The Colorado River at the end of water year 2022: a status report

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

the status of the reservoirs

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this)

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Use Allocation percent
California 4.445 4.4 101%
Arizona 2.056 2.8 73%
Nevada 0.236 0.3 79%
Mexico 1.45 1.5 97%

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

Arizona California Nevada
2013 2,778,867 4,475,789 223,563
2014 2,774,661 4,620,756 224,616
2015 2,604,732 4,493,918 222,729
2016 2,612,833 4,381,101 238,326
2017 2,509,503 4,026,515 243,425
2018 2,632,260 4,265,525 244,103
2019 2,491,707 3,840,686 233,996
2020 2,470,776 4,059,911 255,568
2021 2,425,736 4,404,727 242,168
2022 2,056,118 4,445,255 235,851
average 2,535,719 4,301,418 236,435
percent of total allocation 90.6% 97.8% 78.8%

Source: USBR decree accounting reports

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

Boxed in

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.


light in the middle of the tunnel

The game is to ride everywhere, where “everywhere” involves dividing our world into squares ~300 yards on a side and visiting them all, and “riding” sometimes involves what one might call “walk-a-bike”.

Sooner or later, you end up in places like this.

It’s a pretty fun game.

It is time for the federal government to further reduce Glen Canyon Dam releases

A 2022-23 forecast fraught with risk for the Colorado River Basin

By Eric Kuhn, John Fleck, and Jack Schmidt

With most forecasts pointing toward another below-average winter of precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in 2022/2023 and with total basin-wide reservoir storage now less than 20 maf (less than 17 months of supply at the rate water has been consumed in the basin since 2000), it is time for the federal government to announce immediate, major reductions in Lake Powell releases for the coming water year (October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023).

The importance of this leadership by Interior is pressing, because discussions among the basin states to cut their 2023 consumptive uses are at a stalemate and the Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to move the negotiation process along. An announcement by Interior, made no later than the 2022 Colorado River Water Users meeting in December, should set the annual release from Lake Powell for Water Year (WY) 2023 at approximately 5.5 million acre-feet (maf), 20% less than the 7.0 maf releases in water year 2022 and more than 30% less than the long-term release of 8.23 maf. Reductions in monthly releases to accomplish this objective ought to begin in January 2023.

In a news release Thursday, and in conversations at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River symposium this week in Santa Fe, officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation suggested this option is already on the table. And Lower Basin water managers, doing the math for themselves, are already bracing for the possibility. A formal announcement, soon, would thus come as no surprise.

With last year’s decision to only release 7.0 million acre-feet in WY2022 (the water year that ends on September 30), the Secretary of the Interior has already determined that she can and will take actions to protect power generation and the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam. We believe it is now time to take bold action and further reduce Lake Powell releases for the following reasons:

First – The winter forecast justifies an immediate reduction in releases. It is now clear that we’re headed for a La Nina three-peat at least through most of the winter. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, too many forecasts are pointing to a warm, dry winter for most of the Colorado River’s watershed, especially the Rocky Mountains. This warm and dry winter outlook means it’s time to focus on the likelihood that inflows to Powell will probably be similar to Reclamation’s present minimum probable forecast made in its 24-month study.

Second – The projections of the current 24-month study’s minimum probable forecast justify a drastic reduction in releases. Given the dry and warm winter forecasts, basing 2023 reservoir operations on the minimum probable forecast should be considered responsible water-supply management. Based on the latest projections made by Reclamation, storage in Lake Powell would drop to elevation 3469’, only ~2.7 maf of storage above the dead pool, and well below the 3490’ elevation below which hydroelectricity cannot be generated. Keeping the storage level above 3525 ft may not be possible, but an infusion of 2 maf of storage into Lake Powell through a combination of Drought Operations (DROA) deliveries from Flaming Gorge reservoir and reduced releases to Lake Mead would increase the probability of maintaining Lake Powell slightly above 3510 ft, a 20-ft (1 maf) cushion above minimum power pool elevation.  Recognizing recent cautions from Jim Prairie (the UC Region’s lead modeler) that there may only be two years of DROA releases left in Flaming Gorge, a 500,000 af delivery combined with a 1.5-maf reduction in releases from Glen Canyon Dam would be a wise strategy that would leave Reclamation with the flexibility to make one more Flaming Gorge DROA delivery in 2024, if necessary.

Third – A 5.5-maf release would create clear markers to evaluate the impacts of the additional Lower Basin cuts on storage in Lake Mead and show what is necessary to preserve power generation at both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Such an action would show the urgent need for additional system cuts to preserve both Lake Mead and total system storage. A reduction in the annual release by 1.5 maf would drive Lake Mead below elevation 1000 ft, but releases of only 5.5 maf would also be likely to keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool. At the end of WY2023, Lake Mead active storage would fall to 3.7 maf (~elevation 988 ft). Assuming a resumption of 7 maf-Glen Canyon Dam releases in WY2024, Lake Mead storage would drop to elevation ~965-970 ft in July 2024, close to its minimum power elevation of 950’.  Under this scenario, both reservoirs would have only about a 20 ft cushion over minimum power pool elevation, but power generation at both dams would be preserved, albeit at a minimal level.

There are obvious tradeoffs between the reduction of Lake Powell releases to our suggested 5.5 maf and the imposition of additional reductions in Lower Basin consumptive uses. Reduction of Lake Powell releases to 6.0 million acre-feet in WY2023 would be the largest release that ought to be considered for the coming year, because such a release would only increase storage about 20 ft. Reducing releases to 5.5 maf or even 5 maf would be much wiser, but even these radical policies may only be enough to “tread water.” Recovering system storage is likely to take several more years of reduced releases from Lake Powell that might include additional years when annual releases are as low as 5 maf.

Fourth – If the forecast of a dry winter proves to be in error and more precipitation comes in late winter 2023, Reclamation can increase the annual release during the spring.  Reclamation has the flexibility to increase annual releases back to 7.0 maf/year (or more under the possible, but unlikely, event of a big year).  Ideally, if the Lower Basin has a plan in place to cut an additional 1.5-2.0 maf of its uses, the benefits of such an increase in Powell releases later in the water year could also be redirected to recovering storage in Lake Mead.

Fifth – A 5.5-maf release in WY2023 could leave the Upper Basin with a future compact deficit that would force resolution of the long-standing dispute over the Upper Basin’s 1944 Treaty obligation to Mexico. The ten-year flow at Lee Ferry for 2013-2022 will be about 85.5 maf, but under our proposed scenario of a 5.5 maf release in WY2023 and a continuation of the Millennium Drought, the ten-year total release would be less than 82.5 maf by 2025 or 2026. Further, as the 9-maf years from 2015-19 fade into the past, the running ten-year tally could stay well below 82.5 maf through the end of the decade.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has labeled this 82.5 maf metric as the basin’s first hydrologic “compact tripwire.” This observation is based on the Lower Division States’ view that under the 1922 Compact, the Upper Division States have an annual obligation to contribute 50% of the 1944 Treaty delivery to Mexico every year (normally 750,000 af, but a little less when Mexico takes a shortage) plus the 75 maf non-depletion obligation. The Upper Division States, of course, disagree, taking the position that the 750,000 af release for Mexico is a “luxury”, not a requirement under the 1922 Compact. Their view is that their Lee Ferry obligation is no more than 75 maf every ten years.

The Upper Division States’ position, however, puts their post-Compact uses at considerable risk!  If the basins are unable to reach a compromise and turn to litigation instead and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, Nevada, and California or even finds a middle ground, it’s quite likely that the Upper Division States could end up owing a lot of water or money or both. The Upper Division states would be wise to consider resolving their Mexican Treaty obligation as a part of the post-2026 guidelines negotiations.  Having an effective Upper Basin demand management program (or functional alternative) in place will almost certainly be a part of any negotiated settlement.

Summary If the WY 2023 runoff turns out to be below average, as many forecasts now suggest, maintaining Lake Powell storage elevation above minimum power pool with a reasonable cushion will require a combination of (1) another DROA release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and (2) a significant reduction of the WY 2023 Lake Powell release to well below 7 maf. At this point, using the most probable 24-month forecast which uses an optimistically wet (1991-2020) hydrologic baseline and totally ignores the available winter forecasts, simply obfuscates reality, and creates obstacles to finding the needed cuts. Using the minimum probable forecast to set the 2023 annual release sooner than later would add both clarity and urgency to the stalled task at hand – finding the necessary additional cuts needed to stabilize and recover the system. Using the minimum probable forecast is a “no regrets approach.”  If the forecast improves, an upward adjustment of annual releases is an easy and welcome fix. The opposite, a downward adjustment made in spring 2023, would create more havoc.

There are associated issues that Reclamation ought to begin to consider immediately.  What would be the impact to the Grand Canyon ecosystem of a 5.5-maf annual release?  How should monthly flows be distributed under such a low annual release? How should the present invasion of smallmouth bass in Grand Canyon be managed under very low annual releases? What might be the impact on commercial river running in Grand Canyon in 2023? How should the ever-increasing temperatures of Powell releases be managed?  These are all questions that need to be addressed in fall 2022 so that our recommendations can be implemented in January 2023.

We’ve suggested the 5.5 maf figure based on the September 24-month study. By November or December, the minimum probable forecast may dictate a different release number.

Whatever that number is, Reclamation should consider letting the basin know as soon as reasonably possible.

  • Jack Schmidt is Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies, Center for Colorado River Studies, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University
  • John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law; Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics; and former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program.
  • Eric Kuhn is retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and spent 37 years on the Engineering Committee of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Kuhn is the co-author, with Fleck, of the book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.


Collective Action and the Ribbons of Green

A paragraph from the new book Bob Berrens and I are writing about the Rio Grande and the making of modern Albuquerque:

To understand a community – any community – you can start with its water. Collective problem-solving, collective action, lies at the core of community, and our relationship with our water requires us to come together. Our communities grow up around water – bays around which to fish, harbors for our boats, rivers from which to drink, bathe, and irrigate our crops. The problems posed by those ways of life quickly become collective: How do we share the costs and benefits of diverting water to irrigate lands? How do we ensure the drainage from our irrigation doesn’t leave those living adjacent to the river downstream in a pestilent swamp?

Castle appointed federal rep on Upper Colorado River Commission

The White House announced today it has appointed Anne Castle as the federal representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Anne is former Assistant Secretary of Interior For Water and Science, where she helped steer the federal boat through chaotic Colorado River rapids. She’ll be an important asset now that the rapids seem that much worse.


A reminder that the federal government does not use Colorado River water

Count me among those in the Colorado River community who was disappointed last month with the lack of Department of Interior action on its threats should the states not come up with a plan to sufficiently reduce their water use.

But let’s remember the core issue here: the states of the basin, especially the Lower Basin, and especially California and Arizona, are using too much Colorado River water.

The very fact that we’re having this conversation about a need for federal action is a direct result of the fact that California and Arizona have been unwilling to act to save themselves.

As I’ve written before, I believe in the importance of federal threats in spurring Colorado River progress. But let’s remember why they’re needed.

They’re needed because the water users have been unwilling to save themselves from the increasingly frightening results of their own excesses.

Keys to Past Colorado River progress

As we watch the quivering uncertainty about the nature of the federal threat on the Colorado river, it is perhaps worth a look at past moments of progress in Colorado River governance, and also past roadblocks.

Anne Castle and I ran this stuff down for a paper we published last fall.

Some history shows a pattern – low river flows, combined with a federal threat.

2002-03 California Quantification Settlement Agreement

Low flows

The initial trigger came at the height of the 2002 drought, the worst inflow year in recorded history.

Federal threat

At a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in mid-December 2002, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton warned that California’s deliveries would be reduced unilaterally by the Interior unless QSA was executed by the end of the year. In fact, however, the Lower Basin states were not able to reach an agreement by the deadline, and surplus water that had previously been available to California water users was cut off. Deliveries to California water users were abruptly limited to 4.4 million acre feet (5.4 bcm) in 2003, a reduction of approximately 800,000 acre feet (1 bcm) from previous levels. Importantly for the future of water agreements in the basin, despite predictions of doom, California absorbed the reductions with only modest impact.

2007 Interim Guidelines

Low flows, federal threat

However, the drought persisted and again, in 2004, Interior officials warned that cutbacks in deliveries would be imposed unless the Basin States agreed to a drought management plan on their own. In 2005, the Secretary of the Interior directed Reclamation to develop additional Colorado River management strategies to address operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead under low reservoir conditions. After much discussion, haggling, and evaluation of alternatives, the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Interim Guidelines) were adopted in 2007.

Drought Contingency Plan

Low flows

Continuation of low flows in the river system in the second decade of the 21st century resulted in the realization that the accommodations made in the 2007 Guidelines and agreements with Mexico were insufficient to balance supply with demand.

Federal threat

In 2013, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell urged the states to take immediate action and come up with a contingency plan to address the potential for lower flows caused by climate change [70]. Referencing her predecessors, she said that she would not ignore her responsibility “to act if conditions worsen and if the states can’t reach consensus on contingency actions

More low flows (and inaction)

However, by the end of 2018, while many component parts of the plan had consensus, there was still no final deal. The remaining hurdles were not disagreements about the basic components but rather the intrastate allocation of reduced supplies and desired commitments for environmental restoration efforts.
During 2018, Lake Powell dropped significantly, but the water levels in Lake Mead remained relatively stable water leaders in Arizona—the key holdout in approving the deal—saw fewer reasons for quick action
Another federal threat
The Commissioner of Reclamation Brenda Burman then warned that if the plans were not completed by 31 January 2019, the Department of the Interior would adopt a course of action prior to the following August.
There seems to have been a pattern.

Visiting the Birds

The Birds, by Irot

Saw the Birds above from the train window yesterday, and went back today on my new ebike for a closer look.

The ebike is primarily an accommodation for my age and failing knee, allowing me to ride more longer when I feel like it – hauling groceries, or books and laptops to work, or searching out distant tacos, that sort of thing. But with its motor and giant everything-proof tires, it also proved a useful workhorse this morning for getting up the railroad tracks in Albuquerque’s near North Valley for a closer look at Irot’s Birds.

Next Steps on the Colorado River

If we have learned anything from the current crisis on the Colorado River, it is that we have to know what we’ll do next if the current thing we’re doing isn’t enough.

That’s a bloggy shorthand for a deep argument that Eric Kuhn, Jack Schmidt, and I made in comments we submitted this week in response to the U.S. Department of Interior’s request for input on the development of new river operating guidelines.

As we begin discussing what replaces the soon-to-expire Colorado River operating guidelines, we argue that there are important lessons to be learned from a careful examination of the way the current guidelines have failed us.

The Failure of the 2007 Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan(s)

In its Final Environmental Impact Statement in support of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Interior identified the purpose and need of these Guidelines as an effort to provide “predictability” – “a greater degree of certainty to United States’ Colorado River water users and managers …, thereby allowing water users … to know when, and by how much, water deliveries will be reduced in drought and other low reservoir conditions.”

“Predictability”? “Certainty”? Crisis of 2022 says “nope”.

We’re trying to use language here – “purpose and need”, the National Environmental Policy Act terms of art – that burrows into the heads of the hard-working feds who will be reading it (we wave – you know who you are).

The failure, which Eric, Jack, and I talked about here in an argument developed while we were working on these comments, was a set of operating rules keyed on reservoir elevations in a way that managed to hold them steady, but never refilled them. That left us vulnerable to the crash that we’re now seeing.

Our immodest suggestion

New operating rules must be keyed to the actual flows of the river, not simply the levels of the reservoirs:  “[S]tream flow should be used as a component in triggering different operating regimes, not solely reservoir elevation levels.” This was the great failing of the ’07 guidelines. We need to fix it.

In some sense this seems obvious, because hydrology is now imposing this constraint on us – “long-term average consumptive uses and losses will not exceed the average natural water supply provided by the watershed”.

We recognize that there are multiple devils in the details of this recommendation including the duration of years during which balance is sought and the mechanisms by which reductions in use must be implemented to maintain a balance. Nevertheless, there is no alternative to balancing the system. We estimate that the natural supply for the period 2000-2022, including inflows within Grand Canyon, has been 12.8 maf/yr, and there is no alternative but to at least reduce basinwide water use to that value. Should watershed runoff decline even further, then basin-wide use must be further reduced.

And if or when it gets wetter again?

[I]f relatively wetter periods return, consumptive uses must remain low to recover reservoir storage.

And all of this must be done in a way that recognizes who’s been left out of past discussions like this:

We are fully cognizant of the conflict between full development of currently unused or unquantified Tribal water rights and the need to reduce overall water uses in the Basin. We believe, however, that an appropriate balance of water supplies and uses cannot ignore the unquestioned right of Tribal nations to the water necessary to fulfill the purposes of their reservations.

And this (we wave again – you know who you are):

We recognize that these goals are broad, extending beyond what some in the basin are advocating – a narrow reconsideration of reservoir operations. We are sympathetic to the burden that the breadth of analysis we are advocating will place on the dedicated and hard-working staff at Reclamation and the Department of the Interior during the next years. But anything less than an expansive view of the task at hand will fall far short of what is needed at this moment in history.

There’s lots more in the way of specifics. We encourage those interested in river management to give it a look.

Welcome new readers!

Agricultural heritage?

Welcome new readers!

With the current attention on the Colorado River’s crisis, I’ve had a great many people sign up for my blog feed in recent weeks. I’m so happy to have you join our Inkstain community! But an up front apology may be in order, as this might not be what you expected.

I’m John Fleck, a former journalist turned academic. I spent five years as director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources program, and I’ve recently joined the Utton Center, a natural resources policy group at the University of New Mexico School of Law, as the center’s Writer in Residence.

I’ve written a couple of books about the Colorado River, and at times I use this blog to perform a sort of “post-journalism”, sharing important stuff that I have learned. After 35+ years of daily journalism, it’s a hard habit to break.

I also have active collaborations with a group of friends and colleagues, and the blog is a great place to throw our stuff out into the information sphere when we think it might be of some use.

Ribbons of Green

I had every intention of putting my Colorado River work on simmer in 2022 – still available for snacking, but not the main meal. With my friend and colleague Bob Berrens, I’m hard at work on a new book about Albuquerque and the Rio Grande, a sort of environmental/institutional/literary work on how our community’s relationship with the river shaped both.

We’ve actually signed a contract. We have an actual deadline for the book.

Albuquerque Journal, Oct. 8, 1882

Bob and I teach graduate students in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program and share tidbits like the old newspaper clip to the right, an 1882 real estate advertisement in which a chap named D.B. Emmert (“notary public, real estate and insurance broker”) is selling what seem to be the first explicitly advertised parcels of irrigated suburban land: “Splendid opportunities … for those who want vegetable or fruit gardens or suburban houses”).

The railroad had just arrived in Albuquerque, a moment of profound change that has delightfully weird water policy implications.

We’re fascinated by the cultural evolution of the valley in which we live, as we alternately battled with, and embraced, the Rio Grande, the river that flows through the midst of our town. As a matter of rhetoric and cultural identity, our community celebrates its “agricultural heritage”, but we’ve created more than a century’s distance between those hazy, romantic notions of that heritage and its reality – then and now.

That distance, and those notions, have critical implications for water policy today, which is what dragged Bob and I into this arena. “There’s less water. What do we do?” is the framing question for our students’ journey through the eclectic fall class about to get underway. For the tenth time! This is the tenth fall we’ve taught this class together!

Bodies in Lake Mead

Turns out Casablanca isn’t actually a desert! (I was misinformed.)

Unfortunately for my best-laid plans for 2022 (also, more importantly, for the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River – my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans here), they’re finding dead bodies in Lake Mead. Because there’s not very much water in it. Which means less water for the people downstream who depend on it, or the people upstream who may or may not bear some responsibility for helping refill it.

This has captured a bit more of my attention this year than I had hoped, which is likely why, dear new readers, many of you have joined our little community. I’m a writer. I can’t help but write about what I’m thinking about. And I’m thinking about the Colorado River.


This blog has always been my sketchbook – a habit I acquired from my late father, who was an active, productive artist his entire life. His sketchbooks were everpresent in our lives. The twist for me is that, as a lifelong newspaperman, I only know how to write in public. Journaling, diaries, have never worked for me. So when blogging emerged in Internet 1.0 days, I took to it.

I have no editor. There will be typos.

It is my fervent hope, dear new readers, that you’ll read a lot here in coming months about the gardens of early Albuquerque – the crazy early 20th century lawn irrigation patents and swamps-turned-tobacco farms-turned-boutique alfalfa stands.

It is my clear-eyed expectation that you’ll see a lot of my agonized musings about the dark, dead-bodies-in-Lake Mead trajectory of my beloved Colorado River.

It is my promise that, broken-down knee notwithstanding, you’ll still get a healthy dose of bike riding essays. (I just invested in an e-bike! My bad knee celebrates!)