Monthly Archives: November 2009

Comments on a few articles.

I loved everything about this article, on a Solano woman who objects to her new water bill.  I loved that she’s only received one water bill in her life, because of an agreement made in 1899 by the original landowner.  I love her shameless sense of privilege, and that she objects to “water bills … higher than their monthly (home) loan payments.”  Water bills?   Lady, you’ve only received one water bill in your life.  I love that the only reason the city was looking through their century-old agreements was that they didn’t want to borrow from their “bankrupt general fund.”  Good choice, guys.  Finally, I love that she blew through her free allotment of water (75,000 gallons, or 205 gpd for a year) in four months (625 gpd).

Every time I read this final quote, I smile again.

Kelly said she is by nature a water conservationist, even before news that she would be charged for her water. She lives alone, does not use a dishwasher, has mostly drought resistant trees and does not do many loads of laundry. On the other hand, she had a leak in two outdoor water spigots for months, houses four horses for others and has a flower garden surrounding her home.

“I don’t know what more I can do,” Kelly said.

***

This is a plausible but extremely cynical take on corporate agriculture monopolizing water and selling it for large profits back to (mostly) public entities like cities and states.  I suppose it could be true, if one is willing to credit extremely large corporations with lots of competence and sleaziness.  I got to tell you, Cannon.  So long as these guys are your neighbors and come under the umbrella of westside farmers, you are never going to be able to create a different image for big ag.  You’re going to have to differentiate people who own and farm their own holdings from the likes of Sandridge if you don’t want to get caught up in populist anger towards the slick dealers.

I did have a couple objections to the piece.  Levine describes the Dudley Ridge/Sandridge/Mojave Water Agency sale at length, saying that it is an example of shocking profit.  It would be if MWA paid $5000 per acre-foot of water, like everyone says it does everywhere.  I’ve seen those units in a bunch of different news articles, and was shocked about it when I read exactly that in the original reporting in the Hanford Sentinel.  But when I called that reporter, he said it was $5000 per acre-foot of waterRIGHT, which includes all the future flows of water in that right.  In which case, depending on how reliable you think that water right is, in a few years it’ll be a reasonable price for water.  I can see how that would be a good purchase for a groundwater management agency like Mojave, which doesn’t mind getting intermittent water flows because it is trying to recharge an aquifer.  I’ve read enough articles saying how high the price is that now I don’t know which is accurate, but my guess is that they’re perpetuating the uncertain units from the original article.  I suppose someone could call the MWA to find out. 

I enjoy Levine’s outrage, and especially appreciate that he seems to have updated Reisnerian cliches instead of mindlessly repeating “Rice in the desert!!!”.  But I thought his closing paragraph was also slightly off.

Now, three decades later California’s legislature is trying to hammer out exactly the same [Peripheral Canal], which is as much about opening up more farm land as it is about securing more paper water to fuel suburban sprawl in the desert.

I can’t imagine that anyone is contemplating opening new farm land. I think this is a rearguard action to hold onto what they’ve got or to minimize the contraction of ag farmland, and make someone else bear the costs. His theme about securing paper water to increase development is interesting; I simply don’t know that side of things well enough to know if his argument that it shifts the risk that the water doesn’t show up onto the state is accurate. I’d call attention to two things. If the water isn’t actually wet, no amount of risk-shifting can make it appear in a dry year. Someone else may eventually be liable, but it is the city at the end of the pipe that will find themselves without physical water and forced to buy the next more expensive source. Right now, there are cities going broke trying to do that.

The other point is that verifying that water is real will eventually land on whomever approves building permits, which is mostly County Boards of Supervisors. What are they supposed to actually DO? What can they trust more than some agreement with a legal entity which swears it can pump water in a dry year and send it to the proposed development? They can’t go look at the water, although I suppose they could take a field trip and stare at a wellhead. If that isn’t good enough, what is their next option to make sure that people living in new houses get water in droughts? Start cold calling farmers? Reserve canal and pump capacity for the next uncertain drought, so they can be sure the water is wheeled? Big districts have a fair amount of staff and know-how, but verifying that future water is real is genuinely difficult. I can understand how a supervisor who wants to approve a subdivision anyway (because it needs the property tax revenue because of that asshole Howard Jarvis) would take a water bank certificate at face value.

Anyway, Levine appears to be a raging mad populist who tracks shit down, names names, makes explicit arguments and writes well. I’m not convinced by him, but I’m glad he’s on the scene.

***
This article on how the Board of Food and Ag wants someone to accelerate water transfers has a lot going on behind scenes. There’s a whole lot of trying to be discreet while applying pressure going on.

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture has devoted much of its time this year to grilling state officials on why red tape seemed to stifle the state’s ability to promptly approve water transfers through its 2009 drought water bank.

The state’s ability? Dude, there are only two agencies that could approve water transfers, DWR and the State Board, and DWR runs the drought water bank. Whomever could they mean?

I’ve sat in the back when the California agricultural board was gathered and was incredibly impressed with their ability to stay on-message. Secretary Kawamura is charming and folksy, but he doesn’t let a sentence go by without the phrase “regulatory drought” in it. I can’t imagine that happens by accident, but it all looks natural. This is how the big dogs get to be big dogs.

Ag board member Adan Ortega has spent several weeks examining water management as chair of the water subcommittee. At an October meeting in Fresno, he introduced a resolution urging state and federal agencies to communicate more effectively, both among themselves and with farmers.

Hee. A whole summer of work on the problem and he suggests agencies communicate better? I am sure communication could be improved, but it isn’t that difficult a problem. Food and Ag is, like, two blocks away (LOVE that they’ve planted a winter garden in all their sidewalk borders). I am very sure that their staff could meet weekly with DWR water transfer staff if someone went to the trouble to arrange it.

But more than that, Mr. Ortega doesn’t get at the things that limited the bank this year. Rice prices were high; rice growers weren’t offering to sell water. With pumping restricted, there was no guarantee that purchased water could be moved south, so buyers weren’t all that tempted. The water bank program itself can’t make environmental documentation proving that transferring water out won’t hurt the originating environment happen fast enough. (Also, aren’t they being sued to require that the climate change and ghg effects of pumping that water be included in those impact statements, just like they must be in every EIR/EIS? Takes time to figure those out for each transfer.) You might think that each water transfer shouldn’t have to do that, or that the drought water bank program should do an EIR/EIS that covers individual transfers. Sure, but it isn’t written yet, so each transfer has to have one. Besides, it has been years since the last drought. Since then the landscape has entirely changed (collapse of CalFED, Wanger decisions) and an old EIR/EIS wouldn’t be valid any more. What if the drought water bank program writes a new EIR/EIS and the climate is wet for several years? By the next time it is needed, it might be useless because of changes we can’t predict now.

It turns out these things are complicated. But I’m sure that improved communication between two unnamed agencies and Food and Ag and the public will help.

(Australia has figured out a way to approve water transfers very quickly. They set instream flow requirements that must be met, and if there is anything left over, farmers get a proportional share of it, which they can readily trade. I bet that if we were absolutely certain that instream flow requirements were being met off the top from the very beginning, it would take two unnamed agencies a lot less time to approve water transfers.)

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Doubt about making 20% per capita water reduction mandatory.

One big complaint about last week’s water legislation is that it is pricey; a second complaint is that the 20% water use reduction is voluntary. Those are linked. A fair bit of the $11B bond measure goes to grants to districts for conservation and infrastructure improvements. If you don’t meet the 20% by 2020 goal, you can’t get state grants. The legislature is essentially offering bribes that are too good to turn down. This is sortof fine, if you don’t mind that the taxpayers as a whole are supplying the money for those bribes*. But some object to the bribery method at all. Make the conservation target mandatory, they say.

As a bureaucrat, I have an insatiable demand for power and I love to meddle in people’s daily business, so I’m not emotionally opposed to making 20 by 2020 mandatory. But as I think more about it, I can’t figure out how I would make water conservation mandatory in urban California.  Who would I enforce against?  What is the remedy?

What would be the target unit of enforcement?  People?  Households?  Districts?  Cities, in places that aren’t served by a district?  Those all get hairy really fast.  I don’t know of any ways to track the 35 million individual water users, nor how to break them out from within a household, and how would you divvy up the household landscaping water use?  Households?  Every household should have a meter, and I’d like to see multi-unit places have meters too.  So that doesn’t bother me theoretically.  But how would the state receive and track and enforce against individual households, if their water consumption dropped 18% but not 20% by 2020?  What’s the reporting mechanism?  How is it validated?  The state could require that districts or cities do this, or simply that districts show an aggregate water level use that’s down by 20% on a per capita basis.  But that starts pooling crime in a way that we don’t generally do.  Punishing a water district (how?  fines?  And then the district raises rates to recoup funds (which I don’t think it can do under Prop 218)?) for not meeting a goal punishes the people in the district who did meet the goal along with the people who don’t.  Besides, we hold employers responsible for the criminal acts of their employees, but isn’t it a little strange to hold public municipal or administrative body responsible for the acts of its constituents?  I mean, a water district doesn’t have that much power over the people inside it.  If a bad actor inside a water district wanted to use 84% of her 2009 water use, the district can’t do more than levy fines.

If urban water conservation is legally mandatory, choosing the level to prosecute against gets complicated fast.  But assuming we worked that out, there are other stange aspects to it.  Using water isn’t a crime, and it is a little strange to think that it would become one in the next gallon after 80% of your 2009 water use.  Wasting water is currently a(n almost entirely unenforced) crime under the California Constitution, but most people don’t have a strong emotional sense that letting the shower run until the water gets hot, or neglecting a running toilet is a matter that is appropriately prosecuted.  Further, people are extremely attached to however it was when they were kids; we’re going to tell them that what they’ve done their whole lives is suddenly illegal?  I guess we’ve done that with smoking bans, but there you could point to the harms of secondhand smoke.  Any incremental water use, even a wasteful one, seems like a pretty benign thing to criminalize.

Then, what is the remedy?  Throw those wasteful fuckers in jail and throw away the key?  Naw.  I can’t imagine anyone is talking about criminal remedies.  I assume we’re talking about civil prosecutions, and a thought of an administrative system for that (district water courts?  Traffic courts handle water tickets on the side?) is also boggling.  I suppose the water cops could issue tickets and the household could either pay it or make improvements.  Or something.

Yeah.  I’m not emotionally opposed to making water conservation mandatory, but as a practical legal matter, I don’t how to do it.

 

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Doubt about using price to achieve 20% by 2020.

 This is where the economists tell me that the way to do it is price. You could do this whole thing using demand curves and raising the cost of water up to where people use 20% less, dust off your hands and go home.

Here are my objections, and then my further thoughts:

1. That sucks for people. They don’t like paying that much more for water.

I myself am fairly unsympathetic to that; I’m not particularly interested in supporting lifestyles dependent on cheap water. Besides, we’re all paying for the un-internalized costs of water in the form of giant-ass bond measures. But, here’s the thing. People FLIP OUT. They moan and whine and turn over boards of directors when water prices go up. They drag out the 218 process indefinitely. Raising water rates isn’t an easy administrative solution. It is a big political hassle at the district level.

2. The standard objections to market-based allocations are true and relevant for water.

People don’t start with equal amounts of money, so they don’t get to express their preferences for water use evenly. That’s fine for luxury goods, but feels pretty unjust when you’re talking about water to satiate thirst, and daily conveniences, like washing things and landscaping.

Exclusion is inhumane, and for that matter, can’t be enforced. People will find a way to get what they desperately need.

3. Here’s the heart of my objection. I think that raising prices (or using a market to set prices, which is not exactly the same) is a very powerful technique that goes to strongly toward the end of an economically efficient use of water. No one has yet convinced me that I want an economically efficient use of water. Actually, no one tries to make the case. The assumption that the economically efficient outcome is self-evidently better (because it is economically EFFICIENT!) is so overpowering that no one tells me what it will look like and whether it will match my values. I suspect it will not, so I’m real leary of very powerful mechanisms that will create that outcome. I think there are positive externalities to some (but certainly not all) inefficiencies, so I don’t want them erased. I’m thinking of inadvertant habitat on farms, of public goods like parks and urban forests, of farming communities that stay populated because they aren’t on the industrialization treadmill.

Next economists tell me that with the gains from economically efficient water uses, we can afford to support those things I value. Maybe we could, but that doesn’t mean we will. So I am skeptical about the whole business, and not yet ready to support water markets.

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Quick comments on a bunch of different stories. Only interesting to people who are following the news closely.

This is a horrible tease.  “Lessons From Oil Industry May Help Address Groundwater Crisis”, it says, and my eyes dilated and my breath quickened.  Does the oil industry have something to teach us about extending yields by sustainable extraction methods?  Did they find a distribution regime that, surprisingly, satisfied all the users?  What can the oil industry teach us?!!  Fucking nothing.  There are no lessons in that piece.  It tells us what we all already know about groundwater (that it is being mined faster than replenished), alluded to something called “unitization“, and doesn’t tell us what it is.  Besides that, there’s nothing in that article that water people don’t already talk about.  I don’t appreciate being lead on.

***

Wait, wait, WHAT?  This review of the new tv series V says:

It quickly emerged that the space lizards, handsome in their human disguises, wanted to take our water and then use it to wash us tasty earthlings down.

Why don’t I remember that?! The lizards wanted to take our water?!! I just barely remember the original series. In fact, all I remember is a face coming off. How did they want to take the water? Which water? What about area-of-origin rights?

***

Seriously, this is so whiny that I’m embarrassed they’re representing me.  It is such a blatant cry for Other People’s Money.  There are multiple causes for the Delta’s collapse.  One of them is plausibly ammonias from Sacramento’s wastewater.  We will probably have to fix several of the causes at the same time.  Given that one of the causes is our shit, and that everyone in the state is under expensive burdens just like ours, seems like Sacramento should suck it up and pay to clean our discharged wastewater.

***

Felt seesawing emotions about this op-ed.  Rebecca Solnit!  She’s great!  But then she says “cotton, rice, alfalfa”, and I thought ‘oh no.  You too, Ms. Solnit?’  Her main point veered off, so I didn’t have to lose faith in her entirely.  Because I think she is so very awesome, I will arbitrarily ask even more of her.  I would very much like it if people who want us to stop using water in some particular way would acknowledge the rest of what they mean.  Growers aren’t irrigating cotton, rice and alfalfa for their masturbatory pleasure.  They are doing it because those crops achieve something.  Rice is bought and eaten by humans.  Alfalfa grown with subsidized water leads to artificially cheap milk and meat, and people are now accustomed to those prices.  The follow-through for “stop irrigating alfalfa” is pay more for (and eat less) beef and dairy.  Which, you know, I’m all for.  I guess I’m mostly objecting to the implication that one could remove those practices without seeing ripple effects.

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From Carl Pope’s piece in the Huffington Post:

Instead of recognizing that  we first need to use every drop of water that falls near us and only then rely on long-distance transport and surface storage, the governor’s proposal continues excessive reliance on outmoded water-storage solutions, lowers the emphasis on protection provided by existing law for the health of California’s waterways, does almost nothing to enhance local self-reliance on water supplies, and fails to guarantee commonsense reforms of water policy.  [my emphasis]

I dunno, dude. The bond measure includes a billion dollars for Integrated Regional Water Management (which is DWR’s program emphasizing local supplies). Were you hoping for more than a billion dollars?

His next paragraph was interesting:

We’re still going to try to force a huge portion of the state’s water supply through the unstable and fragile bottleneck of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where a single engineering flaw, natural disaster, or malicious attack could bring the entire state to its knees for years.

Does he have a different route in mind?  I am so curious.  Upstream of Sacramento somewhere?  Connected to the restored San Joaquin River?  This is visionary new thinking!!  Where, besides through the Delta, would one move Shasta and Oroville water to south of the Delta?  An eastern route, pumped over the Sierras and connecting to the LA Aquaduct?

***

Dan Bacher’sAn anonymous tweeter’s slams against environmental groups that support the water bill are annoying.  According to his twitter feed, he likes his environmental groups “homegrown, representative of community, not Big AG”.  You know, the groups he is slamming have a long history of advocacy against agricultural water waste and subsidies.  The other term for “homegrown” and representative of community” is NIMBYism, and that has its own pernicious aspects.  Slighting someone else’s environmentalism because they don’t have the same vision of the Delta (or California as a whole) is an asshole move.

(Apologies to Mr. Bacher, who I’m told is likely not the tweeter behind StopPeripheralCanal.  I don’t know why I thought he was.)

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