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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Like an old timey blogfight.

Dr. Lund objects to complaints like mine about exporting water in the form of almonds. He says ‘no no, we also import a lot of water in other forms.’ I have two responses to this. First: I don’t give a shit about other places. If they want to wreck their natural resources to sell feed to animals in California, I can’t bring myself to care.

Second, I don’t agree with the underlying assumptions about virtual water and markets. I do not believe that we are working with fungible materials.

When water leaves Shasta Dam, it is public resource that can do things like be a sparkly river and host leaping fish. I am a public in California, and I have one-thirty-nine millionth of an interest in that. When that water gets pulled away to water almonds in Chico, it is converted from a substance that could be a river to dollars for an almond grower. Applying that water to almonds stripped away my interest in the resource; I cannot claim any of that money. My 1/39M of an interest has been changed to something I have no claim on when it is almond dollars.

BUT! say the market folks. You have a different money because of the awesomeness of California agriculture. Because of the awesomeness of California agriculture, instead of paying 15-20% of your income on food, you only pay 5-10% of your income on food. WONDERFUL! I exclaim. I would like to turn that difference, which is now cash in my hand, into a river for fish. I cannot. That money is not the same as water in the river and cannot be converted back. A good thing for me (cheaper food) is not a replacement for what I lost (a tiny piece of a right to a river environment).

These waters are not fungible. Water in the Sacramento River is not fungible with water from wherever else the footprint applies. Those waters have different properties. All of the water in the Oglalla cannot provide a river for me between Shasta and Sacramento. So I do resent that luxury crops export millions of acre-feet of Californian water away. The dollars they bring back do not do what the water would have done. I have experienced a loss that is not comforted by indirect monies to me.


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This is a nice clear piece on system re-op. Whenever you hear someone say ‘system re-op’, this is basically what they mean. After you read that, come back to talk about water modeling.

Andrew Sullivan thought Dr. Lund’s analysis of a dry climate hydrology stood out of the longer article on California water.

Even with the worst conceivable climate change, the kind of global warming that brings 70-year droughts to California, the state might do okay.
That seems counterintuitive, but that’s what Jay Lund, who heads the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, loves about his model of the state water system, CALVIN. He and his colleagues ran a range of climate scenarios through CALVIN, asking for a look at what very dry, very warm scenarios might do to the state’s water system out to the year 2100. The results were shocking.

Basically, in CALVIN’s rendering of the future, the state’s economy is fine. “It was amazing how little the damage was to the state’s economy,” Lund said. …

Agriculture does not fare quite as well, but the state’s agricultural production only falls 6 percent. That’s despite increasing urbanization of agricultural land and, in the driest scenario, a 40 percent reduction in water deliveries to the Central Valley. “The farmers are all smart people and they’ll cut back the least profitable stuff,” Lund said. They’ll also fallow land, according to CALVIN—roughly 15 percent of the irrigated parcels currently farmed today, or 1.35 million acres.

I am sure that’s what CALVIN said, but you have to understand what CALVIN does to interpret it. (Dr. Lund, I know you stop by. Apologies if I don’t get this right.) CALVIN is an optimization model; when it does a run, it is hunting for the best possible outcome it can get by following the rules of its reservoirs and canals and fields and cities. Even more important, CALVIN knows the entire what, ninety? years of its hydrology all at once. It has perfect foresight. So basically, when it starts optimizing, it can look forward in 2012, see that the next two years (2013, 2014) are dry, and stash all the water it can. It also doesn’t have to hedge on whether to empty reservoirs before a flood; it knows whether a flood is coming. If there are no floods coming, it doesn’t have to empty reservoirs and can hold tight to stored water. When you know your hydrologic future, you can do a lot to store or release water smoothly.

I am not telling you anything shocking about CALVIN; all the modelers know this. But the best outcomes out of CALVIN include something we don’t have, which is specific, detailed knowledge about the hydrology in the future. When I see a surprisingly good outcome from CALVIN, I generally take that as the most optimistic case. Sure, we could do that well if we are perfect optimizers who know the future. Then I mentally adjust for being not-perfect optimizers who don’t know the future and figure our real life results will be somewhat worse.


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They can only vote against you once each.

From Circle of Blue:

Because the state has such variety in its aquifers and management agencies, local control is important, said Dennis O’Connor, the principal consultant to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water and the Senate’s point man for groundwater policy. But the governor’s office is floundering on the details.

“I don’t think they know what they want to do,” O’Connor told Circle of Blue on Wednesday, having just come from a meeting with the governor’s staff. “I don’t think they can articulate what they want to see manifested in a new groundwater policy.”

The governor’s 2014-15 budget proposal does include $US 11.9 million for groundwater, money that will be used to hire enforcement staff, monitor aquifer levels, and assess pollution in aquifers used for drinking water.

The reason they cannot articulate what they want to see is that everything that would work is taboo. It is so taboo, in fact, that I would be surprised if it even gets brought up and rejected. The things they will say aloud, even in the privacy of the executive suite, are either already in process (monitor levels) or so trivial that the drought immediately exposes the suggestion as ridiculous.

Here is what the governor’s office could do if it wanted to address groundwater with the seriousness that matches the drought, and the extent of overdraft and subsidence. They declare groundwater to be a resource that belongs to the state. They figure out safe yield from the basins in the San Joaquin Valley. They might assign that to overlying users by some rule (weighted by acreage ownership) or they might auction it off (using the proceeds to do something useful). They accept that irrigated acreage will go down as a result, since growers have been mining groundwater for decades to expand irrigated acreage beyond what precip and safe yield can provide.

This isn’t conceptually hard or complicated. It exists in the world already. It exists in some groundwater basins in California already. The governor’s office won’t propose the thing that would work because it is politically taboo, not because it is beyond us to fix this problem. So they won’t say (or maybe even think) the thing that would work and they’ve already said the other banal benign things. They’re left with nothing, which shows through to observers.

You know, Governor Brown. They already hate you for the high speed train. You aren’t getting them back. Why not use the drought to get ‘er done? Save the San Joaquin Valley aquifers by fiat emergency powers; their grandchildren will thank you.

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