Monthly Archives: December 2009

Idle calculations.

There is another permanent water transfer out of Dudley Ridge Water District.  From what I’ve seen reported, the sales are:

14,000 af of permanent water rights, from Sandridge Partners, to Mojave Water Agency, for $73M.

880 acres of land, including 1,700 af of water rights, from Jackson family, to Irvine Ranch, for $14.3M.

Two data points!  I can conclude things!

MWA transfer:

(14,000 af in the water right)/($73M) = $5,200 per acrefoot of right.  (This isn’t per acre-foot, remember.  This is for the right, which will have intermittent yields in perpetuity.)

Irvine Ranch transfer:

(1,700 af in the water right)/($14.3M) = $8,400 per acrefoot of water right.

Except that Irvine Ranch also bought the land.  Since the two transfers are from one SWP contract with Dudley Ridge, they’re equally reliable.  The conveyance costs are similar.  So I am going to say that the difference in price comes from the value of the land.

($5,200 per acre for just the water right)/($8,400 per acre for the water right and the land) = 0.62 .

I’m thinking that the water right accounts for 62% of the value of agricultural land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.  I heard some Australian guy say land prices drop 80% when the water is sold away from the land.  So those numbers are in the same ball park.

That ten percent decrease in annual runoff from climate change I see in the water models?  That’s a lot of money capitalized into land values.  You’d think people who owned big swaths of farmland would be leading the fight to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and prevent some of global warming.

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Also, self-pity is remarkably unappealing from the outside.

I don’t even have a TV, because I am unbearably self-satisfied.  So I didn’t watch the 60 Minutes segment and can’t compare it to other TV programs.  For all I know, it is as good as any TV.  That said, I read the transcript and had some thoughts.

1.  They spent an hour on this?  Man, TV is slow.  I read that in five or six minutes and even for five or six minutes, I thought it was light on content.  This internet business is nice.  I’ve gotten used to much denser content.

2.  Chance of Rain is completely right.  The Twain quote is overused and a mark of weak thought.  I’m putting it in the category with the Reisner-derived cliche “cotton, alfalfa and rice” as an early signal that the person isn’t going to offer anything new.

3.  I’ve been meaning to complain about the “water war” framing for a while now.  This one:

People have died over water. You know, movies have been made about the wars of water in California,” Gov. Schwarzenegger told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl.

“Chinatown,” Stahl remarked.

“Exactly,” Schwarzenegger replied. “So water has been one of those issues.”

It’s one of those issues that is pitting Californians against each other for every last drop.

Seriously, we are not in a water war.  I can tell you this because if it were a war, I’d be on the front lines.  I am a water bureaucrat, baby, deep in the trenches of the decades-long water war.  In real life, this means I work in a very ordinary cube in ordinary clothing.  No one ever takes any shots at me.   (Sometimes, someone suggests that I re-phrase something before we release it to the public.)  No one took any shots at anyone during the protracted negotiations for the new water legislation.  So far as I know, Judge Wanger walks to his car un-escorted and unafraid, which means that we are really and truly not in a water war. 

Instead, we’re in an extended, complicated, multi-party conflict over resource use that will be resolved through incremental progress in courts, administrative plans, white papers and legislation (or maybe earthquake-caused collapse of Delta levees).  I am sorry if that doesn’t give our Action Governor a boner, but that is not a war.  The conflict is not exciting.

4.  I’m surprised at how little the TV host says.  She echoes and prompts, and offers no synthesis.  I guess that’s not her job.

5.  Political implications, eh.  They’re down the conventional faultlines, so you already know them.  I guess I wish they’d told more interesting parts of the stories.  How ARE people reacting to high new water bills?  Have they changed behavior and which water uses did they sacrifice?  Are growers monolithic, or are there some who are glad to have some of their competition sidelined?  How are bank officers deciding to offer credit next year?


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Perhaps a public affairs staffer is doing her job.

The trailer for the Sixty Minutes show reminded me of something else.  We’ve seen an awful lot of Westlands Water District recently, in surprising places.  The grower shown in the trailer, Stuart Woolf, farms in Westlands and is a former director of the district.  I assume Sarah Woolf, spokesperson for WWD is a relative.  (NTTAWWT. )  It isn’t clear to me why the Sixty Minutes producers chose Westlands to show California ag when the vast majority of Cal ag did fine this year.  Or, if you want to show drought ag victims, why not stumped avocados in San Diego?  But, you know, Westlands got itself on the news again.

I also didn’t get this piece at all.  Like, from top to bottom.  I don’t understand why engineering firms think they should be doing journalism.  But given that they are, why write a piece on the smelt litigation that talks about nothing but Westlands from the Westlands perspective?  There are a ton of engineering aspects to the smelt litigation.  You could talk about fish screens, keeping smelt out of the Peripheral Canal, the bubble curtain, the engineer expert witnesses who testify in Wanger’s court.  There are any number of ways to sell engineering products in an article on smelt and CA water.  So why this incredibly one-sided piece for Westlands?

The strangest, and this one genuinely baffles me, was in the clunky and nearly illegible presentation on California Water Myths, by the Public Policy Institute of California.  The entire myth on subsidized ag was a blowjob for Westlands.  Why?  Westlands wasn’t in the paper report.  If you’re talking about subsidized water for CA ag, you should be (mostly) talking about the federal Central Valley Project, over on the east side.  It was out of nowhere, and I don’t understand the editing process that included it.

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Thoughts on Interior’s very well done Interim Plan for California water.

The Dept of Interior just released a 23 page plan for getting back involved in CA water after eight years of Bush administration neglect*.  I am very impressed with the document as a whole.  It is well written.  Everything it says is well connected to the situation as I understand it; I didn’t spot any outsider’s mistakes or cliches.  It did something fairly difficult, which is list a well-specified set of actions Interior intends to take that will concretely address the problems in the Delta.  It is hard to do that, so more power to the incisive person or group who wrote this piece.  I don’t remember any waffle-y bullshit about “considering possibly funding additional research to study writing a plan.”  On the whole, big ups to the authors of Interior’s Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta.

Against the background of my approval, some thoughts:

1.  Heh.  The plan slams the Bush Administration about as hard as a bureaucratic document can.  It talks about “mov[ing] California water issues from the back burner to the forefront of Federal attention during 2009” and “[a]fter several years of being on the sidelines, the Administration” (Pg. 3, paragraph 3).  It also talks about a dedication to science-based decisions, which get its own heading on page 4.  You know, you don’t have affirm that you make decisions based on science unless your predecessors just spent years and years making decisions on something else.  That’s all slight, though; I mention it only because it made me laugh.

2.  I found the section on Water Transfers (IIB, Pg. 9) to be slightly strange.  It says:

In 2009, Reclamation and other Federal agencies … facilitated the transfer of over 600,000 acre-feet of water by and among CVP contractors and users of SWP water to ensure water was available to the highest-priority users.

I don’t know what “highest-priority users” means.  Given the generally high quality of the Interim Plan, I’m prepared to believe it is a term of art that I’m not familiar with.  But unless it is a term of art, it doesn’t match up with how I understand water transfers.  There are two problems.  Generally, the word “priority” is similar to “seniority”, and goes with the “first in time, first in right” appropriative rights system.  But you don’t need water transfers to ensure senior/high-priority water rights holders get their water.  They get their water first,  all others be damned.  There’s no transfer about it.

The other problem is that to my knowledge, water transfers aren’t based on a prioritization.  They go to the highest bidder.  You pay more money, you get the water.  In real life, that overwhelmingly means that cities get the water (because they can collect more money to buy water), but I don’t know of an explicit prioritization of urban use**.  It is possible to be very precise about what water transfers do, which is move water to the highest economic use (measured by money and with attendant externalities).  That may very well be the goal (although I haven’t been convinced I want that), but I don’t know whether and when it was explicitly decided that the people who could pay the most were the highest-priority users.

Seems most likely to me that it a slightly loose word choice.  But so far as I know, awarding water transfers by a priority that wasn’t straight purchase price would be a major new policy initiative.  If that were the intention, I’d be very interested in how it comes about.

3.  Then, the heading for Section IID is very peculiar:

Assist the National Academy of Sciences in Its Review of the Potential Availability of Alternative Water Supply Opportunities

Because that is not supposed to be the main point of the NAS review. The NAS review is supposed to decide whether the Biological Opinion on smelt that was the basis for court-ordered pumping restrictions is based on the best available science. You know, to put lawsuits against the Biological Opinion to rest.  Which is already bullshit, because the ESA doesn’t say that Biological Opinions require an additional level of review by the National Academy of Sciences, especially not a review that directs them to please find anything else they can do to help the smelt besides curtailing pumping.*** Besides, it was a relatively new Biological Opinion (like, 2008 or 2009 or something) re-written on judge’s orders because the first one was so weak. If we don’t trust the federal FWS and NMFS to write decent Biological Opinions, that is a real problem that should get fixed. But unless we mean to fix a systemic problem with Biological Opinions, senators shouldn’t go arbitrarily asking for some of them to get extra review from the National Academy of Sciences to please find something else.

So why is Interior’s Interim Plan header emphasizing the potential availability of additional water supplies instead of evaluating the scientific evidence about the best ways to protect smelt?**** That’s hardly co-equal.

Anyway, I thought the Interim Plan was mostly very good, with those two odd notes. I would have added something about water district modernization to the section on water conservation; I think improving district-level operations and infrastructure has potential for water and reliability yields that gets overlooked a lot. I thought Section III E on Climate Change Adaptation was forward looking and gave specific avenues for development. Really, I was impressed.

UPDATE 1/9/10: Professor Doremus writes an excellent critique of the Interim Plan here.  I particularly liked that she called out perpetuating the win-win fallacy.  I have a hard time thinking of something the feds could do that would be a newer approach, but I’ll ponder the idea a while.

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Scale, motherfuckers.

Sixty Minutes is about to tell you that the terrible drought cost California 130,000 almond trees!  ONE HUNDRED and THIRTY THOUSAND almond trees!  HOLY SHIT!

Half the country’s fruits and nuts come from this area, and so the impact is imminent.

What if you people who aren’t personal friends with an almond grower NEVER TASTE AN ALMOND AGAIN!!  Is there any hope for New Yorkers who like almond granola?

(130,000 almond trees)*(1 acre/105 almond trees) = 1238 ACRES OF TREES!!!!

(1,238 almond acres)/(710,000 acres of almond trees in CA) = 0.0017

That’s almost 0.2% change in the California almond acreage!!!

Even with this devastating loss, the Californian almond harvest this year was 1.6 billion pounds shelled (up from 1.3 billion pounds shelled last year) accounting for 85% of the world’s almond production.  C’mon, Sixty Minutes.  I know tractors ripping out trees look awesome, but so does the annual Almond Almanac.  A few seconds of searching would have given you some perspective on this.  It would have told you how big the imminent impact is going to be.  And that even with the drought, there were more almonds harvested this year than ever before.

UPDATE:  You know what cracks me up?  1,200 acres of almonds isn’t even big on Woolf’s own farm.  Woolf Farming Company evidently farms about 20,000 acres.  So they ripped out almonds on 6% of their acreage (the rest is evidently in other crops).  I mean really.


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They should start by reading Ostrom.

I was reading this article, about how there is stimulus package money for drilling wells for ag relief even though groundwater levels are falling and the well water they can pump is salty.  It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, so I wasn’t that excited about it.  I was going along, thinking stray thoughts.  Heh.  They got a quote from Errotabere.  He gets quoted for the grower’s perspective all the time.  Wonder how he got to be the quote guy.  Is his last name Basque?  I could look that up, but it would take seconds of effort and that’s hard.  I was pretty interested in his quote:

“We don’t need any more straws going down there ’cause we’re already doing a pretty good job of sucking it dry,” said farmer Dan Errotabere, who has dug three wells as deep as 1,200 feet to irrigate his tomatoes, almonds and garlic in recent years. “We’re using this water as a last resort, but pretty soon we’re going to need a policy to protect ourselves from ourselves.”

That sounds almost like a plug for groundwater regulation. He is on the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Is he possibly setting the thin edge of a policy wedge here? Huh.

Then I was kinda interested in Salazar’s comments:

Salazar, a former rancher and environmental lawyer, told California farmers the wells and other taxpayer-funded projects would help their businesses stay alive.

“I’ve watched acres of our land dry up. I’ve gone to the bank with my brothers and not been able to get financing myself,” he said. “You’re all wondering what is your future in 30 years, and I know there’s a lot of pain right now.”

I think he hit the most vital part of this whole discussion, on bank financing. I think the banks that extend ag credit and mortgages will be the ones to determine how far and fast the ag sector in California contracts. They’re the ones who have to bet on fuel and fertilizer prices, and availability of water, and yields in other parts of the world. I have no idea how they calculate that. Wish I did. (As a public service, I will repeat my predictions here. If you are wondering what your future in 30 years will look like, you should ask yourself. Is my acreage in the top 6 million acres of irrigated ag in California? Am I in the bottom third of irrigated ag in the state? If you think the answer is no (or then yes), you should move your operations to the east side or the Sac Valley before everyone else finds my blog and tries to do that too. You’re welcome.) So that was kindof interesting.

But then I saw a mention to a guy who says that his canal is cracking, because the ground is subsiding under it as the aquifer gets drained. I was all, huh. What district, I wonder? I want to see pictures of cracking canals. Is it, like, a lateral or something? So I searched for the guy’s name, and found a picture.

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I’m going to hold hearings too. With my friends. We’re gonna get drunk and find some findings.

This is fucking nuts. Republican Representative McClintock is announcing that he and his buddies are holding their own party in Fresno, because the rest of the House of Representatives have told them a bunch of times that they aren’t going to waive the Endangered Species Act, so stop asking already.  Fine.  I don’t know what their own hearings will accomplish besides political theater, but there’s nothing to stop them.  But Rep. McClintock is quoting some one who says that the feds need to lift Endangered Species protections because California is importing food from China to feed our starving workers.

Full Committee Ranking Member Doc Hastings (WA-04) [said] “There are serious problem with our Nation’s environmental laws that prioritize fish over people. This is evident when one of the most fertile agricultural areas is importing food from China to feed the needy. If it can happen in California, it can happen anywhere and that’s why it’s important for Congress to travel to the Valley.”

That is straight up gibberish. Believe you me, California is still a huge net exporter of food.  Actually, don’t believe you me.  Believe the California Dept of Food and Ag, who says that as of two years ago, California exported 28% of its agricultural production.   True, that was before the DROUGHT and THE JUDGE SHUT DOWN THE PUMPS!!!  But, the amount of land fallowed because the drought and ESA combined was roughly 300,000 acres, or about 3% of California’s ag land.  Meanwhile, the most recent California Crop Report shows no signs of a greater than 28% drop in agricultural production.  I think I’d have read something about that, if it had happened.  I follow the Hanford Sentinel and the Fresno Bee, you know.

Representative Hastings, whose constituents should be embarrassed that he represents them, seems to be relying on this picture for evidence that California’s needs food from China to feed itself.  He can reassure himself with actual data about carrots; looks like California grew 16,700 acres worth of carrots this fall alone.  Never fear, Rep. Hastings!  Protecting the Delta Smelt does not threaten the nation’s carrot supply!

More seriously, I actually do think the food security is a legitimate issue.  Some environmentalists think it is an absurd excuse to give more money to agribusiness.  They think agribusiness is plenty secure already.  Some economists think that our best food security is having big dollars, so that we can go buy food on the world market if we stop producing it.  But I worry a little.  Not in the short term, but I  think a combination of levee failures in the Delta that shut down the California aquaduct altogether and groundwater overdraft in the SJV could mean a very sharp and abrupt decrease in the amount of water available to farming in the San Joaquin Valley.  I don’t think that is a particularly far-fetched scenario.  If that happened during a worldwide drought (also no longer farfetched), there may not be all that much food for us to buy, and the rest of the world will also want it.  I’d feel a lot better with food in my (extended) backyard than cash in the bank.  I think that since we are so rich, we should pay to maintain that kind of security and assurance here at home.  But at current levels of production, we are a huge exporter and we have so much extra that we can grow a million acres of grains to feed to animals.  That’s a million acres of production that could provide about ten times more food for humans, should we need it.

The other reason Rep. Hasting (and Rep. McClintock by extension) have that fear completely backwards is that you know who faces a huge food security problem?  China.  They sold someone a box of carrots, true.  But China is so worried about feeding itself that they’re buying up Africa as a breadbasket.  I love that kind of longterm vision.  Respect to China.  But basically, every aspect of that justification for the pretend-Congressional hearing is backwards.  California produces more than plenty of food for itself.  China is never going to be an important food source for Californians; they’re rightfully worried about feeding themselves.  And these representatives don’t give a fuck about food security anyway.  They want to get rid of the Endangered Species Act and make not-even-specious arguments about its harms.  Whatever, dudes.  Enjoy your fake hearings.  The rest of  Congress will never care about them.

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Get some real units, JPL.

Come on, dudes. No one cares about cubic kilometers.  How is anyone supposed to understand that?  Thank goodness for unit converters.

OOOH!  24 million acre-feet have been sucked out of the ground in the San Joaquin Valley in the past six years without replenishment!  Hey, that’s interesting.  Let’s think about that a little.  I’m going to make some very rough approximations.

At six million irrigated acres in the SJV, that would be four feet of water per acre in six years (if every grower were pumping gw). Forty-eight inches in six years means each acre is using about 8 inches of gw/year. 

My usual rule of thumb is three-and-a-half feet of water to grow a crop, so 42 inches of water/year. 

What this information tells me, very roughly, is that every year growers in the SJV are using overdrafting groundwater to get about 20% of the water they need to finish their crop*.  This is, of course, wrong; some growers use only surface water, some use only groundwater, some mix it up in different proportions.  But now I have a rough approximation.  When the groundwater in the SJV gets too deep to be worth pumping (or energy gets more expensive), I expect to see something slightly less than 20% of the irrigated acres drop out of production.   I am standing by my gut feeling of California ag settling at about 6 million irrigated acres by 2050, down from 9 million today.

Let’s compare 24 million-acrefeet of depleted groundwater to something else.  Here is DWR’s graphic of annual water supplies and uses. (On page 6. A two-sided bar chart. I’ll try to put it here later.)

First thought. Hmmm. The state of California uses about 80 million acrefeet of surface water every year, for everything. That’s all the rivers being rivers, cities drinking, crops being irrigated. An additional (roughly) four million acre-feet of gw getting sucked out of the SJV aquifers per year sounds plausible. Second thought. That column on the very far right is a calculated closure term. It says how much more we know we’re using than supplies, and that water comes from somewhere. Reservoirs being drawndown or groundwater. The numbers there go from about 5 million acre-feet a year to 12 million acrefeet a year. Four million acrefeet of overdraft in the SJV fits right into that. (The last time we had more supplies than use was 1998). Contra Dr. Gleick here, the new Water Plan seems to report overdraft at about the same scale as the JPL results.

So, a rough estimate and a different presentation say the JPL results are on the right scale. I didn’t doubt JPL, except for their poor choice of units, but it is nice to see these all agreeing.

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Maybe you can make some use of this.

I don’t have any use for this yet, but I’m toying with a new (to me) concept:

Flood integrates; drought fragments.

A co-worker stopped by my office to ask what integrated drought management would be, and I couldn’t answer him. Flood integrates everything, it seems like. It integrates everything on the path it touches, at least. You can address flood by improving soil absorption on mountainsides, by improving reservoir operations, by fixing levees, by fixing land use, by collecting stormwater. Pull any thread in flood, and everything on the landscape twitches.  To deal with floods, you have to work with everyone up and downstream of you.

Drought, though. Seems like drought just creates islands. One way to deal with drought is to scale back, retreat and abandon marginal areas. Drought makes agencies accuse their neighbors of coveting their water.

I hate metaphors; think they’re dangerous. I’m not sure this is a valid conceptualization anyway. But I’m still pondering it.

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A gw management plan would be fine by me, too. If it had teeth.

So far as I can tell, Seth Nidever at the Hanford Sentinel is tracking one of the more interesting frontiers in CA water.  If you think abstract thoughts about “urban will pay ag and then water markets will take care of everything”, the stories in the Hanford Sentinel will tell you more precisely how that is all going down.  In this article, I especially love that intra-farmer resentment over transfers is more important to them than the sanctity of unregulated groundwater.  Since I am a big fan of intrusive government regulation, I am quite pleased at the precedent that if you sell your surface water rights away, you can’t farm with pumped groundwater.  Anything to break the seal of sanctity around unregulated groundwater.  Mostly, though, I think this story, at this level of detail, is the place to watch right now.

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