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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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Comments on a few articles.

  1. Mr. Kurtz

    I don’t get the outrage over the Sandridge deal. Dudley Ridge is a SWP contractor. No General Fund money ever went into the SWP. It is paid for entirely by the users. The growers have been paying for water, and paying off the bonded indebtedness since the project was installed. Now high water costs and marginal returns made it uneconomic for Voinovitch to continue farming that orchard. So I see three choices: a) walk away from his investment, b) continue to consume water at a loss or c) sell the water to another user who values it more highly. What would you do? Or maybe there’s another choice I am missing.

  2. Aquafornia

    Here’s a quote from the press release at the Mohave Water Agency website:

    “Under the agreement, the MWA’s State Water Project Table A Amount will be in­crementally increased from 75,800 acre-feet a year to 89,800 a year. The deal gives this High Desert region’s State Water Contractor the full 14,000 acre-feet of water-purchase rights a year beginning in 2020, an 18.47 percent increase over its 2008 entitlement.

    ….

    The costs of wet water purchased under the entitlement and its delivery will be paid by the Mojave Water Agency. The price of the water entitlement is $73.5 million, or $5,250 an acre-foot, and has been paid to Sandridge Partners of Sunnyvale, CA.”

    source: http://www.mojavewater.org/home/about/NewsArticles/Mojave%20Water%20Agency–Dudley%20Ridge%20Water%20District.aspx

    Sounds to me like it’s a purchase of a water entitlement, which I would read to also mean water right, not a per-acre foot charge as OTPR points out.

    There’s a lot more information on the deal at the link above.

  3. “She uses about five to ten times the amount of the average user.”

    Nugteren said Kelly was the first of the 30 customers with special agreements to exceed her allotted water supply this year. Kelly’s allotment would last a typical Lakes District customer about five and a half months. It took Kelly only about four months.”

    Am I reading this right?

    In four months an average water district customer would use 7500 to 15,000 gallons (61 to 122 gallons per day), a typical Lakes District customer uses 55,000 gallons (453 gallons per day), and this lady uses 75,000 gallons (618 gallons per day)?