Monthly Archives: December 2008

More on the Pacific Institute report

The Pacific Institute report writes in the “Efficient Irrigation Technology” section that considerable water could be saved if growers used drip or sprinkler systems instead of flood or furrow. This is a reasonable sounding concept that falls apart when you get to specifics. To get the kind of savings the Pacific Institute estimates (0.6 million acrefeet), you’d have to convert a whole lot of acreage to drip or sprinkler. So much acreage, in fact, that much of it would have to be field crops. In their report critiquing the Pacific Institute, a few irrigation professors wrote this paragraph, which I loved because it shows why the details matter so much:

The flood to sprinkler conversion on field crops would need to occur on alfalfa, pasture, cotton, or corn. Cotton acreage is now less than 300,000 acres (not the 886,000 acres used in the report), and sugar beet acreage in the Valley will disappear soon. Safflower is most often minimally irrigated and rice is not a candidate for sprinkler irrigation. Corn is problematic to sprinkler irrigate due to its height, which would require that center pivot or linear move systems be installed. While alfalfa and corn prices have been strong lately, the cost of conversion from flood to sprinkler irrigation is considerable and may not be justified by field crop growing economics. (pg 11)

This is such a good summary of why it gets very hard to talk about ag and why the sides of the debate tend to harden. I mean, it sounds right and obvious, that field crops should change from flood irrigation methods to sprinklers or drip irrigation methods. Except that as you discuss each specific field crop, each one doesn’t make sense. What cotton? What sugar beets? Safflower? Safflower is underirrigated now; why would you underirrigate it with expensive sprinklers? Corn is too tall for ground-based sprinklers and center pivot sprinklers don’t work well on California soils. Wheat is a winter crop, rainfed. Rice stands in a shallow pond you couldn’t fill with sprinklers. Alfalfa maybe, although you’ve got your tractor in there ten times a year to cut alfalfa, which could be hard on solid set sprinklers and no good for driplines. The nice thing about alfalfa is that amazing tap root, the one that makes it possible to let the plant go dormant in drought years, and that should be encouraged by really deep watering.

So here’s where the mutual exasperation comes in again. Enviros and urban-types say “Look, we know that if you switch to sprinklers you save water. This is known, and the need for water is urgent.” Ag answers curtly, because it is tired of repeating long explanations, “Whatever. That won’t work.” Enviros think growers are digging in because they have lots of water rights and are politically powerful and change-resistant. Growers wish enviros would stop insisting they make expensive nonsensical technology changes without demonstrating benefit in their real-life circumstances. This is a pretty big gap, between the plausible general principle of the enviros/urbanites and all the many, many constraints and specifics of ag. You can see how someone could get real vested in one or the other. It doesn’t help that ag’s objections look exactly like self-interest and that it is easy to point to historical poor practices. Or that enviros seem to want growers to go to a whole lot of expense and hassle so that they’ll have the privilege of forfeiting some water.

How will this be bridged, so that growers will make the worthwhile technology switches and enviros trust that the remaining systems are using water appropriately? Economists would say that pricing water without subsidies or protections would solve all that, and I agree that it would go a long way. Besides, no one would have to talk or trust or convince or agree on anything and god knows we hate interacting with people who are different from us. So there’s that. The other two choices are that enviros learn more about ag, enough to shake some of their certainties about how wasteful ag water use is. Or that growers change their systems because of other pressures, like drought or rising energy costs if they pump groundwater. I suppose it is possible that with enough mutual education and discussion, the sides could make careful compromises based on mutually established facts. But that isn’t the outcome I expect.


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It is also true that Mendota is hurting.

In an editorial in the Sac Bee today, the spokesperson for the State Water Contractors objects to a ruling last week that restricts pumping through the Delta to protect Delta smelt. (The thinking behind the ruling is that smelt get churned to bits in the pumps, and also that the pumps make the Delta currents so messed up that it damages smelt habitat.) The new argument against shutting down the pumps is “But there are other problems toooo!”1

Every day, Sacramento’s wastewater treatment plant sends 13 tons of ammonia downstream to the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta, potentially disturbing the Delta’s food web in profound and destructive ways. Agricultural runoff flows freely through the estuary’s waters. Exotic species of clams consume much of the critical food supply. Nonnative fish prey on native smelt and salmon.

Unchecked and unmanaged, these and other threats to the Delta’s fisheries are tolerated on a regular basis. Yet, in an imbalance that grows greater with every passing month, the already heavily regulated water projects in the Delta – projects that supply water to millions of California residents, businesses and farmers – get hit with restriction after restriction on water flows.

It just now occurred to me that the State Water Contractors may be hitting up against a concept that is even more engrained than “must give water to farmers”. This may be a head to head contest of “must give water to farmers” vs. “dilution is the solution to pollution.” I mean, diluting pollution is the prime historical way of dealing with water (and air) quality problems, an easy solution that makes problems temporarily go away. It is a strong and early impulse for humans. And now that we don’t know how to fix the smelt, we’re starting by throwing water at the problem. Turn off the pumps! Let water run through the Delta! Ammonia from the Sacramento? Pesticides from the San Joaquin? 2 MORE WATER for smelt! 3

I really do love seeing human verities fight it out; I’ll occasionally idly ponder which of two impulses is dominant, but you don’t often get good real world test situations. I have to confess I like watching a group that doesn’t have a track record of caring about pollution get burned by old-school pollution remedies. Perhaps if they hadn’t fought or dodged that conversation for decades, we would 1. not be in this mess or 2. have better tools to use now.





1 I find this unpersuasive. Yes, there are other problems too. But the pumps are a known major factor, and even better, under direct and centralized control. Take the major easy fix first, then work hard to address the other factors. Do not take the other factors as reason not to do anything.

2 Heh heh. I notice that the spokesperson for the State Water Contractors (farmers in the San Joaquin Valley) did not put that on her list of threats to the Delta.

3 I’m not opposed to this, by the way. This isn’t as sophisticated as, say, developing technologies and practices that keep nasty chemicals out of our rivers in the first place and addressing invasive species directly, but given that the smelt are on the verge of extinction, it seems like a pretty good crude tool to start with.

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Working Landscapes Adaptation papers

Quick break in the discussion of the Pacific Institute’s ag water report to summarize a couple different papers. The Working Landscapes Sector has put out two adaptation papers, one for forestry, one for agriculture.

The who?
These were written primarily by groups of bureaucrats from the relevant agencies. They are a continuation of the groups that were formed to write the different chapters of the Air Board’s Scoping Plan. These groups were open to the public and email lists compiled from sign-in sheets, but this is mostly the work of government staff, from the Air Board and CALFIRE* and from the California Dept. of and Ag. This is actually a really exciting new development, having state agencies work on papers together. You wouldn’t think it would be a new innovation, but the Governor has informed the agencies that all of our plans must say the same thing! We are quite excited by the prospect. Anyway, it means that rather than having the forest expert over at the Air Board write this paper, the forest expert at the Air Board now writes this paper with people from CALFIRE and anyone else who chooses to attend these meetings.

I do like the name and concept of Working Landscapes. Not the layabout beaches or those frivolous cities. Working landscapes, that produce things but also have some Nature left in them.

The Forestry Adaptation Paper

A nice read. Pages 1-8 give a good overview of the types of problems they expect: less precip, most of it rain, means a longer dry season, means more fires and insect infestations. (I must not be paying attention, because I was a little surprised at the emphasis on insect infestations. I’ll have to worry more about those.) They expect ecosystems to move, possibly rangeland expansion. They explain the concept of resilience, which is showing up more and more in government reports.

Pages 8-10 talk about how to do planning. This stuff appears in a lot of papers and I can’t tell how much it needs to be repeated. Yes. We should do scoping and gather data, come up with strategies and leave room to change them. We should monitor things and decide whether we did a good job. This is all accurate, but it seems self-evident, no? Is it included in all these papers because they have to stand alone when the public comes by to read them? Or is it filler because we don’t know what else to say yet?

Pages 10-13 apply the planning concepts to forests, although they save the specifics for the appendix, and point out that the things they decide to do about forest adaptation will matter to a lot of other sectors as well. They close by saying they need more data, that not everyone agrees on what to do about forests and they don’t have the budget to do what must be done. We’ll see that a lot. I’ll give them props for saying that current laws may prevent them from doing “triage”. I find most reports tend to gloss over the legal setting they work within, forgetting that it may also require change. I also like when reports about climate change use words like “triage”.

The Agriculture Adaptation Paper

The agriculture group apparently does not care about things like overviews or explanations for a broad audience. Keep up, public! Thankfully, this saves us from another description of the planning process. Instead, with no foreplay whatsoever, they go straight into bulleted lists of What To Do. I like their list a good deal.

I started summarizing it for you, but it is hard to further reduce bulleted lists. It does a nice job covering each further subdivision: diversity in ag, water, flood, ag pests, soil carbon. You’ll notice that the theme of money comes up often. Pay farmers, however you can. Get federal monies or pay them to sequester carbon or create markets for new weirdo crops. I don’t know where the truth lies on this, but there are two opposite perceptions of ag. One is that they are rich and exploitative agribusiness that sleep on pillows of hundred dollar bills; the other that they are barely scraping by each year, always on the brink of losing land and utterly unable to pay for new capital or higher wages. Like I said, I don’t know which it is, but we write policies as if it were the latter.

They do not talk about land retirement or saltification, and I notice they don’t talk about succession planning. The average age of a grower in California is 57**. Presumably there’ll be some sort of transformation within 15 to 20 years. That could go into our planning.

Both papers provide bibliographies, in case you burn with the need for more.





*I don’t know why the forestry department is now CALFIRE with the ALL CAPITALS. Oh. Mr. Google says that they changed it to sound catchy, like CalTrans. Whatever. CalTrans doesn’t shout its own name all the time.
**Completely unsourced and unreliable common knowledge.

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Grow your own.

First, if you are looking for an example of completely excellent work, go check out the Almond Board page. It is one of the best products I’ve ever seen. The design is attractive and easy to use. They offer the site in, like, six languages. They don’t get sloppy; every single picture of an almond radiates pearly light. They show tons of data, all of it clear. With monthly updates! That means they’re keeping tons of data. They aren’t going to be surprised by the next couple tens of thousands of acres planted to almonds. They know those are coming.

Besides that, they’re inventive and thorough and carrying out a plan. Their presentations cover the agronomy side of almond growing and the marketing side. They’re seeking out ways to use almonds and convincing people they wanted them. They have a pastry strategy. If you saw an almond croissant at your bakery, or have come around to thinking that a handful of almonds would be a healthy snack with omega-3s, you are the Almond Board’s bitch.

They’re doing amazingly consistent high quality work and I wonder how that came about. Did they just happen to hire someone good, who built a good organization? Did that person love almonds or just doing good work? Coincidence that it was the Almond Board and not the Walnut Board or Citrus Board? Does everyone talk about almonds as the shining light of California agriculture because of some quirk of hiring and personality? Anyway, I don’t know what almond growers pay for the board (I assume some small percent of their price/piece), but they’re getting stellar value for it.

Standing across from a tomato processing plant one day, I happened to ask what the big boxes were. They’re big woooden boxes, perhaps a third or half the size of a railcar/shipping box, stacked all around the processing plant’s paved back lot. I was told they’re processed tomato sauce, waiting for prices to recover. The tomatoes are processed into sauce, then poured into monstrous plastic bags and vacuum-sealed. One bag per huge crate. Then they sit in the yard for months or years, until the plant finds a canner who wants them at a decent price. I looked a little shocked and they assured me it was all sterile and kept indefinitely. I suppose it is and I still buy canned tomatoes. But I also think of those crates, out there in the 110 degree heat all summer. I’d like row crops be grown to satisfy an existing demand, not wait around for years until demand comes along.

Seeing that, I wasn’t surprised by this.

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I don’t even like wine.

It is nearly a cliché to hear laypeople or enviros say that ag should stop growing alfalfa in the desert!!! and start growing higher value crops. If you press for examples of high value crops that would be a good choice for growers, the first two examples are always vines and almonds*.

Really? What the world needs is more almonds? More wine? As we foresee another couple billion people and international famines, you think we should commit our world class farmland to almonds? Yes! That’s the ag solution for California! Almonds will support the farmers! Almonds get such high prices! Then I wonder if people have really thought that through.

The good prices for almonds are the result of excellent work by the California Almond Board. The Almond Board has done magic and created demand for more than a billion pounds of California almonds in the past fifteen years. They have run marketing campaigns to get Americans to buy more almonds (“A can a day, that’s all we ask.” Do any of you really want a can of almonds a day?). They have created new almond drinks. They’ve introduced almonds into breakfast cereals. (Think back to the mid-nineties. Don’t you remember that breakfast cereals rarely had almonds in them?) California almonds have replaced and destroyed every other major source of almonds in the world. Right now on the Almond Board front page, they report happily that almonds are the number one nut ingredient in food.

This really is superior work by the Almond Board and I can only imagine that the walnut and cashew boards look on in envy. They have done great job placing a billion pounds of almonds every year (Almond Almanac, pg 24). But understand this clearly. This is not the market responding to some innate world desire for almonds. This is demand creation and pushing on behalf of a specific crop. Looks an awful lot like corn, doesn’t it?

You know what? I don’t really care. I like almonds and I’m happy that growers are making money on a crop. This is fine as long as we’re all wealthy and willing to consume luxury foods. But as a policy preference for what we do with California’s water, I think it’s a pretty crappy example. (Lots of this applies to wine as well.) I think that what the world is going to need as we add another three billion people is cheap, nutritious and portable foods. Like grains. Planting almond trees and grapevines commits ag land to those two things for decades; you can’t get out of them to plant wheat without destroying your investment**. So yes. Almonds and vines get high prices now. But I don’t think they should be the example of what California ag should look like and I am not sure they could even continue as successes if more acreage were converted.



*Vines are what we call grapes. Vines. No one confuses that for kiwis, which are also grown on vines. After someone says vines, your next question is table, raisin or wine? Because you are savvy like that. (Well, if you are really savvy, you look ’em over and guess. Armenian, from Fresno? Raisins. Can’t tell, from San Joaquin Valley? Table. Overeducated? Wine grapes.) Almonds are always pronounced aaminds (very soft d) to rhyme with salmon.

**I’d be happy to consider a vision where California ag always supplies the world’s luxury produce and the Midwest moves out of corn into a broad range of field and truck crops. But I don’t see the Midwest moving out of corn and soybeans until the federal subsidy regime changes. Mostly, I think that we are going to need the world’s breadbaskets to be breadbaskets.


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I didn’t like the crop-shifting section.

The weakest section of the Pacific Institute report is the section on crop shifting. They wrote that shifting from low value field crops* that use more water to higher value row crops** that use less water could save 0.6 million acre-feet of water. I wish they hadn’t published that without much more data. Here’s why:

The issue that bothered economists didn’t bother me:
1. The Pacific Institute explicitly states that they base their model off gross values for the crops they put in their model. They admit that the net amounts may differ, because crops that fetch a lot of money at market may also require expensive inputs. That is something of a crucial point for growers. The economists get all hot and bothered and assert that if the net amounts for row crops were higher now, growers would have shifted already. I don’t think that is self-evident. I don’t believe that growers behave like the rational economic model. I think some are traditionalists, some may choose a crop out of familiarity, or because they accept lower profit for lower risk, or because they don’t know about all markets for all crops or because of local custom. So I think two things. The Pacific Institute model would be vastly better for using net values and it may be true that growers could make more money shifting from field crops to row crops.

Something else bothered me:

Unfortunately, the Pacific Institute didn’t show their model output telling us how many acres of what field crops would change to row crops. Without knowing each field crop and row crop, it is impossible to evaluate that section. For example, did they say that a few thousand acres of rice would change to peaches? Because that won’t work. Rice is grown up in big clay ponds up in the north Sac Valley. You can’t grow other things on that soil. You could get rid of a few thousand acres of rice, but you aren’t shifting to anything. Are they shifting out of alfalfa into broccoli? Alfalfa has had some extremely good years recently with all the new dairies in Kern County and broccoli processors are shutting their doors. Basically, anyone who keeps current with ag wants to know exactly what acres would change to what, and they didn’t tell us. No one current in ag believes a blanket assertion that whole sectors of ag are worth more than other sectors. There are far too many counterexamples and I don’t know if their model included those.

The irrigation professors critiqued this section by saying that they don’t observe year-to-year expansion in the row crop market, from which they conclude that growers are currently providing about all the vegetables the market wants. Switching to row crops might save water, but this isn’t a strategy based on responding to an extrinsic demand for row crops. (pg 9)

These complaints make it hard to take the crop-shifting section of the Pacific Institute report seriously.  I would love to see a version of this section using net values for crops and showing exactly which acreage would change.  But even with that information, I have a different, abstract objection to the whole concept of switching to higher value crops.




* Pasture and grains, mostly.
**Row crops are also called truck crops and are basically vegetables.

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I like to start by namecalling.

I must say, the Pacific Institute has balls of steel. They do what everyone else is scared to do: they predict how much water could be saved by changing how agriculture uses water. They give estimates, say that efficiency measures could save 3.4 million acrefeet. This is important. Now we know that the Pacific Institute is talking about more water than new dams would yield. Even more audacious, the Pacific Institute says that agriculture can save a couple reservoirs worth of water just by using more sophisticated irrigation methods and crop shifting. It can still be ag! Better ag! It can be even better ag, and we can have another 3.4 million acrefeet of water!

There’s a reason everyone else is scared to do this. If you ask ag water experts how much water can be saved (or how much is wasted, the same question), the answer is a lot of hemming and hawing, until they collapse into “it’s complicated.” This makes everyone outside of ag crazy. How complicated can it be? Tell me how much your crop needs and tell me how much you put on. My brain tells me the difference is the amount you wasted. The ag expert says no, it isn’t like that. We don’t know very precisely how much water the crop needs. It changes! It changes with the weather and time of year and stage of growth of the plant and what you want the crop to be like and what you want next year’s crop to be like. But, if you insist, we can make a rough guess. You know what else we don’t know? How much water we put on! Hah! Take that, Mr. Fancy Subtractor! OK, there has been a lot of improvement here too and a lot of fields are measured now. If they exist, those measurements are probably good within ten or fifteen percent (pg 8). Now you’re subtracting a rough amount from a rough amount, and the range is pretty big, maybe twenty or thirty percent of your totals. In fact, that range is just about the swing between inefficient water use and efficient water use.

That’s OK, say people who are determined to chase this down. We’ve worked in complicated systems before. Everyone thinks their system is complicated. Tell me, is there anywhere else the wasted water could have gone. Yes! Three places. Two of them are invisible! It could go into the air, through the plant or just off the ground, both of which are hard to measure! It could go underground, which you can’t see and lags by days, months or years and you need permission to measure, which you probably can’t get, and is different in the next soil lens over! It might also run off the end of my field. In that case, it might go to the next grower, who also irrigates his crops with it. Or it goes into a drainage canal, which is the last pitiful remnant of habitat left in the county. Or it goes back to a river, hot and full of pesticides. That might happen three or four times. So tell me, Mr. How Hard Can This Be, is it wasted? Remember, whatever you calculate for this field can’t be extrapolated to another crop type on a different soil type or different location in the region.

The problem is genuinely difficult and most people retreat about now. But the Pacific Institute is not afraid. They made rough guesses, well qualified, and give enough of their methods and calculations to be critiqued. Like all sensible modelers, they aren’t vested in any precise output of their model, but think it offers useful ballpark information. This is entirely respectable and their report just radically stretched the boundaries of the conversation about ag water use in the direction of efficiency and conservation. This is great. Sadly, I find the critiques of the model to be pretty persuasive. I think their rough guesses are too broad. I do not think 3.4 million acrefeet of water can be saved in the ag sector without substantially shrinking California ag.


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