Low and high entropy water sources.

From Aquafornia, a commentary on recent bond measures:

As in the past, the current set of bonds are dedicated to numerous objectives, such as habitat, levees and ecosystem projects to include ocean protection, protection against invasive species, and fuel reduction in fire damaged areas. But nowhere is there truly “new water.”

Advertising of these initiatives dupe the general public into believing that the funding will insure safe and ample water but a closer look at the bond allocations clearly reveals that proportionally few funds are indeed being allocated to long term solutions for the drought, whether natural or regulatory.

Voters do not want more of the same, misleading water bonds and morphed environmental programs. Bonds must include language and line items that guarantee the completion of new high yielding storage projects.

On Emerson’s recommendation, I read Cobb and Daly’s For the Common Good, which was fucking amazing. Nearly every page had a well constructed argument for some passing objection I’d had to my resource economics classes. Again and again I wished I’d had the book to hand when I knew the answers couldn’t be as simple as my econ professors were telling me. I need to re-read it; For the Common Good was too dense for me to keep most of it. But one concept from that book has been amazingly useful to me. I think about low-entropy and high-entropy goods all the time.

Low entropy goods, either stocks or flows, contain tons of energy and are well ordered. Think of old growth timber stands that yield wide boards. Or high quality oil wells, close to surface and under pressure. Or fisheries of abundant huge fish that swam close together. Or of pure snowmelt flowing into narrow-mouthed canyons above a waterfall, so you can get some hydropower too. All the old rich sources, so easy to gather, so low-entropy. Those are low-entropy goods.

You can tell when people haven’t accepted that the world has changed, because they are still wishing for low-entropy sources. Those are gone. If they were stocks, they’re used up. Big trees, big fish, artesian water, artesian oil, all gone. If they were flows, they’re tapped already. Ms. Sutton calls for Sites Reservoir, but the concept of building dams is played out because all the good options are already in use. She mentions Sites, but it is more interesting that there is no other dam on the table. Besides Sites, I couldn’t name another proposed dam project in the state. (The San Joaquin River Restoration project was the end of Temperance Flats.)

The next water available to the state is from high entropy sources, widely distributed dribs and drabs, or mixed with something, or requiring lots of energy to extract. That’s what urban water conservation is, at essence, going around and collecting all the small streams that run from leaky taps, or small ponds that we put in our old toilets. Water recycling is putting energy back in, to separate water from human waste. Digging thousand foot wells is another form of collecting a low entropy source. So is, it turns out, protecting habitat at the top of watersheds, so that restored forest meadows boost infiltration and your springs feed your rivers for longer into the summer. And pollution prevention programs, so that if you collect your stormwater, it takes less energy to clean it again. Most of the strategies that people will use to scrounge more water in the future are some variant on working with high entropy sources.

That’s what the new bond measures are doing. Ms. Sutton objects that they are a hodge-podge, but that isn’t because it is all feel-good stuff for urban voters. The stuff in recent bonds (tons of conservation money, some habitat protection, some urban re-use stuff) is getting at the next sources on the low-to-high entropy spectrum. I sympathize with Ms. Sutton’s desire, because who doesn’t want the return of easy pickings, but that era is done. Water managers are now measuring high entropy sources against each other and starting in on the next most valuable ones*.








*You can tell Sites is a medium entropy source because it was left for dead last. It is an off-stream storage project in the Sac Valley; the idea is that it would hold flood flows off the Sacramento. So, look. It is collecting intermittent flows, distributed in time and unpredictable. It is far and requires a pipeline to put water in and out of it. It’d take Sacramento River water nearer to the bottom than the top, full of flood flow sediment. A medium entropy source like this has to be compared to other medium entropy sources like water recycling, and Sites isn’t necessarily the next best choice.


Filed under Surface storage

3 responses to “Low and high entropy water sources.

  1. The Brucolac

    A (nonsurprising) gap in my knowledge: What happened to Temperance Flats?

    Is sites really the end of the line? They’re raising Folsom– could they do that elsewhere? Could Auburn come back?

    I hold no brief for these projects– quite the opposite. But to continue on my usual theme, what if the next drought implodes our previous assumptions about political possibilities? I like to think about this in progressive terms– maybe we’ll get a decent water regime once things get bad enough. But it could just as easily go the other way– once things get bad enough, the stupid ideas of the past will rise.

    On a more technical note, does the entropy characterization take account of the timing of the energy investment? Pollution prevention, for example, or reforestation, take a big initial energy application, but then basically run themselves.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    This is my rough understanding, not the official word. Perhaps I’ll hear in some meeting that I have this wrong. But Temperance Flats was proposed for the San Joaquin River above Millerton. I heard (in a public meeting) that it was hard to make the cost-benefit analysis be anything close to reasonable. With the San Joaquin River Restoration, which guarantees that the river will be restored, you can’t attribute any of the environmental benefits to Temperance Flats any more. (They aren’t benefits of the dam because they’ll exist through the river restoration.) That shoots the cost-benefit for Temperance Flats to hell and makes it hard for anyone to champion it.

    Sites is the only surface storage I hear any buzz about. Maybe raising Los Vaqueros. Maybe raising Shasta. But I couldn’t name another prospective new dam after Sites and Temperance Flats. I’ll ask around, but I don’t even hear rumors of anything but Sites. Auburn is dead; the State Water Resources Control Board yanked the rights for it. If Reclamation wanted to come back and ask for water to fill it, they would be junior appropriators.

    I also don’t feel any guarantee that our water future is progressive. But so long as the Wild and Scenic River Act holds, I can’t think what any new dams would be.

    I have not thought about how the timing of energy investment plays into the entropy characterization (although I do think we should prioritize projects that improve over time, like meadow restoration). I, um, leave that as an exercise for the dedicated reader.

  3. The Brucolac

    Oh, right, Los Vaqueros. I knew that. The EIR is out– which puts the odds strongly in favor of it happening.

    That cost-benefit story about Temperance Flat is pretty funny. The idea that they were relying on environmental benefits to make it pencil out is just insane– were they charging environmental costs on the other side?