acre feet per year, but to be on the safe side, let’s set them at the 1.2 million acre foot per year level in the classic Reclamation “structural deficit” Powerpoint slide.

So the cuts in section 2D of the Interim Guidelines would have to be rewritten, with Arizona, Nevada, and California taking a proportional share of system losses right off the top.

You can do this some really complicated ways, based on the distance downstream of each user’s intake – so Imperial and Yuma would take a bigger system losses hit, and Las Vegas (pulling straight out of Lake Mead) would only suffer evaporative loss.

That seems like a recipe for scientized litigation, so my proposal is simple: Everyone shares this equally (sorry, Nevada friends).

That would leave us with a base allocation that looks something like this:

old allocation new allocation
CA 4.4 3.696
AZ 2.8 2.352
NV 0.3 0.252


The cuts in the big ’07 Guidelines/DCP allocation tables would then be deducted from these numbers. So under this scenario, if we drop into the Mead elevation 1,040-1,045 tier, the total allocations would be:

1,040 – 1,045
CA 3.496
AZ 1.712
NV 0.225
US Total 5.433


Notably, this gets us to the 2 million acre of cuts Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said we need in her testimony to Congress last summer.

Upper Basin

This obviously doesn’t touch the Upper Basin. The process Interior is using for this round of crisis management – a straight up revision to the ’07 Guidelines – doesn’t seem to offer a clear path to force the Upper Basin to come up with contributions of their own. For now, I’m OK with that. Since the ’07 Guidelines were signed, the Upper Basin has delivered more than 10 million acre feet of water above the required 8.25 million acre foot annual requirement. Despite that, the Lake Mead shipwrecks are emerging from the shallows. The key  here is clearly to get Lower Basin overuse under control.

But I don’t think in the longer term the Upper Basin is off the hook. Reclamation’s modeling clearly shows a risk of the Upper Basin slipping below its 82.5×10 obligation if we have a few more bad years. We need a plan to deal with that. And it’s also a matter of fairness, in my view. We all have to contribute.

My scheme for Upper Basin contributions involves the next wet year – figuring out how to forego some of the Upper Basin storage we’ve got and get that water into Lake Powell instead. Suggestions for how to write that rule are welcomed – bonus if anyone can figure out how to fit that into the rewrite of the ’07 Guidelines currently underway.


I still believe in the power of the collaborative governance framework we’ve developed in the Colorado River Basin. As Assistant Secretary of Interior Tanya Trujillo told me when I was moderating her appearance at last summer’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference, we’d be in a lot worse shape without it.

For what it’s worth, ChatGPT agrees: “Collaboration and cooperation among states and water users is crucial in finding solutions to the supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado River.”

Double Dead Pool on the Colorado River


The Bureau of Reclamation folks haven’t posted the slides yet from last week’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement briefings. In the meantime, some of us in the Colorado River nerd world have been passing around our screenshotted copies like some sort of precious mimeographed ’60s ‘zine.

It was a remarkable affair.

Buried in the tables and graphs was a sobering message: If we are to take climate change seriously, we need to be prepared for the possibility of:

  • driving Lake Mead to “dead pool” in order to protect the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam
  • driving Lake Powell below the critical power pool threshold, where Reclamation is forced to use Glen Canyon Dam’s dicey outlet works, in order to protect Lake Mead from reaching dead pool
  • releases from Lake Mead of as low as 3.8 million acre feet in a single near future year – a ~5 million acre foot reduction from current levels
  • Lake Powell releases dropping below the 10 year-by-75 million acre foot benchmark set by the Colorado River Compact. Not merely the 10×82.5 maf number that includes the Upper Basin’s share of the U.S. Mexican treaty obligation. Below 10x75maf.

To be clear, Reclamation is not projecting those numbers. Rather, this is the no-holds-barred reality check being offered by Reclamation’s technical team of a plausible scenario for which we need to be prepared.

Given the context in which these numbers are being offered – new operating rules under a revised version of the 2007 Interim Guidelines – it seems clear where this is headed.


First and foremost, if we have a wet year this year, we need to hold water back now. I can imagine, for example, a new rule that constrains releases from Glen Canyon Dam indexed to inflows – perhaps “don’t release any more water from Glen this year than last year’s unregulated inflow”. If my hypothetical rule takes evaporation into account, that would mean something around a 6maf Powell release in 2023.

Just hypothetically.

One of the flaws we can now clearly see in the ’07 guidelines is that they were keyed to reservoir elevations rather than the actual flow of the river, in a way that allowed us to drain Mead and Powell. We have a chance for a tweak to save us from the worst of that over the next few years.

Lower Basin use

Cutting Powell’s releases, as we must do, quickly crashes Lake Mead, pushing it well down into the ’07 guidelines shortage tiers. But the model runs presented by reclamation show those current shortage tiers won’t be enough.

So a new set of rules, to get us through the next few years, has to offer up much deeper Lower Basin cuts than the current rules in the ’07 guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan. It also seems clear, after staring at Reclamation’s slides from last week’s briefing, that we need the cuts to kick in sooner, at higher Mead levels, if we are to be prepared for the possibilities contemplated in the briefing. I’m intrigued by a “double DCP” notion that’s been kicking around the basin community, because it’s based on ratios for shortages among the Lower Basin states that have already been negotiated.

My back-of-the-envelope look at those numbers suggests to me that Double DCP at higher Mead elevations might be going a little harsh on Arizona and easy on California. Dunno. Thinking about equities, “present perfected rights”, Tribal water, environmental flows, and my friends in the Lower Basin gives me a headache.

But I’ve got plenty of aspirin and 16 days until Interior’s deadline for comments, so perhaps I’ll make it.


A century ago in Colorado River Compact negotiations: Heading Home

The Colorado River before Hoover Dam

By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck

After signing the Colorado River Compact on Friday, Nov. 24, 1922, the commissioners and their advisors returned to their home states. The compact would not become effective until it had been ratified by the legislatures of each of the states and the United States Congress. It was now time to prepare reports, answer questions, and work for state approval.

The ratification process was difficult. It would take 78 months before Congress finally approved a six-state pact and 22 years before all seven states agreed to it.

Arizona: Norviel

Arizona’s Winfield Norviel had the most difficult path ahead. Governor-elect George Hunt was opposed to the compact. Norviel knew that his job as the state’s water commissioner would be ending soon after Hunt took office. It’s a credit to Norviel that he simply didn’t tell the other commissioners that, given Hunt’s position, Arizona was not interested in agreeing to a compact, pack his bags and go home. Instead, he went back to Arizona and advocated for ratification. Hunt was reelected in 1924, again in 1926, lost in 1928, then won for the last time in 1930, always championing his opposition to the pact. Norviel died in 1935, nine years before Arizona ratified the compact.

Utah: Caldwell

Utah’s R.E. Caldwell returned to Salt Lake City and wrote a detailed report recommending ratification of the compact. The Utah legislature quickly complied. Caldwell resigned as State Engineer on July 1st, 1924, to “attend to personal business.” There is no evidence in the record that Caldwell stayed involved in Colorado River issues after his resignation. George Dern, who defeated Charles Mabey in 1924 for governor became Utah’s point man on the Colorado River. Caldwell died in 1959.

California: McClure

California’s W. F. McClure returned to Sacramento and wrote a short report. With the help of the Imperial Irrigation District, he obtained a clean ratification on February 3rd, 1923. In 1925, the California Legislature made its approval of the compact contingent upon Congressional approval of the Boulder Canyon Project. McClure never developed an effective working relationship with nor gained the full trust of the Imperial Irrigation District officials and the other Southern Californians with interests in Colorado River. He was a critic of the All-American Canal Project. McClure died in 1926. To represent the state on Colorado River matters California created the five-member Colorado River Commission in 1927 which became the Colorado River Board of California in 1937.

New Mexico: Davis

New Mexico’s Stephen Davis wrote a short report recommending ratification and, like Utah, its legislature quickly ratified the compact. On the same day that it approved the Colorado River Compact, February 7th, 1923, it also ratified the La Plata River Compact. The compact which covers a small tributary of the San Juan River shared by New Mexico and Colorado was negotiated by Carpenter and Davis and signed on November 27th. During the negotiations, Davis, who had resigned from the New Mexico Supreme Court when he was named its Colorado River Compact Commissioner, gained Hoover’s respect and confidence. In 1923 he became Solicitor of Hoover’s Department of Commerce. He later practiced law in New York from 1928 until death in 1933.

Nevada: Scrugham

James Scrugham, who had been elected Governor in November 1922, returned to Carson City and wrote a short report. Nevada’s legislature became the first state to ratify the compact on January 27th. He lost his bid for reelection in 1926. From 1932 – 1942 he was Nevada’s sole member of the U. S. House of Representatives. He was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1942, serving until his death in 1945.

Wyoming: Emerson

Wyoming’s Frank Emerson wrote a detailed report. The Wyoming legislature ratified the compact on February 9th, 1923. Emerson also became a governor, elected both in 1926 and 1930. As governor, he was actively involved in Colorado River matters, pressing Congress for approval of the compact and authorization of the Boulder Canyon Project. Emerson died while in office in 1931.

Colorado: Carpenter

Colorado’s Delph Carpenter returned to Greeley, Colorado where he also wrote a very detailed report, but ratification by his state was not easy. In March he had to write a supplemental report and call on Hoover to help him address several questions. Colorado ratified the compact on April 3rd, 1923. After Hunt was reelected Governor of Arizona in 1924, Carpenter became convinced that Arizona would not ratify the compact, so he became the quarterback of the six-state approval process that was implemented in 1928 when Congress passed the Boulder canyon Project Act. Carpenter, heralded as the father of interstate water compacts, was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He became bed-ridden in 1933 and died in 1951.

Chairman Hoover

Commission Chairman Herbert Hoover worked with the other commissioners to obtain ratification by their states. In 1928, he was elected as the 31st President of the United States. As president, on June 25th, 1929, he issued a proclamation declaring the Boulder Canyon Project Act effective. The act provided Congressional approval of the compact and authorized the construction of Boulder Dam, now Hoover Dam, and the All-American Canal. The legislation included a six-month window for California to limit its uses to 4.4 million acre-feet per year of Article III(a) water (plus ½ of the unappropriated surplus), for Utah to approve a six-state compact, and for the basin states to make one more attempt to make an agreement with Arizona. They failed. Hoover lost the 1932 election to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. He died in 1964.

Reclamation’s Davis

The Commission’s primary technical advisor was Arthur Powell Davis, Director of the Reclamation Service. Davis returned to Washington D.C. where he helped Hoover address Congressional questions about the pact. More of a hands-on engineer and visionary than an administrator, Davis saw the compact as key to approval of the Boulder Canyon Project, which would reenergize his struggling agency.

The struggles ran deep. Two decades after the Reclamation Act laid out a vision for irrigating the West, projects were floundering, with farmers largely unable to repay the ten year interest free “loans” from the federal government that were the projects’ financing mechanism. The original ten year payback scheme had already been extended to twenty, but many irrigation projects were nevertheless abandoned because the irrigators could not pay.

On June 19th, 1923, the day after the Reclamation Service became the Bureau of Reclamation, Davis was dismissed by Interior Secretary Hubert Work. A year later Elwood Mead was hired as Commissioner. Under Mead, the Bureau of Reclamation would become a major agency building the world’s tallest dam, Hoover Dam, and the world’s largest hydroelectric project, Grand Coulee. Davis then became a consultant for California agencies. He died in 1933. In 1941, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes proclaimed that the dam being planned on Colorado River below Hoover dam at Bullshead (also known as Bullhead) would be named after Davis.

The others

Two technical advisors, Colorado’s R. I. Meeker and Utah’s Dr. John Widstoe participated in both the 1922 and 1948 Compact negotiations. For the 1948 Upper Basin pact, Meeker was an advisor to Arizona.

As far as the authors can tell, no women were listed in the attendees to the Colorado River Compact negotiations. It is likely that Commission Secretary Clarence Stetson had clerical help. If so, they were never acknowledged.

There is no evidence that any Tribal members attended, or were even consulted, about the fate of the river in whose basins they had been living for time immemorial.


A century ago in Colorado River Compact history: the deal signed, the rhetoric soars

By John Fleck and Eric Kuhn

waxing poetic

As the Colorado River Compact’s negotiators trekked home in the final week of November 1922 following the completion of their task, the rhetoric soared.

Newspapers across the basin published the text of the Compact in full, and the leaders of the negotiation effort fanned out to praise the effort and lay the groundwork for the next steps.

Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary, Commission chairman, and the diplomat who had steered the negotiations through the narrow space for compromise available, spared little in his enthusiasm, nor in his optimism of the next steps. From a Los Angeles radio address:

The foundation has been laid for a great American conquest. The harnessing of the giant Colorado river will follow the ratification of the pact by the seven states of the Colorado river basin. With such ratification, the next step will be the construction, without delay, of a control dam, under authorization of congress.

Then the southwest will come into its magnificent heritage of power and life giving water, and all the nation will be vastly benefitted.

Arthur Powell Davis, head of the Reclamation Service and technical leader of the Compact efforts, framed the agreement as an end to conflict over the river’s water:

It will obviate the delay and acrimonious litigations which a year ago seemed imminent and has cleared the way for the provision of flood control and irrigation storage urgently needed and indispensable to further development in the Colorado river basin.

There would be “millions of homes” (Hoover’s words), a vast expansion of irrigation, and flood protection for the Imperial and (Hoover was at pains to point out to the Arizonans) Yuma valleys.

The sales pitch – plenty of water for all

Reclamation’s Davis laid out the central sales pitch:

The natural flow of the Colorado river averages nearly 20,000,000 acre feet per annum.

The Upper Basin’s 7.5 million acre foot allocation was “more than double its present needs,” enough to bring another 3 million acres under irrigation, “sufficient for all feasible projects, and some of doubtful feasibility.”

Similarly, with the creation of storage, the Lower Basin would be able to greatly expand its irrigated acreage.

And will all that, Davis argued, the deal left a 4 million acre foot “surplus”, enough to meet the needs of a future treaty with Mexico and to return in the future to reallocate the rest.

Next steps

The next steps – ratification, legislation, construction – seemed naively simple.

“Confidence that all the state legislatures will approve the compact was expressed by various commissioners,” the wire services reported out of Santa Fe.

As if ratification might be treated as a formality, attention turned immediately to Congress, where officials eyed the pending Smith-McNary bill as a vehicle to launch the Colorado River projects.

Both would take far more time – six years for Congressional action, more than two decades for state ratification, with the start of construction sandwiched in between.

But the changes to the West to be wrought by the Compact’s fewer than 2,000 words were now underway.

A century ago in Colorado River Compact negotiations: the Compact is signed

The Compact’s Signers

By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck

The final day of the Colorado River Compact negotiations seemed almost anticlimactic.

Wordsmithing “unperfected rights”?

Unable to reach a final agreement on Article VIII on Thursday evening, the Commission met again on Friday morning, Nov. 24, 1922, at 10 AM. They began with a discussion of “unperfected rights.”  The concept behind the article was that rights that were then using water would not be impacted by the compact but once storage of at least 5,000,000 acre-feet of capacity was available, perfected rights on the lower river, like the Imperial Irrigation District, would be solely satisfied by that storage and would no longer have the right to call for water being used by junior rights upstream of Lee Ferry. All unperfected rights, including what Hoover call “inchoate rights” – those that were being planned but were not yet using water – could only consume water apportioned to the basin in which they were situated.

There were many of these inchoate rights out there, including George Maxwell’s Arizona Highline Canal which would eventually evolve into today’s Central Arizona Project. There was also the Girand Project, a proposed large private power dam in what is now the western Grand Canyon, and Los Angeles was in the early stages of exploring an aqueduct from the Colorado River. The compact would be useless if these types of projects had potential claims on the water uses above Lee Ferry. The commission finally, but reluctantly, agreed to:

“Present perfected rights to the beneficial use of waters of the Colorado River System are unimpaired by this compact. Whenever storage capacity of 5,000,000 acre-feet shall have been provided on the main Colorado River within or for the benefit of the Lower Basin, then claims of such rights, if any, by appropriators or users of water in the Lower Basin against appropriators or users of water in the Upper Basin shall attach to and be satisfied from water that may be stored not in conflict with Article III. All other rights to beneficial use of waters of the Colorado River System shall be satisfied solely from the water apportioned to that Basin in which they are situate.”

New Mexico’s Stephen Davis summed up the attitude of many of the commissioners when he declared “I will register my vote as a ‘yes’ on that article. I do it only because to my mind it is the least objectionable of the attempts that have been made to frame the idea expressed in it, and not because I approve it.” Before approving the compact, they made at least two more changes that morning. They agreed to drop the introductory sentence in Article III and they dropped the definition of “apportionment” in Article II. (Note: at some point they also changed the accounting year in III(d) from July 1 -June 30 to October 1- September 30, but there is no mention of it in the minutes.)

The Commission held one more meeting that afternoon, its 27th formal meeting. It was mainly for housekeeping matters. They refused a request by Arizona’s Norviel to either support or not oppose the Girand Project that was then pending before the Federal Power Commission. Instead, they agreed that Hoover should send a letter asking that any future power permits be made subject to the compact. They then passed a resolution supporting the construction of a large dam on the Colorado River by the U. S. Government. The two actions were related. Hoover, Arthur Powell Davis, and McClure all opposed the Girand Project because they believed it would interfere with the proposed Boulder Canyon Project.

Reflecting on what they accomplished

Before ending the meeting, they took time to congratulate one another on what they had accomplished. On behalf of his fellow commissioners Delph Carpenter, who nearly three years ago had suggested a compact be negotiated, made the following remarks for the record.

We have about completed the task assigned to this commission, which is the first exemplification of interstate diplomacy in the history of the United States on so large a scale.

Carpenter went on to thank Hoover:

Our Chairman is due the great measure of credit for making possible this successful conclusion.

Hoover thanked all those present noting.

It has been one of the problems of more extreme complexity than will ever be appreciated by the outside world; and in the sense of service, and in the sense of restraint and in the willingness to compromise, it also has striking character. Had it not been for the character of the men who have been here, there would have been no compact.

Hoover went on to add that the “days of romance of the West are gone, and the job of western man is one of construction.” Adding, “It is possible this will standout as one of the landmarks of Western development.”

The commissioners then made the trek through the snow into Santa Fe where they signed the compact at the Palace of Governors.