John Fleck: Drought Dilemmas and the Colorado River

Years of extreme drought have left the Colorado River at alarmingly low levels. Earlier this month, water management experts testified in front of a Senate energy and Natural Resources Committee that’s seeking ways for the Western United States to drastically cut back water usage. With all the recent reporting on the issue, it’s important to remember that this sad state of affairs has been a slow-moving disaster visible to all those willing to pay attention. This week on Sea Change Radio, we revisit our 2016 conversation with John Fleck, a water expert focused on the problems of the Colorado River and the author of “Water is For Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West.” We learn about the struggle over water rights in Arizona, discuss how Mexico and the US are cooperating over the Colorado River Delta and talk about the complexities of growing alfalfa in the desert.

Narrator 00:01 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise. You had these communities that were along this river that had always been a dry riverbed and they got to see their river come back.

John Fleck 00:29 It was a precedent that was so gratifying to all the people, including the water managers who you think of as the old water buffaloes who just want water for their city in their farm. It was so cool to see that water and it was such a moving experience where everybody was involved.

Narrator 00:45 Years of extreme drought have left the Colorado River at alarmingly low levels. Earlier this month, water management experts testified in front of a Senate energy and Natural Resources Committee that’s seeking ways for the Western United States to drastically cut back water usage. With all the recent reporting on the issue, it’s important to remember that this sad state of affairs has been a slow-moving disaster visible to all those willing to pay attention. This week on Sea Change Radio, we revisit our 2016 conversation with John Fleck, a water expert focused on the problems of the Colorado River and the author of “Water is For Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West.” We learn about the struggle over water rights in Arizona, discuss how Mexico and the US are cooperating over the Colorado River Delta and talk about the complexities of growing alfalfa in the desert.

Alex Wise 1:51 I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by John Fleck. He’s an author and the director of the Water Resources program at the University of New Mexico. John welcome to Sea Change Radio.

John Fleck 2:01 Thanks so much for having me.

Alex Wise 2:03 So you’re in arid New Mexico, where water is something that is not taken for granted and should not be. Give us a little background if you will on your latest book, “Water is For Fighting Over.”

John Fleck 2:15 Yeah, the full title is really important because it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. The title is water is for fighting over and other myths of the of water in the West. And there’s this old quote that’s attributed to Mark Twain that in fact, he probably never said that whiskey is for drinking and water’s for fighting over. But in the western United States, that quote is repeated and as believed by people that water is in a place like this, where it is scarce, is a source of conflict and you know, I believe that for a long time in my career as a journalist and only gradually over many, many years of covering water did I begin to realize that while we notice the places where there is conflict over water much more often, there are places where people learn to conserve and to collaborate and share the water and, and they really learn to avoid conflict. And I began to realize, as I have been working on this book for a long time. That the story I thought I was looking for which was a story of risk and conflict because of water scarcity was really something really different than that. What we have is these enormous. Success stories in places that have learned to conserve water to use less water, both in big desert farming, irrigation districts and cities, and learning to share water more. And I kind of felt like they were under told stories, and so we have these sort of narratives and myths about ourselves that were headed for conflict because increasing. Demand is pushing up against scarce supply, especially with climate change and when I really dug into the book and this really grew out of my work for many years as a newspaper reporter, I realized that it was really a different story and that we needed to rethink those sort of narratives of, you know, conflict, and looming apocalypse that the stories were really much more hopeful, and that if we can learn from those stories will be better-equipped to handle the really difficult times to come as our population grows and as water because of climate change becomes increasingly scarce.

Alex Wise 4:20 Let’s leaf through some of those stories because they’re pretty fascinating. Dating back to the mid-20th century, you focus on a few areas that get their water from the Colorado River or the majority of their water. Let’s start with Arizona. Some very interesting characters that led to the current water situation. In Arizona, what do you tell us about the work of Senator Carl Hayden and his link with water?

John Fleck 4:50 So Carl Hayden was is this wonderful character who grew up in what is now Tempe in Arizona. Tempe and Arizona Central Valley, Maricopa County, the area where around Phoenix is a very, very dry place and so it’s one of those places where really water or the lack of water really defines the evolution of the culture and Carl Hayden’s dad was a merchant in what’s now. Tempe and ran a little ferryboat. This is one of the great things about cities around the West or you can go to a city and very often the cities. Built either where there is enough water for a small group of people to live or where it’s easy to cross the river so Tempe is at this place where the river where the where the river, such as it was there narrows as it heads into the Phoenix metro area. And so Carl Hayden sort of early life was defined by the scarcity of water. He started as a County Sheriff, became Arizona’s first congressman and then became a senator essentially for the rest of his life, long serving senator until recently in the United States Senate and his whole life was built around trying to bring federal money to develop water supplies for the state of Arizona and it really has always been a defining characteristic of politics in the state of Arizona. The scarcity of water, the need for water, the desire to develop more water to serve more people and Carl Hayden’s whole life was built around trying in particular to bring Colorado River water. From the river, which is at the state’s western edge. To build this giant canal and pump system to bring some of that water back into the central part of the state. But it was a largely unsuccessful effort for most of his career, because politicians in Arizona had this combative attitude toward their neighbors, and this is sort of my favorite example of where waters were fighting over doesn’t work in the 1930s. Arizona is one of the most hilarious stories in the history of what Western water literally dispatched the National Guard to try to prevent California and the federal government from building a dam across the Colorado River. Because the dam would have been used to back up water to fill a canal to go to Southern California, and they actually deputized a couple of little ferry boats as the Arizona Navy they called it and the National Guard parked out on the riverbank for months to try to prevent the construction of the dam. And of course the dam got built and Arizona’s attempt to fight over this water failed, but it left Arizona in this really difficult political position, because instead of cooperating from the beginning, cutting deals with California cutting deals with the federal government and and getting a canal to bring its water to Arizona, while California was getting its water Arizona just got stuck at the end of the queue and never got that water until much later, and because it got the water a lot later through the Central Arizona project. It supplies a lot more vulnerable than the sort of legal structures that sort of allocate water first and foremost to the people who first put it to use the sort of classic prior appropriation. So fighting was a stance in Arizona for a long time and still is to a certain extent. Arizona has a bit of a pugilistic relationship with its neighbors and it really hurt Arizona, Arizona as a result ended up totally behind in the water development game to get the water that they needed in central Arizona. Much of it was finger pointing and dog whistles – it’s somebody else’s fault. It’s California fault, it’s the politician’s fault.

Alex Wise 8:33 And you see that largely as you drive down Hwy. 5 in in California you see a lot of signs blaming Nancy Pelosi for this mess, or whoever, and I think Donald Trump recently was saying that the water crisis in in the West, “it’s just some liberal conspiracy. There’s plenty of water, it’s just we’re not using it effectively. We’re more interested in saving some endangered species than making sure we have thriving communities of humanity in places that weren’t really meant to have enormous populations like Las Vegas or Phoenix.” So what do you attribute the shift in policy from Phoenix from starting to look towards conservation rather than blame?

John Fleck 9:16 So one of the things that happens this was this was a really striking realization for me. Let me circle around this question a little bit. Because I grew up I I started covering water as a journalist in Southern California in the 1980s.  And I started covering water in the years, right after the book Cadillac Desert came out. Marc Reisner is classic about the building of the dams and the canals and the hydraulic empire of the western United States and Reisner. Story is, he’s such a great writer and it’s a classic book. And it’s this story of these colossal mistakes that we made over building these cities, and these farming empires in that suggested that we were headed for a crash because we had made these mistakes, and so as a journalist I grew up in that narrative. I grew up in that paradigm, and I looked for the crashes and I would when, as you know, I was working as a newspaper reporter here in New Mexico, and when a small town would run out of water, I would you know photographer. And I would swoop down on them and do the story about their plight and there are places like that and there are places where the problems are really bad. But as drought became worse and worse here in New Mexico and the time was working as a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal and Drought became worse and worse, water supplies became scarce and scarce are and we would swoop down on the little towns that would run out of water. But I began to become increasingly interested in this in this other fact that wasn’t getting as much attention, which is that most of the towns weren’t running out of water, so we get this classic journalism. You go to the place where the plane is crashed and you don’t think as much about the planes that don’t crash. But the planes that don’t crash is kind of interesting too, because most planes don’t crash, and so I started looking at and thinking about places that weren’t running out of water, and you found a lot of places that we’re adapting. And what I realized is this. You know, thing that in retrospect seems kind of brain dead simple, but I just didn’t. It took me a long time to get there, which is that when people have less water, we’re pretty good at using less water. Humans are remarkably adaptable. And so you would, you know the city that I live in Albuquerque, which uses Colorado River water, which we import through this Rube Goldberg contraption of dams and tunnels across the continental divide. Albuquerque per capita water use is, you know this this year is maybe 55% but it was 20 years ago. You know per capita per person resource use in a major you know Western industrialized, modern community use of a particular critical resource that, per capita, we’ve cut it in half, and that’s remarkable. And what happened was Albuquerque realized that its water supply was scarce, that this aquifer the groundwater we were depending on was not as reliable. As we thought, and so we did conservation, we did a bunch of other things too, but this major conservation program and I began looking around the West. For those stories and once I started looking for them instead of looking for the places running out of water, I found them over and over again. You know Las Vegas is a great example. Southern California, Los Angeles, San Diego area, you know, dramatic water use reductions, and also in these big farm districts and what it is is basically when people are confronted with this scarcity. They adapt because like if your choice is abandoning Phoenix because there’s not enough water or tearing out your lawns and getting rid of your pools. I mean, that’s a no brainer. You’re going to tear out your lawns and get rid of your pools and people are doing that in ways that the sort of old narratives of looming catastrophe and collapse. Don’t recognize it’s this, it’s this thing that sort of Reisner and his generation of you know environmental thinkers didn’t see coming. And I think it’s really the sort of central story of water use in the Western United States today, and it’s not that we’re out of trouble. We still have real risks. Climate change is going to make this very, very difficult for us, but you know, we have to look at these. Look to these places like Las Vegas or like Albuquerque or Denver or Los Angeles. San Diego that have succeeded in using less water. Figure out how they did that learn from those lessons and apply them with great rigor, because we’re going to need to keep doing this for a while to come.

(Music Break) 13:45

Alex Wise 14:43 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author John Fleck. He’s also the director of the Water Resources program at the University of New Mexico, so John your book water is for fighting over and other myths about water in the West really chronicles the whole Colorado River Basin region. How vital is the Colorado River to all of these population centers and maybe also give us a snapshot of the Minute 319 Program and what those efforts culminated in?

John Fleck 15:16 One of the things that we often say about the Colorado River is that it provides water to 7 states in the United States, you know YM in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona, but it really provides water to 9 states. The water also serves really important communities and purposes in Sonora and Baja. In California, it passes across the US Mexico border at this lovely little valley called the Yuma Valley. A little town on the Mexican side of the border called Alga Donus and send the lease in Arizona and San Luis in Mexico. And so what you have is this classic desert river where the water starts in the mountains up in the Rocky Mountains – big snowpack there. Every year, bigger some years than others hasn’t been very big lately that melts over the course of the spring and summer and flows down this river through this gorgeous desert Canyonlands and out into the desert lowlands of California and Arizona and Nevada, and then Sonoran Baja. So what you’ve got along that? River is cities in all nine of those States and farm districts in all nine of those States and some you know 35 million people, maybe 40 million people plus huge farming areas that are getting their water from this river. And by the time the river reaches the US-Mexico border. We’ve taken the whole river. We’ve moved the entire river out of its channel into canals for our farms and our cities and this is the thing we wanted to do right in the evolution of, you know, human culture on this part of the world in the 20th Century, we wanted to build cities and farms. That was our goal. That’s what we valued as human communities on both sides of the border, but the result is that the Colorado River Delta well once was this just insanely beautiful. Wonderful, fabulous estuary and ecosystem that beavers down there. I mean, you can imagine this is what now is just this scrub desert, there used to be beavers. And the water never gets to the sea. It only rarely gets to the sea when all the dams are full and spilling, and that hasn’t really happened since the late 90s and even rarely before then. You know, for a few years in the mid 80s for a couple of years in the late 90s, but basically for the last half century that that rivers rarely meet reached the sea and from a period about two 2010 to the present, there’s been this ongoing series of really complicated international negotiations between the United States and Mexico to figure out how to better share surpluses and shortages on this shared river between the water users of the two nations, but also to try to figure out how to return some water to the natural system down there in 2012, the two nations signed an agreement. It has this strange name of Minute 319. It’s for all practical purposes, sort of an appendix or a coda or a tweak to the treaty. Between the two nations for sharing the river and what minute 319 did was deal with a lot of the problems of sharing of shortages and surpluses and clarify the rules about what happens in really bad droughts. But as part of the agreement, the US and Mexico for the first time, this is the first time anywhere in the world as near as we can tell. They agreed to take some water and release it across an international boundary for environmental purposes, and this is. It was just a fabulous experience for those of us who got to participate in watching in the spring of 2014. Morales Dam, which is normally the last dam on the river. The Morales Dam is a place where water gets diverted to farmers in the Mexicali Valley. They opened the gates one Sunday morning at Morales Dam and started releasing slowly, but in increasing volumes of water back into this dry river channel down into the communities of Mexico and the environmental reaches. Of this river that has just been desiccated and there was some really nice environmental recovery. The cottonwoods and the birds and the beavers actually returned. That was the coolest part for me to see an actual beaver dam in the Colorado River Delta, but the other thing that was amazing was you had these communities that were along this river. That had always been a dry riverbed and they got to see their river come back. They did it once negotiations are underway again, are underway now to come up with a more permanent arrangement, and the hope is that they can keep doing this, but it was a precedent that was so gratifying to all the people, including the water managers who you think of as the old water buffaloes who just want water for their city. Their form it was so cool to see that water and it was such a moving experience where everybody was involved that you talked to these people working on the negotiations today and they sound super motivated to try to make that a permanent thing to try to find ways to put water back for the environment and for those communities in Mexico.

Alex Wise 20:23 And one of the reasons, as you note in the book, that it was so gratifying, is because there was a large swath of people who looked at this at minute and 319 and seeing the Colorado River reaching the sea once again as a failure because this was a waste – why is this water being wasted going into the sea? Why don’t you explain the flip side of things if you can?

John Fleck 20:47 Yeah, I mean there’s this sort of classic tension between the old way of of viewing water in the West, which is for the benefit of humans and the incorporation of these new cultural environmental values where water in these river channels. For nature and for the enjoyment of people, alongside them matters, and you know it’s a shifting set of cultural values, and so there’s still people. There were people during the min at 319 you know who thought it was a waste of water? Why are we sending all this water to the ocean but we did it and part of what happens in all these discussions. This is a microcosm of a much of what I think is the central issue which is there are many different values. There is no one right set of values for how we use water. There are people who want to grow font grow farm crops. There are people who want to have a city and there are people who want the environment and the and the key is finding ways. Is first of all realizing that we can all get by with less water, and that therefore we have the flexibility to adjust our values and incorporate new ways of thinking about it and then coming up with these fuzzy, complicated, institutional collaborative frameworks of negotiated agreements and you know, payments from cities to farms and payments from environmental groups to farmers to free up water. And all these complicated implementation details that at root are about collaborating and sharing this resource, rather than fighting over it. And that’s sort of what the title of the book was all about – if we believe water’s for fighting over. And we go into a defensive crouch because we’re scared that we’re going to run out. We can’t do these things that will incorporate these new values. And if we instead recognize that water is not for fighting over that, we can all get by with less water and still have cities and farms that you know don’t just survive but thrive and we come up with collaborative sharing arrangements, you know, then we can, you know, have a life here in this West that we love going forward. Despite the fact that there’s more of us, and that there’s probably going to be less water because of climate change and so partly I’m just trying to will this through an optimistic narrative, because if we if we have pessimistic narratives about ourselves, then they become self-fulfilling prophecies. I think we can do this, and I think one of the first steps of doing it is sort of recognizing that we can. That’s the critical thing.

Alex Wise 23:26 You mentioned the crops we choose. One that we don’t think too much of is alfalfa, but it plays a critical role and it’s how you start the book. So why did you focus on alfalfa?

John Fleck 23:37 So alfalfa has always seemed to me ever since I, you know, moved from LA to the more rural parts of the West and began to be exposed to how we use water. It always just looked to me like this is crazy alfalfa where that’s food for cows. We’re wasting, you know. It’s the biggest crop in the Colorado River basin.

Alex Wise 23:55 So this isn’t just alfalfa sprouts that you might get at Whole Foods or something.

John Fleck 23:59 Yeah yeah, this is alfalfa that is forage food for cows. For horses too, but mostly for cows and it’s a great food for cows, you know, grown well, high quality alfalfa.

Alex Wise 24:12 Better than #2 corn coming from my Iowa or wherever.

John Fleck 24:16 Yeah, it’s an ideal feed for the for the cows. It is a mix of crops, but alfalfa is this key part of the food system in America, because like it or not, we love our burgers and our pizza, cheese, right, ice cream and so we have dairies, and we have beef cattle and alfalfa is a key. Part of that system, and you know farmers will tell you that you consumers or you’re telling me what to grow. By your buying decisions, and so insofar as we buy burgers and pizzas and ice cream, we’re telling farmers to plant alfalfa, and it turns out that the desert is in fact a great place to grow alfalfa because the sun’s always shining and you have your as long as you have irrigation water coming from a river you can get great crops. So a farmer making a decision about how to make a living with this water. If it’s a pretty good crop, alfalfa is also a really good crop because it’s very drought tolerant. So if the water supply gets scarce in the late summer, the river flows are down, you just reduce your irrigation. The plant doesn’t die. The alfalfa has really deep roots and they just kind of hunker down and your yield goes down, but your plants still good. Pretty low capital intends not a lot of Labor costs associated with it compared to something like, you know winter lettuce, but alfalfa is also lower value, which is which means the amount of money the farmer can make per acre land and per acre foot of water. But the value of alfalfa is that it provides some really great slack in the system, and so if you look at places like the Imperial Valley, which is in the desert of Southeastern California, largest sort of single giant farming area in the Colorado River basin, and they have a lot of alfalfa. But as water becomes more scarce on this part of the river, the farmers reduce their alfalfa acreage, and so you see a big decline in alfalfa acreage because that’s the lowest value crop per unit water, and they’re going to hang onto the water for their most important. Highest value crop which is the winter vegetable crop. Big winter vegetable stuff down in Yuma and in Imperial County and on the on the on the California side of the border in inhuman Arizona and a lot less alfalfa so as water becomes more scarce. The alfalfa, which is a good crop under conditions of a lot of water, becomes the slack in the system, and you see the alfalfa acreage going down, and so as farmers have to adjust to having less water, they’re reducing their alfalfa acreage, and it provides a lot of flexibility so that so that as. We need to shift to a life of scarcity, of increasing scarcity, as abundance as David Zetland calls at the end of abundance. With water supplies, alfalfa provides the safety valve and you see this happening and so you end up with these farm communities using substantially less water. Places like human imperially using less water. And they used to they’re making more money because they’re still growing the onions and carrots and winter lettuce. And that’s part of the adaptive capacity. That’s how we avoid crashing the system is having the slack, so alfalfa will grow alfalfa when the waters there, and when the water is not there, we’ll just we’ll see less alfalfa, and that’s sort of the inevitable trajectory we’re on. And that’s not a bad thing. You know. If they have the water. Excellent, I’m you know, I love my ice cream so they’re growing my ice cream for me. And if there’s less water, there’s some other places we can get alfalfa from and do. And we’ll be OK.

Alex Wise 27:48 Well, it’s a terrific book. I urge our listeners to pick it up. It’s called “Water is For Fighting Over: And Other Myths About Water in the West.” John Fleck. John, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

John Fleck 28:01 Thanks so much for having me. This is a lot of fun.

Narrator 28:17 You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Diga Rhythm Band and Van Morrison. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.