The war and death rhetoric is a real problem.

Mr. Watkins, president of the San Joaquin Valley Farm Bureau, has written an op-ed titled Agriculture: Fight or Die.  Those are not actually the choices.  The choices for members of the San Joaquin Valley farm bureau include suing, retiring, moving their farms, drilling expensive wells, possibly getting government grants or collecting from insurance policies.  But they are not water “warriors” who kill people over water.  Nor do they enter battle over water with the risk of dying from weaponry.  If legal remedies do not supply water to them, they will only die if they take their own lives.  Otherwise, they may retire.  They may not have a valuable farm to leave to their descendants.  Neither of the two choices framed in the title are the actual choices that farmers face.

I wrote about this in the last drought, too.  This rhetoric narrows people’s perceived choices, keeps their limbic system activated and postpones mutual solutions.  Responsible reporters and editors should stop using it.

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Unconnected drought musings

People are obsessed with warm-up water.  Water professionals with decades of experience will spend fifteen minutes of limited meeting time discussing their personal warm-up water strategies.  If you mention that you work in water, laypeople will talk incessantly about their warm-up water and their bucket and getting a tankless system but what about one of them pumps you can put on your faucet?  I believe that if Felicia Marcus commissioned three new dams, brought dual plumbing to every house in this state, reformed water rights and carried every last salmon to the sea in her arms, people would believe she had really handled the drought on the day she addressed warm-up water.

I do appreciate that people will go to the trouble to carry warm-up water to their roses during a dry year.  But I believe the practice is closer to prayer or ritual than a solution.  If warm-up water calls for solution, it should be part of the building code and permanently fixed by distributed infrastructure.  When human beings are physically carrying water, we have lost our hold on modernity.

***

I had a nightmare over the weekend that we would have two wet years and then four more dry years.  Sometimes I think I am one of a handful of people who remember the 2006-2009 drought, which was clearly wiped from public memory by two wet years.  What if we keep getting to this point, on the brink of real change, every six years?  Am I doomed to keep watching the same part of the cycle and keep saying the same things as we reach the same point every six years?

(Yes, of course I want a wet year for the creatures and people who really are hurting in this drought.  But spare a thought for my pain, friends.)

***

That said, I think we have made some real progress in this drought.  We have nearly beat to death the stupid inane pointless debate over whether ag uses “40% or 80%”.  If you are talking developed water, 80%.  If you are talking all water that we track, 40%.  I never see reporters mis-use that any more, so that’s real good progress.

Maybe the next step for this drought is to get people to understand that curtailing water use in accordance with appropriative rights is not a threat to the water right.  That’s using the water right for what it is for!  Curtailing water based on seniority is a threat to this year’s use of water, but the water right is still nestled lovingly in the arms of the rightholder, safe and secure, respected by the State Board.  My calling for water rights to be designed afresh by an initiative is a threat to the water right.

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Go big or go home.

My guess is that it would take two more dry years for California to get serious about revising the water rights system.  (Especially with the possibility of getting a water rights reform initiative on the presidential ballot in November 2016.)  I think people get serious about drought in year six.  In year four, apparently, we tentatively bring up the topic.

Speaking at the Western Governors’ Association Drought Forum in Incline Village, Nev., earlier this week, the California’s top natural resources official said that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has publicly suggested that the system of water rights might need to be re-evaluated if the drought continues. Notably, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said, there wasn’t a major political backlash when the governor made those comments.

“For the first time the public is sort of like, ‘This is not making sense — rice farmers are flooding because they have the most senior water rights, and we’ve got cities on the cusp of running out of water – we need to look at this,'” Laird said.

“I still think it’s thermonuclear, but for the first time it’s been moved to the table,” he said.

So far I’ve only seen mentions of the concept.  I haven’t seen anyone but me put forth an actual proposal.  People say vague shit like “you know, what Australia did.”  But here I am with this blog and no sense.  My recent insight was that water rights reform should be part of a package so big that water rights reform is the least of the boldness.  I call this package “California’s Resilient Agriculture” initiative.

California’s Resilient Agriculture:

Water rights reform, such that

  • every person in the state gets a headright of 40gppd administered by cities or urban district, and maybe cities can buy additional water from the state for their other uses;
  • we’ve got some nice instream flows; and
  • six million acres of land are kept in agriculture. The acres that should be kept in farming get a farming right of 3.5acrefeet/acre (that reverts if that land isn’t farmed that year, but returns if the land is put back into ag production). Give four million acres top priority; those get water even in dry years. Another million acres gets medium priority; those get farmed in normal years. The last million acres gets farmed in wet years.  Have residency requirements for the agricultural water rights.  If the land gets converted to urban use, it loses the farming water right.

A marijuana-growing licensing program modeled on the tobacco growing program that supported small eastern farms.

Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to solar power production.

Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to state parks or groundwater recharge basins.

Putting a couple new Cal State colleges at high speed rail stops.

Giving everyone who lived through this drought in a farming zip code free scholarships to one of the California public universities, or their descendants for the next twenty-five years.

Giving lots more support to the California ag extension program.  Way bigger.

Supporting the nascent agricultural technology center developing in Fresno.

Creating supports for people entering ag (tax credits for farmers who mentor new ag entrants, special mortgages for farms owned by new farmers, and maybe a few years of financial support for new farmers).

Probably something nice for the mountain counties, because boy do they object when the headwaters are neglected.

If water rights reform is only a take-away, it might still pass on the strength of urban votes.  Urban users aren’t going to put up with short showers indefinitely when there is water out there.  But the interior valleys have been neglected for decades and have a strong moral claim to basically as much money as we can throw at them.  I am serious about having (much smaller) resilient agriculture and food security for Californians.  If resilient agriculture were the goal, the outlines of reform and bundling start to become clear.

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Let us never refer to this post.

I am opposed to metaphors and analogies in debate.  They distract from clean rigorous thinking; they drag the discussion into tangents that waste time.  That said, I’ve thought of two, on different topics.  I will put them both in this post to keep my shame isolated.  Kind readers will discreetly never mention them again.

In today’s discussion between Mr. Wenger and Dr. Gleick about water rights, Mr. Wenger says:

There are a lot of people right now who want to tell farmers what crops to grow (or not to grow), what sorts of irrigation systems to use, etc., and to change a water rights system on which many farmers have built their livelihoods. Those folks still get a paycheck, whether their theories prove right or wrong in the end. I would like to see them be more accountable somehow — or at least acknowledge the very real consequences of their theories for the people who have to live with them.

Hey!  That’s me!  (Although I wouldn’t get involved in selection of irrigation system, which I think is lateral, field and crop specific.)  Of course I will continue to dodge accountability with my pseudonymous blog, but I will absolutely acknowledge the very real consequences of my prescriptions.  I say plainly that people’s ways of life are at stake.  I have said so for years.  My message here has been that as a rich state, we should manage the transition and use money to cushion the change for the people who will suffer.If thIf there were only 500 acres of agriculture left in the entire state, then agriculture would have taken a hit proportional to the one that fish populations in the Delta have takenere were only 500 acres of agriculture left in the entire state, then agriculture would have taken a hit proportional to the one that fish populations in the Delta have taken.

Shameful metaphor 1:
I feel like I have been shouting at farmers to get out of their burning house and in return, farmers don’t like my blog because I keep pointing out that their house is burning.

***

I feel pique when I see ag advocates and House Republicans call for “flexibility” in managing water for endangered smelt.  I don’t know how many smelt there once were; I have heard there were millions.  Let’s say there were 9.5 million of them once.  The last smelt trawl found six (6) of them.  That’s a survey, perhaps it sampled from a current population of hundreds in the entire Delta.  Let’s say, 500 of them.

Imagine that, in all of California, there were exactly 500 acres of farmland left and when those were gone, agriculture would never return to the state.  If there were only 500 acres of agriculture left in the entire state, then agriculture would have taken a hit proportional to the one that fish populations in the Delta have taken.  If you cared about agriculture, you might not feel very “flexible” about protecting the remaining 500 acres.  If that comes to pass, I will support protections for that last 500 acres of ag that are as absolute as the Endangered Species Act provides to species that are nearly gone.

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Think what I could do with “direction” and “creativity”!

I’ve been seeing the  word ‘flexible’ come up from agricultural advocates.  Here is Cannon Michael’s June 2nd testimony to Congress:

The most helpful thing that Congress can do for drought-stricken states is to encourage, demand and mandate, where necessary, creativity and flexibility on the part of federal water management and regulatory agencies.

Here is Representative Valadao announcing the legislation he is introducing:

Additionally, Rep. Valadao’s legislation will provide federal regulators with direction and flexibility…

Flexibility is code for “not enforcing the Endangered Species Act” or disregarding environmental requirements when building new storage.  Somehow, from agriculture advocates, flexibility only ever applies to the environment.  In practice, California agriculture has been moving away from flexibility as they change from annual crops to permanent crops.  They are not so keen on being flexible themselves.  We could have a genuinely flexible agricultural system, if that’s what we wanted.  If flexibility were the top priority for California agriculture, we could:

  • Have a flexible water rights system of 4M acres of top priority ag that gets water in dry years, another 1M acres that gets water in average years and another 1M acres that gets water in wet years. That would be quick and responsive to hydrology.
  • We could auction off the rights to grow 500,000 acres of trees and vines, and maintain the rest in annual crops.
  • We could require irrigation district delivery to be on-demand, and modernize all rotation-based delivery systems.
  • We could require all farms to keep a substantial cash reserve, so they do not need any individual year’s profit and can fallow in any year without financial fear. That would make them flexible.  Or we could have a government program to support growers in years they must fallow.
  • We could put more money into maintaining and distributing a wider variety of seed stocks, so that more experimental crops can be grown.  We could pay growers to “try something new” that they might be able to draw on later, if flexibility is required.
  • We could have easements on farmlands so that they can be “flexibly” turned into bypasses or groundwater recharge basins in flood years.

Flexibility is nice, but it has broader applicability than ‘breaking the ESA’.  As rhetoric, it seems inarguable; who could argue for rigidity?  But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  Flexibility might not feel as wonderful when applied to one’s own cause.

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Some straight talk for Mr. Del Bosque

I am among the almond blamers, and I am happy to explain my reasons for pointing at almonds (again). As always, I find that greater precision in speech would make additional explanations nearly unnecessary. Mr. Del Bosque says:

A smart farmer is going to pick the crops the market wants. And every time someone buys food in the store, they’re telling us what we should be planting.”

What consumers are saying is: almonds. Plant almonds.

That isn’t exactly the dynamic. What is happening is that consumers on the other side of the world are saying “we’ll eat a relatively infinite number of almonds” and growers here are still, in this drought, planting almond acreage with no plans of slowing. Urban Californians feel the disconnect between being told they should conserve at home when almond growers are expanding their water demand. Savvy urban Californians may object to the subsidence caused by pumping to protect permanent crops or to our salmon being cooked in our rivers. But they are not personally hypocrites for demanding 1.2M acres of almonds and also resenting the water those trees use. Other people are demanding those almonds and Californians are noticing that 1.2M acres of almonds has pushed our water system too far.

The author “suggested that almond growers are partly to blame. They have lost control of their own narrative.” The problem isn’t the narrative. The problem is the actual facts. 1.2M acres of almonds times 4af/a means 4.8maf per year and even in California, that is a lot of water. That’s more than 10% of our developed supply. Groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley this year could be about that much. It is about half as much as all the cities in the state use together. One single (arguably frivolous – they are just a pleasant snack) use of that much water makes a neat target.

Again:

Brown’s questions, said Del Bosque, were pointed.

“The governor said, ‘Well, why are they planting all these almond trees?’

“I said, ‘Governor, because there is such a demand for almonds.’ That’s it. Plain and simple.”

Right. But this isn’t Californian demand. Californians know, on some level, that they are paying environmental costs of growing 900,000 more acres of almonds than we eat so that people on the other side of the world can have cheaper snacks.

Last:

Picking on almond farmers might be all the rage, but it will do nothing to solve the state’s water shortage.

Pansy-ass measures, like my suggestion for a moratorium on new plantings, wouldn’t solve the state’s water shortage. But if no almonds were watered next year, it genuinely would mean an end to the overdraft of San Joaquin Valley groundwater. The state’s almond plantings use an entire Shasta Dam’s worth of water every year. Taunting almond farmers won’t do much, but actually putting an end to exporting almonds would free up a huge block of real water.

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They are breaking public property.

All this pumping depletes ancient aquifers deep underground, causing the earth to compact and sink. One side effect of this environmental change is that long, heavy pieces of infrastructure like roads and bridges are sinking as well and suffering damage as the earth buckles around it.

Reveal reported that two bridges in Fresno County “have sunk so much that they are nearly underwater and will cost millions to rebuild”.

If a group of farmers pointed a tractor at a bridge abutment, started it running and let the foreseeable collision break the bridge, they would be vandals and society would respond with criminal charges.

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