Maybe she’s in Nevada.

As this photographer struggles to convey the sheer immensity of removing one thousand acres of almond trees, her commenters make some helpful points.

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An article on local resistance to measuring individual wells. That resistance needs some counterweights. I can think of two. First, a per-acre assessment for the costs of subsidence due to overdraft. Any farmer who wants to demonstrate, based on pumping records, that his or her assessment should be lower is welcome to switch to an assessment based on metered pumping. Second, a moratorium on permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels. Putting either or both of those in place would change the incentives for growers considerably. Neither requires measuring pumping well-by-well, but you’d shortly have growers requesting well metering and groundwater monitoring.

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Couple of great water blogs that are new to me.

DroughtMath:
I am blown away by this new blog in Los Angeles, digging into UWMPs and water supply policy. Very strong sourcing, analysis and conclusions. Like me, the author loves big concrete. If he or she doesn’t already know of FOVICKS, let this link be my welcoming gift to the neighborhood.

The Valley Citizen:
I’ve linked it here before, but only recently gone back to read through the archives. I’ve gotten great leads from the regional round-up (and been grateful for a nice mention) and a lot of good local insight.

I am always grateful for blogs that produce content, don’t reflect a predictable advocate’s position and convey the specifics of their topic. These two are great.

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Turning the tables on almonds.

The 2014 California Almond Acreage Report tells of 50,000 new acres of almonds.  The projections are for more almonds acreage.

Fairmead, CA is one town of a few hundred people who lost their wells to the deep almond wells next door.

In Tulare County, rural homeowners are seeing their wells dry up after almonds go in.

In Madera Country, rural homeowners are seeing their wells dry up after almonds go in.

In Stanislaus County, almond groves are terrible neighbors.

Longtime farmers locals are asking Fresno County to impose a moratorium on new almond trees.

This economic model, in which powerful outsiders come in, displace the natives and destroy local natural resources (the aquifers) to provide cheap unprocessed goods to a foreign country is pure colonial extraction.  I don’t see how it is different from slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon to provide cheap beef or cutting hardwoods like teak out of tropical forests.  Mostly I am just stunned that my state is on the receiving end; I thought we were first world.  I guess anywhere can be exploited if they aren’t willing to protect their poor or their natural resource.

I have been trying to think of ways that the Valley governments can turn the tables on the hedge fund almonds.  Could Fairmead incorporate as a town, including the almond acreage, and take it by inverse condemnation?  They need some recharge lands and the hydrologic connectivity is well established.

What if Stanislaus County thought of Trinitas Partners as the sweetest, juiciest fly that ever stumbled into their web?  They should bleed Trinitas shamelessly.  Make them prove their neighborliness by providing the new headquarters for their new groundwater management agency and fund the first few years of study and monitoring wells.  Any charity drive in Oakdale should start with a phone call to Trinitas requesting the donation of the big raffle prize.  Then, Stanislaus County can start with the real charges.  All those Trinitas trucks take a toll on county roads; an assessment for re-paving should be based on truck weight and traffic.  There are dust containment costs that should be assessed to the largest acreages, and it would be real neighborly ifTrinitas would pay for a new asthma clinic and air quality monitoring station.

The proper attitude for Stanislaus County is that some slow, rich pockets just got snagged and everything that could possibly be billed to them should be.  When Trinitas goes under, it should at least leave some nice public buildings and newly re-paved roads behind.  Does anyone from Trinitas Partnership vote in Stanislaus County?  The Commissioners’ actual constituents hate Trinitas.  They’ll reward Commissioners who find ways to internalize the externalities caused by the new giant orchards.

Finally,  those orchards will one day be abandoned when pumping depths and energy costs get too high.  The time to impose clean-up costs is now.  Poor Central Valley counties, do you remember 2009, when all those foreclosed houses were abandoned and it was expensive to patrol them, keep mosquitos down, mow lawns?  Did you wish you had laws on the books to force banks to pay those costs?  Pass those now, for when mega-orchards go under (drip tape disposal in your landfills, irrigation pipe clean up, restoration requirements if it was not ag land before, well closure costs).  They won’t be watching now and you’d have a hook to go for the rich hedge fund if they suddenly decide to divest from almonds.

I don’t know why California is allowing big agri-business money to dispossess her people.  That seems more like Louisiana or Texas.  I hope a local government can turn the tables.

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I wrote this for you, State Board.

Feel free to use it anytime.  No worries about attribution.

We are announcing a moratorium on permanent crops in groundwater basins with declining groundwater levels until the drought ends.  As you know, we have been staunch defenders of the many valuable crops grown in California, even against the diseased hordes of filthy almond-blamers.  We would never pick and choose which crops farmers can plant.  We will be delighted to approve any orchard or vineyard in a groundwater basin that has stable groundwater levels.  However, permanent crops create a constant need for water for the next twenty years.  This drought has shown that when surface waters are not available, those who have planted trees and vines will pump groundwater from any depth at any cost.

Last year California passed a historic groundwater bill that set up a framework for local groundwater management.  This framework will take until 2030 to come to fruition, and given the importance of our groundwater, we cannot handicap the groundwater management efforts starting now with a new, additional twenty years of demand and damage to our aquifers.

It might need some minor wordsmithing, but it is all yours, State Board.  Whenever you want, ready for you.  Make sure you emphasize that it is on the grower to demonstrate that the groundwater basin is stable and can handle the new load before planting.  It isn’t up to neighbors or nascent local groundwater management agencies to prove that the new orchard destroyed their wells once it has already gone in.

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Mark Arax on Fresh Air.

Mark Arax wrote the very excellent King of California; everything I’ve read of his is detailed and thoughtful and great.  Transcript of the interview here.

His summary of the almond debate, my emphasis in bold:

ARAX: Well, as these tribes – I call them tribes – the tribes of the north of California, the middle of California and the south of California start arguing, they start reducing it to kind of ridiculous little symbols [ed: hey, that’s me!]. And it used to be the farmers against the Delta smelt fish. And now it’s the urbanite against the almond. And you have to look at it from the standpoint of the almond grower. Many almond growers used to grow cotton. And cotton is a crop that can be grown anywhere in the United States. And it’s a crop that uses a good deal more water than the almond does. And so they evolve and decided that we were going to plant nuts. Nuts can only be grown really in California. It’s a high-value crop. And they’ve planted the hell out of them. I mean, right in the midst of drought here – I drive up and down the Valley, and they’re planting tens of thousands of more acres of almonds and pistachios. So the almond has become – I mean, this is all about whose draw of water is more righteous than the other. And so the almond farmer got thrown under the bus pretty quickly. And it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California. There are a million acres of nuts now. This has gone up, you know, threefold in a very short period of time. So the almond farmer’s going to tell you that I’m using my ground for something that’s very profitable. It’s a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa. So this is what’s happening. It’s almost a zero-sum game. And everybody has to now argue its commodity and why its draw of water, you know, is maybe not sustainable but justifiable.

This makes me wish intensely for explicit decision criteria. Righteous by what standards? I’m busy reducing types of water use to ridiculous little symbols, but even I know that people’s preferences depend on their priorities. I wish people expressed those more clearly, from the lofty to the self-serving. With those out on the table, we would stop hearing stupid shit like “stop demonizing almonds”. I am not demonizing almonds themselves. I recognize that they are an inert and tasty nut. But a million acres of them in California violates some of my priors, such as:

  • It isn’t important to me to plant every available acre in California; it is important to me to reduce the rate of aquifer overdraft.
  •  Californian agriculture should be primarily market crops and I don’t care whether Californian agriculture feeds the rest of the world. I care intensely that it is always available to feed Californians.
  •  I am more-or-less a vegetarian non-drinker, so I don’t actually have a dog in this fight. But I sense that cheap meat and dairy and wine are more culturally important than almonds, which are a taste acquired in the past 15 years.
  • I would rather have the knowledge that we have living rivers than the knowledge that we are the primary almond producing region in the world.  (I sometimes change my mind about that right after my dog rolls in dead salmon along the American River.)

You can deduce all these from my usual arguments.  But I have to deduce the arguments for a million fucking acres of almonds and I can’t tell if I am right.

  • Planting almonds reflects some sort of farmer autonomy that is inherently valuable?  I deduce this one from cries that an almond moratorium is “un-American”.
  • If planting that many almonds is the result of “the free market”, that alone validates it as the best outcome?
  • I like almonds and want them cheap.
  • Almonds draw monetary wealth into the farming economy that is more important that the externalities? Or that money goes to more important people than the people who are damaged?

It get very tiring to argue righteousness when I have to extrapolate, provide both sides of ‘righteous by what lights?’ and then counter all the possible opposing beliefs I can come up with.  I wish people were more explicit and precise about their underlying beliefs on this stuff so we could have the real conversations.

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Once more around the bowl, comrades!

In my advanced blogging years, I find that I have no new thoughts.  Worse, when I think that I do have new ideas, I search my blog and find that I wrote them up fully years ago.  My only real hope is that you, my loyal readers, have the memory span of goldfish and don’t mind that I say the same things over and over.  As I react to a few different articles today with my usual thoughts, I’ll link to the post where I discussed them before.

USC wrote about their own conference that included former Governor Schwarzenegger.  My first thought was that Schwarzenegger isn’t in a position to be critiquing anyone else on water policy, since he was utterly craven during the drought on his watch.  Then Schwarzenegger went on to say:

 Our current problem, in my opinion, is not the crisis on water,” said Schwarzenegger, Governor Downey Professor of State and Global Policy at USC. “It is the crisis of vision and commitment to long-term planning. Too often politicians cannot or do not look beyond the current crisis.

This is true.  There is no vision and it means our drought response is crappy.  The vision, so far as I can tell, is: exactly like today for a little longer, only using less water.  A vision would make preferences explicit and I’ve seen no willingness to do that from state level politicians.  I also fault the emergency management framework for responding to drought.  The point of emergency management is to return things to the non-flood, non-fire, non-hurricane default.  That carries over when we use emergency management to respond to drought (make it like a not-drought!).  I would rather the drought were viewed as a transformative agent (use this drought to get East Porterville on a reliable supply or use this drought to get communities to move away from systems based on shallow or fractured rock wells) instead of an emergency to get through before things can go back to normal.

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Since I complain about what I would like the State Board to do, I should compliment the parts I like.  The new tiered conservation goals for water agencies are great and I have zero sympathy for the users with large landscaping demands.  No, spoiled communities don’t need additional time to adjust.  If they haven’t been aware of drought since 2006, this kind of shock to the system is just what they need to understand their appropriate response now.

Raising the limit for fines for wasteful use to $10,000/day is also great.  A friend told me of his difficulties getting homeowners in Montecito to conserve water in an earlier drought; his district simply couldn’t raise rates high enough to  “send an economic signal”.  (So he snuck out to the worst offender and put a homemade flow restrictor on his line.  The homeowner responded by purchasing bottled water to water his lawn.)  Fines that high ought to eventually catch even a wealthy homeowner’s attention.

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This details in this story illustrate my objections to our current water rights system and to using water markets to re-allocate water.  EBMUD is trying to buy water from Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and two other northern Sacramento Valley water districts to get through the year.  EBMUD is offering Glenn-Colusa $700/af for water that Glenn-Colusa gets for $17.  Economists are delighted; this is a willing trade that gets water to a higher value use!  I am not delighted.  Why the fuck should farmers in Glenn-Colusa get that money?  They are not better people than people who live in the East Bay. They have not worked harder for that water, nor invested labor that created that water.

Honestly, urban people in California. It is time to vote for an initiative that revises water rights in your favor.  I propose an initiative that creates a commission to come up with a new water rights system that gets put before Californian voters in the next election.

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Apparently I will not continue linking to my old posts that say the same thing.  In my advanced blogging years, I no longer have the concentration or follow-through. Here are a couple posts on drought I still like.

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A nice post on the drawbacks of local management.

I liked this part in particular:

Transferring power to local agencies may simply represent a higher body’s abdication of responsibility, rather than a strategic allocation of powers.  In this case, the California legislature did not have the mettle to create a robust groundwater management scheme.  Kicking the can into the local agencies’ driveway was a more attractive option for legislators than dealing with the problem head-on.

This is the second time we’ve needed people who are employed by universities, not water agencies to tell us this.  There is certainly no will to acknowledge this from within the state bureaucracies.  Local agencies are not magic: some are good, some are inept, some are overwhelmed.  We will find out which ones are which, but we’ll have lost years to the process.

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