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.

*OK, I have heard ONE story about a district putting a flow restrictor on someone’s line. At the height of the ’87-’92 Drought, a super rich guy in Montecito refused to cut back from using thousands of gallons a day. Goleta WD put a flow restrictor on his line, and he responded by trucking in one of those fancy bottled water services to buy water for his lawn. Kept it green the entire year. He wasn’t even living at the house that year. When we’re talking about that kind of money, sending price signals through rate structures or fines doesn’t mean a whole lot.

**When you look at his research, you see that, in fact, he hasn’t written anything on water in several years.   He’s looking at oil spills and groundwater pollution prevention.  Some air quality stuff.  I’d take his expertise on any of those over mine any day.


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30 responses to “I miss Emerson so much.

  1. John Emerson


  2. John Emerson

    I do comment at Brad DeLong now and then, and post at Trollblog.

  3. onthepublicrecord

    I know. I’ve seen you around. But it isn’t the same. (Also, if you’ve broken an internet habit, I think that’s awesome and cheer for you. But.)

  4. Mr. Kurtz

    I knew Marc very well, and wish he were around today to chew out some of the dunderheads who selectively read Cadillac Desert, and are unaware of how his thinking evolved up until his death.
    Alfalfa is an interesting crop. It fits into water sales/management schemes very well because, once established, it can be deficit irrigated, or not irrigated at all, and will still survive. It also has an excellent greenhouse gas profile, since it requires no applied N (think NOX) and sequesters a remarkable amount of carbon in its extensive root system.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    Who are you, Mr. Kurtz, that you come in here with interesting facts about alfalfa? I’m curious.

  6. dfb

    Are you aware of any studies looking into the amount of human consumable food stuff, such as beef or milk, attributable to each pound of alfalfa and through that per inch of water? I always wonder how reasonable it is to use water to grow alfalfa.

    Farmers like to argue that alfalfa is more efficient than other crops with comparisons such as: “303 pounds [of alfalfa], vs. 109 pounds for rice and 31 pounds for almonds, per inch of applied water.” http://westernfarmpress.com/news/farming_tide_water_issues/

    The problem I have with such arguments is they compare an item humans cannot consume to two other items we do. I eat rice, not alfalfa. :-)

    I have run searches from time to time but have come up empty. I have only seen stats on how much water it takes to grow alfalfa and how much water is used for alfalfa farming. Each acre of alfalfa requires 5 acre feet of water per year. And, alfalfa farming uses about 15% of water consumed for agricultural purposes, or about 12% of water consumed in California.

  7. pm

    Smart people (or people that think they’re smart) not realizing the boundaries of their expertise. While I’m sure it’s never happened to you, I’ve heard tales of apocryphal boyfriends opening the hoods of their girlfriends’ cars to “figure out what’s wrong”. Like I (um, they) know.

    Also, see Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner on climate change.

  8. pm

    make that
    Smart people (or people that think they’re smart) not realizing the boundaries of their expertise is pretty common…

  9. Mr. Kurtz

    @ dfb: Dan Putnam and some of the other folks at Davis are working on exactly the issues you mention. Needless to say it is a complex undertaking, and one well suited to selective interpretation, like the studies showing whether or not corn ethanol is a good thing or a bad thing. Almonds, for instance, produce a truly paltry amount of edible protein per acre foot of water applied, and don’t even think about high end wine grapes. But perhaps edible protein or calories per acre foot is not the right metric. Really, it comes down to how much value a farmer adds when he consumes an acre foot of water, and whether someone else can do something more valuable with it, without harming either the environment or damaging third parties unduly.

  10. onthepublicrecord

    Almonds and grapes are two of my pet peeves. Did you mention them because you are also watching ag closely? You hadn’t read that old post of mine, had you?

  11. Jeff

    Fines and increasing block prices are not even close to the same thing.

    The fines are typically attached to violating specific rules such as not hosing down driveways, or only watering lawns on certain days of the week. They only provide incentives to specific types of conservation and rely on enforcement mechanisms that are costly and often arbitrary in their application.

    You make some good points about crops, but I wouldn’t say cotton is irrelevant. Cotton production is way down over time, but cotton has still seen the biggest decreases of any crop during the current drought. It is still very relevant to discussing the impact of marginal reductions in supply.

    So, while there are some economists venturing into water with surface level understanding of the issues. I would argue that there are far more engineering, water and ag. experts venturing into economics with very surface level understanding of the subject.

  12. Mr. Kurtz

    @ otr: No, I;m a newbie to this blog. I’ll check the thread out.

  13. dfb

    Thanks Mr. Kurtz. It is a helpful lead. I understand your point about selective interpretation. But life is complex so I’m not exactly sure what makes this sort of measurement overly complex.

    At its very basic, it comes down to how much alfalfa does it take to feed the average cow and how much milk or beef do we get from the average cow? Knowing that information will provide at least a real and usable comparison, rather than the “303 pounds [of alfalfa], vs. 109 pounds for rice and 31 pounds for almonds, per inch of applied water” argument that is currently use.

    Such comparisons will be handy when city dweller’s start protesting increased rates for less water in earnest. Alfalfa farming is the easiest target and that 12% water consumption will be eyed by cities looking to grow and appease the growing tide of discontent.

  14. I may be wrong here, but it seems the water use numbers for alfalfa are high compared to some other crops because you are typically doing multiple cuttings per year vs. a single harvest for many crops. I’m not sure how widely known that is. Does that also permit growing alfalfa for part of the year and something else for the remainder? That would provide considerable flexibility to farmers. Not being one myself this is something I don’t have a firm grasp on.

  15. onthepublicrecord

    Does that also permit growing alfalfa for part of the year and something else for the remainder?

    No no. An alfalfa plant sends down a long tap root and the plant stays put. A grower might get 6-8 cuttings a year from the same plant (and field of plants). An alfalfa field stays in place for years, with the same plants growing back. It isn’t flexible in the sense of rotating other plants through it. But it is flexible in the sense that it can take a lot of neglect and still produce a crop.

    Also, alfalfa smells wonderful.


    There are estimates of the amount of water that goes into different types of food around the web. I haven’t read the work that supports them, so I can’t vouch for them. But here’s one.

    A rule of thumb that I heard, that I also can’t support with a real citation, is that every step up the food chain keeps about 10% of the original solar energy that went into what was eaten. I don’t know if that is true, or if it would apply to water.

    Yeah, I think water that currently irrigates alfalfa will be transferred to cities. When that happens, I expect the cost of meat and dairy to go up.

  16. Mr. Kurtz

    We need to focus on the policy, not the plant. Farmers are not dumb, and (unless some idiotic government handout distorts the economics) will plant what makes economic sense. Allowing some sales of water to urban users could both stabilize farm income, and pay for conservation measures that are at present uneconomic. It is not a panacea, because a great deal of agricultural water is in places where there are no means to convey it elsewhere, even via “wheeling” agreements. There would be very significant environmental damage if a large amount of alfalfa were taken out of production, because the crop serves as an important insectary for beneficial insects, habitat for dozens of bird species, and winter forage for elk and deer.

    God help us all if feed grains and forage ever become as valuable on a per ton basis as almonds. It would mean we had failed, and were living in a world of hideous famine. Billions starving, hysterical, naked, walking the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

  17. Mr. Kurtz

    @dfb: Because of cultural and environmental factors, alfalfa hay can vary greatly in digestibility. However, an “average” ration for a lactating animal might be considered 30 pounds per day, for an animal producing 20,000 pounds of milk per year. Typically, dairymen also mix alfalfa with grains, concentrates, and nutritional supplements tailored to a particular animal’s constitution. Some also “ensile” (basically, pre-digesting) alfalfa and/or corn, which increases conversion efficiency because the animal is not using as much energy to break down the cellulose in the plant. Ruminants in general are poor converters of plant energy into milk and muscle, which is why them cow patties make the rangeland bloom. Nature wastes nothing, yet cares not a whit for efficiency.
    Here is one reference to basic dairy nutrition: http://www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/PDF/FSA-4000.pdf

  18. dfb

    Thanks for the info. I have a better idea now.

    My back of the envelope calculation shows that about 383 gallons of milk per inch of water applied to alfalfa. This is the conversion of water used by alfalfa. It does not include the water used by the cow to sustain life or the liquid content of the milk itself. I also assume the 30 lbs/day amount you gave.

    I understand the comparison is not perfect and there are variations that change the amount but it at least provides a understandable food –> alfalfa comparison.

    Milk is another matter. Each gallon of milk requires 71 gallons of water just for alfalfa, not to mention the cow’s other needs? Holy cow!


    1 dairy cow eats 30 pounds alfalfa / day = 5.475 tons / year

    30 pounds | 365 days | 1 ton |
    ————————————————- = 5.475 tons /year
    day | year | 2000 pounds |

    Each acre produces about 7 – 7.5 tons per acre with 6 or 7 cuttings per year. http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/IrrigatedAlfalfa/pdfs/UCAlfalfa8287ProdSystems_free.pdf

    Using the higher numbers, that is 52.5 tons alfalfa per acre, per year. (7.5*7=52.5).

    Each acre of alfalfa can support 9.59 dairy cows per year. (52.5 / 5.475 = 9.59)

    “Milk production is measured in pounds. One gallon of milk equals 8.6 pounds.”

    20000 pounds | 1 gallon |
    ——————————— = 2325 gallons milk
    |8.6 pounds |

    Each acre of alfalfa produces 22297 gallons milk per year

    9.59 cows | 2325 gallons milk |
    ——————————- = 22997 gallons milk / acre alfalfa
    acre | cow |

    Each acre of alfalfa requires about 5 acre feet of water per year.

    Each acre of alfalfa requires about 60 acre inches water per year.

    325,851 gallons | 1 acre inch | 5 acre feet |
    ———————————————– = 60 acre inches / acre
    1 acre ft |27,154 gallons | acre |


    Each acre produces about 383 gallons of milk per acre inch of water applied to alfalfa consumed by the dairy cows.

    acre | 22997 gallons |
    ————————————–= 383 gallons milk per acre inch water

    60 acre inches water | acre |

    27,154 gallons water | acre inch |
    —————————————– = 71 gallons water / gallon milk
    1 acre inch | 383 gallons milk |

  19. Any thoughts on solar power versus ag as a use for California water?

  20. Mr. Kurtz

    Well, as it turns out, it takes a considerable amount of water to keep solar panels clean. The SJ Valley is very dusty, so….but perhaps improved coatings and some form of brush or air jet could do the job. My biggest concern is what would go on under those panels: huge rat colonies, weeds, unwanted ex-wives, etc. The area where this is being considered (parts of Westlands) does not grow alfalfa, or grows only a tiny amount. Growing alfalfa could not possibly pay with those water costs. (Alfalfa *seed* might.) The Solar Farms idea may turn out not be practical, but it is the kind of positive, creative thinking we need. I think Barry Nelson at NRDC is the baby-daddy, but maybe somebody else thought it up.
    Listen, some farmers act as though it is 1848. Some enviros want us to live in 1848. Let those cats go play in the woods together while the adults try to do some work.

  21. onthepublicrecord

    I’ll have you know that I was talking about converting Westlands to solar farms around the web before I heard anyone from NRDC mention it. It is possible that he and I both came up with the idea simultaneously.

  22. Or maybe he stole your idea!

  23. Mr. Kurtz

    Yep, dbf, no mater how you measure it, it takes a lot of water to grow our food. That’s why the comparisons of urban and ag water use are so misleading, since those urbanites all eat three squares a day. We could displace a lot of agriculture from California, but in doing so we would have to compare the environmental effects (water use efficiency, economic efficiency, pesticide pollution) of growing food elsewhere, as well as the worker and food safety standards in those regions. I am unaware of any place on earth that has higher standards in all of these categories than California.

  24. onthepublicrecord

    It doesn’t have to be one-for-one, Mr. Kurtz. The other option is that people could eat less meat.

  25. Mr. Kurtz

    You are certainly right about that; people (especially in the developed world) can and should eat less meat, and the meat they do consume should be of better quality. Nonetheless, there are billions of our fellow humans who long for more meat in their diets, and it will take quite some time for them to change their ways. Someone, somewhere is going to produce that meat (and other agricultural products). That is going to take land, water, and other inputs. We have to be honest with ourselves about who the best and most productive stewards of these resources are.

  26. dfb

    I think a good start would be to update that WEF report and then use make the numbers more widely available. Part of the problem, I think is ignorance. I’ll admit to being ignorant about milk until I crunched those numbers.

    A second step could be to create a water index of sorts that consumers can use to inform themselves of the water consumption required for that food product, similar to nutrition labeling. I do think many people care.

  27. Mr. Kurtz

    If water consumption were the most important negative externality of crop production, that might be a good idea. Unfortunately, it would cause lots of people to focus on one small issue, which is exactly what is not needed today.
    We humans pay a huge environmental cost for the food we eat: animals dead, NOX released into the atmosphere, meadows leveled, marshes drained, and so on. Agriculture is a profoundly disruptive practice, whether it is obeying the organic superstitions or not. Surely returning to the hunter-gatherer model would be better environmentally, but very hard on the human species.

  28. Sure, but there are shades of gray. People with discretionary income can make decisions about the types of agriculture they want to support. To my mind, smaller farms of truck crops build better, more complex communities and use resources in ways I like (partial wildlife support, attractive, economically diversified). It isn’t a question of agriculture or hunter-gatherer. It could be a preference ranking of:

    Personally known local supplier of organic produce;
    Personally known supplier of organic meat;
    then, not organic
    then, sold in local co-op grocer,
    then, sold big grocery store, with origins labeled
    then, sold as conventional produce in big store
    then, consumed as super processed corn
    then, consumed as super processed meat.

    That might not be your ranking, but it is entirely reasonable for people to have some sort of ranking, and the information dfb provides would help people calibrate their purchasing.

  29. dfb

    Mr. Kurtz, you are right that there are many different negative externalities to food production. Consumers and regulators already try to deal with those negative externalities in several different ways. We’ve created the organic food category, buy locally, save heirloom crops, eat in season, and require nutrition and country of origin labels.

    People make choices about what to eat or prepare for family and friends on a routine basis and consider many different things when making those choices. A water index is just one more thing people can take into consideration when making a purchase. For example, I prefer chicken from the Chinese grocer because the chicken is usually more fresh, locally raised, and I can see the full body and head to see if anything is amiss such as chopped beaks. It does cost more that frozen Tyson chicken but I can make that choice. It is just one more thing I consider when planning a weekly menu.

    I accept that not everyone does or can take advantage of labels but, just like with organic or local foods, there is a consumer base already conscious of the effect the food they eat has on their bodies and the environment. Moreover, a water index can take into account regional variations in water use, effect of plants in the local ecology and hydrology, riparian versus imported water, and size of farm. I have not thought it out into too great of detail yet, but I do think there is a place for a water index; it will also not be developed in a vacuum either. :-)

  30. Mr. Kurtz

    Good points, both. I was just trying to make sure we stay focused on the elephant, and not the little portion each blind guy handles. Sounds like you two are thinking that way too.