Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery seems to be returning

Graph showing recovery of Albuquerque's aquifer, as measured at the USGS Del Sol Divider gage

Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery continues

After a couple of years of setback, the aquifer underneath the University of New Mexico neighorhood is rising again.

The spring measurement shows that it’s risen three feet since last year around this time.

The annual variability (the graph’s ups and downs) are the result of regional groundwater pumping for our municipal supply – more pumping in summer, less in winter. It’s fun to see how the regional aquifer responds, like a big bathtub filled with gravel and sand.

The long term upward trend, beginning in 2006-08-ish, is the result of a) significant conservation reducing overall municipal demand, and b) a shift to imported surface water via the San Juan-Chama Project.

The dip in 2020-21 is because we had a badass drought that required us to shift a significant amount of our supply off of that imported surface water and increase our groundwater pumping. The aquifer here dropped five feet from 2021 to 2022, for example.

This is a great example of polycentric governance. Absent a top-down (read state government) regulatory framework, our local water utility, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, has taken it upon itself to serve as a sort of de facto manager of this aquifer – not because it’s our legal responsibility (though there are some legal entanglements with the state water rights regime) but because we, as a community, concluded a number of years ago that it was in our best interest to take care of the aquifer. (Disclosure: I serve on the ABCWUA Technical Customer Advisory Committee.)

This is just one measurement point, because one of my intellectual tricks is to pick a gage (usually a river gage, but also this one for groundwater) and pay attention to it. This is tricky, because what if it’s not representative? But there’s been a lot of work by the USGS and others looking at our groundwater network as a whole, and the trend holds in general in the big, deep aquifer beneath Albuquerque. (One of my other favorite wells, City #2, which goes back to the 1950s, is up 6 inches year-over-year. Another favorite is City #3, which is located at the heart of one of the thick geographies I’m writing about for the new book, and is really close to one of the ABCWUA well fields, which tells another fabulous story as a result, but I’ve got a chapter to finish today so I’ll leave that for another day.)

Bosque overbanking as the Rio Grande rises

Rio Grande overbanking, Albuquerque, April 22, 2023. By John Fleck

In the early 1990s, a group of New Mexico scientists set up experimental plots at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque for in an effort to determine what might happen when water was reintroduced to the flood-starved woods flanking the river. Their description of what happened is a delight:

The forest floor at the leading edge of the floodwaters came alive with hopping crickets and running spiders.

Molles Jr, Manuel C., et al. “Managed flooding for riparian ecosystem restoration: Managed flooding reorganizes riparian forest ecosystems along the middle Rio Grande in New Mexico.” BioScience 48.9 (1998): 749-756.

From time immemorial, this must have been a near-annual event, as the crickets and spiders scurried ahead of rising water each spring as the Rio Grande spread across the valley floor – bad for people trying to live here, great for the flora and fauna. From the same group of authors:

Extensive valley flooding would have occurred when heavy spring rains accompanied rapid snowpack melting. Whatever social disruption these floods may have caused, they would also have recharged the floodplain’s water table, saturated newly formed seedbeds, allowed fish access to nutrients released by flooded detritus on the forest flood, and accelerated nutrient fluxes in the bosque soil.

Crawford, Clifford S., Lisa M. Ellis, and Manuel C. Jr. Molles. “The Middle Rio Grande Bosque: An Endangered Ecosystem.” New Mexico Journal of Science 36 (November 1996): 276–99.

This changed in the early 1930s, dramatically, in an ecological instant as the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District dug drainage ditches on either side of the Rio Grande and across the valley floor, throwing up the excavated dirt in spoil bank levees flanking the river’s then-main channel.

We understand what happened next thanks to a University of New Mexico biology student named Marjorie Van Cleave, who for her 1935 masters thesis documented the change. In that historic moment, plants and animals dependent on the wetlands spread across the valley floor disappeared.

As the water table was lowered three to ten feet with the construction of the Conservancy drains the swamps and lake disappeared almost immediately, leaving bare areas with water tables at various levels where succession advanced and is still advancing rapidly.

Van Cleave, Marjorie. “Vegetative changes in the Middle Rio Grande conservancy district.” (1935).

Cattails – gone. Sedges, with deeper roots, hung on for a bit longer before fading into the ecological mists. Cocklebur, Russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, sunflowers, and pigweed colonized the old marshlands of the valley floor. We are forever in Van Cleave’s debt.

What we’re seeing this spring on the fringes of the Rio Grande bears so little resemblance to the valley-wide ecosystem that it seems cheap to even compare, but the careful work of Cliff Crawford, Manual Molles, and their colleagues three decades ago trying to address this question – What would happen if we reintroduced just a bit of flooding to the forests on the river’s edges? – nevertheless draws a critical connection between the Rio Grande and the community that surrounds it.

For our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green, Bob Berrens and I are interested in that critical moment in the 1930s when, with levees and drains, the valley floor around Albuquerque was disconnected from the river. The ecology was changed, suddenly, as was the connection between human communities and their river.

From my Sept. 8, 2010 obituary of Cliff Crawford, in the Albuquerque Journal

Much of our modern understanding of the bosque ecosystem is built on the work of Crawford and Molles, who started taking students down to the river in the 1980s. For much of the time between Van Cleave’s exhaustive work and the return of Crawford, Molles, and their students in the 1980s, little scientific attention seems to have been paid to the riverside ecosystem.

I can’t find the newspaper story I wrote based on a visit to the bosque with Cliff Crawford and his then-grad student and now my good friend Mary Harner. But I did find the obituary I wrote when Cliff died in 2010.

It’s a model in my mind for public-facing science, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as Bob and I wrestle with how to explain, in our book, Albuquerque’s modern relationship with the Rio Grande.

Mary has done an amazing job with her Witnessing Watersheds project of thinking about and documenting Albuquerque’s historic relationship with the river, and the time I have spent with her – mostly walking in the bosque, some to think of it – has been a huge influence on how I think about and approach this question.

Given flood control flow constraints, it’s hard to to get enough water through town to rise up out of the main channel and get back into the woods these days, to get it to “come alive with hopping crickets and running spiders,” but with 2023’s big snowpack, but there enough low spots providing delightful exceptions, and we’re already starting to see it rising up into those. Lissa and I were on a bosque trail near downtown Saturday when we were stopped by the water you see in the picture at the top of the blog.

There’s a sciency thing going on here – nutrient cycling, clearing out all the dry crud built up on the forest floor that in a more “natural” system would be wetted most years. (It was, in fact, Mary Harner who turned me on to the Molles et al paper I quoted above, with the hopping crickets and running spiders, when I asked for help running down the nutrient cycling piece. It turns out to be super nerdy and I probably won’t put it in the book.)

But it’s the cultural piece that I’m more interested in – the way we as a community have shifted from a desire in the 1930s to fence ourselves off from the river completely, to embracing overbanking with delight.

As often happens with these little mini-essays – sketches, really, for the book – this didn’t end up where I expected. I started with the intention of writing about nutrient cycling – printouts of research papers scattered across my desk, underlined bits, an excessive number of browser tabs.

But I realize that this is, in fact, a story about the relationship between a community and its river.



Thick places, infrastructural inversions, and the gift of ideas

Acequias and infrastructural inversions: The Corrales Siphon pumps, April 2023


My friend Scot and I rode north on yesterday’s bike ride to see the Corrales Siphon pumps.

Built in the 1930s, the siphon for nearly a century carried water beneath the Rio Grande to irrigate a thousand acres of land on the west side of the river at the northern end of the Albuquerque metro area.

More than a year ago, the siphon broke. The details of its breaking are unimportant, it was of an age at which stuff breaks. (I am old and breaking, and was riding an e-bike. See “infrastructural inversion” below.) The important thing is the way that things, in breaking, force us to think about them. As I wrote some years ago, malfunction has a way of clarifying function.

In the absence of a working siphon, we have dropped temporary pumps into the river to keep the Corrales ditches flowing. They were loud and smelly diesel pumps last year, but we’ve run an electric line and installed electric pumps this year, and they were humming quietly yesterday as Scot and I reached the northen-most point on our ride.

The cost is right now somewhere around $2m, I think, which amounts to about $2,000 an acre to for the Corrales irrigators, and that has been, without question, treated as a collective responsibility. We’re not making them pay to keep their water flowing.

For now, “the collective”, the “we” in my description above, means Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District property taxpayers. We pay for all of this irrigation stuff with property tax money, we don’t charge the irrigators themselves very much for the water. We treat it as a broad collective good serving the valley as a whole, not a narrow one serving the irrigators alone.

In the long run, the collective cost of fixing the Corrales Siphon for good will cost a lot more, and “the collective” will likely be New Mexicans as a whole, with money from the state’s severance taxes, which we collect from natural resource extraction (oil and gas and stuff).

This raises all kinds of questions, which have been helpfully brought to light by the siphon’s failure.

A gift: “Infrastructual Inversion”

I had the great good fortune Thursday to be joined by the fascinating Nathan Mathias on a bike ride to my (current) favorite place. The intellectual intensity of the experience, the depth of the conversation, is illustrated by the fact that I have no picture. I did not think to take pictures. (Luckily Nathan took pictures, and also blogged it!)

It was a friend-of-a-friend thing, Nathan was in Albuquerque and our mutual friend Luis Villa, noting our common interests (“collective action stuff” is the best shorthand, also bicycling, but bicycling in a particular way), suggested the meetup.

The “particular way” of our shared approach to cycling is a style of thinking that comes from moving across the human and non-human landscape with curiosity. The shared interest in collective action is Nathan’s work on the interplay among digital power, algorithms, and community, which overlaps conceptually and strikingly with my Venn diagram of interests in collective action around shared natural resources.

As I was explaining the work Bob Berrens and I are doing in trying to unpack and think through the unthought about underpinnings of Albuquerque’s relationship as a community (or communities) with the Rio Grande over the last century, Nathan pointed me to “infrastructural inversion”, a tool introduced by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star in their 1999 book Sorting Things Out. The “inversion” of their title “is a struggle against the tendency of infrastructure to disappear (except when breaking down).”

As we rode down the Rio Grande levee bike trail Thursday morning – “river” confined to a narrow-human-built channel to our right, neighorhood to our left with the riverside drain between us and the affluent homes of the village of Los Ranchos – my curiosity was in overdrive. I’ve ridden that trail a zillion times, but Nathan’s gift of a useful new idea was a gift of beginner’s mind as I began a fresh explanation of the story of this place.

A gift: “thick places”

Last month my friend Sara Portfield gave me a similar gift.

She was visiting for a water conference, and I spirited her away for an early breakfast in Los Ranchos and a ditch walk – not coincidentally, along the same confluence of ditches where Nathan and I ended up Thursday. Walking and talking Sara, a historian, said at one point “This is a thick place.” It is an idea, I learned with Sara’s help, rooted in anthropology and history, and like all cool theoretical frameworks (see “infrastructual inversion” above) I am no doubt using it recklessly, but I’m lazy and in a hurry.

“Thickness” involves places characterized by a blend of historical events, cultural traditions, and stories that convey meaning when overlain.

The ditches of Albuquerque’s valley floor are that. They are thick.

The inductive method

I’ve lived my life as a journalist, and even without a newspaper paycheck, there’s no stopping now. Journalism is a fundamentally inductive exercise, the collection of anecdotes. Here is 20-year-old John at a Walla Walla city council meeting, trying to figure out what that new parking ordinance does. At the county fair, trying to figure out where that cow came from. At the state penitentiary, trying to figure out what a state penitentiary is. In Pasadena City Hall wondering where the water comes from. (That quite literally is where my career as a water writer began, as a 20-something city hall beat reporter wondering where the water came from. I was doing infrastructural inversion before it was cool!)

Throughout this life, I have periodically stumbled on academic conceptual frameworks that provide a framework in which to fit the puzzle pieces I’ve been collecting. This often happens suddenly, as the life-changing few days after Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize in economics, when I began devouring her ideas and a whole bunch of my puzzle pieces suddenly snapped into place.

There’s a feedback loop here, because theory helps tell me where to look for the next round of anecdotes. I am invariably at my most productive at moments like that.

A gift: Max

Two-plus years ago, I asked my friend Scot, he of the long Sunday bike ride, what farmers were thinking back in the 1920s about the future of agriculture in the Albuquerque valley as the modern institutions of flood control, drainage, and irrigation were being created.

In answer, Scot found Max Gutierrez, whose name was largely lost to Albuquerque histories, but whose name kept coming up in old newspaper articles. Back in the day, Max was a big deal.

I am now in the midst of writing a book chapter about Max and the three ditches, the place I walked with Sara and bicycled with Nathan, and where Scot and I have ridden many times. It is a thick place, and thinking about it carefully allows a sort of infrastructural inversion that is shedding light on the Rio Grande, the community that Albuquerque has become, and what we might be in the future.

All of this is the product of the generous gifts of friends.

Overbanking on Albuquerque’s Middle Rio Grande

Shallow water among cottonwoods.

Overbanking, Rio Grande, Los Lunas, New Mexico, April 16, 2023

The Rio Grande through central New Mexico is up. Yesterday’s daily average flow, 3,360 cubic feet per second, is the highest for that date since 1993.

For Albuquerque’s river nerds, “overbanking” is an important cultural phenomenon.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Middle Rio Grande Project in the 1950s narrowed and channelized the river through our valley, completing the work of disconnecting river from flood plain that began in the 1920s with the creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. (Read our book! As soon as we finish writing it!) But often (the last time was 2019) we get enough runoff at some point in the spring and summer for the river to rise up out of the narrow main channel and spread out through the woods, as you see in the picture above.

The river started overbanking in some spots in the last couple of days, and friends and I have been walking and biking and sharing photos. It’s unusual this early in April – this is only the third time in the 21st century that we’ve topped 3,000 cfs in mid-April. The median runoff peak isn’t ’til late May. At the Albuquerque gage, on the Central Avenue Bridge, we topped 3,000 cfs a week earlier this year than in 2019, the last big year.

For the Sunday bike ride, my friend Scot and I took the early Rail Runner, our commuter train, south to Los Lunas, 30 miles south of Albuquerque, and rode back up the river valley into town. There’s a little park where Los Lunas’s Main Street crosses the Rio Grande, which is a great place to see overbanking. The Sunday southbound Rail Runner is a crack-of-dawn thing, and we got to the river in Los Lunas in time for lovely morning light.

A couple of graphs:

Column chart showing years with flows over 3,000 cubic feet per second at Albuquerque's Central Avenue bridge.

Days with flows over 3,000 cfs

Colored graph showing rising flow this year on the Rio Grande

2023 Rio Grande flows through Albuquerque


Big flows on New Mexico’s Rio Jemez

graph showing flow on the Jemez river this year. It is very high

Flow on the Rio Jemez, note log scale

Ryan Boetel at the Albuquerque Journal has the latest in the morning paper on the big flows on the Rio Jemez, a Rio Grande tributary north of Albuquerque.

  • For non-Albuquerque readers, the Jemez flows through the Jemez Mountains northwest of Albuquerque. Its confluence with the Rio Grande is ~25 miles (~40km) river miles upstream from Albuquerque.
  • Measurements here are in cubic feet per second (cfs).
  • Flood stage measurements in feet are important for assessing flood impact, while cfs measurements are useful for water volume analysis, which is what I’m most interested in.
  • The highest flow since a specific date depends on the measurement used – flood stage in feet versus cfs – as the channel changes. So flood stage “highest since” will differ from cfs flow “highest since”
  • The red line on the chart represents daily flow in cfs. Yesterday’s the highest April 13 volume of water since the gage was installed in the 1930s.
  • Huge caveat: There are significant gaps in the dataset from spring 1941 to spring 1953. 1942? We’ll never know. So really the best way to characterize this is “a dataset that goes back to the 1950s”.
  • Yesterday’s average daily flow was 1,130 cfs, the highest daily flow since 1987, when the flow peaked at 1,440 cfs on April 19 and 20.
  • The all-time peak flow on record occurred on April 21, 1958, at 3,160 cfs. Yowza.

Deadpool Diaries: tapping the brakes on Colorado River cuts

Last updated 2 p.m. MDT April 12, 2023 – with explanation of why the feds’ cut isn’t as deep as the states’

I’ll need a few more days to digest all 476 pages of the Department of Interior’s Colorado River Draft Supplemental Environmental Environmental Impact Statement, but the top line numbers are worth sharing right away. The DEIS includes a couple of action alternatives, which I’ll briefly describe below, but what’s immediately striking to me is that Interior’s cuts are significantly less ambitious than the states’. Here’s a quick update of the table I built back in January comparing the proposal submitted by Arizona/Nevada/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico/Wyoming, and the California plan.

As you can see, the states were far more willing to cut more quickly, and more deeply, than the federal alternatives. The numbers are cuts, in thousands of acre feet, from the old pre-chaos baselines of 4.4 maf for California, 2.8 maf for Arizona, 300kaf for Nevada.

Tier Elevation 6-state California DEIS 2024 DEIS 2025-26
Tier 0 1090 1,784 1,241 400 400
Tier 1 1075 2,156 1,613 1,066 1,066
Tier 2a 1,050 2,918 1,721 1,234 1,234
Tier 2b 1045 2,918 2,013 1,734 1,734
Tier 2c 1040 2,918 2,071 2,083 2,083
Tier 2d 1035 2,918 2,129 2,083 2,250
Tier 2e 1030 3,168 2,188 2,083 2,500
Tier 3a 1025 3,168 2,525 2,083 3,000
Tier 3b 1020 3,368 2,675 2,083 3,333
Tier 3c 1015 3,368 2,875 2,083 3,333
1,010 3,368 3,125 2,083 3,333
1,005 3,368 3,325 2,083 3,333


I’m told the reason the feds’ initial cuts are less than in the states’ proposals is because 2.083 maf is the lowest they can go next year and still be in compliance with their NEPA/SEIS coverage for Lower Colorado River operations.

In addition to the, “whatever, let’s just crash the system”, the DEIS includes two alternatives….

Priority administration

Alternative one would allow the cuts in my “DEIS” column based on the priority system. This plan is similar to California’s, in that the brunt of deep cuts falls on others. At current reservoir levels, Arizona would be required to cut 1.2 million acre feet, while California cuts nothing.

Sharing the impacts of climate change

Alternative two would spread additional needed cuts based on a pro-rata share of 2021 water use among all the users. At current levels, Arizona would cut 1.025 million acre feet, California would cut 1.067.

How it plays out

Contrary to that crazy New York Times headline (click soon, it’ll certainly change!) Interior isn’t picking a preferred alternative. These are really just starting points for a push toward a seven-state negotiation between now and summer.

Here’s how it plays out in 2024:

Table of Cuts

Future years:

In subsequent years, the cuts go deeper:

2025-26 cuts

Deadpool diaries: Bonkers snowpack, open thread

From today’s bike ride, the wall art version of the “open thread”

Snowpack, runoff, reservoirs

In the comments, Nick from Australia is on “team Powell 3600”. Last month Reclamation was on “team Powell 3569.93, meaning the projected elevation of Lake Powell above sea level at the end of the water year, and the CBRFC’s forecast for runoff into Powell is up two million acre feet since those numbers were run, so who knows? Given the need to refill Upper Basin storage, I’m not as optimistic as Nick, but whatever. Go Nick!

We don’t have official word yet, but it sure looks from the Lees Ferry gage* that Reclamation is bumping up this year’s Glen Canyon Dam release to 9 million-plus acre feet. But the CBRFC’s most forward-looking runoff forecast (ESP+QPF) has already dropped a million acre feet from April 1. It’s a finicky system.

That, combined with big runoff on the tributaries between Lake Powell and Lake Mead could bump Mead’s elevation by a lot – maybe 20 feet? More? Join Nick in the comments with your predictions!

Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

The Interior Department will be sharing with us next week its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for management of Mead and Powell for the next few years. Recall that the driver, when Interior launched the process last year, was the need for adjusted rules (and related environmental review coverage) for releases out of Powell of less than 7 million acre feet per year – call it “team Powell less than 3500 would be really bad“. That’s obviously off the table for 2023, but one hopes Interior doesn’t just say “never mind” and recognizes the need for the fire drill – the lack of rules and accompany operating certainty at these really low levels. Even with a good bump, Mead will still be at perilously low levels, we still have the problem of overuse of 1.5 million acre feet per year.

We still need those new rules that a decade of rhetoric about effective collaborative governance promised you’d be able to develop. Those of us who believed the promises intend to hold you to your commitments.

The best publicly available data, from Reclamation’s regularly updated Lower Basin forecast as of Friday, April 7, shows California finally dipping below its 4.4 million acre feet allocation, but just barely. Perhaps behind the scenes there are plans afoot to leave more water in Mead? If “yes”, please share!

Full allocation 2023 percentage
California 4.4 4.36 99.1%
Arizona 2.8 2.35 83.9%
Nevada 0.3 0.22 73.3%
Total 7.5 6.93 92.4%


One hopes the basin states and federal government can see their way to a more durable solution that those numbers would indicate.

Nota bene

In the old days of blogging as the centerpiece of online communities, there was a tradition of the “open thread,” to create a conversation space.

There’s gonna be a blizzard of Colorado River news in the coming week. I’ve been pretty successful in fencing myself off from the chaos, that I might focus on the Rio Grande and the new book. I give myself bonus points for bailing out on Twitter, which has pretty much taken the notion of the “open thread” to some sort of dystopian hellscape extreme.

“Open thread” below, discuss among yourselves. I’ll try to join in as I have time.

“ribbon of green”

leafless tree, silhouetted, against rocky backdrop

Ribbon, not yeet green. Colorado River outside Moab, March 2022. Photo by John Fleck

I’ve been obsessed with John van Dyke’s “ribbons of green” image for a long time. Rummaging through some old computer files last night, I found the following, circa 2009, in a folder of notes and sketches for what would become my book “Water is for Fighting Over.”

Notes from Moab

There’s a moment when you’re driving across the deserts of the southwest as the road tops a rise and you get your first view of the ribbon of green along a river.

That’s where the towns are, and that’s where the cool is, a break in both temperature and color – from hot to a bit cooler, from the reds, browns and yellows of desert rock and earth to the riparian greens of cottonwoods and, now, salt cedar, dipping their roots in the groundwater that leaves as much or more river underground as you see above. The striking thing is always how sharp the boundary is between dry and wet. Add a town, and you often have irrigation, a few fields tacked along the bottonlands on either side of the river. And, often, a place to buy ice cream. I learned this as a kid, on epic ’60s family car trips through The West, before the days of air conditioning, and I’ve loved the moment ever since.

Lissa and I shared the experience numerous times over the last week on a road trip up through Four Corners country – in Bloomfield on the San Juan, at Hite where the Colorado meets the Dirty Devil in the canyon country of southern Utah, as the interstate meets the Green. And one of my favorites, the site where this picture was taken, on the Colorado River just upstream from where the highway drops down from the north, past the entrance to Arches National Park.

I had occasion on this trip to pick up a copy of John Van Dyke’s “The Desert”, an essay written a century ago about Van Dyke’s strange and wonderful wanderings of the lower Colorado. He saw it too:

The desert terraces on either side (sometimes there is a row of sand-dunes) come down to meet these “bottom” lands, and the line where the one leaves off and the other begins is drawn as with the sharp edge of a knife. Seen from the distant mountain tops the river moves between two long ribbons of green, and the borders and the gray and gold mesas of the desert.

Deadpool Diaries: In March, the Rio Grande/Colorado River snowpack went bonkers

Irrigation canal with cement plant in the background.

An urban river. Arenal Canal in Albuquerque’s South Valley

The ditches were flowing across Albuquerque’s valley floor yesterday as I criss-crossed them on a long, aimless bike ride, the first day it really felt like spring. The cycling challenge at this winter<->spring pivot point is clothing – layers for a morning start hovering just above freezing, with a pannier stuffed with the layers by the time I was down to shirtsleeves for my taco brunch.

Graph of flow at Embudo Creek on the Rio Grande in New Mexico, showing day-night oscillations and rising runoff as snow melts

Embudo Creek

My favorite gage at this time of year is Embudo Creek, just above its confluence with the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. You can see the diurnal cycle of day-night melting, and the rising as the temperature warms. With the big snowpack, flows right now are well above the median. (Prof. Fleck note: The skewed nature of the data, with flows a lot higher on the high side than the lows on the low side, makes the mean – typically what we mean by “average” – less meaningful for a data like this. Hence median.)

The West Gulf River Forecast Center is forecasting Embudo Creek runoff at more than double the median this year.

The Embudo is just one little creek, but people live on it and built their lives around it. Of such creeks is the entire West built. Good to pay attention to one.

Colorado River at the start of April

The whole deadpool/wrecked speedboats emerging from the Lake Mead mud thing seems a bit of a quaint echo from a stranded past, as the Colorado River discourse shifts from how to protect the infrastructure from a dark cascade toward deadpool to “Which reservoirs should we refill, and by how much?”

The official CBRFC April 1 forecast hasn’t dropped yet, but the preliminary modeled numbers are up 3.6 million acre feet from March 1.

3.6 million acre feet.

Wrecked speedboat emerging from Lake Mead mud.

Never forget.

That seems like a lot, but it is worth remembering that we’ve been overusing the river by about 1.5 million acre feet per year since the turn of the century.

This likely means a release from Glen Canyon Dam to the Lower Basin of 9 million acre feet (or more?) in 2023, which might be enough to re-submerge some of the wrecked speedboats. That would be nice, but I hope we don’t forget the visceral message they’ve been sending us.

Interior’s draft modeling results should emerge next week (perhaps April 10-11-12?), but the specific near term crisis they were meant to help us through – the possibility of a Glen Canyon Dam release of less than 7 million acre feet this year – is gone.


Instead, the Basin community is wrestling with a “what shall we do with the extra water” question: refilling Flaming Gorge and the other Upper Basin reservoirs drawn down by DROA, erasing “operational neutrality” by solving the confusing mess of the relationship between how much water was held back in Powell to keep the dam from breaking, and how that affects Lower Basin shortage tier accounting. (Don’t ask me hard questions, it’s super confusing.)

In a really important way, the discussion has shifted from short term crisis management to long term, umm, I guess “crisis management” remains the right description? Raise your hand if you disagree.

Rio Grande at the start of April

The Rio Grande, which is getting my most focused thinking right now on account of the new book (see bike ride picture above), is in good shape. Usually at this time of year I shift from watching the snowpack to worrying about dry wind events, but this year there’s so gosh-darned much snow up there that I’m, like, “Meh, whatever, bring it on, spring!”

Graph showing high runoff in the Rio Grande at Otowi

Otowi runoff via WGRFC – a very good year on the Rio Grande

I lot depends on spring winds now, and the rate of warming and meltoff. But that will just be the difference between a big year and a very big year.

My great hope is for overbank flows in the Middle Rio Grande, like we had in 2019. Those were super fun.

As always, a big thanks to Inkstain’s supporters for helping support this work.