NPR’s interview with Colorado River author misses an important angle: The effort to save Lake Mead

Where the Water Goes by David Owen

National Public Radio has some of the best interviewing talent in American journalism, and there’s none better than Terry Gross, whose Peabody Award-winning weekday program, “Fresh Air,” has consistently delivered provocative and fascinating interview sessions. On radio, there’s really none better.

But, let’s face it Westerners, the perspective of much of NPR’s programming is often East Coast-centric. Gross’s interview on Thursday with the author of a new book on the Colorado River is further evidence that if they don’t know about it in New York… well, it just isn’t.

Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River (Penguin Group USA) by David Owen by and large is an honest and fair assessment of the challenges facing the Colorado River today — a source of water for over 35 million people living in the American Southwest. Especially in the face of long-term, chronic drought, those challenges have been daunting. Owen chronicles most of them in Where the Water Goes, including the tender status of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River system, which today is less than 40 percent full.

In his NPR interview with Gross, Owen explained the 1922 agreement among the federal government and the Colorado River states to apportion shares of the river’s water. The long-standing agreement, as it has turned out, is one of the biggest reasons why Lake Mead is in danger of descending now to “deadpool” level, the critical point at which water may no longer flow out of the lake. Said Owen:

“It’s one of these great sort of ironies of history that in the 19 – the 1920s were some of the wettest years in that part of the country since the 1400s. So the river at that time was carrying more water than ever. And so when the states divided up the river, they were dividing up – actually water that didn’t exist. On the other side, the good side is that, well, it’s almost a century later and that compact, the agreement among those states, still exists.”

Owen’s assessment is pretty much spot on… as far as it goes. But what he leaves out in his interview with Gross is some vital perspective: Fixing that structural deficit created in 1922 is the consuming issue facing Colorado River water managers today.

It’s not like they’re all slapping their foreheads, going, “Oh, that’s why we’re in this mess!”

Addressing the structural deficit is one of the highest priorities of the “Drought Contingency Plan,” or DCP, that the river states and the federal government have been negotiating for nearly three years. See: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and…(whew!) here.

We appreciate Owen and Terry Gross educating NPR’s mostly waterlogged, mostly Eastern audience about the challenges facing the much more arid West. Just because California and much of the West has gotten drenched of late doesn’t mean pursuing a DCP is any less of a priority.

There really is another important chapter to that story about where the water goes. It’s about the effort to keep a lot of it in Lake Mead.



Weather and climate in the Southwest: Part Two

This is the second part of a discussion with Arizona’s top weather climatologists about drought, rainy winters and why California gets so much more of those “atmospheric rivers” than we do

storm over monument valley

In this discussion with Arizona’s top weather climatologists about the long (and continuing) drought in the Southwest, we talk about the reasons behind the abundant moisture during the 2016-2017 winter and expectations for the future (cross your fingers!).

Today’s talk features Mark O’Malley, forecaster and Climate Science Program manager for the National Weather Service.

Published on March 8, Part One featured an interview with Arizona State Climatologist Nancy Selover. Dr. Selover is the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability Research Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Selover and O’Malley are the co-chairs of the State Drought Monitoring Technical Committee, which is responsible for gathering and analyzing data regarding Arizona drought, climate and weather.

The information they provide is used by the Governor’s Interagency Coordination Group, which makes an annual recommendation to the Arizona Governor about whether the state’s long-running state of drought should be extended. Or… not. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke co-chairs the ICG.

Climate science – a field of study that has evolved rapidly in this century – examines a phenomenon like “drought” from an increasing number of factors.

For one thing, it makes the recommendation to the governor on whether to continue the drought declaration more precise.

Drought impacts can range from a lack of soil moisture, affecting range land and farming, to water levels in the state’s reservoirs. And all of the factors that climatologists weigh when deciding whether drought exists can vary widely in time and scale. But all the drought factors taken together make it more difficult to establish with certainty when a drought may begin or end.

“I think it’s generally accepted that Arizona is in a standing, long-term drought since 1999,” said Mark O’Malley of the National Weather Service.

“But clearly there are years and parts of years in the past 17 years where drought has been less expansive and less intense. There really is no good way to say drought in Arizona started on ‘x’ day in 1999.”

Like State Climatologist Nancy Selover – O’Malley’s co-chair on the State Drought Monitoring Technical Committee – O’Malley sees the effects of the very wet 2016-2017 winter as a real positive for most of Arizona. But the slowly improving drought conditions locally are impacted by the summer monsoons, too, he notes.

“We have experienced three to four excellent summer monsoon seasons where thunderstorms and rainfall across the state have been quite good, but we’ve also had five consecutive winters with below average snow in the mountains,” said O’Malley. And it is that snowpack in the mountains that is important for the state’s water supply.

“This winter has been good — especially around the Flagstaff area — but doesn’t totally compensate for the five previous dry winters.”

In terms of moisture, “good” in Arizona consistently is less good than on the California coast, where unprecedented winter moisture largely has ended that state’s drought. There are a number of reasons for that phenomenon, says O’Malley. Some are atmospheric. Some are geographic.

For one, he notes, central and northern California are at higher latitudes than Arizona, and so more commonly fall under the jet stream – which also explains why even during the sodden 2016-2017 winter, Los Angeles and San Diego are getting less moisture than, say, Sacramento.

Then there is the effect of those mountains separating the coastal cities from Phoenix, which, among other things, tends to wring out moisture from those Pacific storms as they sweep inland.

“Moisture from the Pacific streams unencumbered into the coastal cities with lift provided by air flowing over the mountains providing even more rain and snow,” said O’Malley.

“As the air flows over the mountains into far southeastern California and Arizona, it sinks. And you generally need air rising to produce precipitation.”

Often, he notes, there is “nothing left over for Arizona” in those storms. “This is why the deserts from Yuma through Death Valley, Calif., are the driest places in the United States.”

With California reservoirs literally overflowing and with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti calling for a state of emergency as a result of the melting snowpack in the eastern Sierra Nevada, California is confident – for now, at least – that it is nearly free of drought.

What about Arizona?

“By both objective measures and impacts, drought in Arizona is certainly better  — which is to say, we have less drought — than last year at this time, and substantially better than two to three years ago,” said O’Malley.

“I wouldn’t go as far as using the term ‘waning’ — that word infers a resolution or termination in the immediate future.”

It doesn’t take much for an arid state to slip back into serious, widespread drought conditions.

“Bottom line, because of our location, growing population, and demand for water, Arizona will always be susceptible to drought.”


Massive earth fissure found near Picacho Peak…and you heard about if first from Arizona Water News!


Spectacular drone video shot by Arizona Geological Survey of new fissure sparks wave of media attention

Arizona news media are buzzing suddenly with the release of some spectacular video of a new, expanding earth fissure in the desert near Picacho Peak.

Shot by geoscientist Brian Gootee of the Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS), the drone video depicts a classic aerial shot of the 1.8-mile long fissure before zooming down below the ground-level rim, providing some sensational inside views of the earthly phenomenon.

The video can be viewed here, here, here, here and here. And, notably, here.

The fissure, located about ten miles southwest of Picacho Peak State Park in southern Pinal County, is the latest fissure discovered in an area of the desert where they are becoming plentiful. In places, the nearly two-mile-long fissure is up to ten feet wide and 30 feet deep.


Sending in a drone to examine the earth fissure

Fissures can pose a hazard to hikers and people riding off-road vehicles in the area. Cattle grazing in the area also are in jeopardy of falling into some of the larger fissures.

Fissures also tend to erode quickly, especially during torrential rains, and can act as a conduit for storm runoff into the area’s underground aquifers.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources Land Subsidence Monitoring Report No. 3, which the department featured in the January 12 issue of Arizona Water News, identified numerous fissures in southern Pinal County, including one north of the Picacho Mountains.

The large earth-crack depicted in the video is oriented roughly north and south. It appears to have begun forming between March 2013 and December 2014, according to the AZGS geoscientists who first examined the fissure.

The newer part of the Picacho fissure — much of which the drone traverses at below-the-rim levels — appears to have formed within the last six months, judging by the lack of erosion around its rims, as well as a lack of vegetation.

“The earth fissures are a result of land subsidence which is caused by excessive groundwater use,” said Brian Conway, supervisor for the Water Resources Geophysics/Surveying Unit. Conway worked closely with the AZGS geoscientists in preparing the department’s subsidence report.

An uprooted tree

“This earth fissure was an extension of an earth fissure that was discovered using 2014 imagery by Joe Cook at the AZGS,” said Conway.

“This was Joe Cook’s first chance to visit the earth fissure and discover the newer extension of the earth fissure.”

According to Conway, AZGS researchers never before have used drone-video technology while mapping out an earth fissure.

Water Resources cooperates closely with AZGS in investigating and monitoring earth fissures and land subsidence. Much of their work is mapped out using a revolutionary satellite-based radar technology known as InSAR.

Modern technology clearly changes our understanding of earth-bound phenomena like fissures by giving us perspectives we didn’t have previously.

Camera-carrying drones, for example, allow us to examine the fresh walls of earth fissures as if we were hiking through a Colorado Plateau slot canyon.

“Perspective” works in both directions. Just as a drone can descend below the rim of a new fissure, satellite-based photo technology literally can lift a viewer’s perspective off the planet’s surface. Click on this satellite image

“Perspective” works in both directions. Just as a drone can descend below the rim of a new fissure, satellite-based photo technology literally can lift a viewer’s perspective off the planet’s surface. Click on this satellite image of the Picacho fissure, in an image created circa 2014, and roll your mouse wheel as far back as it will go. Talk about a unique, out-of-this-world perspective!