More almonds? Make them prove they have the water first.

Rabobank predicts that almond acreage will increase by 2.5% to 3% annually for the next ten years, drought or no drought.  If so, almond acreage would increase from 940,000 acres today to 1,200,000 – 1, 260,000 acres in 2025.  We can round down, take the easy number.  That would be an additional ~250,000 acres of almonds, which will peak at an additional million acre-feet of annual demand on our water supplies for the next thirty years.  Or perhaps 250,000 acres of something else will go out of production.  Does the State Board expect that climate change will bring an additional MAF of precip to the state?  Are the growers making planting decisions at this moment counting on reliable surface supplies for every year in the next twenty years?  In this year, a year of bare Sierras, a year of curtailments to senior diverters, you know that they are not.

Anyone planting almonds this year is calculating that the new groundwater management plans have such a long lead time that they can get one more generation of almonds in before declining groundwater supplies catch up with them.  In the meantime, before their wells fail or groundwater management plans catch up with them, they are choosing to burden our failing aquifers.

State Board or the legislature, you should change the default for these decisions.  You should issue a moratorium on planting permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels.  The connection between permanent crops and overdrafting groundwater is not a tenuous nexus.  Put the burden on growers to prove that the basin is not overdrafted and can handle the additional draft.  Once they show the Regional Board that, the Boards would be more than happy to approve new permanent acreage.

Think of all the newfound enthusiasm for groundwater management this would create.  Growers who want new acres in trees would want monitoring wells and management plans.  Rather than fight the upcoming changes from the recent groundwater management legislation, growers would be pushing to accelerate them.

What is the worst that could happen?  Growers who are over healthy groundwater aquifers might have a year or two of delay if the data isn’t available to them now.  Growers who are over overdrafted aquifers would have to wait until the aquifer comes into balance.  That is a good thing; those aquifers should not have a new twenty year burden placed on them before they can be recharged.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A couple thoughts on food security.

Food security hasn’t been used as an advocacy point for California agriculture in the policy debates I’ve witnessed. I have heard that agriculture advocates hesitate to bring it up because the first question after we accept the premise is “how much land and water would it take for California to ensure its own food supply”. That number is so low that “ag” doesn’t want us talking about it.

We can estimate! California grows America’s produce and fruit on 4 million irrigated acres.
California’s population is 40 million people. America’s population is 320 million people.
40million Californians/320million Americans = 0.125.
12.5% of 4 million irrigated acres = 500,000 irrigated acres.

No matter the drought, no matter what climate change brings, Calfornia is going to get enough precip to grow food to feed itself. That said, I would still rather that food security were an explicit goal, which I would use to justify supporting a smaller agricultural base in our state. I predict that ag will shrink considerably, but I would like to see a healthy base of 5 or 6 million irrigated acres.

Economists (even here, in our own comment section) suggest that rather than ensure food security by growing our own, we could rely on being rich and getting food in trade. For important things like food, I’d rather maintain the capacity to grow our own. Just this week we saw an example of trade being inadequate to secure an important resource. When there isn’t none, you can’t buy none.

Because it has irritated me for several days now, I will correct a couple quotes I’ve seen in the recent news. This is sheer pettiness on my part, so I will hide it below the fold. Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Links and reactions.

An article in the SacBee, about large inland water districts complaining that they must cut water back 35%.

At the San Juan Water District, another agency facing a 35 percent cut, General Manager Shauna Lorance said the board should take population density and lot size into account when setting targets. “We have a very low water use per acre,” she said. San Juan’s territory includes portions of Granite Bay, Roseville, Orangevale and Folsom.

It is true that they have larger landscapes in a hotter climate, but the point that General Manager Lorance may be missing is that no one else feels sympathetic if rich people can’t landscape their entire estates.

***
This presentation on agricultural water use is wonderful; we are indebted to Chris Austin for transcribing and posting it. The first presentation in particular describes agricultural water use the same way I would. (The speaker is more of an authority than I am.) I also liked this powerpoint presentation quite a bit.

I am dismayed at the reports that ag water management plans are still so crappy. Irrigation districts have been fighting those since the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and 22 years later, it doesn’t appear that they are actually using the plans to do their planning.

***
In the AgAlert, Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger is dismayed by climate change.

Wenger called for better water supply management and infrastructure improvements to avoid future drought disasters.

“My family has been farming the same ground for 105 years and we’ve never seen a situation like this,” he said. “The real question is: Can we adapt to drought? This situation is real and it’s not just about cutting back on watering lawns for a while.”

Wenger said farmers around the state are idling farmland and that he is also reducing production.

“We’re taking out 10 percent of our orchards this year so we can have water to put on the rest of the orchards,” he said. “Never would I have thought the day would come when we would have to do that.”

In addition, Wenger said that, like other farmers forced to fallow ground and rip out orchards and vineyards, he will continue to pay property taxes on his nonproducing land and cover any fees associated with ownership, as well as pay fees for water not delivered while being unable to use the ground because of lack of water.

Your family’s 105 years of farming experience do not reflect the current climate. You are reacting to climate change, not adapting ahead of time. I have been trying to tell you how to adapt for years. Own a farm very close to a river coming out of the Sierras or sell while there are still suckers. Since you are the president of the Farm Bureau, you might think a little bigger and try to negotiate a deal for other farmers to get out cleanly. You have a better hope of that then you do of building new dams to catch the precip that our state will no longer be getting.

***
In an NPR story on redistributing water rights:

Vegetable grower Tom Teixeira, for example, has already laid out a huge amount of money to ensure a reliable supply of water. “We’ve sought out and acquired land that had good water rights,” he says. “We paid substantially more for that ground than we would have paid for ground that had lesser water rights.”

Taking that water and dividing it up some other way, he says, would be like taking everyone’s paycheck, putting it into a pool, and saying: “We’re going to divide that up evenly. Even though you went to school as a doctor for eight or 10 years, and you’re making a lot more money than the guy who’s driving a school bus, let’s take all the money and divide it up evenly.”

Mr. Teixeira is demonstrating why analogies are the very devil. There is always a flaw and it is always in the arguer’s favor (else, why use the analogy?). Mr. Teixeira’s analogy makes it seem as if our water rights system rewards a living person’s foresight and effort. That the person who put in eight or 10 years of labor to develop their skills is the rightful user of water. But that isn’t the case. As the NPR story itself demonstrates, the key to having good water rights is to have a better great-great-great-grandfather. This is a royalty theory of property ownership, not a labor or merit-based theory of property ownership. Mr. Cannon is a very good farmer and has done me personal favors. But he inherited his water rights; he didn’t earn them. If there was any earning involved, it was by someone six generations ago.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

We are already used to single crop bans.

There seems to be the notion that banning a single crop would be a radical new response to drought and an unprecedented action by the state. But that is the world we live in now. There’s a popular lucrative quasi-legal crop that Californian farmers are forbidden to grow now, at the risk of becoming criminals. They can’t grow pot legally. No one thinks that this means the end of agriculture or this horribly distorts the market for other crops or that we are all Communists living under Mao on collectivized farms because of it. They just can’t grow pot and the world keeps turning.

Perhaps the growers who lose out under an almond moratorium could be compensated by getting a license to grow pot, like the tobacco licensing system. At least pot can be fallowed in dry years.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

I do not believe growers acting in “the market” should be the sole determinant of crop choice.

I should directly address what I believe to be the main reason that State agents do not want to get into crop bans.  My interpretation is that the Brown administration mostly believes that “the market” (which is synecdoche for growers acting individually within a market and going out of business if they are wrong and privatizing profit if they are right) can do the best job of selecting a crop mix and providing that mix at the cheapest price for consumers.  Here is an excerpt from DWR Director Cowin’s editorial today:

Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.

Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?

It is not the proper role of the state to tell farmers what to grow. Those who plant almonds, pistachios and other permanent crops take the risk that they can keep orchards and vineyards irrigated year after year. Some of those bets may not pay off.

And another:

“We really think the decision of which crop to grow is an individual decision that the grower makes based on a whole variety of reasons,” said Peter Brostrom, water use efficiency manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re not trying to intrude into that area. We don’t see that as the role of the state to tell people what to grow.” …

Jeanine Jones, the DWR’s interstate resources manager and deputy drought manager, has said increasing vulnerability of water supplies could prompt some growers to voluntarily change what they plant. But state officials say they can trust farmers to make that choice.

“They will look at their water supply and make the best decisions possible,” Brostrom said.

Well, now, see, that’s not what “the market” does.  “The market” is a machine for inexorably turning resources (water, labor) into private profit for sellers and low costs for consumers.  That is all it ever does.  If that’s not what you want, then what “the market” does is not the “best”.  If you want anything different, like sustainability or social justice or cute little farm towns, then you must put bounds on the market. Economists love to think of “the market” as wringing inefficiencies out of the economy, but those inefficiencies may have been people’s jobs, or pleasant lifestyles, or fish, or rivers.

I have written about “the market” before, to emphasize that it is a policy tool, not a goal of itself. Naturally, I have made fun of economists. But I want to repeat my main point. My policy preference is not economically efficient food production, so I do not want to set an undirected market in motion. I would happily give up some economic efficiency for: environmental stability, less wealth disparity in farming communities, food security for crops eaten directly by humans. As a consumer, I would accept higher food prices to achieve those things. As a citizen, I would support policies that create them in our increasingly variable climate. As a non-farmer, I don’t actually care if they make smaller (but less variable!) profits. Even with climate change, I think we are rich enough to sacrifice some efficiency for other nice things.

So, no. I do not want growers to respond to market forces by planting endless almonds, even if it makes the most money for them and even if they are accepting the risk (which they aren’t really because they either don’t believe in the risk or they are willing to suck aquifers dry or they think they can use politics to push that risk back on to the public). That is the efficient market outcome, and it is self-evidently absurd if you care about things other than the wealth of individual almond growers (and the way that wealth acts in the farming community).

It is manifestly appropriate for the State to choose a different priority than economic efficiency. They don’t want to make an explicit choice right now, but it would be easy to choose one and then figure out what qualities our agriculture needs to have to achieve that. Let’s try “Resiliency”. Our crop mix needs to be temporally flexible (not trees and vine); growers need support when they have fallowed lands; we need to be researching crops and growing technologies for variable climates; growers get a bonus for having experience growing a wide variety of crops. Or, let’s do “Sustainability”. Irrigated acreage can’t exceed surface water supplies plus sustainable groundwater yield. We prefer and support crops that are directly eaten (or worn) by humans. We protect agricultural lands from urban encroachment.

I see “water markets” critiqued on a logistical basis (water is too hard to move) and a justice basis (why the hell should senior water rights holders get all that wealth when they have no moral superiority over buyers). But my critique is different: I do not want an economically efficient distribution of water nor an economically efficient farming community. So I don’t think “markets” are the best mechanism. I wish they were not the unthinking default.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Hard to defend.

I have marked the almond acreage at the beginning and end of the 2006-2009 drought (700,000 acres at the beginning, 810,000 acres at the end). At the beginning of our current drought, almond acreage was 870,000 acres. In 2013, after two years of drought, it was up to 940,000 acres. It looks like the 2014 California Almond Acreage Report comes out at the end of April (here’s 2013). I will be excited to see a new total acreage. (Source)
Almond acreage since 1990

Let’s make this all explicit. Since this drought began, almonds have expanded by 70,000 acres. That’s 280,000 acft/year of new water demand for a snack that will be exported. That water will come from groundwater or from other farmers. At the same time, the California EPA is literally telling urban users to take five minute cold showers. If there is a lot of new acreage in 2014 and 2015, it is going to be difficult for the Brown administration to stay friends with them.

A couple notes:
Not-having this new almond acreage would not mean wet water for cities. But it would mean less overdraft of San Joaquin Valley groundwater.

I should be explicit that I don’t love applying California’s water resources to alfalfa/silage for meat and dairy, nor wine grapes either. But I sense that most others are much more culturally attached to cheap meat and dairy, and also to wine, than they are to almonds. In my own life, I could readily accept all three (almonds, meat/dairy, wine) becoming rarer and more expensive.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Why an almond ban?

Secretary of Agriculture Ross was fast with the defense of almonds, which I would hope would be the case since it has been a hot topic.  But it feels so right, so good to criticize almonds (and I have for years).  Why a single-crop ban?

1.  It is readily enforceable.  Visual inspection would be sufficient, the delineation is clear (almonds, no, everything else, yes).  The pain is contained to a very small segment of the population, some of whom are buffered by their wealth.

2.  It would free up genuine wet water.  One million acres of almonds use four million acre-feet of water and even in California, four million acre-feet of water is real water.  That’s about the amount of annual overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley during this drought.

3.  Almonds seem frivolous.  I like them myself, but they are just a snack.

4.  The only justification for almonds is that they draw high prices, but that means that a public resource that everyone wants right now is being transformed to private profits for a few.  The conserving public isn’t getting to enjoy the use of that money in exchange for their sacrifice of water.

5.  Almonds, especially the half quarter million acres of almonds planted since the start of the 2006 drought, feel like an arrogant fuck you to the rest of us.  The planters knew of drought and decided they’d go ahead, plant trees that must get water and break the aquifers if they had to.   Those are everyone’s aquifers, but again, not everyone’s enjoyment of almond profits.

An almond ban doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.  It could be ‘no new trees in declining groundwater basins’.  It could be ‘we’ll protect our historic almond industry in the Sac Valley but not expansion since 2006, since they must have known about drought’.  But it keeps getting mentioned because it makes a lot of intuitive sense.   If the State Board does nothing on tree nuts, Secretary Ross will have to keep giving her practiced answers.

ADDED 4/14: Almonds themselves are not evil, but overdrafting our aquifers and destroying our riverine habitats to provide cheap almonds to the world is not the choice I would make.

19 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized