Monthly Archives: December 2009

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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Here’s why.

In the comments, Mr. Kurtz asked:

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.

I have a number of reasons for my outrage; most of them can be sourced to different conceptions of what Sandridge (all water users) was really given back at the beginning. If you think that the ag SWP contractors were being given the use of water to make the desert bloom (actually to ‘reclaim’ the dank and desolate annual marsh of the SJV), then selling the water and pocketing the money violates that expectation. This plays out in a bunch of ways.

  • Saying the the SWP contractors have paid in full for the SWP  doesn’t convince me that they were also buying that water in perpetuity.  In my mind, they were paying for conveyance and leasing the annual use of a contracted amount of water.  They got what they paid for.  Why should they get another $70M windfall for not-using future water?
  • I have deeply resented the fact that in our times some people have this extraordinarily valuable gift of water from the state, while others must buy it from them for daily uses.  The only reason poor people in Los Angeles pay rice farmers in Sutter for water is that a hundred years ago the Sutter farmers’ grandfathers filed a piece of paper?  This is stonecold bullshit.  Current farmers in the Valleys didn’t do anything so noble or valuable or virtuous that the people of California should grant them huge wealth as a reward.  Further, I as a contemporary city-dweller haven’t done anything so sucky that I should be forced to shell out for water to meet daily needs.  Further, even their grandparents weren’t nobler than my grandparents.  I mean, it’d be awesome if my great-grandparents had come here in time to get me some sweet pre-14 rights, but they were kinda busy being pogrommed, so they didn’t get to it.  So now, <b>I</b> pay their grandchildren for water?  There is no supportable justice in that.  That’s like inheritable nobility for them, or original sin for me, and neither of those are supposed to be American concepts of justice.
  • That said, the sole justification that I have ever heard that made any sense at all was “we gave them rights to water forever because they turned the American west into cute farming towns for us”.  You might think that was a bad bargain, as I do, but at least it makes more sense than “because that was the pointless jumbled system that happened to happen, so undeserving people should get tons of money or nothing will ever get done”.  In which case, corporate farmers who sell water away from empty shells of water districts are not keeping their end of the bargain because they are not being cute farming towns for us.
  • I don’t think the options should be the ones Kurtz outlined (walking away, using water at a loss, selling it to another user) should be the choices.  I think Sandridge got what they paid for (conveyance, use of past water) and when that is no longer profitable, the water they no longer want to use should default to the state.  The state could then apply it to fisheries, or auction it and use the money they raise that way for something useful for the public.  I don’t think Sandridge should have to continue to incur losses by taking that water (if that’s how their accounting turns out), but neither do I think that they should make money on future water.  It is a particularly emphatic example because Sandridge appears to be unsympathetic corporate actors.

So that’s some of the reaons behind my outrage.  I’m sure I’ll think of more the second I hit post.


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I would love detailed, concrete answers, if you have ’em.

DWR released initial allocations for next year’s State Water Project contracts, and based on empty reservoirs, said that everyone would be getting just about nothing. This is a very conservative estimate, and kinda to-be-ignored. They can’t say anything else until they know whether the winter snows are good. There were a whole spate of reactions in the news, with most big water players saying that this is why we should vote ‘yes’ on an $11B bond measure next year. All predictable, but I got curious about this:

A spokeswoman for Zone 7, the water agency for Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, said that in a worst-case scenario it could draw on groundwater and possible rationing to weather the lack of storms.

“We can’t sustain this forever,” said

Zone 7 spokeswoman Boni Brewer, whose customers get 80 percent of their water from the Delta. “Long-term, we can’t sustain this. Short-term, were saying that we would be OK.”

First, Australia is in its tenth year of drought this year. Whenever Australians give talks here, the first thing they say is “it just kept going”. Their drought just kept on. I assume that was pretty brutal in years 4-6, but now they look chipper as they call it the new normal. I have no idea whether or how long the current drought will continue. But I want to know what, precisely, would happen to Zone 7 if it did. She says that “long-term, we can’t sustain this.” But a long-term drought is entirely plausible. So what would happen?

I assume she means that they can’t supplement with groundwater forever; their aquifers would dry out in some more years of this. Once that happens, if the SWP still can’t offer them much water, what can’t be sustained? Their current rate of new housing starts? The existence of lawns? Any industrial processes in the region? Their current water rates? What exactly am I scared of here? Loss of trappings of a middle class lifestyle? Decreased rates of growth? Dust bowl style evacuations, with Mad Max bandits living in the ruined suburbs?

Presumably there is some level of city in the Zone 7 service area that could be sustained indefinitely without SWP water. The size of that city depends a lot on lifestyle and efficiency (Both. I’m not using efficiency as a euphemism that covers lifestyle changes.). If Zone 7 cannot sustain what they’re doing now without SWP water, what do they intend to do if this drought lasts another ten or twenty years? That isn’t fiction. It is happening now in Australia.

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