Are We Headed for the First Colorado River Compact Tripwire?

By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck

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?

The consequences of triggering the tripwire, which might happen in 2027, are significant. In the worst case scenario, it could plunge the basin into Supreme Court litigation over the interpretation of the 1922 Compact, which could result in a forced curtailment of post-compact water uses in the Upper Basin. Or, alternately, if the Basin States are willing to settle their long-term disputed issues or implement basic changes to the Law of the River via the renegotiations of the post-2026 operating rules, it could be a “non-event.”  This is one of the fundamental issues facing the states as they meet to develop their basin-state alternative.

The 82.5 maf tripwire is based on the 1922 Compact’s two flow-related requirements at Lee Ferry; Article III(d) requires the four Upper Division States to not cause the progressive ten-year flow at Lee Ferry to be depleted below 75 maf. Additionally, Article III(c) provides that if there is not sufficient surplus water to meet the annual water delivery requirements of the 1944 Mexican Treaty, normally 1.5 maf, then each basin must provide half of the deficiency (the required annual delivery minus the available surplus). The Upper Division States must deliver their share of the deficiency at Lee Ferry in addition to their obligations under Article III(d).

The Upper Division and Lower Division States have never agreed on the meaning and interpretation of Article III(c). There have been numerous papers on the disputed issues by both compact scholars and practitioners and Article III(c) has never been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Suffice it to say that the Lower Division States believe that the Upper Division States must deliver at Lee Ferry a total of 82.5 maf every ten years (75 maf + 10 x 750,000), but the Upper Division States believe that they currently have no obligation to Mexico, so the number is at most 75 million. There are of course, nuances. The Lower Division States have suggested that the Upper Division States might also need to cover transit losses between Lee Ferry and Mexico and the Upper Division States have most recently suggested that if climate change, not Upper Basin depletions, is causing the ten-year flow to fall below 75 million, then their article III(d) non-depletion obligation must be appropriately adjusted. Further, if pursuant to either the extraordinary drought provision or a treaty minute, the required annual delivery to Mexico is less than 1.5 maf, then, even with no surplus, the Upper Division’s 50% share would be less than 750,000 acre-feet.

One should recognize that the annual releases from the Glen Canyon Dam and the annual flow at Lee Ferry (the compact point) are not the same.  Between the dam and Lee Ferry, the river gains flow from groundwater accretions (in part due to leakage around the dam) and from the Paria River. These gains can vary from about 30,000 acre-feet to over 300,000 acre-feet annually.  The ten-year Lee Ferry flow for 2014-2023 was approximately 86.1 maf.

That amount – 86.1 maf – might seem like a safe cushion. But because it is a ten-year moving total, we are about to drop out years with big releases (9 million acre feet) and replace them with years with just 7.48 maf. At the end of 2024, because both 2014 (the year that drops out) and 2024 (the year that is added in) are 7.48 maf years, the ten-year flow will stay about the same.  The way the ten-year flow calculation works is next year, 2015 will drop out and 2025 will be added in, and so on, but here is the problem; From 2015 through 2019, the 2007 Interim Guidelines dictated an annual release of 9 maf per year. With accretions, flows at Lee Ferry averaged about 9.18 maf per year (source: UCRC 74th Annual Report). Thus, if 2025 and 2026 are 7.48 maf years, the ten-year flow will lose about 1.5 maf/year making the total about 83 maf for the 2017-2026 period. Because the 2007 Interim Guidelines expire, we don’t know what the annual release will be in 2027, but if it’s less than about 8.5 maf, because 2017 was a 9 maf year, the ten-year Lee Ferry flow could drop below the tripwire – 82.5 maf (with two more 9 maf years, 2018 and 2019, in the pipeline).

We recognize that the 24-month studies don’t predict the future. They are a planning and management tool. It’s plausible that by 2027, a series of wet years could result in a ten-year flow that is much higher than 82.5 maf, something that is, in our view, unlikely. But as we sit here in January 2024, the 24-month study is the only planning tool we’ve got. It would behoove us to pay attention to what it is telling us.

If a future 24-month study projects that ten-year flows will fall below 82.5 maf, it will be a big deal for the basin. What provision of the Law of the River will control annual releases from Glen Canyon Dam – the post-2026 Operating Guidelines, the Lower Division’s interpretation of the 1922 Compact (82.5 maf), or the Upper Division’s interpretation of the 1922 Compact (75 maf or less)?  If the Lower Division States agree to a ten-year flow target of less than 82.5 maf, are they effectively surrendering to the Upper Division States? If the Upper Division States agree to a flow target of 82.5 maf, are they effectively surrendering to the Lower Division States? If the Upper Basin states agree to either 82.5 maf or some smaller compromise delivery target and the hydrology remains bad, how will Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah – our states – approach the required water use reductions? What if there is not enough water in storage in Lake Powell (and the other CRSP reservoirs) to release sufficient water to bring the ten-year flows to 82.5 maf? Will the Lower Division insist that that the UCRC implement a curtailment of post-compact uses in the Upper Basin. If the UCRC refuses to do so, will that plunge the Basin into litigation?

At the recent 2023 CRWUA meeting, representatives of the Lower Division States stepped up and made it clear they own the “structural deficit,” and the conference was buzzing with talk of the innovative system approach the Lower Division has put on the table. This is great news, but as Colorado’s Royce Tipton concluded sixty years ago, the “structural deficit” is not a single number. It’s a range that depends on the interpretation of the Lee Ferry obligations of the Upper Division States under the 1922 Compact. If the average annual flow requirement is 8.25 maf/year, (which Tipton referred to as “fictional”) he calculated the deficit to be about 1.2 maf/year. Today we believe it’s about 1.4 -1.5 maf/year (Tipton’s assumptions about system losses were probably too low and perhaps his Lee Ferry to Lake Mead inflow assumptions too high). If, however, the average annual flow requirement is 7.5 maf/year, he calculated the deficit to be about 2 maf/year, today maybe 2.2 maf/year. This difference is huge, especially for the Central Arizona Project, the junior user on the Lower basin mainstem.

In the past decades, water managers in the Colorado River Basin have made accomplishments that even two decades ago were considered out of reach: The 2019 Drought Contingency Plans, the shortage sharing agreements with Mexico, the increased recognition of the rights of the Basin’s Native American communities are just a few. The Lower Division’s recent pronouncement that they own the structural deficit is another major step forward, but it has a fundamental flaw. Representatives of all seven Basin states continue to stubbornly insist that the Law of the River, and specifically, the 1922 Colorado River Compact, will serve as the “foundation” of the post-2026 operating guidelines. The flaw is that is that we don’t know if this foundation is based on a ten-year Lee Ferry flow of 82.5 maf, or 75 maf, or something different.

Put simply, the states agree that the Law of the River has to be the basis of what we do, but don’t agree on what the Law of the River actually says. Without an agreement on this fundamental issue, calling the 1922 Compact a foundation is nothing more than self-delusional wishful thinking. Now that the Lower Division States have agreed to own the structural deficit, is the next step for all seven states and the federal government to openly acknowledge that given the impacts of climate change on the river, the 1922 Compact’s overallocation of water and its disputed Lee Ferry flow provisions are core problems for the basin, not the foundation? Finding a sustainable future, without litigation, will require accepting and acknowledging the basic problems we face, not avoiding them.

 

Somos Atrisco: Anchoring greater Albuquerque’s heritage

The Atrisco Acequia Madra, with bonus tumbleweeds. December 2020, by John Fleck

Work is moving forward on a new park sort of thing to mark an important piece of Albuquerque’s historical geography: the old Atrisco ditch heading.

Carolyn Carlson reports in the new City Desk ABQ (yay non-profit journalism!) that the Bernalillo County Commission adopted the “Atrisco Acequia Madre Master Plan” at its Jan. 9 meeting. It’ll give us a new two acre park-information setting near the point where a cluster of old irrigation ditches dating to the 1700s diverted water from the Rio Grande to what we today call “Albuquerque’s South Valley.”

Wheat paste sign reading "Nosomos Atrisco, Est. 1692" on the base of a light pole

Est. 1692 – Atrisco stakes claim to primacy

There was a time when Atrisco was the economic and population center of New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley, something some South Valley residents subtly but cheekily commemorated with these signs. The “Est. 1692” is a claim to primacy here. The old village of “Alburquerque” (the old spelling) claims a 1706 date. It’s a colonial primacy – the indigenous Pueblos we simply note as dating to “time immemorial.” But we have our pecking orders, and New Mexicans are acutely attentive to such chronologies.

Life on a flood plain

Before the work done a century ago to build levees, confining the Rio Grande to a narrow channel, the villages of the South Valley – Atrisco, Pajarito, Los Padillas – were clustered on slightly higher ground, differences imperceptible today but readily apparent when early residents watched a rising river each spring.

From the June 17, 1874 Santa Fe New Mexican, one of many accounts of flooding we documented in our research for our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green:

Monday of this week we received the startling news that the river had burst its barriers at Atrisco and threatened to inundate all this lower country as far as the Pueblo of Isleta. The people turned out and worked all day Tuesday to stop the break but without success. That night another break occurred near the
first, and the water rushed through in torrents.

In the book, we describe how the South Valley – Atrisco – was the dominant population center for the valley’s sheepherding economy before the arrival of the railroad upended the old order in the 1880s, shifting the power center east across the river to Albuquerque.

But life on the valley floor was a constant struggle with a river. Scholars have traced the name, “Atrisco,” to the Aztec word “Atlixto” – “on the surface of the water.” Irrigation as crucial for subsistence in the time before the railroad enabled food importation at scale, but it was always a sketchy proposition because of the river’s “menace.”

The Atrisco Acequia Madre Plan

The new park will include a place for visitors we drive to store their automobiles (“parking,” in the weird lingo), interpretive signs, and the like. The site, which you can see in the photo at the top of the post, is a little chunk of land owned by various government agencies across Central Avenue – old Route 66 – from the Monte Carlo liquor store and steak house. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is the primary landowner.

It’s at a fascinating spot in our modern urban geography. Across the river to the east lies our botanical gardens and “Tingley Beach”, a conspicuously gardened landscape, precious. On the west side, it’s – how to say this with grace? – less manicured, and more real.

I know I say this about a lot of places, but the west side of the crossing, the unmanicured one, is one of my favorite Albuquerque urban river spots. I’m delighted about the project.

Preliminary: New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact debt rose ~25,000 acre feet in 2023

Elephant Butte Reservoir in the early 20th century, courtesy USBR via Library of Congress

New Mexico once again fell short in 2023 of the requirement set out in the Rio Grande Compact to deliver water to Elephant Butte Reservoir for use in Southern New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, delivering ~25,000 acre feet less than the Compact requires, according to preliminary estimates presented at Monday’s meeting of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

These numbers are preliminary. The final, official numbers will be sorted out at this spring’s meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission. But if they hold, that would put New Mexico’s cumulative Compact debt at ~125,000 acre feet.

Really bad things don’t start happening until New Mexico’s cumulative Compact debt rises above 200,00 acre feet, but less bad things are already happening now as a result of the debt. Under Article VI of the Compact:

Within the physical limitations of storage capacity in such reservoirs, New Mexico shall
retain water in storage at all times to the extent of its accrued debit.

Translated, that means any runoff we could actually store in upstream reservoirs in 2024 we can’t use, but rather have to hang onto to run down to Elephant Butte after the end of the irrigation season.

Run-of-the river again for Middle Valley irrigators, and for the fish

There’s a complex interaction here between physical storage* and rules. But the bottom line is that once again this summer, water users in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley, the stretch of the river between Cochiti Pueblo and Elephant Butte Dam, will be entirely dependent on natural runoff available after the farmers in the San Luis Valley of Colorado take their share of the river.

I would predict, as a result, that:

  1. People who irrigate in the Middle Valley should expect a high risk of significant stretches with no ditch water in the summer,
  2. Water available for instream flows for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow will once again be extremely tight, with a high likelihood of drying in the Isleta and San Acacia reaches this summer, and
  3. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is likely to shut down river diversions for its drinking water plant at some point in the summer and switch over to groundwater pumping so I can keep taking showers.

* Physical storage

El Vado Dam, built by the federal government and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in the 1930s to store water during the spring runoff peak for irrigators to use in the late summer is under repair, a project taking way longer than expected. It’s likely that the necessary paperwork to store some water in Abiquiu Reservoir will be in place by runoff season, but the Compact Article VI debt means that water cannot be used for irrigation in 2024.

Busking

Inkstain is reader supported. Thanks to all who have chipped in.

Colorado River Basin Reservoir Storage at the End of 2023 – Holding On to What We Have

By Jack Schmidt | January 9, 2024

There was not much loss in reservoir storage in the Colorado River basin in December 2023. Total storage in the basin’s reservoirs only declined by 17,000 acre feet during the month, and the combined contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell increased by 68,000 acre feet. At year’s end, the basin’s water users have only consumed 21% of the gain in storage caused by the large snowmelt of 2023.

Here are a few graphs depicting where we stand at the start of the new year.

1. The amount of water stored in the basin’s reservoirs remains at an unprecedented low condition. On 31 December 2023, total basin storage was 28.0 million acre feet (af), of which 17.5 million af was in Lake Mead and Lake Powell (Fig. 1). The total amount of water stored in the basin is the same as it was in early May 2021. At that time, storage was less than at any other time in the 21st century, but we drained the reservoirs much more in the summer and fall of 2021 and 2022. The recovery of storage caused by the large runoff in 2023 provided some relief to the ongoing water-supply crisis, but water storage remains critically low.

This winter’s snowfall has been meager so far, and Reclamation’s January 1 prediction of unregulated inflow to Lake Powell is only 66% of average. Water managers are beginning to anticipate another summer of water-use restrictions. No one should think that last year’s runoff eliminated the ongoing crisis.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Graph showing active water storage in 42 reservoirs in different parts of the Colorado River basin. Conditions at the end of December 2023 are comparable to conditions in early May 2021, indicated by the black arrows. Data downloaded at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/hydrodata/reservoir_data/site_map.html.

2. Most of the basin’s water storage is in Lake Mead and Lake Powell (Fig. 2). Releases from Lake Powell and reductions in Lower Basin water use were sufficiently large that there was significant recovery of storage in Lake Mead. At the end of December, storage in Lake Mead (9.05 million acre feet) exceeded storage in Lake Powell (8.44 million acre feet) by approximately 600,000 acre feet. The difference in storage between the two reservoirs is much less than during the previous two years when more water was stored in Lake Mead.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Graph showing water storage since January 2021. Note that storage in Lake Mead was significantly greater than in Lake Powell in 2021 and 2022. Large spring runoff in 2023 was captured in Lake Powell, and some of that accumulated inflow was subsequently released to Lake Mead. The rate of reduction in storage in reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell significantly slowed after mid-fall 2023. The category “other Upper Basin reservoirs” includes Strawberry, Granby, McPhee, Dillon, Starvation, Nighthorse, and smaller reservoirs. Water storage in Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu remains nearly constant. Note that the vertical axis is an arithmetic scale that has a break. Data downloaded at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/hydrodata/reservoir_data/site_map.html.

3. The rate of loss in reservoir storage this year remains low relative to the rate of loss in previous years (Fig. 3), especially the rate of decline of the combined storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. (Fig. 4) The basin’s water managers are doing a good job of reducing use and conserving water in reservoirs. Reclamation’s estimate of probable consumptive water use in the Lower Basin in 2023, issued 31 December 2023, is 5.78 million acre feet, nearly 900,000 acre feet less than Lower Basin consumptive use in 2022. Will that degree of water conservation be enough? That depends on how much snowmelt occurs this spring.

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 has been at a much slower rate than in other years. Each year that plots lower than 2023 on this graph reflects a higher rate of loss in storage than this 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 has been slower than in any other recent year. Each year plotting lower than 2023 on this graph reflects a higher rate of loss in storage than in this year.

Acknowledgement: Eric Kuhn and John Fleck provided helpful suggestions that improved this posting.

Colorado River stuff roundup

Peering out across the Colorado River landscape for 2024, a few things I’ve been reading to help catch y’all up:

Paying to conserve

Annie Snider had a terrific story in late November about the role of federal cash in the short term solutions to the Colorado River’s challenges that needs to echo outside the usual Politico-reading crowd.

Big $$$ flowing from the federal government have been crucial to shoring up the reservoirs by paying people to leave water in them, but what does that do to the prospects of long run solutions that require permanent water use reductions:

The gusher of federal money is likely to make a broader, long-term deal to save the West’s most important river more expensive.

“It’s all a grand experiment,” said Kathryn Sorensen, a former head of Phoenix’s water department, who noted that Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act funding is effectively creating a new market for water, with a new, higher price. “This market, especially one with a premium [price], might create some perverse incentives.”

Using hydrology, rather than reservoir levels, to determine how much water people use

Luke Runyon, now at the Water Desk (wait, what?) included this in his “what to watch for this year on the river” piece following last month’s Colorado River Water Users Association:

One more idea from the Las Vegas conference that’s still largely conceptual, but is gaining some interest from those in power, is to use annual measures of basic hydrology — like snowpack levels and streamflows — to determine how much water ends up being delivered to the basin’s varied users. It sounds simple: only use what nature provides.

But that idea flies in the face of the river’s foundational governing document, the Colorado River Compact, which put fixed volumes of water use on paper, regardless of whether it was a dry or wet year. For now, the idea seems to be more of a talking point than a specific policy proposal, and we will see if proponents can turn it into something Lower Basin users can get behind.

The current management regime is based on reservoir levels, rather than the underlying system hydrology. My collaborators Jack Schmidt, Eric Kuhn, and I argued in our 2022 NEPA comments for the hydrology approach rather than the reservoir level approach. We are not alone. It makes a lot of sense, though, as Luke notes, no one’s make a specific policy proposal (we just wave our arms in our comments and basically say “This’d be great, someone should figure out how to do it!”).

Which leads me to….

Modeling and a shared understanding

Kevin Wheeler, Terry Fulp, and Roberto Salmon have a super-important new paper on the use of modeling to create a shared understanding of the resources of the Colorado River basin:

As participants directly involved in recent agreements seeking to address this challenge, we describe how a critical basin-wide lens has been developed through information transparency, including the evolution and voluntary exchange of computational models. To achieve greater sustainability, further resolve and commitment from water managers in the United States and Mexico is necessary to ensure the required enhancement of the knowledge systems that will be used to inform extremely difficult and critical decisions.

This touches on a crucial point in negotiating these big, complex, shared resource management agreements – the importance of having a shared understanding of the resource. This is one of the key threads through my book Water is For Fighting Over, which drew for this point on the work of Elinor Ostrom.

When I wrote the following passage eight years ago, I was very specifically writing about the work that Wheeler, Fulp, Salmon, and others had done in negotiating a landmark U.S.-Mexico water management agreement known as Minute 319.

Much of the negotiations that followed hinged on the development of a shared understanding of a seemingly straightforward problem: how to account for the water moving through the Colorado River System from one nation to the other. But to deal with the issue required doing something that had previously been beyond reach: extending “the network” of US water managers into Mexico. One of the network’s key tools is a sophisticated computer model of the basin known as the Colorado River Simulation System. The Bureau of Reclamation supported an entire research team based at the University of Colorado in Boulder to develop and maintain it, and its calculations are used to make decisions about how much, where, and when, to release water.

Now Wheeler, Fulp, and Salmon have written for us a guide. I hope to return to this for a longer piece (see below, re business model), but in the meantime just read what they wrote, please, that’s your homework.

Busking as a business model

I’ve got no business model here, just an extremely part time University gig that ensures me library privileges (important!) and a semi-formal institutional structure to provide routine access to a bunch of really smart people (very important!).

But it occurs to me that I’m kinda like a busker, somewhere between my failed model of performing journalism in bars (this did not work out) and putting out a guitar case seeded with a few fives. Thanks to my faithful readers who provided the fives, here’s the guitar case.

The case for renaming Albuquerque’s “Civic Plaza” after jazz giant John Lewis (who grew up here)

There’s a fun feel of community pride, and joy, in the wave of front page stories in Albuquerque newspapers in 1971 when jazz great John Lewis, founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, brought the group to his home town to play with the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall.

Lewis grew up in Albuquerque, and studied classical piano at the University of New Mexico before his advanced studies at the Manhattan School of Music and, perhaps more importantly, playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the years following his military service during the World War II.

John Lewis Plaza

Mr. K at BetterBurque is the one who suggested “John Lewis Plaza”. I was confused when first told that John Lewis grew up in Albuquerque. Wikipedia’s “John Lewis (disambiguation)” page is long. There are quite a few other notable people bearing that name.

But in 1971, on the Popejoy stage, there was no such confusion.

“In Memoriam”, Lewis’s Tribute to his university music teacher

The 1971 Popejoy concert was the first public performance of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s song “In Memoriam,” Lewis’s tribute to his University of New Mexico piano teacher, Walter B. Keller.

The story is great. Lewis and Keller hadn’t seen one another for 20 years when they crossed paths in Barcelona the year before. Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet were playing a concert there, and Keller happened to be there, on sabbatical, studying liturgical music.

Lewis’s classical roots are a key part of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s music, which bridged the bop jazz combo world with those classical roots he learned from Keller, pulling jazz out of the dive bar (to borrow from music scholar Carla Rupp’s thesis on the Modern Jazz Quartet) and into the concert hall.

Keller died a month after the chance meeting, and the following November Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet chose Popejoy for the premier of “In Memoriam”, a piece Lewis wrote in Keller’s honor. The piece was the title song from the band’s 1974 album In Memoriam.

The best bit was Lewis, at what the Albuquerque Tribune described as a “soiree” for the symphony board after the concert, presenting Keller’s widow, “Mrs. Walter B. Keller,” (in the newspapers of the day, she had no other name) with the score.

That’s someone worth naming a civic plaza after.

 

 

 

Lousy start to the 2023-24 snowpack year on the Rio Grande

Three months into the 2023-24 water year, we have our first early look at what sort of runoff to expect on the Rio Grande in the coming year, and it doesn’t look great. The January NRCS median forecast for March-July runoff is 42 percent of “normal” at Otowi, the critical forecast point where the Rio Grande enters New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande. It’s still early in the snow season, with a wide range of possible outcomes depending on the storm patterns over the next few months. But the best possible outcome (statistically a one chance in 20 of this much water) is still below the 30-year median.

In other words, we’re pretty clearly on track for a below-average runoff year.

The forecast uses the NRCS’s new Multi-Model Machine-learning Metasystem (M4) forecasting tool, part of an effort to develop improved statistical tools using machine learning approaches to the big snowpack datasets rather than the principal components analysis used in the past. The peer-reviewed paper laying out the testing done over the last half decade suggests significant improvement in the tricky task of forecasting runoff.

The biggest uncertainty is always the weather, but I’m excited to see the new, improved statistical models shifting from the research world to operations.

2023 in review: Exploring the commons, looking for a place to pee

No Unauthorized Vehicles Beyond This Point

On my penultimate bike ride of 2023 Friday, I turned west on Bobby Foster Road in Albuquerque’s southwest valley, wandering past junk yards and Ace Metals: “THE BEST PRICES IN ALBUQUERQUE For: Steel, Iron, Junk Cars, Tin, Appliances, Aluminum, Copper, Brass, Batteries, Stainless Radiators, and Catalytic Converters”.

With my current loosey-goosey career, it’s easier for me to ride on weekdays, but it was the first time I’ve ridden the junkyard neighborhood on a weekday. Totally different. Groups standing around old wrecked cars talking parts, a crane picking and stirring the junk pile at Ace, a mail truck making the rounds. Human stuff, people living their lives.

My “geography by bike” is mostly a self-indulgent hobby, loosely linked to “exercise” and “goofing.” But the occupational hazard arising from a life as a writer is that I’m always writing, always seeing the things around me through the mental exercise of imagining how I might write about them.

I’m always writing.

Blue-green squares are places I rode this year that I’ve never ridden before (at least since I started GPSing my rides 15 years ago), as measured by a grid of squares about 1/6th of a mile on a side.

This came in handy over the last year as Bob Berrens and I were writing the manuscript for our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green, about the history of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande. Everywhere we were writing about, I have ridden. I ride everywhere, by which I mean trying to find new places that I’ve not visited before. I have old standards, rides I love to return to again and again. But my favorite thing is to ride down a street, or ditchbank, that I’ve never ridden down before. (GPS and mapping software help in this regard. Did I mention that it’s a self-indulgent hobby?)

The thing about riding a bike is that you largely are riding through human-created spaces. It’s a window into what the French philosopher and sociologist Henry Lefebvre called the social production of space, and the joy for me in visiting places like the junkyards off Bobby Foster Road is thinking about the structure of the human lives that are forever producing these spaces.

My pursuit of new places to ride – it’s a bit hard core, see the map on the right – has encouraged an increasingly complicated grappling with what we might call “the commons,” or what, in a much more broad sense, the political scientist Bonnie Honig has called “public things.” My interest in the commons is longstanding. It’s at the heart of my book Water is For Fighting Over, which drew heavily on the ideas in Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons for its conceptual superstructure.

Ostrom and those bouncing around her were/are focused – properly! – on the commons in the context of “common pool resources” – stuff that we all need, that we all kinda share, but if I use too much there’s not gonna be enough for you, etc. Such as water, which is what got me invited to this party.

“Public things” is a broader category. In her book, Honig is careful not to define it, preferring to work the question through by way of example:

For example, a public thing may not be publicly owned but is public insofar as it is subject to public oversight or secured for public use.

So public streets are, for sure, a public thing. But how do we know which streets are “public?”

Lagunitas Lane and a place to pee

I stumbled onto Honig’s book via a link in an essay by Shannon Mattern about public drinking fountains. If you ride your bike a lot, as I do, you think about public drinking fountains and public toilets. There are few, which is why the glorious public infrastructure at the new Valle do Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s Mountain View neighborhood stands out.

Valle de Oro public toilets, voted best in all of Albuquerque by a survey of me.

This is the broader sense of “public things” as the stuff that provides what Amartya Sen defines as “capability” – the underpinnings of our ability to live the lives we choose, meeting our preferred goals and desires.

Albuquerque’s new International District Library – the library Lissa and I have chosen as ours, a regular Saturday outing – is a great example here of a public thing. Not only is its architecture, like the Valle de Oro visitors center, gloriously enabling, but it has public computers and public bathrooms. This is a pretty flimsy floor for the Sen-style “capability” of our unhoused neighbors clustered in the neighborhood around the library, but anyone can use the computers to access the things on the (“quasi-public”?) Internet you need to engage in Sen-capability stuff, and there is a steady flow of people going to the special desk the librarians have set up in the library’s back corner to manage the bathroom key.

Some years ago, when Valle de Oro was still in the early phases of its transition from former dairy farm to wildlife refuge, my riding buddy and I had occasion to try to wander into the newly “public” (that word again!) property from the neighborhood on its northwestern edge. We turned down Lagunitas Lane and, when the pavement ended and turned to dirt, kept riding past the “County Maintenance Ends” sign.

Who owns Lagunitas Lane?

As we noodled south looking for a way to get into the wildlife refuge, a car approached slowly, the driver rolling down the window. “You know this is a private road,” they said, snippy. We smiled politely, thanked them for telling us, and kept going in search of a permeable gate to get onto the refuge.

In the five years since that encounter, I have always assumed the driver knew whereof they spoke. It has not stopped us from from riding down Lagunitas Lane, because the gate remains permeable, it’s a great place to get into Valle de Oro, and exploring the boundaries between “public” and “private”, the slippery notion of “trespassing”, is a big part of the exercise. But I was always wary of another encounter with Snippy Driver. “Trespassing” carries both social and legal costs.

But a look at the county property maps this morning suggests that this stretch of Lagunitas Lane is, in fact, public property, by which I mean owned by the federal government, so me! And you, too (some terms and conditions may apply).

I do not mean to equate my need for easy access to a wildlife refuge for purpose of bike riding escapades to the needs of our unhoused neighbors to apply for a job or pee. One is clearly more foundational to what Sen is talking about than the other, but it’s a continuum worth exploring.

The junkyards off of Bobby Foster Road

The Ace Metals road (I know, it’s been a while, we’re back to the bike ride I started this post with 1,100 words ago) is part of an area marked off in red on the maps I use for bike ride planning. They’re based on Open Street Map, a Wikipedia-like mapping site. (Open Street Map is a public thing.) Red means “industrial area”, and it also usually means “John can’t ride his bike there.” It’s also not on Google Street View, another “can’t go there” ride mapping clue. But I thought I remembered my riding buddy saying he’d done it, and I was in the neighborhood because I’d been riding in the neighboring flood control channel (Public! But maybe not for bike riding?), so I gave it a look.

It was a weekday, and the first thing I saw was a mail truck heading down the road. The U.S. Mail, a public thing if ever there was one! So off I went. A couple of guys standing talking by the side of the road outside one of the junkyards smiled and waved a “Hi”, which always feels so very public, a shared space thing.

At the far end, the road dead-ended with a gate into the last business. I eyed, as one does, the fences looking for a way through to the neighboring railroad tracks (railroad tracks regularly pose the “public or not” dilemma, these I decided “not”).

I rode back, got the obligatory Strava mobile phone picture of Ace, and rode on out of the neighborhood past the angry pit bull guard dog behind the fence of the last junkyard on the left (angry pit bulls a definite “not public” signifier).

Here’s the thing. A look at the county maps shows the whole road, from the pit bull to the gate a half mile down, is private property. I’m not savvy enough with the available maps to know about easements and maintenance agreements and the like, but it was a fun place to ride my bike.

A year on the bike

Much of my mental focus in 2023 was finishing the manuscript of Ribbons of Green, which was (and remains) an all-brain activity. So when I rode, which I do (373 hours on the bike, an average of a shade more than an hour a day, 3,173 delightfully slow old guy miles), I toured the landscape of our book.

My 2023 bike rides, h/t to the amazing Stan Ansems at Statshunters

 

I covered the whole Rio Grande Valley floor, from Bernalillo in the north to Los Lunas in the south, excepting the land of the indigenous Pueblo communities, which bear profound public/not public implications. I basically rode the entire “study area” for the book, which is about the interplay between the Rio Grande and the greater Albuquerque community.

I also spent a good deal of time exploring up out of the valley, parts of the city I’d not yet ridden. My goal is to ride everywhere, where “everywhere” involves a map grid of the greater metro area, squares that are about 1/6th a mile on side. Some of these neighborhoods are frankly not as interesting as the crazy spiderweb of river, levees, ditches, and flood control channels that define the hydraulic infrastructure I mostly write about.

But it’s all interesting! No place is uninteresting, junk yards least of all.

 

New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande 2023 Review

High December flows on the Rio Grande in New Mexico’s middle valley, an artefact of river management rules. John Fleck.

This was a big flow year on New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande, but weird, in ways that highlight the challenges we face.

Flow in the River

Total flow into New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley (measured at Otowi) sits at 1.26 million acre feet with two more days’ flow to go, so round it off to 1.3maf.

Rio Grande flow at Otowi, with Brad Udall-style plots of 20th and 21st century means.

 

A drying Rio Grande. Albuquerque, New Mexico, Aug. 20, 2023. By John Fleck

So a big year! Yay!  Look at all that water in the picture above, a bank-full Rio Grande flowing past Rio Rancho, New Mexico, in December. And yet there I was in August watching dogs gamboling on the sand bed of a nearly dry Rio Grande. What’s up with that?

The answer involves the interaction between a climate change-driven megadrought, the use of the river by human communities, and the tangle of rules that govern management of the 21st century Rio Grande.

The short term tangle involves El Vado Dam, currently being renovated and therefore unusable for storage. That meant that by August the declining inflow of late summer with a lousy monsoon left the river nearly dry, regardless of the winter snowpack.

This problem, which will go on for several more years, means that irrigators will depend on run-of-the-river operations for late summer irrigation for a while yet. Given that irrigation water also supports environmental flows on its way to the irrigation diversions, this is also bad for things like the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow and the river flowing through my city.

The longer term tangle involves competing community values among the various ways we use water, combined with a lack of tools to reduce that use.

Because, with climate change there is less water.

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The Tangle: Moving Water in Time

First let’s pin some data to our bulletin board:

Total storage on New Mexico’s Rio Grande and the Rio Chama, its main tributary.

There’s an old water management adage: Canals move water in space, reservoirs move water in time. We built them to store water in wet years, effectively moving it in time to dry years. So how much did we so move this year?

Inspired by Jack Schmidt’s monthly Colorado River posts, I spent my Saturday coffee wakeup this morning totaling up sorta year-end storage in the reservoirs I care about (from top to bottom Heron, El Vado, Abiquiu, Cochiti, Elephant Butte, and Caballo). It took longer than I expected because I was so distracted by all the amazing history embedded in this graph. 1986-87, yowza, what’s up with that?

Flow this year was ~440k acre feet above the 21st century average. Total end of year storage is up ~220k acre feet. There’s so much mixing of apples, oranges, durian, and pawpaw here that it’s not a straight up comparison, but it should give you a feel for the challenge: we only saved a part of the bonus water. We used a lot of it.

The Management Levers

Let’s imagine for a moment that we wanted to pull some water management levers to change that balance by reducing consumptive use (by “use” I mean evapotransporation, human and non-human) in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. We’ve basically got four different categories of use:

  • The cities, especially Albuquerque
  • The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which manages irrigation water for some commercial farms and a lot of custom and culture/lifestyle stuff
  • Domestic wells
  • The river – evaporation and riparian consumption by our beloved bosque

Let’s take these in order of smallest to largest water use.

The Cities

We’ve already cranked down pretty hard on this lever. With a combination of water use reductions and a shift from groundwater pumping to imported Colorado River water, we’ve already cranked down extremely hard on this lever. This is the one area of the system that is already aggressively regulated.

If you want to crank down harder on this lever, the two points of entry in the legal/political/policy system are the Office of State Engineer/Interstate Stream Commission, which do the regulating, and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority Board, which is made up of elected city councilors and county commissioners.

The District

Consumptive use by the Conservancy District’s irrigators is several times larger than the cities. The District took voluntary action this year to reduce use, delaying the start of irrigation season and cutting diversions once they started by 20 percent to try to get more water to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

With federal money, the District paid folks irrigating a relatively small portion of the valley’s acreage to fallow this year, and the acreage is going up in 2024. But the numbers remain small relative to the size of the problem.

If you want to crank down harder on this lever, it’s not clear to me what the state’s legal authority might be. There may be some, but it’s not been tested. But the District is governed by an elected board. That’s a lever, though it’s worth pointing out that the board got a lot of crap this year from irrigators about they steps they did take. Incentives in all of this are weird, it’s tricky to figure out how to work this lever.

Domestic Wells

We don’t regulate these at all. We have no idea how much water they use, but it sure looks to use like there’s a lot.  We don’t really even know how many there are, there seem to be a lot drilled illegally. (If you’re a UNM Water Resources Student, hit me up on this! We have some ideas for a really impactful masters degree research project.) We probably need to think about building a lever here, but we currently don’t have one. The state legislature might be a place to start? Maybe some un-exercised legal authority at the Office of State Engineer? (See NMAC 19.27.5.14, my day job, such as it is, is at a law school, though IANAL it sure looks like that could only apply to new wells, so horse out of barn etc.)

The Bosque

The biggest water user, likely larger than irrigation, is the riparian corridor itself. It’s largely unnatural, vegetation exploiting a niche created when we built levees and constrained the river’s flow, but whatever. It feels like “nature”, and we love it. And even if we didn’t it’s not clear what a lever to reduce that use might look like.

Values

Each one of these uses is valued by some segment of our community, and we seem to lack the tools to reconcile these competing values, which is why I’m pretty excited about the 2023 Water Security Planning Act.

A note on sources and methods

The reservoir data is from the USBR’s reservoir data archive. The latest 2023 data is from Dec. 18, so I matched up this year’s with Dec. 18 in previous years. My quick sensitivity check led me to conclude “Meh, good enough for a blog post.” For the early years, the USBR just reports a single year-end number for El Vado. My quick sensitivity check led me to conclude “Meh, good enough for a blog post.”

Flow data is from the USGS Otowi gage.

It is, in fact, spelled “gage“, just ask Bob, he’ll tell you.

I currently have 26 browser tabs open, including one with an amazing list of obscure fruit, did you know that Mark Twain called cherimoya “the most delicious fruit known to men.”? I had a bunch more I wanted to say, but that’s enough, it’s time to hit “publish”. Thanks for reading.

The White Trains

Abandoned tracks from the nuclear weapons-bearing “White Trains,” which weren’t always white. On edge of Tijeras Arroyo, south of Kirtland Air Force Base, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. John Fleck, December 2023

Out on my bike exploring this morning, I climbed a hill to find these old abandoned railroad tracks built for what they called the “White Trains,” which carried nuclear weapons to and from Kirtland Air Force Base outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It wasn’t a surprise. I knew roughly where they were, having stumbled on a section of abandoned tracks on a bike exploring expedition with a couple of friends a few years back and sorted through the “Why are these train tracks here?” question. This part of the arroyo is popular with the dirt biking/ATV crowd, and when you get near the road the trash dumpers, but there’s not much other human activity out here any more. The embankment to the right is a huge pad graded for a business park that never (has not yet?) happened. As I said, not much human activity out here any more.

It’s not great bike riding – sandy, a lot of walk-a-bike – but I was exploring and in no hurry. The ATV folks have created some nice paths that helped my navigation, and it being a weekday, there weren’t any actual ATVs in sight, just one big-ass street pickup, one of those slightly lifted 4-door jobs, poking its way through the sandhills going as slowly as I was.

The White Trains

The White Trains had been retired by the time I moved to Albuquerque to start writing about nuclear weapons in 1990, replaced by anonymous truck transports that looked like regular big rigs if you didn’t notice the armored SUVs escorting them. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, the Department of Energy had used the White Trains to ferry nukes from the Pantex Plant outside Amarillo, where they were assembled, to Kirtland – and I think maybe elsewhere in the country too.

Kirtland is home to what I think (it’s classified!) is the largest military nuclear weapons depot in the United States, the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex. Kirtland’s vast barbed wire enclosure also includes Sandia National Laboratories, where we design a significant portion of the nukes’ innards.

My first nuke story, Oct. 23, 1990

This was a huge part of my life. For nearly a quarter century, nukes were my beat. A search on “John Fleck” and “nuclear” in the Albuquerque Journal archives gets 1,563 hits. I have a deep history with the topic. That’s why ever since we found the “White Train” tracks on one of our crazy bike exploring outings, I’ve had a pin in my mental map out there.

The White Trains became a focus of protest by the 1980s, and the nukers cleverly tried painting them different colors, but the protests continued and people continued calling them “White Trains”. Given the end points of the trip – Pantex and Kirtland – it was pretty obvious that they weren’t carrying household goods.

I’ve been exploring these landscapes around the edges of the city lately, working on a piece about them – places not designated “park” or “wilderness”, just culturally orphaned open spaces repurposed for off-roading and dumping trash. They’re rich desert ecosystems, but the human detritus makes them a little spooky. The abandoned White Train tracks upped the spooky meter to 11.

Sunport South Business Park

Courtesy Albuquerque Journal

The land where the abandoned tracks run is part of the “Sunport South Business Park”, “strategically located where road, rail and air meet,” as the Albuquerque Journal explained in a 2017 story announcing the project. The “rail,” actually shown in the Journal graphic, is the old “White Train,” line which, judging from the picture above, needs a bit of refurbishment. Road access from a street to the east is better, and it’s right next to the airport, so sorta strategic?

Looking back at my old bike rides (I’m one of those crazy people who GPS ’em all.), I realize that the bike ride during which we found the “White Train” tracks was the day after the newspaper story announcing “Sunport South.” You have to ride your bike somewhere. “Let’s go see where they’re gonna put that new business park!” It was a pretty memorable ride, involving a drag strip and a trespassing incident that I’ll have to tell you about over beers some time.

Six years later, Sunport South remains a feature on my “much-hyped business parks that don’t actually have any business” bicycle exploring tour. The “Aviation Center for Excellence,” built on a stretch of abandoned runway on the far side of the airport, is also on the tour, given that the only thing built on the site nine years after the project was announced are a bunch of streets that make it easy to get near the airport to watch the planes take off and land.

These things take time, and I’m patient. I’m in Albuquerque for the long haul. Maybe the “White Trains” history could be a marketing tool.