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.

*I cannot imagine that I’d have liked anything the Bush Administration decided to do in CA water, so I am grateful that Bush’s administration never did much here.
**The Drought Water Bank does do some prioritization, alloting water by purchase and an evaluation of need (such as to environmental refuges and prisons).  But they only moved about 60,000 acre-feet of water last year, compared to the 600,000 acre-feet of trades that is quoted.
***Sure, I’m all in favor of doing more besides limiting pumping. If other actions would help the smelt more, lets do those too. But I’m not in favor of second-guessing a valid Biological Opinion and a judge’s orders.
****Which is itself weird language. Additional would have to mean, “our old supplies through the Delta before pumping was restricted if we can find other ways to protect smelt just as much”, instead of what it sounds like, which is new sources of wet water.

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