Why do their trees hold us hostage?

I’ve seen this story a few places in the last couple days. It has a catchy hook: water flowing back uphill! I understand it as a story about withdrawing groundwater from the Kern Water Bank in the southern Valley and pumping it back up the California Aqueduct (against a slight rise) to the middle western Valley.

My impressions:

    • It is more conceivable that water should flow back uphill than that a part of the Valley that has no water at all in drought years (that will become increasingly common) be zoned “not for permanent crops”. There is no such zoning today, but reversing gravity at the cost of energy and engineering scramble is considered do-able, but requiring that lands that are entirely dependant on the State Water Project, which cannot meet demand in a drought, not be planted with permanent crops is completely taboo.
    • Hey! This water is for tree nuts owned by Paramount Farms (the Resnicks). And they are in Dudley Ridge Water District. Dudley Ridge! The wholly unaccountable water district! The district with no residents, a few corporations who own the whole place and make up the Board of Directors, and the consultant engineer for a district manager. We haven’t talked about them since the last drought, when Sandridge sold away their water rights and pocketed the money. I thought that was the lead rat abandoning the ship, but apparently almond prices are so high that Paramount Farms is trying to hold on.
    • This effort is to run 30,000 AF of water 30 miles uphill for $6 or 7M, paid by the growers. Fine. Normally, I’d say that would water 10,000 acres of almonds for the year, but if they’re just applying a bare, tree-saving minimum and not trying to bring in a crop, perhaps it’ll stretch to 20,000 acres of almonds. As a reminder, there are 840,000 acres of almonds in the state. This kind of effort is for 2% of the almonds in the state.
    • The part of that story that bothers me most is this quote:

      If it doesn’t rain much next winter, the districts might seek to continue pumping the water backward in years to come, Melville said.
      “Ideally we would hope it’s a one-time thing,” he said, “but it would be worthwhile to have this as an insurance policy.”

If this is not a one-time thing, what the fuck are you doing planting trees there? We are all pretending that because this is a one-year, extreme drought and trees are so capital intensive, it is understandable to go to any length to keep trees alive for this year. If there is the likely prospect that our new climate includes more intense and frequent droughts, that land cannot sustain trees. We cannot normalize overdrafting groundwater, using public infrastructure for wholly private profits and dropping environmental protections if this is going to happen frequently. It may be appropriate to assume that land in Dudley Ridge can field row crops in wet years or even normal years. But if we actually believe that climate change is real, those trees will not see out their thirty years. They shouldn’t be there.



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I drove up the 5 on Sunday.

I knew that almond acreage had expanded since the 2006-2009 drought. I knew that almond acreage went from 825,000 acres of almonds in 2010 to 940,000 acres in 2014. But it was still striking to see all those new trees. I thought some things.

a. I heard a completely unsubstantiated rumor that during the 2006-2009 drought, growers in Westlands deliberately didn’t plant acreage close to the 5 and even harrowed that soil so that it created more of a dust storm. I couldn’t support that rumor one bit, but I did muse that planting almonds all the way up to the freeway would make similar image management more difficult in this drought.

II. Westlands made a big fuss about all the acreage it fallowed in the 2006-2009 drought. This comparison of irrigated acreage was a big deal at the time.
2006 irrigated acreage, Westlands
Red is irrigated, 2006.
2009 irrigated acreage, Westlands
Blue is fallowed, 2009.

These new planting of almonds mean that some time in between 2010, the first wet year after the drought and 2012, our last wet year before this drought, the farmers in Westlands thought to themselves: Boy howdy, people sure are getting some nice prices on almonds. I want some of that so bad that I will invest nearly $1M/acre in capital in almonds, backed by my surety of getting water every single year for the next twenty to thirty years. Surely drought like the one that happened two years ago could never happen again, despite widespread predictions that climate change will bring about a more variable climate. Why, what could predictions mean to me, here in our second wet year in a row since a three year drought that caused substantial fallowing in this exact location?
IMG_8273 (I had to squint, but I think those might have been pistachios. Almonds in the background, of course.)

3. Here is an article about rising food prices due to drought.

American consumers are already feeling the pinch of rising food prices, and they will likely experience more—courtesy of California’s devastating drought.
“I would expect a 28 percent increase for avocados and 34 percent for lettuce,” said Timothy Richards, a professor of agribusiness at Arizona State University who conducted research released this week on probable crop price increases stemming from the ongoing drought.
In a phone call with CNBC.com, Richards added that the price increases would also include foods including berries, broccoli, grapes, melons, tomatoes, peppers and packaged salads. The higher rises should be felt in the next two to three months, he said.

Those prices are rising because growers are fallowing their row crops to protect their trees. I understand that in any single year of drought, given that they have invested so much in their orchards, they must do that. But, since growing row crops for American consumption only happens on perhaps a third to forty percent of Californian irrigated acreage, there is no need for this. If it were the first priority of Californian growers to hold American vegetable prices steady, they could grow all the produce they ever do, even in this drought. These increased food prices are a result of Californian growers choosing to gamble for high nut profits from China.

People who believe in markets believe this is fine. Allowing Californian farmers to trade Californian rivers, fish and aquifers and American produce prices for higher monetary profits is generally thought of as underpinning a strong agricultural economy, which is thought of as inherently good. Fine. If that is the thinking, then farmers and growers are behaving like reasonable market actors. But they cannot have it both ways. They cannot be hardheaded market actors and also our noble sources of food that should be supported by drought emergency measures. They cannot be our food producing buddies that we take care of during droughts AND people who are intentionally shafting us by fallowing produce acres so they can maximize almond profits in a couple more years (which must always be wet years). If they are hardheaded market maximizers, let them fall from their gambling on climate reliability and their political strength.

• Since when are we a colony of China? We wreck our natural resources and increase food prices to our own people to keep China stocked in tree nuts? Really? I get that lots of Africa is being bought by China and now some of the Arctic. But I have a real hard time accepting that Chinese tree nut demand and grower greed is reason enough to harden water demand such that we must sacrifice our own environment in dry times. (I especially resent grower greed for tree nut profits because everything in ag is fetching great prices as climate change knocks other growing regions down as well. That’s why ag land prices are soaring.)(I don’t mean to be jingoistic about China. I am indifferent about to whom we ship nuts. But there is a meme that the growing Chinese middle class will create a practically infinite demand for tree nuts, such that oversaturation and price collapse won’t happen. This justifies ever more trees.)

{I will likely come back to this for more editing and formatting. Just so you know.]


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The only stronger law is that you must say “lifeblood” when you discuss CA water.

Dude. These are as true as any words ever written:

It’s often said that California is the only state that doesn’t regulate groundwater, but that’s not exactly true. In California, one rule always applies. Though unwritten, it exists in the form of dogma more powerful than words graven in stone: Any official, at any level, whenever speaking of groundwater, must assert emphatically that local control is the best of all possible alternatives.

Does one have to be a tenured professor, primarily in another field, to call this out? It is so true, despite the abundant evidence that local control has well and truly fucked up groundwater management in many places. In other places, local control has done a nice job. But local control of itself is no guarantee of a good outcome. Now, I am a bureaucrat deep in the state and effectively haven’t been out in the field in a decade or so. It is possible that with the perspective of distance, I would understand that state-level control is hamhanded and that in fact, we do create nonsensical regulations like “every groundwater basin must pump no more than 57.683AF/year” regardless of the unique regional character of each precious snowflake basin. Maybe. Maybe state regulation is the worst of all possible worlds, such that a fervent commitment to local control in every utterance is the only possible way to ward it off.

But from here, local control often appears to be strongly preoccupied with short-term self-interest, with local politicians too closely embedded with their neighbors to create structures that will be beneficial in the longer term but painful at first. Local control seems too oriented to maximum growth. It may have deep local knowledge, but not the staff capacity to create complex governance structures. Local control has some inherent drawbacks, especially for common good problems. I hear local control supported at the time, but it never comes with a precise explanation WHY it is the best possible alternative, just like I never hear WHY regional differences mean that the state can’t possibly issue relevant regulations.


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Put some pants on, snowflake.

From Paul Wenger’s editorial at the California Farm Bureau Federation:

Local management makes sense in California for the same reason statewide regulation doesn’t: When it comes to groundwater, California isn’t one state—it’s more like 40 states. We have many types of aquifers, each unique and dependent on different conditions—so much so that a one-size-fits-all approach will result in disaster.

I heard this a lot when advocates were explaining to me why agricultural water management plans were pointless. The regions were too unique and every district was special and different and we couldn’t possibly know from a state level what could work. One-size-fits-all would doom us all.

I was too young and naive to understand then that I was being trampled by a metaphor, and that “one-size-fits-all” was a phrase used to cut off discussion. I remember sitting in public meetings, composing an impassioned speech about how agricultural water management plans were not “one-size-fits-all”, but rather pants. You can wear any pants that fit, cargo pants with pockets, linen pants for the heat, ripped jeans for clubbing. Choose the pants that fit, but you must wear them or your ass is hanging out. Now I wouldn’t give that speech because I don’t believe that conversations should take place in metaphor. People trying to use metaphors should instead be coaxed into saying exactly what they mean and the conversation should go from there.

At any rate, I’ve heard ag representatives rail against “one-size-fits-all” for twenty years now. It is true that groundwater basins have unique characteristics. But if the statewide regulation is monitor groundwater levels, measure what you pump, develop conjunctive use, pay for externalities and only take safe yield, that size fits you just fine. There is nothing so precious and unique about your groundwater basin that the same practices that restore other basins won’t restore yours too.


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They aren’t only hurting themselves by overdrafting groundwater.

You know what I never see in discussions of groundwater overdraft and subsidence? I never see any discussion about how growers are going to pay back the people of California for the infrastructure that is damaged by their overpumping. Subsidence caused by groundwater overdraft is breaking public roads, canals, runways, overpasses and buildings. Farmers who overdraft an aquifer know this problem exists and do it anyway. If they can afford to sink half million dollar wells, they can afford to pay for the public infrastructure they are knowingly breaking.

Who else should pay? Taxpayers as a whole, out of general funds? CalTrans, out of gas taxes? The local county? This is deliberately caused damage, in full knowledge of the mechanism by which growers are breaking our collective stuff, with plenty of warning. Any discussion of groundwater management should include paying for this damage. We could assess by overlying acreage, for example. Or based on pump electricity use. But the costs of the self-serving behavior of this small, identifiable group shouldn’t fall on the public at large.


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In the comments, Francis says:


You’re not only picking a fight with every single non-environmental user of California water (including yourself), you’re also challenging the very idea of the appropriation to a beneficial use (which pre-dates California’s statehood).

Now, maybe you’re right and environmental flows under the public trust doctrine should be given such high priority as to dramatically reduce water available for M&I and ag. But I think your argument would have a little more weight if you recognized the massive shift in California law, policy and history that you’re advocating for.

I recognize the massive shift in California law, policy and history that I’m advocating for, although given my druthers, I wouldn’t be advocating based on a doctrine like the public trust.   Given my druthers, I wouldn’t be working in our current water rights system at all.  Appropriative rights are fundamentally stupid (lock in wealth and water use based on arrival times from two centuries ago?).  The only advantage they have is that they currently exist and include a prioritization method.  If I got to start from a clean slate, I’d do something like give every person a headright of 50gppd and prime soils 3AF/A-yr for farming.  If you don’t farm with it on that land, it reverts to a common pool.  If there’s leftover after environmental needs are met, the state can auction it for the short to medium term.  Given that I don’t have any respect for the current system, I don’t mind that what I argue challenges the very ideas that underpin it.

That said, my complaints about almonds in particular could be kludged into our current system.  A Constitutional amendment could declare that growing pleasant snacks that require a constant water supply for the rest of the world is simply not a reasonable use of water when our climate is becoming even more variable and our fish go extinct.  An approach from the “reasonable and beneficial” angle would fit the crazy system we have now but still solve this problem.


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Also, it isn’t for any one person to police what is a “serious” conversation about water.

From the same post on virtual water at the California Water Blog:

Talk of virtual water detracts from serious discussion of economic, environmental and hydrological objectives and processes important for real water and environmental systems to function. Virtual water discussions are all the more counterproductive coming in the midst of a very real and serious drought.

Conversations about the amount of water in almonds are especially important during very real and serious droughts. One of the strains of rhetoric that comes out during droughts is that farmers are especially deserving of water, generally for one or a combination of these reasons:

  1. Pathos and nostalgia about farming, with talk about generations on the same land and weathered faces on salt-of-the-earth type people.
  2. Farmers grow the food that feeds the nation.
  3. Farmers are especially dependent on water, and so droughts affect them disproportionately.

Once it is established that farmers are especially deserving, the follow-up is that because of some or all of these things, water should be directed to farmers even at the cost of the loss of fish species.

To the extent that “growing the food that feeds the nation” is an argument for prioritizing scarce water for farmers over endangered species, it is worth discussing what that means. If it means growing the lentils and rice that provides most of the daily sustenance for our people, then I could be persuaded. If it means growing a luxury snack for the remainder of the world, then it is no longer an argument that persuades me. Other people can decide where they stand, but first they need to know what is grown in the state and what happens to it.

During a real and serious drought, these arguments come to the fore and are substantially unchallenged in the press. They animate legislators’ political discussion as well. Giving the context to evaluate that rhetoric in real time is not counterproductive.


ADDED: April 2.  A couple links to examples of the rhetoric I referred to above.

From a farmer writing an op-ed in the SFChron:

When farmers “use” water, we are growing healthy, affordable, local food. It doesn’t make sense to criticize farmers for using water to grow our food …

From the Farm Water Coalition, in a press release about snow survey results:

Today’s announcement that California’s snowpack is a mere 32 percent of normal is continued bad news for farmers throughout California that grow the food consumers find at the store.

Note that when they are speaking amongst themselves, the conversation is about “key export markets”, primarily nuts.  Also, when they speak amongst themselves, the outlook, especially for nuts, isn’t that bad.


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