Monthly Archives: January 2009

Try not to overwhelm the ARB servers, OK?

Hey folks,

You should watch this webcast of a cool talk by a neat researcher.  It starts, like, right now.

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Some pointers:

The Sacramento Bee has gotten more and more panicked about the budget situation, and they started off frantic. Before the election, their recommendation was to vote against every last bond measure. Good ideas may be on the ballot, but the Bee editors kept saying that we have no money. From what I can observe, they are right to be panicked about our budget situation. I talked it over with a friend who follows the legislature closely, and he cannot imagine a realistic solution to our budget problem. The rules put in place by propositions combined with the incentives for the Republican legislators* close out any solutions.

The Bee writes editorial after editorial trying to focus attention on the fact that California can’t put together a budget, blaming institutions, blaming individual actors, pointing out the harm. This week they’re running a series on different powerful lobbies in the budget gridlock; they write a plaintive request in the introduction to the series:

As you read these editorials, we’d urge you to think about your role as a member of an interest group.

That’s right. The budget crisis is so hopelessly snarled at the top that the Sacramento Bee is appealing directly to the diffuse better nature of the broad public to rein in their advocates. That’s how bad it is. The constraints on the budget process are so binding that the next best leverage is for the broad public to read a newspaper editorial and adopt long-term benevolence and shared sacrifice. I’m strongly in favor of that, but the Bee’s own comment section contributes to my doubt on that front.

I do not see a path to resolving the budget crisis within our current system. That leads to the interesting question of which is more likely, a large game re-setting force, like a Constitutional Convention, or living in a failed state. What would it look like, living in a failed state? We’re not that far from finding out. We’ll be insolvent in March, which is not a distant and unknowable future. A few months after that, what do we do? Of course we send home all the lazy and irrelevant stateworkers. After that? Send home all the UC, Cal State and community college students and professors? Release all prisoners? Stop patching levees? Stop fighting fires? This isn’t abstract. Right now those are political suggestions to apply pressure, but when we have no money, there won’t be a choice in the matter for very long.

Personally, I think we should start considering an alliance with Somali pirates. They need failed states to base their operations from, and considering that there will be rich pickings headed up to ports in Washington, I think there may be strategic benefits for both sides in a California-Somali pirate alliance.





*Their districts are so solidly republican that if they vote for a budget that raises taxes, they’ll be challenged in the primary and lose. In addition to their own ideological opposition to raising taxes, there’s the fact that they’ll be ousted if they do. That’s some pretty strong motivation for them.

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A project for us, comrades!

I was very interested in this post, because I think a lot about intentional retreat.  I think sprawling suburbs should retreat from high gas prices.  I think beach dwellers should retreat from the rising sea.  I think Delta farmers should retreat from likely death by flood.  I think all sorts of retreat is necessary.  I think the important question about retreat is “the easy way or the hard way?”.  The hard way will happen by itself, so it doesn’t really require much of us until the very last minute.  Communist central planner that I am, I’m in favor of the easy way, which means acknowledging the coming problem and intentionally choosing to address shortages.


I’m super curious about what will happen to sprawled out suburbs.  Nearly every day of the week I see a news article about some facet of water use becoming “too expensive”.  Local water delivery is either at the edge of their cheap historic supplies or they are being forced to internalize some environmental cost.  Every story closes with a quote about how this will mean the end of financial viability for the residents.  If aggregated rising costs really do herd people in from large houses on the periphery of cities, what happens to the houses?


I personally think that we should leave the landscape neat and tidy behind us, and salvage what we can from the spectacularly bad decision to put valuable low-entropy resources into house shaped lumps all over the place.   That first article talks about businesses who mine abandoned houses.  I’ve been wanting to take down abandoned houses as a reverse Burning Man project. 


Ever since Chris Clarke pointed out that traveling to a pristine desert and building a city is the most American activity ever, and my other friend said to me that “Burning Man is proof that humans love to work”, I’ve wanted to take a camp of people that would usually go to Burning Man out to some unfinished and languishing development.  I think the Burning Man ethic of self-reliance and work should go into dismantling a house or two, stacking it neatly and leaving.  That would be anti-consumerist America and a radical statement.  I haven’t yet been able to convince my friends that it would be a good way to spend the week before Labor Day.  I can’t think why.


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Other internets pointers:

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has released preliminary guidelines for analyzing greenhouse gas emissions in CEQA documents.  I’ll read this for you, but don’t know what useful critique I could offer.


A public review draft of the next California Water Plan is out. 


Aquafornia tells me the American Water Works Association has put out a primer on what water utilities should do to prepare for climate change.  I’ll read this for you too.

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It is never too late!

I liked this post on environmental concrete quite a bit, not least because it reminded me that the best presentation I saw last year came out of the concrete sub-committee of the AB 32 Scoping Plans. I had no expectations for a report on concrete and greenhouse gas emissions, but it was great! Skip slides 1-15, which talk about the Scoping Plan. Go straight to slide 16 and start to learn about cement and climate change! Plenty of pictures of cement mixers, too.

I gather from that presentation that there are two places you can cut your emissions from cement. You can improve your cement factory or you can change the cement mixtures that get used in the world. The second option was more interesting to the water folks in the room. My rough sense of the conversation was that specifications for cement mixtures are something you get from some 1950’s manual and no one has given them much thought since. But, if it is important to make cement with low emissions, it could be done. Even more, you might want to do some thinking about what you need your cement for. You might want a cement mix that hardens overnight, so you can put a first floor on that foundation the next day. But we don’t need that in the water industry. Some of our dams don’t dry for a hundred years*. Quick drying isn’t necessarily a feature we need.

When I talk about adapting to climate change taking thought, this is the sort of thing I mean. Used to be**, you pulled down the ASCE manual on cement, looked up the cement mixture for your strength requirements and ordered it from the factory. Now we should probably figure out what we want specific cement to do and find a mixture that does that while minimizing emissions. With the new exciting cements, perhaps they can also breathe in CO2 as well. This is a lot more thought and finesse than we apply now. Doable for sure, but it adds work.

I’m so tempted to say that this is great new work in an exciting new field. But I bet it isn’t. I bet people have been working on cement for decades and I just never knew about it. They’d roll their eyes if I announced that cement is such an exciting new field just because I didn’t know about it, and they’d be right. One of my big regrets is that I never took the class on cement while I was in school. I suppose I could still do that. Enlightenment and bliss are open so long as one draws breath and I’m pretty sure concrete class is on the path to enlightenment.







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ACWA’s Sustainability Principles

ACWA adopted a set of sustainability principles a month back*, and they are a pretty good marker of the current conventional mindset. That’s appropriate, because ACWA (Association of California Water Agencies) is The Man. ACWA represents water districts mostly, which means that it is dominated by traditional civil engineering thought. On the other hand, water districts are the absolute front line, where water policy abstractions play out with real customers and real water shortages and real pipes. I like watching the two clash, like when the primal engineer brain automatically thinks of increasing storage, but a district spreadsheet shows that conserving water would be cheaper. So ACWA’s sustainability principles give a good read on what day-to-day practitioners of water policy are thinking.

The sustainability principles ACWA has adopted are… fine. They aren’t really radical thought, but they aren’t egregiously retrograde either.


They hammer home the point that no one is getting any more supplies until the environment is fixed. I don’t know whether that was a hardfought realization and significant movement for the membership or if this realization has been creeping up on everyone for years. But the principles include environmental stewardship and supply as co-equal goals** (1) and concede in principles 4 and 5 that water agencies will have to pay money towards both goals. That’s nice to hear.


Climate change gets mentioned twice, but not described or emphasized as an important future stressor. The sustainability principles leave out any mention of water districts playing a role in mitigating climate change (which they totally could, as large energy users themselves).

The paper has a bias that I see throughout virtually every agency discussion of water. They talk about big integrated solutions, but by “integrated” they mean “integrating all the physical pieces and plumbing and also having some nature reserves or something”. This happens ALL THE TIME. I have two objections to that. First, I think a lot of the ground for improving water yields will come from biological techniques, like improving water infiltration into the ground by using long-rooted vegetation or doing meadow restoration. That stuff just isn’t on the engineer radar and that is an oversight.

Second, the principles don’t mention people at all. They never consider changing the people side of the equation. These sustainability principles treat people as black boxes, customers who always want more water. Well, the sustainability principles don’t even mention people, because that model is so thoroughly engrained that no one need talk about it. As good engineers, district staff aren’t any more interested in people than they are biological systems; they never think of using influence to manipulate how people use water. This is a shame, because districts are the closest governmental link to actual people who use water.


The ACWA sustainability principles are good, as far as they go. Just having something as fruity as “sustainability principles” is good step for ACWA. I don’t think they’ll get ACWA and the population they serve (which is nearly everyone in the state) to a secure position in the coming decades, but they’re water districts, so they feel the heat first.  They’ll know that soon enough.





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Approaching steady-state economies.

I don’t usually interpolate comments and original text, because I think that’s hard to read, but I thought something different about nearly every line in the “Historical Context” of ACWA’s Sustainability Principles, so I’m going to do it this time.

Historical Context

California’s physical water delivery system is a tribute to the far-sightedness and big thinking of previous generations. Developed largely in the middle of the 20th century, the system has the capability of delivering water throughout the state.

I don’t automatically think that our water projects are great and I mourn the natural systems they destroyed. I like knowing how canals work and I like looking at a grand engineering feat. But I haven’t yet decided that the water projects and the way they shaped the state are good on balance, so I haven’t resolved that they’re a tribute to anyone.

But, I gained a whole lot of appreciation for the water projects a year ago when Atlanta was in their serious drought. From the very little I know, they had one reservoir draining one watershed and one water main to the town. Their reservoir was a few weeks from empty and I could not figure out what they were going to do. They couldn’t build a canal to a river in time to supply their population. You can’t truck in water for millions of people. Their one source was dry and as I worried at the problem from thousands of miles away, I was stumped. They turned to prayer as the solution, which was as good as anything I had to offer. With their limited system, when that reservoir emptied, they would have to evacuate a whole city. Imagine, an intact city evacuated within a week for want of water. I know the end times are upon us and stuff, but it would still be an amazing thing to see such visual evidence of the new era.

That made me really appreciate the extent of our huge intertied system. If it gets to the point where a major city in California has no water, we do have options. Most places have a couple big canals from one large project or another. In an emergency, we could drain some far away reservoir dry and get water to a city within four or five days. You’d have to break environmental laws and it would be expensive, but it could be done. After looking at Atlanta, I was newly grateful for that capacity.


Every Californian benefits from the efforts of water visionaries who provided imported water supplies for our cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the East Bay, and elsewhere. By the 1920s, large scale regional management of water secured the economic health of Southern California.

Some people call that the demise of the Owens Valley. These events have names and histories, you know. We don’t have to talk about them in every last document, but vague language about securing the economic health of SoCal underemphasizes a nasty history of bullying, conniving, theft and graft. I drank that water my entire childhood, so I’m not the one to say the LA Aquaduct shouldn’t have happened. But the water visionaries weren’t only heroes.


In the 1940s and 1950s, construction of the Central Valley Project, originally envisioned by Californians in the 1930s but financed during the Great Depression by the federal government, linked water management in the Central Valley from Redding to Bakersfield.

HEY! We’re in a depression right now! Is it coincidence to mention federal financing of water projects during depressions? Just, you know, happening to mention that the fed used to pay for big projects. You know, during depressions. Which we’re in. And, like, there’s this huge canal around the Delta that someone needs to pay for. The feds used to pay for stuff like that at times like these. I’m just sayin’.


The State Water Project, which delivers water to more than two-thirds of Californians, was the masterstroke of Governor Pat Brown and a team of incomparable civil engineers guided by policies laid down in a California Water Plan completed in 1957.

Jerry Brown, Pat Brown’s son, gave a lecture at a class I took in the early nineties. That wasn’t a busy period for him, I guess. I’ve had a one-track mind forever, so I asked him about the water projects and if he would do them again. He got a little quiet and said something very like “I don’t know which to regret more, the water projects or the state highway system.” Huh.


The system developed by these collective efforts served California well during the last half of the 20th century and must continue to do so in the future. However, the system today is in crisis. The economic consequences of failing to respond successfully to this crisis are potentially catastrophic. Many of the challenges we face today as water managers arise from changing natural resource policies and the difficulty of responding to these changing policies with a physical system that was designed and constructed under a very different set of rules.

OK, first I want to give the authors full props for writing “economic” before consequences and in lots of places above. Good for them for making their focus explicit. Given their mission, to develop and provide water to sustain humans, it makes a lot of sense to use human eonomies as a measure of success. It also protects them from quibbles with phrases like “served California well during the last half of the 20th Century”, because you could argue that it devastated fisheries and destroyed grasslands and rivers throughout the state. Which isn’t necessarily serving California well. But if we’re talking about how well they supported human economies, then it makes a lot more sense to say they’ve done well. So, good work for being clear about that.

But, they got the source of their challenges wrong. The problem isn’t that changing natural resource policies have yanked the rug out from under them. The laws about protecting fisheries downstream of dams are really old. The problem isn’t that the system was constructed under different rules and now it is totally unfair that water managers have to play a new game. The problem is that we are approaching the physical limits of the natural system and those limits are starting to bind us. Big and rich as California is, we are at the point where taking or leaving the next piece of water hurts something we value. There has always been slack before, and now we’ve used up a lot of the cheap slack.

If you’re on the water supplier side of things, whining about how the game changed is a way of blaming the hippies that you aren’t getting worshipped the way our engineer ancestors used to be. The hippies aren’t the problem. If we could have water projects and healthy rivers, they wouldn’t be fighting you. The problem is hitting up against the absolute limits of the physical world and adjusting to the mindset of relative scarcity. From here on out, it is all about trade-offs.

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