[Marxism] Mighty Rio Grande Now a Trickle Under Siege
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Mon Apr 13 10:04:36 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 13 2015
Mighty Rio Grande Now a Trickle Under Siege
By MICHAEL WINES
FABENS, Tex. — On maps, the mighty Rio Grande meanders 1,900 miles, from
southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. But on the
ground, farms and cities drink all but a trickle before it reaches the
canal that irrigates Bobby Skov’s farm outside El Paso, hundreds of
miles from the gulf.
Now, shriveled by the historic drought that has consumed California and
most of the Southwest, that trickle has become a moist breath.
“It’s been progressively worse” since the early 2000s, Mr. Skov said
during a pickup-truck tour of his spread last week, but he said his farm
would muddle through — if the trend did not continue. “The jury’s out on
that,” he said.
Drought’s grip on California grabs all the headlines. But from Texas to
Arizona to Colorado, the entire West is under siege by changing weather
patterns that have shrunk snowpacks, raised temperatures, spurred
evaporation and reduced reservoirs to record lows.
In a region that has replumbed entire river systems to build cities and
farms where they would not otherwise flourish, the drought is a historic
challenge, and perhaps an enduring one. Many scientists say this is the
harbinger of the permanently drier and hotter West that global warming
will deliver later this century. If so, the water-rationing order issued
this month by Gov. Jerry Brown of California could be merely a sign of
things to come.
Arizona, a party to a Colorado River water-sharing compact among seven
states, already is bracing for a first-ever reduction in its allotment
within a couple of years should the river’s main reservoir, Lake Mead,
continue falling beneath its current historic low.
Since coming to office two years ago, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell
has elevated water management in the West to an agency priority. “The
challenge is systemic and persistent across the West,” Michael Connor,
the deputy secretary of the interior, said in an interview. “We need
better infrastructure, better operation arrangements, better ways to
share water and move water.”
The perils of drought are on ample display along the Rio Grande, where a
rising thirst has tested farmers, fueled environmental battles over
vanishing fish and pushed a water-rights dispute between Texas and New
Mexico to the Supreme Court.
But you can also see glimmers of hope. Albuquerque, the biggest New
Mexico city along the Rio Grande, has cut its water consumption by a
quarter in 20 years even as its population has grown by a third.
Irrigation districts and farmers — which consume perhaps seven of every
10 gallons of river water — are turning to technology and ingenuity to
make use of every drop of water given them.
John Fleck, a journalist and scholar at the University of New Mexico
Water Resources Program who is finishing a book on the Colorado River,
said no one should dismiss the gravity of the West’s plight. But neither
is it necessarily ruination.
“This whole running-out-of-water thing isn’t really doom,” he said.
“When water gets short, farmers get very clever.”
Mighty Rio Grande Now a Trickle Under SiegeAPRIL 12, 2015
An untamed, flash-flooding home to sturgeon and eels a century ago, much
of the Rio Grande today is little more than a magnificently engineered
pipe — diverted, straightened, dammed, bled by canals, linked by tunnel
to the Colorado River basin in the north, surrendering its last trickle
in the south to a ditch that supplies farmers near El Paso. Only miles
later do Mexican tributaries renew its journey to the gulf. Its raison
d’être is to sustain the booming society along its banks.
Mr. Skov, 44, is at the very end of that pipe. The canal that supplies
his farm intercepts the Rio Grande near downtown El Paso, and flows
through the city zoo. From parts of his 1,500 acres where he tends pecan
trees and grows onions and alfalfa, he jokes, he could hit a nine-iron
across the barren Rio Grande channel into Mexico.
In a perfect world, his crops could consume up to four feet of water in
a growing season, and in flush times 15 years ago, the canal gave him
most of that. “We’d double-crop — do onions and come back with corn
after that,” he said. “We used to grow a lot of chiles, a lot of
jalapeños. When water was abundant you could do a variety of things.”
That is a pleasant memory. Today Mr. Skov fallows a fifth of his fields,
and canal water that once flowed from March to October arrives in June
and vanishes as early as August. He makes up the deficit with two inches
of treated water from the city sewage plant and a deluge of salty
groundwater, brought up by once-abandoned wells that his grandfather
dug, and that he has brought back to life.
The brackish water poisons the plants even as it saves them, cutting his
yield by as much as a fifth. “It hurts germination, plant vigor, growth,
root vigor, water absorption — everything negative that can happen to a
plant,” he said.
Then again, the alternative is worse.
Across the West, the water shortages plaguing farmers and townspeople
alike share many of the same causes. Like the Sacramento River in
California and the Colorado River in the Rockies, the Rio Grande gets
much of its flow from melting mountain snow — and snowpacks are getting
smaller, and melting faster.
Rising temperatures are the reason. The federal Bureau of Reclamation,
which manages much water in the West, reported in 2013 that average
temperatures in the upper Rio Grande, in Colorado and New Mexico, rose
almost 2.8 degrees during the 40 years ending in 2011 — and could rise
an additional four to six degrees by 2100.
The 40-year increase, twice the global average, was beyond anything seen
in the last 11,300 years. Future warming “has the potential to cause
significant environmental harm and change the region’s hydrology,” the
bureau’s analysis stated.
A warming climate turns some snow into rain and increases the
evaporation and melting rate of what snow remains. And as drought
worsens, dust and soot from parched soil and burning forests coat the
snow and absorb sunlight, turbocharging the melting.
This month, federal forecasters pegged the runoff from mountain snowpack
feeding the Rio Grande’s northern stretches at roughly half the average
logged in the final two decades of the 20th century.
“The last four or five years running, we’ve had a weak snowpack, early
melting and really dry spring weather,” said Mr. Fleck, the journalist
and scholar. “The spring runoff usually peaks in early May. I think it
may have peaked in March this year.”
It is likely to get worse. While acknowledging that climate forecasts
are inherently uncertain, the reclamation bureau’s 2013 analysis
concluded that the Rio Grande could lose roughly a third of its water by
this century’s end.
In theory, the Rio Grande is engineered and managed to absorb such a
whammy with as little misery as possible for the three million people
who rely on it. In practice, some users have a comparative embarrassment
of water, while others like Mr. Skov are water paupers.
The rules for sharing the Rio Grande are even more complex than its
plumbing. Irrigation districts, governments and tribal authorities,
among others, all have rights to water, and some have reservoirs devoted
more or less exclusively to their use.
Some even band together: In the 1970s, Albuquerque and other New Mexico
cities teamed with irrigators and the federal reclamation bureau to
tunnel beneath the Continental Divide, diverting 28 billion gallons of
water from a Colorado River tributary to a Rio Grande reservoir every year.
Yet the biggest agreement of all, the 1938 Rio Grande Compact among
Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, shows just how fraught the divvying-up
process can be.
The ménage has seldom been happy; for years, Colorado reneged on its
obligation to deliver Rio Grande water downstream. But the thorniest
issue of all is how the accord divides Elephant Butte Reservoir, New
Mexico’s largest, between New Mexico and Texas.
Most of the reservoir’s water belongs to one of New Mexico’s biggest
users of the Rio Grande — the Elephant Butte Irrigation District — and
to the Texas irrigation district that parcels out river water to farmers
like Mr. Skov, and to El Paso itself.
New Mexico manages the reservoir according to an agreed-on formula. In
wet years, upstream users allow more water to flow past them to fill it
up. In dry years, they keep more of the water to themselves, and let
downstream users survive off what was stored during rainy periods.
That works perfectly in a climate where wet and dry years alternate. But
over a dozen years of drought, the effect has been perverse; upstream
users have more water, while at one point in 2013, Elephant Butte
Reservoir shrank to 3 percent of its capacity.
“The Rio Grande Compact has been corrupted by climate,” said Phil King,
a New Mexico State University engineering professor who advises the
Elephant Butte district.
Supreme Court Case
Yet another aspect of the Elephant Butte agreement is before the Supreme
Court. Texas and New Mexico agreed to a 57-to-43 percent split of their
share of the reservoir, with Texas getting the smaller amount. But New
Mexico farmers then sank wells along the river’s 100-mile route to
Texas, soaking up groundwater that otherwise would have bolstered the
Texas complained bitterly for years. As the drought began to bite, it
threatened to go to court, and the two sides struck a deal in 2008 that
effectively gave Texas access to more water. But New Mexico’s attorney
general sued to block it, and Texas took the dispute to the Supreme
Court in 2013. Many observers believe it could win — and New Mexico
could end up with even less water when it is needed most.
Experts say water users should stop fighting and start preparing
together for a much drier future. “Individually, the American culture of
using as much water as you want has got to stop,” said Pat Mulroy, a
veteran Nevada water regulator who is a senior fellow at the Brookings
On that point, at least, Texans and New Mexicans seem to agree. In many
places along the Rio Grande, governments and farmers are both cutting
their use of water and finding innovative ways to produce more of it.
For example, El Paso’s irrigation district and water authority are
building their own 400-acre rainwater basin, and in 2017, the authority
plans to build an $82 million plant to recycle sewage into 10 million
gallons a day of drinkable water.
El Paso now uses less water per person — about 130 gallons a day — than
any city in Texas. Per-person use in Albuquerque, which won an
international award in 2006 for water conservation, reached a record low
John Stomp, the chief operating officer at the Albuquerque Bernalillo
County Water Utility Authority, said he believed that with further
conservation efforts and more cooperation among water users, the Rio
Grande’s users could withstand even a permanently more arid climate.
But “it won’t be easy,” he added. “Nothing about water is easy.”
Coral Davenport contributed reporting from Washington.
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