This book had been on my ‘to read’ list for months, and after I had arranged to meet with Larry MacDonnell last spring, I figured that I ought to read his book, and it was quite enjoyable. I highly recommend it to anyone who deals with western water.
In the introductory section, MacDonnell highlights several of the ‘classic’ books about the development of the west through development of water – Cadillac Dessert, Rivers of Empire, etc… – as well as books that provide “a deeper sense of place and people” – Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Crossing the Next Meridian, The Land of Little Rain, etc… . His book does both. It is four case studies (Lower Arkansas Valley, CO; Grand Valley, CO; Truckee-Carson Basin, NV & WY; and Yakima, WA) of areas in which irrigated agriculture was the source of settlement in the 1800s and where initial development was by individual and collective efforts, followed later by federal water projects.
MacDonnell weaves the current water issues in each basin together with the historical context. Like so many issues we face today, systems that seem ill-designed and irrational make much more sense with an understanding of how they developed and the status of the region when they were initially built. His descriptions of the origins of the irrigation projects, the challenges they have faced over the past 150 years, and the decisions that face current farmers give the reader a much better understanding of how the system evolved in the manner it did.
He expresses this understanding of the historic context, along with a westerners’ dilemma between an impulse to correct past damage and an awe of the development of the region:
Next Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear an interstate water case (Tarrant v. Herrman) that may have large implications for interstate water allocation. The Tarrant Regional Water District (orange in the map to the right) services portions of the rapidly growing Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area, and filed an application with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB; then led by Rudolph J. Herrmann) to divert 310,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Red River tributaries in Oklahoma.
Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana entered into the Red River Compact in 1980 to “provide an equitable apportionment among the signatory states of the water of the Red River and its tributaries” (purple hatched area in the figure to the right). Interstate compacts are authorized and approved by Congress, giving them the force of federal law. Tarrant alleges that the Compact allows them to divert Texas’ allotment of the Red River Water from Oklahoma, and that Oklahoma state laws restrict the export of water outside the state. Both the district court and the 10th Circut Court court found for OWRB.
There are two questions at issue in this case that might have broader implications for interstate water allocations, and water markets.
Late last Friday the BLM quietly released their record of decision (ROD) regarding public land available for oil shale development in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The ROD greatly limited the amount of land available for oil shale development – a reduction of 96% relative to the current baseline. A summary of oil shale can be found here, as well as a summary of the EIS (at least as it applies to Colorado) here.
This is a big deal. Oil shale is a rock containing solid bituminous material, known as kerogen, that when heated releases petroleum-like liquids. It should not be confused with ‘shale oil,’ the tight oil produced from hydraulic fracturing shale formations such as the Bakken in North Dakota. It is more similar to oil sands, such as those in Alberta that are the subject of the current controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline. And there is a lot of it in Colorado — some estimates place the amount recoverable reserves as high as one trillion barrels.
I’m a water guy and a native Coloradan, so I’m interested in how this relates to water usage in the state. Depending on the technique used, producing one barrel of oil shale could take between 1 and 12 barrels of water. The connection (or ‘nexus’ if you want to use a current buzzword) between water demand and oil shale production is a strong one and the water rights to produce oil shale are already in place — in many cases they are senior to many existing water users in the Colorado and Yampa River Basins. Full-scale production could be a significant event for water users in western Colorado.
I was involved in a multi-year multi-agency effort to document the changes the Sandy River, OR after the removal of the Marmot Dam. The process was likened to ‘stone soup’ – no one agency or group had the resources to fully carry out the research, but we all enthusiastically brought some resources. The challenge we had was to figure out the best way to divide up the work so we maximized the information gained without repeating each other’s work. Inspired by the work of Edward Tufte, I searched for a way to visually communicate a the plan – in time and space, emphasizing the type and amount of information collected.
The result was a figure that I initially presented at the River Restoration Northwest symposium in 2011 to try and communicate a method to display and optimize a monitoring effort.
I was encouraged to put those ideas into a short journal article, and the result is the article that was just published in River Research and Applications.
I also included, as online supplemental material, an Excel spreadsheet application that allows the user to create a figure similar to that shown above.
I highly recommend checking out Matthew’s blog for a semi-regular summary of reports covering both science and policy.
There are at least two things that need to happen in order to produce oil from oil shale in Colorado: oil prices much stay at a level that makes it commercially viable, and because much of the resource lies under federal (BLM) land, federal approval for leases is needed. If commercial oil shale production were to begin in Colorado, it could have significant impacts on existing water users. A background on the basics of oil shale and water resources in Colorado can be found in this post
We are nearing a significant point in the second of the two criteria – a decision on federal land leasing. In 2005, the Secretary of the Interior directed that a Programatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) be conducted on changing BLM land use plans to foster oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The 2008 PEIS and Record of Decision (ROD) amended the BLM plans to make 2 million acres of BLM land available for leasing to develop oil shale. This decision was challenged, and in 2009, the Secretary of the Interior directed another PEIS. The PEIS was completed in November 2012 (summarized here), and a ROD was anticipated in January 2013.
From a water resources / water allocation perspective, I see two interesting issues in North Dakota: water for oil production by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and unresolved Indian water rights claims. A brief summary North Dakota water law and current issues is provided here, and described below.
The Journal of the American Water Resources Association has just published a manuscript of mine that reports on work of mine in Alaska over the past few years. The National Park Service was concerned about bank erosion near some of their facilities on the Toklat River in Denali National Park. The USGS (me) was asked to provide a geomorphic analysis of the river and give an assessment of the shifting braided planform of the Toklat.
As this year’s class of Nicholas School MEM students begins to look for research topics, I am offering a suggestion for anyone interested in water and energy. The interaction of unconventional oil resources, specifically oil shale, and scarce surface water resources in western Colorado set up a very interesting conflict over water rights. The project allows the motivated MEM student the opportunity to delve into western water law, conditional water rights, agricultural-municipal-industrial water disputes, Colorado River issues, unconventional oil resources, federal land management, mining law, and more.
See a full description here
The E&E News is reporting that Utah Governor Gary Herbert is opposing the proposed new oil shale leasing policies by the BLM. An EIS completed in 2008 under the Bush administration established over 2 million acres of BLM-managed land as available for lease application. The recommended alternative in the current EIS proposes a 65% reduction in the number of acres available, to less than 700,000 acres. In Colorado, the most production portion of the Green River Basin oil shale formation, the acreage reduction is an even larger 92%.
I have a summary of the EIS, as it pertains to Colorado, here.