Monthly Archives: July 2009

Of course, that would require a functional state government.

The Pacific Institute has released another report on conserving ag water (or perhaps a final draft of the report I critiqued for ages in December) which I haven’t yet read. Some of the reported themes are maddening (furrow irrigation is not of itself inefficient, nor drip irrigation necessarily efficient; management is everything), but I can’t yet source that directly to the report. I want to highlight a different point:

“If we want to have a healthy agriculture economy, the only real option is to figure out how to produce more food with less water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and co-author of “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.”

Naw. Dr. Gleick’s quote is only accurate if you assume a market-based or capitalist model of the farming economy. We could have a healthy agricultural economy that produced sufficient food for California by capping farming production to something scaled to sustainable practices, buying that food, plus subsidizing farmers for farming the way we want them to. It would make food more expensive, partly because that would internalize some of costs that farmworkers and the environment are paying now. It would be a subsidy, which isn’t itself a sin. I don’t want to extend indirect subsidies like cheap water, but I’m game to pay some piece of taxes to make the towns along Highway 99 be pleasant places full of stable farmers and farmworkers, and also to make farms be all eco-like. I’d be even more game to pay my share of those subsidies if I thought they were designed well to achieve goals I want.

I no longer want to export California’s environmental quality, its water, sun and salmon, bundled into almonds and apricots.  I don’t want to do that even if a market supports it, even if people on the East Coast would like to eat what we grow*.  I don’t want to depend on a growth economy when I think we’re approaching the physical limits of our stocks and flows.  I’m fine with mining inefficiencies while we make a transition to a different type of economy, but those will run out and unless bioengineering pulls out miracles I don’t expect, I don’t see big increases, or even constant small yield increases  for decades to come.  I think we’re going to see step disconuities like this drought racheting us down for a while (yields, in the short term, standard of living in the long term, as much as standard of living is captured by eating meat, for example).  Which means I want us to think about getting to an attractive end point for Californians.  I don’t think the growth-economy model is going to get us there, so it makes me sad to see our well-known progressive thinkers internalizing it.  I would like us to make the harder case for paying, as consumers and citizens, for the farming sector we want to have**.

[Edited and second footnote added the next day.]

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As it happens, I have the Inland Empire climate change assessment right here.

 Buried in a report released Wednesday are two words increasingly becoming an issue in the topic of economic recovery for the Inland Empire: “water supply.”

While the Inland Empire forecast by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., a research group, pushes recovery prospects to 2011 or 2012, the region’s water supply could play a bigger role in shaping that recovery than people realize.

“Water costs are going to be very important,” said Jack Kyser, the agency’s lead economist. “Water is obviously going to become more expensive.”

If job growth goes hand in hand with attracting new companies, water issues might keep the area’s job base from reaching its full potential.

If you are at the limit of your binding constraint, you have reached your full potential. This is true even if you have more of other stuff left over (like people wanting to work or already built warehouses). There must be lots of work on matching development to capacity, but I don’t know it. Instead of real research and analysis, I have two thoughts on the matter. I think a lot about an offhand remark a professor once made, which is that if you design for peak capacity, you have over-designed for all the time you don’t operate at peak capacity, which is most of the time. The second thing I think is that people very readily adopt peak capacity as their baseline. California water projects over-delivered ag water in the early 2000’s because of politicking at CALFED, and now agriculture shrieks that it is being viciously cut back. It has been cut back to historic delivery levels up through the 90’s. Fifteen years ago that was standard, but a few generous years have apparently upped the baseline in their minds. California’s hydrology has and will be extremely variable. Regions would do well to base projections for available water on something they think they can get half or two thirds of the time. Even though that may feel like they are wasting high flows in some years, it is dangerous to let people rely on having more than average.

I am also guessing that some local politics are playing out in that article:

Lee Harrington, executive director of the Southern California Leadership Council, a Los Angeles-based group of business and community leaders that works with the county agency, agreed.

“The Inland Empire … needs to overcome the perception that somehow water availability is more challenged there than other places,” Harrington said. “It isn’t necessarily true.”

No need to remind you guys, but Inland Empire is famous in water district circles, rivaling only Santa Rosa and Santa Clara Valley for taking progressive stands on resource management (obviously!). Those three are the first few to have done climate change studies for themselves and set strong internal policies on climate change. I wonder if I’m hearing some frustration from this business-y, Chamber of Commerce-type guy at hearing “no” from a water district. He may be right that water availability is no more challenged at Inland Empire than elsewhere, but when I hear that, I figure that Inland Empire has the right assessment of their inventory and likely future and that other water districts are agreeing to take on more water service out of ignorance and unfounded optimism.


I’ll be away until August 4th at the earliest. Have a great week or so!

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Maybe she liked the sound of the words.

I’m afraid of becoming a Peripheral Canal advocate, because I don’t actually care that much and am afraid that just taking sides will induce more emotional commitment than I really feel.  I also think the Peripheral Canal is inevitable, so I don’t have to get all emotional about it or anything.  But then I read Peripheral Canal opponents saying really stupid shit and it hurts my brain.  I have to call this out, but my main point is more that political rhetoric is inane and meaningless, not that the Peripheral Canal is The Best Ever.  The Capitol Weekly quotes an Assemblywoman I’d never heard of:

“The canal would be the biggest public constructions ever made in the United States, equivalent to the Panama Canal” said Assemblywoman Buchanan, “and I want to make it clear I will not vote for a Panama Canal.”

I don’t mean to get all engineer-y on you, but is she out of her mind? She wouldn’t vote for a Panama Canal? Didn’t the wealth of the world, like, double the instant the Panama Canal was completed*? It frickin’ opened the entire Western Americas to trade. I cannot imagine any comparable current engineering project that offers such disproportionately high benefits. Funny enough, one of the few that might come close is a canal that would protect the wealth of the entire southern half of California. But I don’t think that is what Assemblywoman Buchanan was thinking.

Perhaps she was worried that like the Panama Canal, almost 30,000 workers would die of malaria and horrific working conditions while building the Peripheral Canal. That would give me pause. But despite California’s budget disaster and the recent arrival of West Nile disease, I do not think we have to fear turn-of-the-century, third world worker death rates. I’d be shocked if we lose even one percent of the construction workers on the Peripheral Canal. Rest easy on that front, Assemblywoman Buchanan.





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Newspapers talk about stuff I’ve heard!

I quite liked this editorial in the Fresno Bee, saying that the problems in the San Joaquin Valley aren’t from a lack of water, but are instead from farm overproduction. The guy specifically questions almonds; I was glad to hear someone else bucking the Almond Orthodoxy.  He suggests idling half the production in the San Joaquin Valley, which is close to my prediction that two-thirds of irrigated ag in California will remain in the new climate.

Shubin mentions another issue I’ve heard raised in public comments in meetings, that farmland is being leased to distant farming corporations.  The grower who mentioned it at the meeting I went to contrasted the stewardship of farmers who live on and work their land against the bottom line of an international company.  I have to doubt that all local farmers are very motivated by stewardship, but the grower who raised this issue was convinced that distant corporations are much worse.  He said that this turnover is accelerating as Californian farmers age out.  All of this is plausible and now I’ve read another reasonable voice raising the issue.

The other issue I’ve heard in public comments is the clash between food safety and farming for habitat and the environment, so I was glad to see it get attention in the Chron.

To me, this all points back to my usual thesis, that our agricultural system should be designed to do something, and the design goals protected by law and subsidy, if need be.  I personally think the design goals should be something like: grain and truck crop production for California and some of the US; a complex and stable ag community supporting middle class lives for farmers and farmworkers (but not more); farming practices that don’t mine resources like water, oil, minerals or dilution capacity, and support habitat for wildlife.  I suppose there may be other design goals, but this haphazard shit is bad news for the agricultural community itself.  The stereotype is that the ag community clings to western conservative tropes of market-based ag and self-determination on an underpinning of large public works projects.  I’m sure it is more complex than that, but as much as that philosophy is running the show, it isn’t working for them.

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I mean, as long as we’re making repairs…

You know, my civics class is failing me. I honestly don’t know how a Peripheral Canal would actually happen. I’m pretty current on the politics of it. I know the backstory of the failed initiative in 1982. I know that the big agencies, state and local, want it. I know that ag is split over it, with farmers in the Delta opposed and farmers in the San Joaquin in favor. It has been vetted and approved in the two major documents about the Delta, the Delta Vision report, which was absorbed by the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. So it isn’t like I’m ignorant about what’s going on with the Peripheral Canal.

But today I read about people protesting water committee meetings at the capitol and was puzzled. They’re protesting the Legislature? Is that who would approve and fund a Peripheral Canal?   They do that?  It made me realize that I don’t know how the major plumbing was approved and funded in the 60’s.  The story goes: “The Water Plan set out the State Water Project and Pat Brown made it happen.”  For all I know, Gov. Pat Brown dug the canals himself on weekends.  I’ve read about Gov. Schwarzenegger trying to get the Peripheral Canal done through the agencies, as an emergency measure.   I didn’t understand how that would be legal either.  I’d guess if we had a major earthquake that collapsed islands in the Delta, when the clean up was done a couple years later there would also be a Peripheral Canal in place. 

The Peripheral Canal is a huge battle.  The first few decisions won’t (haven’t) changed that.  I don’t think it’ll settle until the Canal has been operating a couple years and even then it won’t convince opponents until the Delta islands collapse and we’re grateful we have an alternative.  I’ve been watching the fight, but obviously not close enough.  I should ask more knowledgeable people how the PC might get authorized.


UPDATE:  A-HA!  I should read KenKevin Starr’s book.

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Because there’s nothing easy left to do.

I’ve read slight variations on this editorial a whole bunch of times, and the dominant theme is that the state government is abdicating responsibility to DO SOMETHING to FIX CALIFORNIA WATER.  The State should HAVE A PLAN.

But it’s the Legislature and governor — both past and present — who have failed to meet the growing water needs of the state.

California’s population has doubled since the last major water project was built in the state.

But state lawmakers continue to dodge this issue, fearing that they’ll anger one of the many interest groups involved in the issue.

We believe that agricultural, urban and environmental water needs can be accommodated with a comprehensive water plan. There would have to be compromises by all parties to the water debate.

The State does have a Plan. California’s Dept. of Water Resources puts out a Water Plan every five years, as mandated by the legislature. The new one will be adopted in December, but it has been released in substantial draft already. If you want to know what the state intends to do to fix California’s water, there is no secret involved. That said, I don’t think the authors of that editorial are going to like the upcoming Water Plan.

If the authors of that editorial are long time water watchers, they are probably pining for the good old days of the Water Plan, when it was a straightforward description of how state engineers intended to plumb the state. It was a plan in the sense of a plan drawing. Nowadays, the Water Plan is a plan in the sense of “an approach”, and anyone looking to the state to FIX CALIFORNIA WATER is not going to like this approach.

The theme of the new Water Plan is “integrated regional water management”, and that’s where DWR is putting their time and money. The state thinks “regions” should solve their own problems now, with money handed out from statewide bonds. The state is kicking responsibility for FIXING CALIFORNIA WATER down a level. Further, the Water Plan will not advocate a set of solutions. The Water Plan instead will describe about thirty options that regions could choose to do and leave the selection of options to, well, someone else.

This isn’t wrong or anything. A distributed approach might be a good tactic now that the good big sources of water are already being used. I don’t think it will satisfy anyone who wants the State to FIX WATER. I don’t expect the editorials to change much, or to get what they want either.

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