Monthly Archives: February 2009

Money for Reclamation in the Stimulus Package

James Wimberly was worried that Reclamation will get $1.4B in the Stimulus Package, so I went to look at what that money was for:

$1.4 billion in funding for the Bureau of Reclamation. … The funding provided includes: an inventory and analysis of existing infrastructure, especially canals that could potentially impact population centers; maintenance or replacement of Reclamation owned and operated infrastructure; drought preparation and emergency response activities; improving energy efficiency at Bureau of Reclamation owned facilities as well as for maintenance and rehabilitation of Bureau of Reclamation owned and operated hydropower facilities; tribal and nontribal rural water projects; water reclamation and reuse projects; construction of water delivery projects.

I don’t know whether the list provided is in priority order, but if it is, someone did a good job on this allocation to Reclamation. All of the items on the list sound useful to me.

One of the under-appreciated truths in water infrastructure right now is that fixing bottlenecks in canals is worth about ten times more than increasing supplies (pg 20). Maintaining and replacing infrastructure is reasonable; there are a lot of leaky canals and gates out there. Some of those water projects went in a hundred years ago. Drought preparation is overdue and emergency response gets more important as climate change brings more intense floods than we’ve seen before. Improving Reclamation’s energy efficiency is a non-negligible climate change mitigation measure. Water projects use a lot of power. Tribal water projects generally have solid social justice underpinnings. If a tribe is just now getting a water project upgrade, it is likely they’ve been shafted for a couple hundred years. Water reclamation is code for re-using wastewater.

Construction of water delivery projects, all the way last on the list, is the first time anything that could be construed as “building new dams” shows up. Reclamation has earned distrust and monitoring, and I hope that they get careful scrutiny from the House Subcommittee on Water and Power. But on its face, this is not a knee-jerk, water buffalo style “build more dams” prioritization. In fact, the mention of canals limiting deliveries to population centers is a surprisingly knowledgeable and sophisticated appreciation of the problems. Good work, obscure staffer who wrote this portion of the bill. Now make sure that Reclamation spends the money the way you wrote it!

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(If you were looking to be cynical, you could worry that “canals that could impact population centers” means the Peripheral Canal in California, which is the subject of very active conflict. Even so, this language doesn’t mention by name Reclamation’s prospective dam in CA, Temperance Flats. If you want to give the new House and Interior Department the benefit of the doubt, this list can support that reading.)

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I call this scenario “market based”.

Farmers go broke and abandon land as they individually retreat from high fuel costs and scarce water. We can assume the marginal lands go first, unless mortgage decisions or loans for tractors turn out to be more important than soils or water. Individual growers bear the brunt of the pain. Land doesn’t get joined into wildlife refuges. Untended, the random parcels scattered among active farmland becomes banks for weeds and invasive species. Some of it becomes sprawl.

People confront high prices at the register in unmodified spikes, followed by gluts from other countries. Higher quality dairy products and organic produce aren’t supported, so a large market for those doesn’t develop. The cheap-food ethic continues and a race to the bottom in other countries strips their environment and feeds us instead of their own peoples. Besides that, though, California urban dwellers won’t notice very much. They’ll absorb what is left of California production and other regions will switch to truck crops and cattle to fill the rest of the country’s demand.

California meat and dairy will shrink as well. Internalizing the costs of confined-animal-feeding-operations will become too high. In the near future, dairies are facing the costs of controlling the nitrate they leak into groundwater, disposing of cow shit, rising costs of feed crops from climate irregularities, and building emissions controls. One or the combination of these will force them out of business. California raised meat will be in smaller herds on pasture, perhaps in the foothills of mountain ranges.

If the state defaults to augmenting built storage, pieces of environmental laws will yield, or become irrelevant when salmon and smelt are gone. Depending on how fast it all happens, there will be continued conflict within California about construction fixes. It’ll be a shame if the pointless ones get built, but continued rancor is another real cost.

Many islands in the Delta will go out of commission as levees fail. A few people will die in those floods. The west side of the San Joaquin will go out of commission from salt build-up, but not before becoming too toxic to recover as arid grasslands in decades. A few growers will kill themselves. Fuck if I know what’ll happen in Imperial or Coachella. I never pay attention to them. Since I’m guessing, I’ll predict that San Diego and LA will suck their water away. This leaves major ag production in the Sac Valley and the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, which is a decent place for it.

The people who will be hurt first and most will be agricultural laborers, mostly of Mexican descent. They already are. Their established communities and small towns will disintegrate. I do not know where they’ll go after they leave Great Valley agriculture. I assume it will be rough for them, as they are already poor.

This, for California, is not a vision of complete collapse. We’ll have enough water for some continued industrialized agriculture. The interior valleys will continue to be places people drive through. CA will produce less food overall and much less meat. Farms will consolidate further. Cities mostly won’t notice, except in food prices.

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How will global warming and peak oil shape farming in California?

At Gristmill, Tom Lawasky relays a question from Fred Kirschenmann:

[L]et’s assume that ten years from now oil will be $300 a barrel, that we only have half the fresh water resources available that we have today for our food and agriculture system and that we have twice the severe weather events. What kind of agriculture should we be designing to put on the landscape that enables farmers to thrive, invites a new generation of farmers to enter farming and that restores the economic health of our rural communities?

Anyone care to take a shot at an answer? I’m all ears.

OK. I’ll take a shot at this. The thing is, he only gave the easy version. I want to pile on a little before I start, because there are other problems that he doesn’t mention. I think they also set the stage. This is only for California. I assume some of it transfers to industrialized agriculture more broadly, but I don’t know how other systems east of the Sierras work.

First:
The standard quote in CA is that the average age of a California grower is 57. No one knows where recruitment will come from. I overheard two lifelong ag guys comparing notes; their children laugh at the prospect of farming or an ag life. They were saddened. My understanding from reading the comments to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Ag Vision process is that barriers to entry are very high when land and experience isn’t passed down through families. A grower warned us that land in the Sac Valley is consolidating under foreign firms at growers retire out; he warns that the foreign owners have no emotional ties to environmental stewardship here. (All of this is plausible hearsay to me. I can’t vouch better than that.)

I posit that people are leaving the sector because large conventional farms are horrible places to be (especially if they are very water-efficient). Hot, ugly, brutal, stripped of cover, sterile except for rows of identical plants. No one with economic choice would be there long. I think extant farmers acclimated to this slowly. But people who haven’t grown used to it don’t want to spend their lives in that.

Second:
Chemical inputs to farming are increasingly expensive.

Third:
There will be less water, but that’s just the beginning of it. We will also need places to put new larger floods, and we are eying historical sinks. That’s a fair amount of farmland to be occasionally inundated. I am starting to worry as much about capacity to apply water as the amount of water available. If you cannot put enough water on a field (because a district cannot keep all of its canals full in a heat wave when everyone takes water, or your equipment (looking at you, drip irrigation) is flow limited) a scorching two days can kill your crop. Doesn’t matter if you have enough water for the rest of the season in that case.

Fourth:
I did not need this, but we’re starting to hear from the plant physiologists. Too much carbon in the atmosphere inhibits nitrogen uptake, which means that plants don’t form proteins as well. I was like, so? Does that mean we switch to different crop varieties that have more protein in them, so I don’t starve to death before lunch? And the professor was like, yeah, that’ll matter for the eaters. It’ll matter more that plants won’t grow well, so yields will weaken. Frick.

Fifth:
There is bad news on the food safety front, but I don’t follow that much. I do know that growers have come to think of things like providing shelter to animals or re-using treated urban wastewater as posing an unacceptable risk of contamination from e. coli. A recall and popular fear of a crop can wipe them out in a year or two. That risk makes them unwilling to consider using their land for supplementary purposes, like habitat.

Those are the driving forces I see. To be fair, I suppose I should put up a list of positive drivers (although most likely I won’t get to it). That would be headed by the amazing ag science base we have here, the decent lead time, and potential from the state climate change plan. I’ll post an unplanned and a planned scenario today.

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Climate change at the district level.

I know, and I’m very sorry.  You come here for obscure government documents about climate change.  Well, lets get this train back on track.  But not, you know, with an actual government document.

 

The American Water Works Association put out an article titled How Should Water Utilities Prepare for CLIMATE CHANGE?.  They really did shout the last part.  It was written based on experiences at East Bay MUD, and it is a nice piece. 

 

To my eye, it starts off a little slow.  I’ve heard the recitation of predicted effects in the west enough that I get tired of the intro section.  But it goes over the change in snowpack and how that makes it harder to hold water.   It says that sea level rise threatens infrastructure near the coast.  It mentions water quality, which is too often overlooked in climate change conversations.  Rougher storms will wash down more sediment, causing more turbidity, making it harder to treat raw water.  Heat will increase algal growth in local reservoirs.

 

The nice part of this piece is that East Bay MUD has done a full scale vulnerability analysis on their own small kingdom.  Good.  They know better than anyone what their system is like, and it sets a great example of districts looking in detail at what is coming their way.  In EBMUD’s case, they think their storage is sufficient, but are worried about floods.  See?  That is great information to have.  To them, this calls attention to a need for better storm forecasting.  They even have numbers:

For example, for each day of lead time, 10,000 ac-ft of additional flood-control space can be gained.

 

The article is a good summary of an engineering look at the situation.  I hope other districts do that.  If I were making recommendations to districts, though, I’d be advising them to check their legal regime just as thoroughly.  We know that climate change is going to amplify the variance in hydrology, and that poses new risk.  I’m not sure that it is good public policy on the whole, but if I were a district, I’d want to be offloading risk as fast as I could.  They should check their bylaws and state and local codes.  What are they responsible for maintaining and protecting and delivering?  Can they afford it under bigger extremes?  Will they be the ones to pay if they don’t?  Who is responsible for failures?  Is that undefined?  If I were a canny district lawyer, I’d be foisting that on the state or on individuals now, before it becomes a more visible issue.

 

Somewhat relatedly:

I want to go to this conference the way I want to breathe air.  It looks SO GOOD.  Irrigation District Sustainability: Strategies to Meet the Challenges.  They’re talking about a lot of good stuff, technical ways to increase capacity and flexibility.  I can’t help but notice, though, that the words “climate change” do not appear anywhere in the conference program.

 

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