Monthly Archives: October 2009

I miss Emerson so much.

I’ve tried three times to write this up nicely. I remembered Hilzoy’s saintly patience. I thought about vinegar and honey. I want to be part of a constructive dialogue on water policy with bright people who listen with respect. But apparently I’m going to be the flamethrowing part of the constructive dialog, because this op-ed brings up all my old frustrations about economists.  That piece shouldn’t be as bad as it is.  The dude seems like he does a ton of bright, interesting research.  I’d love to listen to him discuss his own research.  I’m sure I would learn a lot.   But he does not know what is going on in Californian water today.  The guy make two mistakes that are instant give-aways.

Dr. Carson writes both:

water rationing should never be any part of an intelligent water policy.


San Diego needs an increasing block rate structure with more blocks and higher prices for those using the most water.

The only way someone could write both those things is that he or she took a surface level read of newspaper stories and didn’t do more. I know this because every single agency that instituted a rationing program this year did it by instituting an increasing block rate schedule (or threatening fines, which is about the same). That rate structure is what the newspapers called rationing this year.

Los Angeles:
The rationing would be achieved by adopting “shortage-year rates” to encourage conservation by altering the billing method used by the DWP.

Santa Cruz:
But barring a deluge of rain between now and March, the 90,000 people who depend on the district could be forced to cut water use by more than one-third, or pay steep fines.

In Folsom, first-time violators get a warning. A second violation within one month could result in the customer getting their water shut off. A third violation within six months brings fines.

South Bay:
Now water retailers and the county’s 15 cities and towns must translate this vote into specific actions, like watering the lawn only on specific days, or increasing water rates if customers use more than a set amount. The district is asking municipalities to pass ordinances containing these types of measures.

I can understand that if you see the word “rationing”, you think it means rationing like in the former Soviet Union where you can only buy two loaves of bread. But if you know what happens in the real world of California water, you know that never happens. Districts NEVER physically restrict the amount of water someone can buy*. If they go to “rationing”, it works by making the next chunk of water more expensive (by rate structure or by fines). Which is what Dr. Carson recommends!

That’s the first way I know that the economist isn’t knowledgable about what is actually happening in California water this year. The second way is that he says the three magic words:

low-value agriculture growing like alfalfa, cotton and rice in places like the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys

Whenever you see those exact three things, “alfalfa, cotton and rice”, you can stop listening to that person. That person got his or her opinion from Reisner and hasn’t kept up since. If you read Reisner, you know what that person will say. I can tell you straight up that his prediction, that San Diego or MWD will buy water from those sources, WILL NOT HAPPEN soon.

Why? Long time readers here already know.

MWD will not buy water from fallowed cotton because there is almost no cotton left in California. The decline has been going on for several years now.  People who are willing to opine in the paper should already know this.

San Diego will not buy water from fallowed rice because rice is getting good prices these days. It isn’t a low-value crop right now and rice farmers don’t want to sell. Even if rice farmers would sell, neither the state nor the feds have spare capacity to move non-project water across the Delta these days, and buyers aren’t tempted to buy water that might not get delivered.

Alfalfa’s another story, and here Dr. Carson might be right. Last year alfalfa prices were high, because the drought hit pastures so hard that dairies and beef cattle had to buy supplemental feed. This year they thinned their herds, so demand for alfalfa may go down. There are close to a million acres of alfalfa in California; some of that might be retired to sell water to MWD and San Diego.

But I’d be very surprised if the guy who made a blanket statement about “low value crops” did any of that thinking. So far as I can tell, his thinking on water policy stops at the boundaries of economic theory and some old Reisner**. That’s fine. But it isn’t helpful in a debate where informed people already know conventional economic theory and old Reisner.  I’ve seen it before, that economists think that knowing economics deeply makes them qualified to speak on other subjects.  But it turns out that other subjects are complex and surface level knowledge of the subject plus deep knowledge of economics doesn’t offer anything new.  It frustrates the people who are looking for useful suggestions for improving water management in the real world.

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Let the mystery be.

Assembly Republicans, unhappy with the water-reform package authored by the Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, introduced their own water plan that they said would curb the authority over groundwater monitoring contained in the Senate plan.

After introducing the legislation, the three Republican Assemblymembers stepped outside to take sledgehammers to the dashboards of their cars. “I don’t ever want to read that fuel gauge again,” said one. “It makes me so angry when the needle gets lower.” A second Republican assemblymember chose not to take a hammer to his fuel gauge, but instead covered up the warning light with black electrician’s tape. He told reporters, “If I can’t see the warning light go on, the tank will never get empty.” The last assemblymember confirmed that his wife and teenagers all used the car, and not one of them wanted to know how much gas remained in the tank. “Maybe one of us puts gas in the car, maybe not. Maybe someone drives the car a lot, maybe not. But we don’t talk about it, and we certainly don’t want some government regulator forcing us to “monitor” how much gas is in the tank”.


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Please also note that Prop 218 is a real problem for Oceanside.

It is beneath a good blogger to make fun of comments, right?  Not your comments; your comments have all been fantastic.  But comments to newspaper stories.  There’s no point in selecting one and mocking it.  I mean, they’re likely to be laypeople or be ideologically biased.  I normally read newspaper comments for the gestalt (then huddle in the corner, sobbing for our future).  But this one is SO GREAT.  I can’t resist.  From an article in the Capitol Weekly on increased enforcement in the proposed new water legislation:

The only way that a government that has brought the state to its economic and political knees can think of to fix a problem is by giving that same government more power. This has gone beyond inept insanity to maniacal delusion. We want and we should have more water for less money. We don’t want to continue to pay a collection of incompetents to tell us or try to make us use less. Any 1st grade class could come up with that one.

I am deeply chagrined that the proposed water legislation does not manufacture new cheap sources of water out of thin air.  Why didn’t they think of that?  Where is their problem-solving inventiveness?!  Why are they binding themselves with the iron chains of reality?!!*  That will only hold us back!

The city of Oceanside also thought that water should be cheap, apparently.  Refused to raise rates to cover the increased costs of water from their wholesaler.  I can’t entirely tell what is going on, but it looks like they’re eating their reserves, which may trigger a debt call of $105M.  But I’m only guessing.  I would like to point out, though, that even though a legislative body made a decision that water should stay cheap, that DIDN’T MAKE WATER STAY CHEAP.  Rather, it meant that they had to reach into a different pocket to pay for the more expensive water.   If it doesn’t bankrupt the town first, they seem to have a new plan to look into legislation forbidding rate increases by their wholesaler (over whom they have no jurisdiction).  Yes, well.  How could that go wrong?

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Thought I’d sexy the place up a little. Pictures!

Shortage vs drought5
They showed this chart at the Water Plan meeting last week. I like it because it shows the different ways to address the gap between what we’ve got and what we want to have. You can move the purple demand line down (with water conservation, by price increases, by irrigating less land), or you can move the bouncy green line up (by conjunctive use, reservoir re-operation, or meadow restoration). The problem isn’t that mysterious. People have different guesses about which approaches have lots of leverage*, and they feel strong emotions about protecting the location of the purple line or embiggening the green line. What would be really great would be a chart that flips the yellow-orange line on its side, and puts cost on the y-axis. Then we should see the costs of lowering the demand line, raising the managed supply squiggle and experiencing shortfall all next to each other. But I don’t think anyone knows those cost numbers.

Couple more thoughts on that graph:

It shows the demand line rising over time; mostly from population increase, I suppose. But I don’t think there was ever a time when people thought they had enough water. They always felt like there wasn’t enough water, even when the population here was very small.

The squiggly green line should be capped at some max capacity, shouldn’t it? 

Love, love, love that it shows annual runoff decreasing.  Yep, that’s right.  It has already started.  I wonder if the green squiggly line shouldn’t be even closer to the bottom of the runoff line in the future if it is going to be harder to catch and store rainfall than it has been to catch slow snowmelt.


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Filed under Basic stuff, Drought, Uncategorized

It is almost like we’re all connected somehow.

I had occasion to watch some area-of-origin advocates last week and came away unimpressed.  Area-of-origin is code for Northern California, and it really means ‘DON’T TAKE OUR WATER’.  It is named for the doctrine that the regions where water originates shouldn’t be harmed by projects moving (excess) water away.  I have some sympathy for that; the Owens Valley lakebed shows what can happen to the area of origin in the absence of any protections.  But the advocates I saw last week are arguing against water conservation for themselves on the basis that they have plenty.  It made me want to reach for some harsh adjectives.

Twenty by Twentytwenty is the Governor’s policy on water conservation that is likely to be turned into legislation sometime soon.  So far as I know, the goal is arbitrary, picked primarily for the sound of it.  Reduce urban per capita water use by 20 percent by the year 2020.  But it isn’t a bad goal, neither trivial nor overambitious, so why not go with a catchy phrase.  The big problem is that not all cities in the state use the same amount of water.  Some have been conserving for years; reducing their per capita water use by 20% would mean changing their lifestyle or cutting something they value (they use, roughly, 110ish gallons per household per day).  Others are still shamefully profligate and drinking quality water runs down their gutters (more like 380 gallons per person per day).  The civil servants tasked with 20 x twenty20 wrote a draft report suggesting that the regions who use more because they are wastrels (my phrasing) should conserve more than regions who have been tightening down on water for decades (mostly southern California and the central coast).

The prospect of Twenty by 20XX becoming law has got people like Placer County Water Agency campaigning against it.  My jaw dropped to hear people say, out loud, in public, that they don’t want to conserve if it only goes to help other people, that they think they should always have the privilege to waste their water.  I am embarrassed for them.  However, if they are already willing to sound like narcissistic five-year-olds in public, they must have already rationalized and accepted the arguments that they have plenty, and that should exempt them from having to do anything for people downstream, who are presumably different and not-them.  I wonder where they stood on the question of the Bay Area and Smog Check II.

Back in the turn of the century, people living in the Bay Area had weaker Smog Check requirements than the rest of the state.  The wind blew fresh off the ocean each night; because their air basin was always clean, they didn’t have to do smog checks as frequently or maintain their cars as much as everywhere else in California.  This was nice for them.  Turns out, though, that their pollutants were blowing eastward and getting pinned against the mountains.  You know, like in Placer County.  Ozones from the Bay Area were weakening pine trees, raising the fire danger in the area-of-origin mountain counties.  The legislature stepped in, holding people in the Bay Area to the same Smog Check standards as the rest of the state, even though people in the Bay Area breathe clean air.

Look, Mountain Counties.  People in San Francisco have to take their cars to get smogged twice as often for your sake.  For the same amount of trouble, you could adjust your fucking sprinklers and switch out your toilets.  For the cost of their additional car maintainance, you could buy a low water using washing machine.  You wouldn’t want to go backward, would you?  To all those smoggy days in the foothills?  The law was an improvement, right?  Twenty x XXtwenty will be too, overall. 

Folks, we are in an system, connected by pipes and law and flows of water, air and energy.  We are too far intertwined to pull up the drawbridges around your region, even if you do have the water rights to fill the moat.  Please, come out and play with the rest of the state.



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People don’t choose to spend their lives in factories.

This makes me sad. From the exchange of letters between CalPoly and Harris Ranch, Harris Ranch closes its letter with this:

Dr. Baker we still harbor significant concerns about the direction of the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly. And while we appreciate the last minute changes to the upcoming Pollan event, we believe this matter to be indicative of the disconnect that in our opinion currently exists between College of Agriculture at Cal Poly and the agriculture community. We challenge you to convince us otherwise. Finally, we hope you – and especially Dean Wehner – understand this Pollan issue is bigger than the executives at Harris ranch… it’s bigger than Cal Poly alumni involved in the animal production industry. This whole mess is having a profound impact not just on Cal Poly, but rather, on Ag schools across this great nation. We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia.  [my emphasis]

I went to CalPoly SLO. Took ag classes while I was there. Perhaps it has changed in the years since, but I tell you what. There is no disconnect between CalPoly academia and the agriculture community. There were two types of people in my classes, the sons of growers who were going back to the farm to become foremen and the sons of pickers. (No, not many daughters.) We went on multi-day field trips to my classmates’ farms. One of my classmates had never eaten store-bought meat until he got to college. (He thought it tasted awful.) Another one of my classmates was designing an industrial-sized carrot peeler for his dad’s farm, to better salvage and market carrots. Four years later I saw my first bag of “baby carrots” in a store. My classmates wore Wranglers with no ironic calculation. I once walked behind a pair of them who were strolling and talking; one was casually lassoing and releasing the other’s foot, in stride and in pace. The ag colleges at CalPoly are teaching ag kids.

The distance between CalPoly ag academia and the larger ag community is one personal phone call. That’s on the peer-to-peer professional level that the CalPoly dean describes in his letter. But it is also on the parent-child level. The ag community is as close to CalPoly ag academia as they are to their children; reports on lectures and teachings come out of classrooms and local knowledge about what is happening in the Valleys flow back in.

Which is why that last paragraph made me sad. He is right about the disconnect, but that gap isn’t between ag academia and the ag community. The disconnect he’s feeling is of conventional agriculture community losing their children. The next generation doesn’t want to farm like them anymore. I’ve eavesdropped on several conversations of growers and other ag professionals wondering who will replace them. They say that their kids laugh at the idea.

I can’t help but feel for the old generation. They achieved a lot! They made agriculture SO EFFICIENT. They lived better through chemistry. They seized the promise of the Green Revolution. They turned production into a science. They ran on the crappy  efficiency/land consolidation/overproduction treadmill, and if they’re still standing, they were the best and hardest working. They built the system they live in everyday, understanding its reasons and being reassured by its familiarity. The good people, the hardworking people like them, live around them and accept the life. Why wouldn’t their children want it? Why would their children want to go to a talk by the man who is undermining the ag life they all know?

This poor guy. He probably does want CalPoly to go back to Before All This Sustainability Crap. But the urgency for him and his friends isn’t whether their beloved college hosts a lecturer. That is a symptom of the problem, which is that the kids would listen to Pollan in the first place. He’s right. It is infecting ag colleges everywhere. The real cause of the emotion and urgency is that their kids are leaving their way of life, which coincides with going to college. Even if their kids do (against very hard start-up barriers) find a way to farm, they may well farm like dirty hippies, which is Not The Same. I want the end of big ag in the Valleys as much as anyone does. But I still see why that ending is painful for the people who thought they were doing right when spent their lives turning farms into factories.

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I’m sorry I argued so hard against the procedural liberals back then.

John Yoo is still an abomination who brings shame to my alma mater, but today I am very grateful for tenure.  Harris Ranch (big CAFO on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley, the one you see and smell at Coalinga*) has threatened to pull $500K worth of donations to CalPoly for bringing Michael Pollan to speak.  Valley Economy found the complaint letter, and was interested in a secondary complaint:

My second issue is of still greater concern, and has provided me with both displeasure and outright anger towards the university. In a recent (09/14/09) phone conversation Mike Smith had with Rob Rutherford in the Animal Science Department, … Mr. Rutherford then had the audacity to offer Mike an entirely unsolicited opinion that water should have NEVER been provided to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. As Harris Ranch operates one of the largest farms in this region, Mr. Rutherford implies that Harris Ranch should not be farming! He went on to offer that this acreage should be converted back to the native forages once found there.

Full respect to Prof. Rutherford. Lest there be any doubt remain about the implication, I will say outright:

Harris Ranch should not be farming on the West Side.
No one should be farming on the West Side.
I don’t know whether it should go back to native forage or be turned into solar power farms, but the West Side shouldn’t be irrigated, which means it shouldn’t farmed.

Even more! Under climate change, I don’t think the junior rights holders on the West Side will get water more than 6 years in 10. If that. If they continue farming, they should stop whining about the other four years (which may happen back-to-back for more than four years.) They should accept that there will be less water in CA, that new dams would catch floods but not yield new supplies and besides will be dedicated to urban uses first, and figure out whether they want to scrape through under those circumstances. If they do, do it and stop whining. If they don’t, figure out how they can extort a good severance from the state, the feds, or someone who will buy their crappy water rights.

Anyway, Prof. Rutherford is awesome. I hope he doesn’t suffer any fallout from this. Also, I am encouraged that the locals around CalPoly SLO, one of the three remaining ag colleges in the state, seem to be Pollan supporters in a meaningless online newspaper survey. Opinions are shifting!

*Coalinga is not a Spanish word, like you might guess after a second’s thought. Coalinga was Coaling Station A. I don’t know whether there were other coaling stations and if they were re-named.


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