Want to see the wells causing more than a foot of subsidence at Check 20 of the California Aqueduct?

I was reading through JPL’s Progress Report on Subsidence in the Central Valley.  I gather they’ve made some real good progress, and with successive satellite passes can get good measures of subsidence in the Central Valley in the past few years. Figure 9 caught my eye.
Figure 9A (Check 20)
That’s a small, localized subsidence bowl, threatening the California Aquaduct. I wonder what they are pumping that water for? So I went over to Google maps.
Overview (Check 20)
Of course, almonds. It isn’t a confusing picture. There are quarter-section almond groves, with wells in the middle, right there in the center of the foot of subsidence. We can look at them a little closer.
Overview (Check 20) closer
There isn’t a street view of the intersection of Orange Ave and unnamed road. But a half mile away, at Orange Ave and Avenal Cut-off Road, there are two more wells inside the subsidence bowl. The street view catches those neatly. Here they are on both sides of the street.
Contributing well (Check 20)
I am surprised at the run-off along Orange Avenue. I usually assume that irrigators do a better job. That was 2013, so this drought was a couple years along.
Contributing well 2 (Check 20)

I didn’t go to the Fresno County Assessor’s office to check whether those half-sections all belong to the one farm that is named on the Google map. But it is likely that they do. If so, this is a clean example of one groundwater-pumper to one piece of threatened infrastructure. The subsidence bowl (a foot of drop in two irrigation seasons, not including the 2015 irrigation season) is isolated, centered on readily identifiable wells that very likely have one owner. If work is required at Check 20 of the California Aqueduct, that owner alone is liable for, and should pay for the entire cost of those repairs.

The State Water Contractors are a sophisticated organization with good lawyers. As DWR and the State Water Contractors “develop a capital improvement program to repair damage from subsidence”, their lawyers will no doubt tell them that with JPL’s InSAR data, they may be able to recover costs from some of the pumpers who broke their canals. I would understand if farming districts do not want to broach this and would rather spread costs evenly throughout the contractors. But if municipal districts try to pass these costs along to their ratepayers without first trying to recover from the pumpers who are liable for them, they would be violating their fiduciary duty to their ratepayers.

If I were the Fresno County Department of Public Works, I would have already requested all of JPL’s InSAR data as a GIS file. I would be matching those subsidence maps up to broken bridges, roads, canals, gas lines and rail lines this very minute. They’ve already got the parcel maps to identify well owners. Fresno County owes it to their taxpayers to look for the wells causing subsidence causing infrastructure damage and try to recover repair costs. Caltrans owes all Californians the same effort.

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Come on in, the water’s fine.

A list of articles suggesting methods for water rights reform and the suggested reform.  I’ll try to keep it updated (starting in September).  If you see (or write) others, I would much appreciate a link in the comments.

Wilson, Reasonable Use Doctrine:

Given the severity of the drought, the doctrine can and should be used more expansively. Instead of using the water-rights priority system to make decisions on whose water use should be curtailed, the reasonable use doctrine can be invoked to make more equitable decisions.

Senior water holders and groundwater over-drafters can have their water use restricted during times of drought. The inefficient use of water should be considered unreasonable.

For example, flood irrigating a field during drought can be considered unreasonable. Likewise, so could taking twice as much water out of a groundwater aquifer as is naturally replenished with no plans to make up the difference.

Etelson, Public Trust Doctrine

First, the doctrine should be applied to groundwater. During drought years, groundwater supplies 60 percent or more of our water. Corporate farms are pumping aquifers so fast that the ground in the Central Valley is literally sinking, leaving a growing number of well-dependent communities without running water.

Second, the doctrine should incorporate the Precautionary Principle. In Hawaii, water regulators err on the side of protecting water when there is lack of scientific certainty regarding the damage that could be caused by the use in question.

Lastly, the Public Trust Doctrine renders invalid the promise to Delta farmers to refrain from restricting their usage later this year if they agree now to a 25 percent cut. Public Trust principles require that the state guarantee a sufficient flow of water for healthy rivers and streams and then divide up whatever’s left for farming and other uses.

Of course I wish for more complete and detailed proposals. But I feel like I am coaxing timid creatures out of the woods. Maybe if we show them that nothing bad happens for proposing water rights reform, we’ll get more thorough suggestions.

ADDED (I’ll clean this up when I have more time and access):

State needs an efficient water allocation system.
(www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/soapbox/article31064874.html)

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Farmers can’t make the land retirement decisions that climate change will require. We are gonna need Stalin.

This story in the AgAlert helps illustrate why individual farmers acting in a water market cannot make the decisions that climate change will require. The article mentions four growers:

Stuller is down to 80 acres of citrus, 1 of 4 wells gives water.
Everett, Terra Bella ID, irrigating 15 acres of 75. Maintaining his valuable lemons and bees.
Unnamed friend of Everett, not farming entire 160 acres.
Unnamed ranch, removing a block (160 acres?) Valencias, which is a real shame ’cause I love Valencias.

It sounds like these guys are making good economic decisions; they are accurately assessing when they can’t afford to farm and keeping the high value crops.

“We can’t justify the cost of the water needed to grow this crop because of the value, so we need to take that expensive ($2,000 an acre-foot) water and grow more valuable crops such as mandarins,” Stuller said. “Growers are taking the citrus that only produces $100 a bin and pushing it out or letting it dry up, to move water to farm mandarins that produce $400 a bin.”

So why not let them work out their future in a water market?

Here are my usual reasons that we are all bored with:
1. The drought we are in now likely represents the coming climate. These guys have no water to sell if they want to do any farming at all. If they do sell, what are they then? Re-entry into farming is difficult. They become notational farmers who have other careers but get a small side income from the little water they sell every year?

2. I want them to farm because I like the small farms on the east side of the Valley. So maybe I am happy because they could buy water in a market. First, from whom? Second, I would rather they just get water for the cost of conveyance because I want them to have secure resilient farms. Third, I don’t want them to have high water costs that force them to grow only high value lemons. I want them to grow a variety of citrus, including Valencias and navels.

The new reason farmers shouldn’t make individual decisions about buying and selling water  is that individual farms are on the wrong scale for cheaply moving water:

3. We can’t get a good sense of the proportions in the article.  But let’s look at the farm that they gave the numbers for.  Everett has kept 20% of in acreage in service.   Those 15 acres must now support 75 acres worth of operations and maintenance costs for the infrastructure that delivers water to his farm; district O&M costs on each acre just became four times as expensive. On every farm, the acreage left in production will have to pay for all the costs of farmgate delivery.

For the sake of this argument, let’s say that this drought portends the coming climate and that irrigated acreage will decrease 25%.

Imagine the poor district general manager looking at his district map, with dry quarter-sections on every separate parcel.  (Grant that good rational farmers have all made smart decisions at the farm level.)  The district manager wishes that he too could make the rational decision.  If he’s going to lose a quarter of farmed district acreage, why couldn’t it be the south-east lateral?  That thing is due for a new pump, always did cost more than the gravity fed ones, the radical environmentalists are talking about a kit fox sighting out that way, and the retiring ditchtender was the only one who could nurse it through a storm anyway.

At the district level, laterals are not all the same.  They cost different amounts to maintain and operate.  Abandoning the low value ones first is the best way to keep a district solvent.  Keeping the entire infrastructure to service much less irrigated acreage will make O&M that much more expensive per acre.  Optimizing that is a decision that (smart, rational) individual farmers cannot make, because it involves more than the property they control.

The same concept scales up.  If a great deal of acreage is going to go out of production (as I predict) the decisions about what to consolidate, what infrastructure has the most value, what acreage could serve other purposes like power generation or re-naturalization, should be made at the project level.  Even in a market, even with perfect information, even with economically rational decision-making, individual farmers responding on their own farms are at the wrong scale to make those decisions.  Lots of tiny, scattered, widely distributed retired acreage will become a burden.

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Couple quick notes:

I don’t mean to be only arguing for the new water rights system I proposed.  I’m not even that attached to my suggestion.  I would love to argue pros and cons with someone else’s proposed water rights system and be converted to support a different concept.  (No, not stupid markets based on the current water rights system.)  But so far I haven’t seen anyone else put one on the table.  Come on, brilliant writers.  No more pieces showing how our janky system came to be and why it isn’t working.  Tell us what the good new system should be.

***

I am going on an unplugged vacation.  No posts until September.  All is well.  I do not expect to disappear indefinitely this time.  See you when I get back.  Have a wonderful month.

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What comes next?

This week we get a lengthy article on the problems of our water rights system and an op-ed pointing out that the Reasonable Use Doctrine is just sitting there, waiting for the State Board to ask it to come out and play.  I thought Wilson’s op-ed on the Reasonable Use Doctrine was about as strong as a mainstream participant can be while remaining mainstream.   He proposes that the State Board could decide that it isn’t reasonable to overdraft groundwater with no plans to replenish it.  I’ve suggested that it isn’t reasonable to plant permanent crops without an assured water supply for them.  He says there is real strength in the Reasonable Use Doctrine that the State Board could use to help manage water, instead of trying to work through the curtailments process of our water rights system or adjudication.

My main objection1 to using the Reasonable Use Doctrine the way Wilson proposes2 is that it could be a bridge, something that keeps our current water rights system in place but makes it work just enough to keep.  One of my arguments for overhauling the water rights system entirely is that we could give much better water rights to the water uses we want to support.

I propose that a much smaller agricultural sector (4.5 million acres in dry years, 6.5 million acres in wet years) get better water rights than they have now.  Not necessarily larger water rights.  Crops need about 3.5af/acre year to finish a crop, so that’s what they should get.  If we want resilient sustainable agriculture, we should give it the water it needs to grow food, flush salts and protect against frost.  There is no virtue in giving not-quite-enough water to finish the crop and protect the soil.  That amount, 3.5af/acre, might be more than some parcels have now, so if those parcels are within the lucky boundary, those rightsholders might get a bit more water.  But the size of the allotment is only part of a water right.  We could design other features of a water right to be better than they have now.

Now, water rights have a “use it or lose it’ feature that requires continuous use.  We could design new rights that don’t have that requirement. An ag right to 3.5af could always adhere to a parcel (within the chosen 4.5 – 6.5 million acres), such that it waits quietly when that parcel isn’t in production and can be reactivated just by putting the land back into production.  No “lose it” potential at all.  We could have a cleaner system for curtailing water rights in dry years, a system that gives water rights holders more certainty earlier in the year that they will get the full amount or nothing. Now water rights have a source, a season and a means of diversion.  If we want 4.5 – 6.5 million acres of farmed land, maybe we want ag water rights with more flexibility.  Maybe improved water rights would allow farmers to get their 3.5af/acre from whatever source is available, at any point in the year, by any means.  This would help with the problem that current water rights have a diversion season of late spring and summer, but in the new warmer climate, water is passing through earlier in spring.

The concept of having a water headright for each citizen might also be a better water right for cities.  Right now cities have rights to fixed supplies.  If their water right naturally grew with their population, it would avoid one of the problems that DroughtMath keeps pointing out. It is true that creating better kinds of water rights doesn’t create water to go with them. But apportioning water rights to less water overall and creating more flexible rights could give local agencies more reliability than they have now.

I see the Farm Bureau objecting to the possibility of water rights reform. But the winners of water rights reform could be better off under a new system.  A smaller ag sector might have more water, water reliability and flexibility, and State support. If this drought continues, we have the opportunity to choose what we want to support through climate change and design rights that do that. We should do that rather than try to patch together our current system enough to get by until it rains.

Continue reading

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Stray thoughts on water markets.

I am delighted for this project in China, creating seven pilot water markets.  I hope we research them very carefully all along.

***

It is worth remembering that part of the motivation of the Australian water market was to drive farmers out of farming.  Or at least to make them hate leaving farming less (comforted by the money from their water right).  It worked, too.  Irrigated acreage in the Murray-Darling Basin dropped by half in their drought, and is still only back up to two-thirds the pre-drought extent.  I don’t know how comforted they felt.

***

I am starting to think that many of the people who advocate water markets are on autopilot, reacting to the 90’s when farm groups felt all-powerful and there was never going to be any possibility of reforming water rights.  It isn’t that they loved markets so much, but it was the sole hope of getting some water out of big boys in ag for cities.  If the big boys in ag made a killing selling cities water, well, that was a shame but it was the only possible way to move the water.  That dynamic doesn’t feel as strong any more.  Cities aren’t as urgent about getting more; they’ll look to their own sources (wastewater, greywater, desal) first to avoid the hassle.  Or we aren’t looking to move chunks of water around so much as facing the possibility of having much less water.  There’s much less water, but other mechanisms besides markets for leaving some instream (like the ESA).  Or the drought is raising questions of reforming the water rights system directly, rather than leaving them in place and moving water by markets.

Water market advocates!  If you haven’t revisited your reasons for thinking of markets as good policy for a few years, now would be a good time to double check them.  A water market may no longer be your best policy option.

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How so, Lester Snow?

At Water Deeply, Lester Snow writes:

Nonetheless, California must create a real and transparent water market that enables transfers between willing sellers and buyers. This is absolutely essential to the state achieving the necessary resilience to withstand long periods of drought.

This is assertion and nothing more.  Here is a way the state can achieve the necessary resilience to withstand long periods of drought with no market.

We could assign three kinds of water rights: instream flows, a headright for every person and a farmed acreage right.

There could be three levels for dry, average and wet years.  Each person could get 40 gppd in dry years and 60 gppd in wet years.  We could designate a core 4.5 million acres to get 3.5af/year in dry years and extend that to 6.5 million acres that get 3.5af/year in wet years.  If there is water available after demands for instream flows, urban headrights, and irrigated acreage are met, it could be auctioned.

On May 15th, we have Snowpack Day! and figure out what year we are in.  We ban permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels.  Once groundwater levels stabilize, permanent crops can be planted again.  In all years, we give support/money/tax credits to farmers that grow a variety of crops, mentor new farmers, market crops nearby before marketing them to further locales.

This is flexible and resilient.  It adapts year-by-year.  It provides for basic needs of Californians.  It might generate money in wet years.  It doesn’t create false expectations of water that get capitalized into land costs.

Contrast that with what we are seeing now, in a janky-ass broke-down water rights system with some water marketing overlaid.  We see a brittle system of overinvestment in tree nuts, made possible by unsustainable emergency purchases of very expensive water.  We see land boom-and-bust cycles, and a crash coming soon.  We see farmers taking on unmanageable costs to keep farming. We see the already wealthy becoming much wealthy and the already poor living even harder.  The little water market that exists (because moving water is very difficult) only amplifies the brittle traits.

The solution isn’t EVEN MOAR MARKET.  If resilience is the goal, the solution is to design a system that builds resilience with the resources we will have.

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