Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can you say irony?

I was looking through some of the Arizona Water News postings on the Arizona Water Institute's (AWI - the same one that is being defunded by our state legislature over the summer) website recently and this piece from the Yuma Sun caught my eye because it appeared just a day before the news referred to in my post yesterday about the falling water levels in Lake Mead.

The Sun article refers to a somewhat common situation on the lower river during spring, when farmers in Imperial Valley and other places along the river must place orders for irrigation water 2-3 days in advance to give it time to come down the river to where their turnout is located. If it rains during those 2 o 3 days the farmer may decide to not take the water he ordered letting it flow down the river. From the article:
The almost .03 inches of rain was enough to cause some water users to not take the water they requested from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation almost three days before. And that caused the river to rise about four to five feet, according to Bob Walsh, external affairs officer with the bureau.

Obviously it doesn't take much rain to alter irrigation schedules and have a big impact on river levels.
...with no place to store the excess water, it runs downstream to Yuma and into Mexico.

Las Vegas funded a project to eliminate this situation somewhat on orders from Imperial Valley. It's called the Drop 2 Reservoir, which would store water off the river, adjacent to the All-American Canal in SE California. When completed it will allow water ordered but not taken to be stored for the next call, which is supposed to save about 70,000 acre feet per year. I believe Vegas funded the project in exchange for any water saved.

I'm not sure whether water ordered but not taken is counted against a given farmers allowable water allocation in a given year - I suspect it isn't. But I'm sure there are a lot of water agencies that shudder to think that, at times, water is being released from Lake Mead that isn't used by anyone (unless farmers in Mexico are grabbing it). Do you suppose efforts will be made to tighten up management of what is currently occurring on the river if it can delay or lessen the impact of water shortages in the basin?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More bad news on climate change effects on surface water flows

The Christian Science Monitor has a blog on their website called Discoveries, that had a post yesterday summing up the recent Scripps study on the possibly dire future of the Colorado River watershed (discussed in my previous post here).

If you have followed the news this week the story has been pretty inescapable. The gist of it is that with or without the effects of climate change, the Bureau of Reclamation will be unable to meet the existing water delivery obligations in the lower basin almost half the time by the middle of this century because of overallocation of the river. This is primarily due to the fact that the amount of water divided up by the Colorado River compact was based on anomalous weather during the 20th century according to records reconstructed from tree-ring data. If average flows on the river over the past 1300 years or so are an accurate indication of reality, the river is currently over-allocated by as much as 4 to 5 million acre-feet per year.

These reports are on top of the recent announcement by the Bureau that the level of Lake Mead is expected to drop below 1,100 feet at some point this summer. That is a level not seen since Lake Powell was being filled upstream in the 60s and would be perilously close to the level that would initiative provisions of the recently completed shortage-sharing agreement(pdf) under which the basin states agreed to divvy up any shortfalls on the river during prolonged shortages.

The Discoveries post also mentions a recently completed study that shows declining flows in 2/3 of the large river basins in the world over the second half of the 20th century. The only places where flow is increasing is in rivers fed primarily by melting glaciers in places like the Arctic. That's some really ominous data there.

Keep an eye on developments on the Colorado and watch what is occurring in Australia with the Murray-Darling River Basin. If these predictions come true for the Colorado, what is currently occurring in Australia will be an important lesson for planners and policy-makers here.

A real treat for a lowly water blogger

Last night I had the opportunity to meet a guy who passes for a celebrity in the small realm of water wonkery in the blogosphere. Michael Campana, of WaterWired fame (in addition to being a highly respected academic, philanthropist, and generally good guy), is visiting Tucson this week for the National Ground Water Association's Ground Water Summit, a meeting of groundwater professionals from universities, government agencies, and consulting firms across the globe. I'm not attending the conference but decided to attend a networking mixer associated with it last night in order to, well, network.

You may not realize this but shortly after starting this blog in a somewhat tentative (and very locally focused) fashion last summer, Michael - out of the blue - mentioned my blog in one of his posts. Then shortly after that I was mentioned in two other blogs. Suddenly I was on the map and realized that other people actually were occasionally reading what I had to say. It was at that point that I decided to stay with this blog, continue to expand the focus, and try to apply what I know to what is happening around me in the hopes that I can contribute to the discourse on these very important issues and maybe provide someone with useful information they were not previously aware of. But I might not have gotten this far if not for the subtle encouragement provided by Michael in that one brief post. So thank you Aquadoc.

It's been a fun several months and will hopefully continue to be so. And maybe I'll get the opportunity to meet more water bloggers in the future.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grim predictions for Colorado River

Click on the chart to see the entire image.

This post from Tom Yulsman on the Center for Environmental Journalism website paints a picture of a pretty grim future in the Colorado River watershed. When you have combined trends of steadily increasing water use with a likelihood for steadily (or is it abruptly?) decreasing river flows the outcome of dry reservoirs appears unavoidable, unless some drastic changes are made. The question is: is the Law of the River robust enough to make those drastic changes? Or do we need to scrap it and start over?

Hattip to John Fleck for pointing me to the CEJ post and providing the image above.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Some discussion on using water policy to manage growth from John Fleck

John Fleck is the science writer for the Albuquerque Journal, who blogs on his paper's website and independently at Inkstain. His post today included a link to a post from his Journal blog back in February (still with me?) that caught my eye. In it he discusses the idea of using water policy to manage growth in the context of New Mexico's efforts to assert regulatory authority over deep, brackish aquifers in the state that have recently seen a flurry of speculative activity, seeking to lock up these water sources to supply future development. Previously, the New Mexico State Engineer (who oversees water rights in NM), had no regulatory authority over deep, brackish aquifers because they weren't considered potential sources of usable water - they were mostly of interest to the oil and gas industry because they are associated to some degree with formations containing valuable deposits in the SE portion of the state. But I digress.

The main point of his post is that, while water scarcity would seem to be a natural constraining factor on growth in places like Albuquerque or Tucson, it does not logically follow that policies for managing the water supply are a useful proxy for managing land use and growth. This is a point frequently made by Sharon Megdal at the Water Resources Research Center at the Univ. of Arizona and I usually agree with her, because she's much smarter than me. But if you think about it, it does make sense. Land use policy should be used to manage land use decision-making, while water policies should be used to manage water supply decision-making. The problem is - these two issues need to be considered together, as part of an overall plan for managing and ensuring sustainable growth policies. This means that water policies need to take into account the water supplies reliably available and what sort of growth they can accommodate, while land use policies need to take into account the availability of water supplies and infrastructure and what effect growth of a certain type, in a certain place will have on water supply availability in the future.

An important aspect of this (because of the way laws relating to property development are structured) is that water supply issues related to development have to be considered very early in the process of development approval, because once a developer reaches a certain point, vested rights to develop the property accrue, meaning there may be no turning back (see my earlier post here). In the past, decisions about land use (zoning, planned developments, etc.) were made without considering their impact on available water supplies. It was just assumed that water would be found to support the development when the time came. This has begun to change recently and Tucson and Pima County have actually made some pretty good strides in this area. These are pretty new policies and ordinances around here and there is very little development occurring at the moment, so it remains to be seen how effective they will be and (more importantly) what sort of unintended consequences they may have. It may also be necessary to make changes at the state level for this to really be effective. But as tools for land use planning (comprehensive plans and the like) become increasingly more sophisticated (as seen here) this idea will become much more prominent.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Signs of Progress in the Gila Adjudication?

According to a news report from up in the Verde Valley, signs of visible progress in Gila Adjudication are apparent. For those unfamiliar with the adjudication process, this is the largest court case in Arizona and one of the largest in the U.S., with somewhere on the order of 30,000 parties or water rights holders, seeking adjudication of their rights. The adjudication process is designed to assign both priority and quantity to all surface water rights in the Gila River system.

The article reports that the adjudication of rights along the San Pedro River are nearing completion and that the Arizona Geological Survey is progressing with its mapping effort of the Holocene Alluvium along the Verde River. This mapping effort is intended to permit compliance with one of the key court rulings from the adjudication declaring that all wells pumping within the subflow zone of the rivers would be required to file for surface water rights (prior appropriation rights). This subflow zone was defined by the court to encompass the full extent of the Holocene alluvium along those rivers. So this mapping effort will effectively decide which well owners are to sucked into the adjudication (assuming they aren't already in it) and could impact their ability to pump water from their wells.

As to the final adjudication of rights along the San Pedro, I know that there are still hearings occurring related to some of the federal reserved rights in that basin - i.e. San Pedro Riparian area, Aravaipa Canyon - but because there is historically limited water in the river the number of surface right claimants should be fairly low compared to say the Verde. So I think it would be safe to say that this tributary is further along than anywhere else in the Gila system. But I think in terms of overall progress of the adjudication the thing that resulted in the most progress being made was the settlement of nearly all tribal rights to water from the Gila. While its encouraging that mapping is proceeding on the subflow issue I don't see significant evidence that the pace of progress in the adjudications has picked up recently.