Books · Performances

Caesars Palace Water Follies

Western state water negotiators met in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. Everyone was there and nothing got agreed to, slow motion natural disasters allow participants time to stall.

Tanks for the Memories

As far as stalling goes sending everyone to the Vegas Strip where the deadlocked, stalemated and going nowhere negotiations could play out was at least good for the gaming industry. You want to play games with the future of the American West why not come here—

Many of the most capable spokespersons all set down the same talking points. There was talk of the threat to dead pools, surface evaporation rates, lawn removal, and the demise of the Salton Sea. 

I like that the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California said that until they knew how much water they could get from the Sacramento River Delta they couldn’t predict how much water they could live without from the Colorado River. 

Honorable mention has to go to lettuce growers down in Yuma for being the poster child for all the water that agriculture needs and wants. In point of fact it is and always was and always will be the alfalfa growers that remain the most protected group of water users that are about to be removed from the endangered species list.

The most talented orators in the ongoing century long fiasco known as the Law of the River understand there ain’t no use talking about taking alfalfa growers water away. Alfalfa has become the most invisible and most invincible crop to ever curse the veins of our riparian habitat. They got most of the water, they definitely got the most fearsome lobby, you want your career to grind to sudden end try crossing this grass growing group.

Get it— We are the fixers to the fix we are in

Here’s my best guess as to what’s going on right now. First, calls have been made to survey teams in the Sierras, Wasatch and Rocky Mountains. Right now we are above normal in snowfall totals, but Debbie Downer from the Geologic Survey continues to warn of the new normal, drier and slightly warmer climate continues to reduce total runoff once the spring melt gets underway. Debbie is such the bummer.

I’m going to take a swing at what I think happens next. The Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation will call for draconian cuts by February, you’ll want to wait to announce those cuts until after the President’s State of the Union but before Valentines Day. 

They keep talking about cutting between 2- and 4-million-acre feet of water— let’s say they decide on 3-million-acre feet, and most of those foot-acres of water will come out of the water allocated to alfalfa growers in California. Smaller cuts will fall on the bit players in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. 

Again, friends, climate skeptics and Luddites let me stress that there is enough water for residential use but there is not enough water for what agriculture special interests want to do and that is to grow more alfalfa. 

Good decent hard working urban Americans are going voluntarily send help to these hard hit rural regions. What we have to do is help the rural alfalfa producers of the American West through what will be a wrenching economic transition to a new rural way of life.

Favorite Forlorn Outpost

Or— we can just extend and pretend and hope against hope that it will finally rain enough to bail us all out of the fix this 23 year long drought has put us in.

I’ve crunched the numbers, counted bodies, estimated river flow percentages and had a fair number of Prickly pear cactus margaritas preparing highly accurate projections of the fix we are in and the way to climb out of the dang dusty waterless mess we find the Southwest American desert stuck in.

What makes this hard isn’t the science, it’s not coming up with the answers, it’s the politics. Water is something you either have or you don’t have, there isn’t more water that we can have Congress vote on and pass then deliver to customers out here, there isn’t any water, and that is different than other kinds of things we are short of. 

Decent God fearing folk get their knickers in a knot when you start talking about how the world’s population is playing a role in the resource constraints we are experiencing. People do not want to talk about Debbie Downer taking birth control pills or making her own plans to have or not have a family. 

Alfalfa growers are akin to the same thing. Taking alfalfa out of production represents a kind of extinction event to this industry and they are not ready to have their crop sacrificed on the altar of this climate emergency, hell this thing isn’t even real, it’s all some horrible mistake, let someone else take the cuts, I want my water and I want to do whatever it is I’ve been doing.

Refer to the Above Sign— You Can Do It—

Once you get the space in your head to start thinking like the space inside the head of a farmer that’s been growing alfalfa for the last three decades you can see they just don’t think it’s fair. Again, figure farmers use most of the water out here and then most of the water farmers use goes to growing alfalfa. It turns out that if you start looking for sacrifice you need to go to the users that have been using most of the water. 

Try this piece of reality on for size. All the farm products in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California combined are almost a rounding error to the region’s total gross domestic product. Farms use most of the water and return the smallest of all economic benefits to the region. That worked so long as we weren’t in the midst of global climate emergency and no longer works because we have got our civilization backed up against the wall of reality. 

Figure to that bellyaching you hear coming sometime after Valentine’s Day will make Kari Lakes moaning about election fraud sound like a whimper. 

Hope you find yourself meeting your better half under the mistletoe this week. Happy— happy peeps—

Books · Performances

Emergency on the Wasatch

The Salt Lake City Tribune posted a water story (see it here) that straightened my back and got my attention. The story is well researched, we learn there are 10,000 family hay-growing operations in Utah, that the crop market value is $500 million, and one-third of the crop is sent overseas. 

Profits in Utah’s alfalfa production are on par with revenues generated by the state’s amusement parks. Water slides, aquariums, and entertainment farms bring in just as much. 

This is Northern Utah’s most precious renewable resource

Alfalfa is grown across Utah. (Full alfalfa story here) To the south Cedar City and Delta have sizable acreage planted. North of Salt Lake City and east of the Great Salt Lake it is Cache and Weber County where hay cultivation is the most intense, it is the crown jewel of alfalfa growing regions in the state. Even with that Utah supplies just 1% of all the alfalfa grown in the USA. 

The Bear, Jordan and Weber Rivers is the source of the water farmers have needed to grow alfalfa. Until the 1980’s irrigating fields of alfalfa was regarded as sustainable. Annual rain and snow patterns began shifting while population continued to expand, and the cultivation of alfalfa continued to increase. With domestic markets tight Utah’s agricultural interests searched abroad and developed foreign markets for their product. 

Logan, Utah is Cache County’s biggest city. There are about 50,000 in town, in a county of 156,000. Median income is set at about $30k, most of the population in this region are young, under 30-year old’s, most Mormon’s, many already started having children. Home prices here have not exploded like the southern region of Utah.

Whiskey for drinking, water is for war

To the east is the northernmost section of the Wasatch Mountains, it’s a sportsmen’s paradise— fishing, hunting and off-road vehicles are the preferred recreational activities of the region. Most of the population here was born after 1990, many were just grammar school students when the World Trade Center came down, the Global Financial Crisis hit while they were graduating from high school, and the scorched earth politics that went from slow burn to high heat triggered by the election of the first Black-American president is likely their coming-of-age memory.  Bill Clinton was before their time, they have no memory of what life was like before the free trade agreement era, it was in their youth when most of the factories in America were disassembled and sold off to bidders in China. 

You travel further south to Weber County, it is smaller in size but larger in population,  they earn a little more, the population is a bit older, but for the most part the voting block of these two county’s has only a scant memory of a world that existed before 1990. Ogden landmarks the northernmost portion of the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan corridor— a region known as the Wasatch Front. 

Courtesy of Google Maps

The Great Salt Lake, this ancient body of water west of the Wasatch Front is undergoing a climate induced transformation, the lake has been shrinking since the 1980’s, as of now the lake has lost two-thirds its size. This hotter drier climate and diversion of river water for alfalfa cultivation has proven a dire threat to the lake’s survival. The shorelines soils are thick with minerals that once dry go airborne fowling the air up and down the Wasatch Front. The unwanted contamination reads like a rogue’s gallery of the most awful heavy metals and toxic chemicals a human would never want to breathe. More than a million of Utah’s citizens face significant increases in cancer and respiratory diseases because of these pollutants. 

In 2022 it is estimated that Utah’s gross domestic product is $183 billion. Of that statewide about $500 million (that’s right not even a billion) are the profits from alfalfa. Still if you live north in a rural agricultural district like Cache County these are make or break profits. Then, there is the cultural impact as most for Mormon’s in this region rural farming and ranching is the foundation of their religious heritage. Add a dollop of cowboy culture and you’ve a significant chunk of the state that wants to protect its past way of life from this more complicated multicultural present.

Last Sunday on the editorial pages of the Salt Lake City Tribune, the state’s leading newspaper has called for the state of Utah to buyout the alfalfa growers and to put the water back into the tributaries that fill the Great Salt Lake. 

The transition away from grass crop agriculture will require careful planning.  It has been an unfortunate feature of our zeal for free market capitalism to let the market figure things out on its own. With the energy transition in full swing now, and the real-world impact of the climate emergency effecting every region of the American West it is going to be necessary for government agencies to partner with the private sector to create a new and more environmentally balanced economy. We simply do not have time to let one industry wither and die while another tries to rise from the ashes of yesteryear. 

One approach to fixing the crisis on the Great Salt Lake would be to put a small excise tax on Utah’s $183 billion gross domestic product, and keep that tax on for some years, paying the farmers to keep their fields free of alfalfa. Some will transition to crops that use less water, some will get out of farming, others might remain on their land and find work nearby. Private enterprise will find many opportunities as much of our manufacturing capacity returns from locations overseas. Utah already plays host to several major data server farms, the need for more in a world continuing to go online is a demand this region could meet. 

Few were born when this was made

The key to success is striking the right balance, this is going to require a private-public partnership in innovation. Opportunity is key and can help offset culture shock— and it is this modern climate changing way of life encroaching on this world of yesterday that is going to take some real finessing if this transition is to succeed. 

One of the features lacking in our present is the existence of a reliable narrator. If we can make sense of what’s happening, if the alfalfa growers can help keep the citizens of their state safe, if their sacrifice can benefit the many, then that story may be worth telling. Given the sacrifice necessary, the people may find their sacrifice uplifting, dare I say Christian. Opening this new frontier in a non-carbon fueled economy could be as vivid a modern-day tale as the explorers who entered this region by wagon train to settle nearly two centuries ago. If ever there were reasons for the public schools to restore funding for music, arts, drama and literature this may be that moment in our history. 

We’ll watch with interest to see if there are any takers to the proposal put forward by the Tribune’s editorial board. So far pulling acreage out of production has been forced by drought and bankruptcy. It needn’t be like that, rather than wait for the economy to tank, wait for the inevitable ill citizens to start filling up Salt Lake City’s hospitals, this time getting out ahead of the forces that have us in a bind, doing the right thing is a way for the state of Utah to build a bridge to a better future.

I know these people, I have traveled through this region, having presented my show to audiences up and down the small towns of this region. There’s a path forward, leaders need to show courage and light the way.

Books

Colorado River Basin Blues

Federal officials from the Bureau of Reclamation gave Colorado River basin stakeholders until noon hour on August 16th to hash out a new water allocation deal. For the last 62 days water resource managers haggled, horse traded and gridlocked one another into sharing the pain losing access to water can bring. 

John Entsminger, general manager of the water authority and Nevada’s top Colorado River negotiator, tried cutting a deal but was unable to get anyone to negotiate. I think his way of explaining the mess was that none of the various stakeholders were making a good faith effort to negotiate, nobody was taking the crisis for what it is, a natural disaster of the first order— I think you’d describe the megadrought as historic.

California’s Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley are the systems championship water grabbers in this tragedy of the commons. Nearby Yuma on the Arizona side of the river has got its share of woes too. Parkers and Bullhead City are about to go through a few things and that’s the way it will just have to be.  

Back in June Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told the seven western states to either come up with their own voluntary plan or otherwise Washington would go full draconian on their sorry little stubborn water using souls. That day arrived today.

Commissioner Touton keeps her head down and mouth closed, her job has been to set the terms of the negotiations and then let the states, tribes, and Mexico figure things out. These are the best of the best water management professionals all squeezed cheek to jowl into a Denver hotel meeting room with orders from high on up back in the states to do something, do anything, but for God’s sake the one thing not to do surrender even one drop of their current allocation, get some other stakeholder to take one for their team. 

Most of the problem is caused by the deal the seven states cut back in 1922. One hundred years ago during a wetter and cooler weather cycle they divided up the river water like there was and always would be plenty to go around. There have been a few rough patches in the last ten decades but the last two and a half decades, as we’ve entered into the teeth of the climate crisis, nearly one quarter of this past century has seen an ever decreasing less abundant river. 

I wouldn’t venture to even begin to explain how complicated the 1922 compact turned out to be, but most experts I follow can barely make even the slightest explanation of the tangled mess without speaking uninterrupted for at the least one hour’s time. With today’s announcement there will be immediate reductions in water deliveries with warnings that in the next 24 months further deeper cuts will need to be taken on top of the current cutbacks.

What we are all about to go through will be different and dependent on whether you live in a city or outside of town in the countryside. Urban and suburban water users use only fraction of all the water that comes down the Colorado River. It is the rural farm and ranch operators that are going to have to change how they do things, in some cases farms and ranches be shutting down altogether selling off their equipment, liquidating livestock and fallowing the land. 

Recreation along the river will be impacted and so too will wildlife habitat. Everyone will be paying higher prices for food and water bill’s will be going up. Cheery news indeed. Everyone knows about the hydroelectric power station at Hoover Dam, it is famous and produces a lot of electricity. Most expert forecasts see the power station becoming much less productive as the reduction in water will reduce the power the station can produce. 

Fortunate for us the renewable energy systems will be deployed to make up for whatever the 300 hydroelectric stations all up and down the Colorado River basin can no longer reliably produce. What we can’t do is make up for the missing water. 

Sure, why not, you’ll read about plans to make desalination plants along the coast of California, maybe pipe water up from the Sea of Cortez, build a desalination plant on the Salton Sea, the processed water would be expensive, too expensive to make sense to use for agriculture. High rollers in Las Vegas might enjoy buying access to this kind of fancy water but the ordinary working stiff is going to use less to keep their water bill down.

Lawyers from the region are preparing to draw up a new compact to replace the framework agreed to in 1922. There is no time and agreements as complex as this will require years, decades— if the basin stakeholders can ever come to terms is uncertain. Nobody wants this to be litigated, but there’s really no way around it, this is an intractable stalemate that will vaporize political careers and trigger untold emotional frustration. If water remains as tight as it is now the negotiations will likely be absurd, incredibly consequential, and result in some of the hardest choices any negotiator has ever attempted to settle. It remains a zero-sum game, if the Imperial Valley gets water some other valley doesn’t get water. The severity of this crisis is of such scale and scope to be unimaginable.

I’ll leave you to chew on this. Alfalfa is grown across the Colorado River basin. Alfalfa is the third largest crop across the United States with corn and soybeans holding the first and second positions. Alfalfa grows best in a hot climate and thrives when you can pour water on a alfalfa field like there is no tomorrow. By comparison corn and soybeans are insignificant in size in the Southwest. Wintertime in Yuma there is a sizable salad growing industry, it is important and where most all of the leafy greens we find in stores is sourced from. 

Alfalfa is used by the dairy industry. A milk cow thrives on alfalfa. Then there are foreign markets that buy our alfalfa and growers in the Imperial Valley have discovered they can haul alfalfa out of Long Beach on the cheap by shipping containers back to China and Vietnam. Let’s just not go down the rabbit hole of whether drinking cow’s milk is good for you or not, let’s leave that out of this tangled web for a moment. 

An ordinary household with a relatively normal American family, maybe they have a dog, cat even might have a swimming pool will use about 1 acre foot of water to run their house for a year. Now how much water does that farmer need to produce one acre of alfalfa? One acre of alfalfa requires about seven-acre feet of water. You with me still, come on don’t give up so easily. There are millions of acres of alfalfa grown in the Colorado River basin, from the Front Range to the Western Slope, from near Many Farms where the Navajo grow plenty, farms have been growing alfalfa in Central Arizona, it is an important crop, each cut on each acre, on average weights about 6 tons is worth $1500 and in the desert Southwest you can cut that acre up to 10 times per year so long as between each cut you can pour another seven-acre feet of water on that crop while it grows and gets ready to be harvested.

Some alfalfa is grown off underground aquifer water, most of that water is ancient and has accumulated over millions of years, hydrologists are sure this water is going to give out soon enough, can’t pump water out of the ground faster than it accumulates, eventually you are going to be pumping sand, and sooner than an alfalfa grower is willing to believe.

Even if you can imagine growing alfalfa for the local dairymen in the region, and some of our milk does end up being exported too, but even if you can wrap your head around growing alfalfa to make food that ends up on our kitchen table it is hard to imagine that so much of this crop ends up being exported overseas. Estimates are all over the place but right now we appear to be selling about one fifth of all the alfalfa we produce in the Southwest to foreign buyers. And that’s why I want you to forget about alfalfa and start to imagine swimming pools. Imagine millions of swimming pools full of water, I’m talking about a lot of water, enough to fill a reservoir the size of say maybe Lake Powell, you know something like the second largest water reservoir in the United States, one of the largest in the world, imagine all that water being used for swimming pools that end up over in some faraway place. In exchange for all that water a handful of growers are paid somewhere in the vicinity of a grand total of $3 billion dollars. Got that picture in your head now. That’s one hell of a lot of all our water that goes to the benefit of a mere handful of self-appointed over-entitled people.

We’ve got well over 40 million water users in the Colorado River basin that have agreed to let a few thousand alfalfa farmers siphon off most of Colorado River basin water, the water all of us depend on, this is water rightfully belong to all the citizens in these states, this is the people’s water that they are using to make a buck while assuming that this is somehow even remotely some kind of sensible deal.

And now you know what kind of mess all those fancy stakeholders have on their hands back in that hotel in Denver where for the last 62 days not one or another of them could figure out how in the world to untangle this tragedy that has fallen upon our region. Water grabbers are a painful lot, willing to inflict all manner of hell and cruel capitalism upon our natural resources. You can hardly believe our shipping all this water overseas at the expense of the many and to the benefit of a few is a fact, you have to take a moment, you have to stop what you are doing and think this madness through, see the fool crisis plain and naked as the day you were born. Time for change has arrived. We keep going the way we are we won’t call it the Mojave or the Sonoran— we’ll name it in honor of TS Elliott, it’ll be known as the Wasteland.

Books

Can Kicking Over— Hard Part is Here

Half-truth tellers, braggarts, and exaggerators are stealing water from Americans. Take the executive director of this outfit called the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona. With millions of acres farmed in Arizona less than half is dedicated to the food that ends up directly on our dinner plate while a whole lot more of the crops that are grown ends up getting stuck inside the mouth of various grass burning barnyard animals that then end up on our kitchen tables. Figure meat and dairy production is worth over $2 billion where lettuce out of Yuma adds up to about $700 million. Add up the market value lemons, cantaloupes and pecans and you are hovering right around $1 billion all in.

This gentleman Chris Udall who runs this water council lobby shop wants everyone to know all about how his organization is just worried to tears about the water used to grow lettuce in Yuma (half the truth) while never once mentioning anything about the hay, dairy and cattle operators (the whole truth). You want to get serious about life you’ll want to get a cowpuncher all worked up over the cost and quality of his romaine lettuce in his Caesar salad. Those boys get off work and they like settling in for whiskey drinking, dingo dog storytelling and when they can some good old-fashioned water thieving and hoodwinking reminiscing of which the 1950’s is best remembered for.  

Water resource managers across the Colorado River basin can’t tell nobody nothing, not like they don’t know what the problem is, where the water is going, and what to do about it. You can know it from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, but it is an unspeakable crime to say it out loud. If you are an employed official and say alfalfa into a microphone during a regional water crisis meeting, you are soon to be an unemployed water resources official just as sure as night follows day. Dedicated southwest alfalfa growers will take you and your smart aleck unwelcomed comments out into a field build you a memorial, buy you a gold watch and send you off into early retirement.  

We are less than one week away from all hell breaking loose out West where things are not just going to get wild, things are already plenty wild enough, things are about to get full on crazy as a cowpie. Folks in the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are about to square off against the lower basin states of California, Nevada and you guessed it Arizona.

The head in sand approach to fixing the West’s water shortage problems is about to have a head on collision with this nasty creature known as the megadrought. Anyone and everyone except for perhaps this lobby shop outfit knows there is all kinds of hell and misery heading right toward the good members that they are in the business of representing. There is a lot that needs to get done if we stand any kind of chance of surviving this climate change catastrophe. Let me just give you a little itty-bitty list of possible fixes. Wireless soil moisture meter switches could be one place to begin. Try what is called micro drip irrigation systems is another ready for primetime technology just sitting there asking to be strung on out across the fruited plains of our parched landscape. And damn it there are some souls giving these emerging technologies an honest go gosh try but there’s just too dang many footdraggers and naysayers gumming up the transition to a more enlightened use of our water resources.

I just like the sound of a farmer who has taken the time to laser level his field of melons. Laser leveling should be written into the law same as on—the—level—politicians. If everything was on the level most of our problems would be solved and we could get onto fixing bigger problems until there ain’t nothing left to fix but a cocktail.

Glimpse at Lake Powell

Water managers have the most miserable jobs known to civilization. Work in the mortuary business is more fun, at least it is more honest. Every stinking time you think you’ve left some boneheaded water use policy for dead the thing scrambles back to life and goes on the attack again. Advocating for new dams, reservoirs and water pipelines falls from the lips of every trick roper just this side north of the border. Of course, this avoids any discussion of exactly where in the hell any of this non-existent water is going to come from.

What we have is not a water storage problem, what we have is a water use problem. And not to put too fine a point on this water use problem but what we really and truly have is an industry that uses most of all the water that falls from the sky and is threatening to go Medieval on our water resource managers if they don’t get every last single drop to grow whatever the hell they want, and don’t you dare tell them what they can and cannot grow.

Temporary fixes are headed to the Colorado River basin. Senator Krysten Sinema snuck climate emergency drought relief funding into the legislation passed this last weekend. All in there will be $4 billion for the water managers to work with. They’ll be paying out money to have operators fallow their fields. This will forestall the worst of the worst of the damage done by the drought, but it doesn’t do it for long and we’ll be right back in the same corner next summer. If you can’t grab water, might as well grab a few billion that you can use to keep your water grabbing constituents afloat, at least until you can come up with something better.

Water politics is one nasty bit of business. Remember it was a thousand years ago that the Anasazi vanished without a trace. The idea of our modern-day civilization being forced to abandon the Southwestern United States seems inconceivable. What is beginning to shape up is that our drier and hotter climate is making a mess of our economic system, the whole enchilada is breaking down. You can retire to a region in drought, you can go there to be there, but you won’t have enough water resources to do much of anything else. A steady diet of Jack Rabbit isn’t the stuff from which dreams are made of.

All of us detest all the traffic we’re always going nowhere bumper to bumper in. Take half of a small town’s reason for existing away (rural agriculture) and you haven’t got enough left over to even run a drive-thru java joint. So yeah, I’m very worried about the lives of the people that live anywhere near where all this water is no longer going to be available. Whole communities are going to just dry up and blow away, same as a thousand years ago people will have to pick up and move.

The population of Page, Arizona sits right at 7,487. The citizen in faraway Phoenix might depend on the same water but they can’t walk out their back door and look off into the distance and actually see the megadrought and the water missing from the nations second largest reservoir. Some vendors have provided houseboats for tourists coming for holiday. That’s not looking like an industry with a lot of upside, in fact I’d say that many of the larger houseboats will be too big to move and will end up being cut up for scrap. Liquidation takes a toll on hope. Imagine getting out of the alfalfa growing business altogether and sending all that water down the Colorado River. Sometimes we pretend like we’re not picking winners and losers, but that’s really what is on view here. That’s the plain truth. Everything and everybody depends on water for one thing or another to do with their ability to exist and thrive. It isn’t like we won’t inhabit such places like Page, there will be people, but the next generation will be here living and working in ways our modern day water managers dare not even speak of. This new century could use a reboot and a do-over, failing that we are likely to see wholesale changes in what we do for work and how we grow the food that makes its way to our kitchen tables. Next week change takes a first tentative step in that direction.