Thursday, August 1, 2013

Water rights prices have stabilized in Arizona

Do you know what your water rights are worth? The folks at WestWater Research track water rights transactions in the west, compiling the data into what is billed as "a comprehensive water rights transactions database". Each year, they assess the data and publish the Water Rights Price Index broken down by region, which  provides a look at how prices are trending. Overall, there were 5 years of declining prices. In Arizona prices have stabilized, both within the AMAs and in the Colorado River corridor. Suggestions are that this may be the beginning of an upturn in the market.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Arizona's last 50 years: lots more people, no more water

A graphic showing Arizona's water use and population growth over the last 50 years. During that time, population increased 470 %  (yikes), while total water use increased only about 7 percent (after it increased during the 80s and 90s).

This graphic was part of the recent testimony provided by Kathleen Ferris, director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, at a recent subcommittee hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (written testimony link). The hearing was held to discuss the Bureau of Reclamation’s December study on water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin.  From her testimony,
Conservation and reuse are necessary, desirable, and effective water management tools, but they must be supplemented with other measures. In central Arizona, we have found that a comprehensive approach is necessary. Even as we conserve and reuse, we must also augment our supplies and employ other strategies ... We must explore all of our options, including augmentation, to ensure a balanced and sustainable approach to this complex issue.

Bottom line: What can we learn from our past? Consider if the headline looking back  ("More people. no more water) is also a prediction for Arizona's next 50 years?  Or what if the future is  "more people, more water"? Or, how about "no more people, no more water"?  What is our desired outcome?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

AZ Water 101 Series - Why Arizona Cares about California

A basic tenet of Arizona water management system is that we must concern ourselves with California's water management system. No, it is not not just because California is our likeable neighbor to the west. Because both states rely on the Colorado River to meet big chunks of municipal and agricultural water demand, Arizona's concern is simply based on self-interest. Stresses in California's in-state water supplies could lead to increased stresses on the Colorado River  - bad news for the entire basin. Taking a closer look:

California's major population centers are heavily dependent on imported water as shown in this graphic from a recent legislative report, 

California's water supply system distribution involves moving large amounts of water around the state - an enormously costly endeavor. And a risky one too, thanks to California's propriety blend of earthquakes, endangered species standoffs, legislative paralysis, energy crises, and sustained drought (Let's be clear: Arizona has its own special mix of issues too, but luckily that is not the topic today.)

The image below from the Maven's notebook guide to the Bay Delta Plan highlights the state's major water distribution projects.The Colorado River Aqueduct is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler that provides water to most of the population in southern California. Additionally, and not shown on this map, are the large irrigation districts that take water deliveries directly from the Colorado River.

Back to Arizona. In this context of neighborly concern motivated by self-preservation, there are two parts to California's complex water supply system that have been in the news in recent weeks.  Because of our co-dependency, Arizonans should closely watch how these two issues evolve in California over the next few months and years. 

1.  QSA. The country's largest rural-to-urban water transfer, the Quantification Settlement Agreement enables the transfer of a portion of California's Colorado River allocation from farmers in Imperial County to municipal users in San Diego. The prolonged legal battle is becoming the stuff of legend, but so far, the QSA has survived all legal challenges (see an analysis of the legal maneuverings and the most recently resolved court case by Rod Smith). In addition to meeting the needs of a thirsty population in San Diego, this historic agreement provides California the means to live within the state's 4.4 MAF annual apportionment of Colorado River water by transferring up to 30 MAF over the life of the agreement.

2. BDP. The Bay-Delta Plan is California's long-term comprehensive plan for managing the water and environmental resources that impact the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  California's critical state-wide water projects have engineered the Delta estuary over time to convey water from upstream areas of the state to the agricultural and population centers to the south. To quote from the plan, "the Delta is universally regarded 'in crisis' because people have not yet been able to find balance in the tradeoffs among competing demands for the Delta’s resources." A draft EIS for the plan has been released, and the final plan is expected later this year. Within days of release, at least 5 lawsuits were filed against the controversial (an understatement) plan.

Failure of either of these efforts will place further strain on California's already stressed water supply system - and the fallout would undoubtedly be felt by the other basin states, and in particular, its neighboring state just across the Colorado River.

Bottom Line for Arizona: It is entirely in Arizona's best interest to support California's development of robust, sustainable water management systems, and then to make sure that our friendly neighbor to the west lives within its means.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Environmental Science in the Real World - Have Hope

As a consultant, my job is to develop workable solutions for clients. So I appreciate Brian Richter's (The Nature Conservancy) plea to environmental and policy scientists who work in the watery realm that it is time to translate their knowledge into real-world solutions. He says,
"...I’ve grown tired and jaded – as I suspect many other scientists and most non-scientists in the world have become – at hearing that the sky is falling. We get that. We’re in trouble, to be certain. You’ve made your case, the jury’s in, and we’re guilty. We’ve made a big damned mess of our planet and our atmosphere. Now it’s time to turn your science toward helping to design a way out of this rat hole.
But I also believe that the most effective call to action requires a message of hope.  In a recent TEDx talk, Jay Famiglietti (UC Irvine) outlines a simple 3-step process for confronting and addressing the global freshwater crisis. In addition to calling on governments to better document water supplies and make better allocation decisions, he makes the important point that inspiring action requires hope:
" order to keep people from sticking their heads in the sand after hearing all of this bad news... they need hope. They need to feel empowered."

File:ColoradoRiverDelta ISS009-E-09839.jpg
NASA image of Colorado River Delta. 2004
In this context of action and hope, we have a recent success story.

Minute 319 is the landmark agreement between the US and Mexico that provides for environmental flows into the Colorado River delta in Mexico. Policy and environmental scientists representing non-profit interests, as well as agency official from both the US and Mexico, cooperated closely over many years to develop this plan.  The agreement enables the purchase of water from Mexican farmers to be used as  "environmental flows" in the delta. Additionally, the plan calls for investments in Mexico's agricultural infrastructure that will conserve water - water that will then be released into the delta to support habitat restoration projects. What makes this a success? Great ideas with benefits for all parties implemented into action  A recent New York Times' article and video link on Minute 319 highlights some aspects of this plan.

A new paper provides a  more in-depth description of the ecological, political, economic, and social challenges of this bi-national project.  A Delta in Repair: Restoration, Binational Cooperation, and the Future of the Colorado River Delta by Andrea K. Gerlak, Francisco Zamora-Arroyo, & Hannah P. Kahler. The authors note that "the positive energy" and "creative thinking" that got the process started are essential ingredients for long-term success on environmental restoration projects.

Bravo! So spread the word and let's get to work.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Well, this doesn't look good - Lake Mead projections

Recent extremely dry conditions across the Colorado River basin mean that western water news over the next few years could very likely to be dominated by talk of an immanent shortage declaration on the River. Indeed, the latest data and updated projections for the Colorado River accelerate the time frame for when a shortage is likely to occur.

Below is NOAA's Colorado River Basin Forecast Center's June 1 runoff predictions. Runoff is projected to be less than 50 percent of the 30-year average across most of the Upper Basin. Reclamation projects total inflow into Lake Powell to be 44 percent of average.

Last year's June 1 runoff forecast was not much better - less than 70 percent across the basin. Two extremely dry years in a row.

There are other ugly parts to this developing story - declining soil moisture and increasing temperature trends will exacerbate the problem. But what really caught my attention this week is the new elevation data for Lake Mead as projected in the released 24-month study by the Bureau of Reclamation. The data projects the lake's elevation in May 2015 at 1,075.28 feet - just a few inches above the shortage declaration trigger of 1,075 feet. (This was also noted by Circle of Blue in a June 24 post). The Bureau's projection is based on the most probable inflow (50% probability), a statistical calculation based on averages. Which means of course that anything could happen, but the fact is, the chances of the Colorado River experiencing its first ever shortage just officially went up.

Montgomery & Associates, a water resources consulting firm in Tucson, Arizona has a good discussion (if I do say so myself...its my day job) of  the consequences of an initial shortage for the basin and for Arizona. At least initially, although Arizona will bear the brunt of a shortage, the burden will be on Arizona's agricultural users in the "ag pool" and excess water used for water banking. Lake Mead needs to drop significantly lower before municipal supplies are threatened, and Arizona already has water in storage for when this day comes. Nonetheless, this serves as a wake-up call for all of us.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Future Conflicts on the Colorado River - a new angle on an old story

For those of us who closely follow media coverage and commentary on the Colorado River, a new angle on an old story is always appreciated. In this case, the old story is that the Colorado River Supply and Demand Study released last year is hailed as a “call to action”.  As discussed in a previous agua-zona post entitled A Call to Action – but to do what? (agua-zona’s most popular post, ever!)  there are lots of different opinions on the appropriate course of action. 

However, among the hundred-plus options for bridging the supply-demand gap, legal changes to the structure of the Law of the River were deliberately excluded from the report’s final analysis.  A well-done article published by Bloomberg earlier this year included interviews of several study participants who agreed that taking on legal and policy questions related to water allocations were “beyond the scope of the study." According to the article,

"When asked if members of the sub-team were reluctant to analyze legal and policy ideas because they respect the Law of the River, fear changing it, or view changing it as too difficult, sub-team member Don Gross told BNA, “All of the above.” "
So now here is another call to action for the Colorado River. The study authors are no doubt aware of the opinion held by Douglas S. Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program in the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, and others, who think there was a missed opportunity when the study did not analyze policy changes to river allocations. Kenney is quoted as saying,
"Shortages mean there is an inevitability of institutional change needed for the river, and I don't know how you avoid it...States have been ignoring the underlying legal issues, but they can't go on doing that forever."

A new angle on an old story AND a new Colorado River graphic! Image from Stratfor.
Another recent analysis concludes that the Upper and Lower Basin States will eventually need to align their total allocation with the annual discharge of the river (perhaps about 15 percent less). Published by contributor Statfor, at Forbes online, their conclusion is more of a prediction than a rallying call (it comes from authors who don’t have any immediately obvious agenda for the Colorado River.)  Through a lens of analyzing global events in a “geopolitical framework”, they claim that the Colorado River has a relatively small role in Mexico’s economy where its water is used mostly for agriculture and contributes only about 3 percent of the gross domestic product of the Baja Norte province. For this reason, they predict that future conflicts on the river are most likely to be domestic, not international: 

“ …there may come a time when regional growth [in the US] overtakes conservation efforts. It is then that renegotiation of the treaty* with a more realistic view of the river’s volume will become necessary. Any renegotiation will be filled with conflict, but most of that likely will be contained in the United States.”

 *It seems “treaty” is used here in a general sense, referring to the various interstate compacts and court cases that together comprise the legally binding formula for allocating water between the states - in other words, the Law of the River.

Bottom line for Arizona: Given the economic importance of the CR in the US, future conflicts on the Colorado River are more likely to be inter-state, and not international, and therefore the states should continue to nurture their positive relationships.  However, this should not be at the expense of good relations with Mexico - a status that was hard-earned as exemplified by the recent success of Minute 319 (see this  agua-zona post).  Also, Mexico plays a disproportionately important role in any US plans involving desalination/exchange, as it has the only ocean-front property in the basin.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Arizona's water supply vulnerability is power, not water

From Tucson-based water resource consulting firm  Montgomery & Associates:

"The Colorado River’s low flows and Lake Mead’s photogenic bathtub rings are again making headlines — but the most vulnerable component of Arizona’s water supply system today is its power supply."

"The Navajo Generating Station, a 2250 MW coal-fired plant, provides nearly all the power required to operate the Central Arizona Project. The plant’s future depends on the willingness of its partners / owners to invest in its continued operation." 

The required investment to keep the plant operating is increasing due to several critical factors. Read more  Montgomery & Associates' Arizona Water Policy Update (editor notes that this is her day job)

The Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant pumps water approximately 824 feet from Lake Havasu to enter the CAP aqueduct system. In total, the CAP lifts water more than 3,000 feet and transports it 336 miles, from Lake Havasu, through Phoenix, and to Tucson.

Bottom line for Arizona:  "Regardless of whether NGS shuts down or continues to operate, the power plant responsible for moving most of Arizona's water plant is going to have a major impact on the price and availability of Colorado River water supplies in Arizona in the near future."
May 2013, Issue 71