Review: AlterNet’s piece on the California water crisis.

I’m so entertained by the thought of a crazy Russian ex-pat coming back and deciding to follow CA water policy that Levine’s essays get  the benefit of the doubt from me.  I figure that maybe he knows oligarchs and fiefdoms and cartels when he sees them.  I also like that his rants stretch the boundaries of the water conversation way out to the left, making me look measured and reasoned by comparison.  Best of all, he’s writing long pieces that say more and different things than re-heated Reisner.  So I’m glad he’s on the scene.  But.  I have four objections to his piece on myths of the recent drought, two of them serious.

First:

He cites last year’s precip (94% of average) as evidence that we’re not really in a drought.  But precip isn’t the right measure; what matters is run-off.  Turns out that precip isn’t becoming run-off that we can catch and store like it used to.  We’re not completely sure what is happening to it.  Some is probably evaporating off the snow during hotter Springs.  The dry ground from the previous two years of drought is sucking it in, maybe.  But last year’s 94% of annual precip was only 65% of annual run-off, and it wasn’t enough to re-fill our low reservoirs.  Focusing on Westlands, as some national media has done, exaggerates the effects of the drought for sure.  But the drought is real.

Second:

Levine asks why California officials would pretend we’re in a drought if we aren’t:

[W}hy would California officials exaggerate — if not outright lie — about the drought? Well, the issue here is less about the drought itself and more about what a drought — real or not — can help achieve. If there is one thing 2009 revealed about California’s “action hero” governor, it’s that he is eagerly willing to serve as the front man for the sleaziest, most crooked business cartel in the state: a de facto water oligarchy made up of billionaire corporate farmers who run vast stretches of the state like their own personal fiefdoms, exploiting migrant workers for slave labor and soaking the taxpayers for billions of dollars in subsidies every year. And like all good businessmen, they aren’t letting a good mini-crisis go to waste. Their objective is to whip up fears of a drought-related calamity to push through a “solution” they’ve been having wet dreams about for the past five decades: a multi-billion-dollar aqueduct the width of the Panama Canal that would give them near total control of more than half of California’s water supplies.

That’s what the state’s “historic” $11-billion bond measure that will appear on the November 2010 ballot is all about. A columnist at the Stockton Record said it best: It “really amounts to an old-fashioned California water grab based on the failure to face nature’s limits.”

I absolutely believe that some politicians and some big water officials are using the drought to push a Peripheral Canal, and simultaneously, know that even a monstrously huge new Peripheral Canal IS NOT A WATER GRAB.  That’s the thing.  What water would it be grabbing?  The Sac and San Joaquin are, like, four times oversubscribed.  New water stored in the non-existent Sites Reservoir?  Grabbing water currently going to in-Delta uses, when the G-Men disappear all the Delta farmers? That water has people waiting in line for it too, and don’t think they wouldn’t sue to protect that priority and use if any water came free in the Delta.

There’s no possibility of a huge corporate water grab for Westlands.  There’s no chunk of water they could be grabbing.  That’s not what the Peripheral Canal is about.  Whether Westlands knows it or not, the Peripheral Canal is a rearguard action; they’re fighting to keep some of what they’ve got now as they retreat from a new, increasingly dry climate.   Moreover, there’s no chance Westlands can hold that water against the other power that needs it: Los Angeles.  If Westlands is lucky, they’ll get paid a freaking fortune when LA takes it.  If they’re stubborn and hold out, I’d expect to see an initiative or legislation that takes that water.  This is why MWD, who supplies the southern cities, is willing to pay to construct the Peripheral Canal.  They absolutely need the water that comes from the north, they need secure conveyance, and they know that cities of 20 million people will get their water if they’re the only ones who do.

Third:

Levine’s section on urban water conservation makes no sense at all.

Schwarzenegger’s mandate that urban water use be cut by 20 percent has earned the governor a lot of green cred, but few people realize that his plan for water conservation is actually a forced wealth transfer scheme in a environmentalist disguise. …

[N]o matter how much water city dwellers save, it’ll be sucked up by wealthy corporate farmers who are always on the lookout for more taxpayer-subsidized wet wealth. And with water trading for a minimum at ten times what they pay for it on the open market, every gallon a city dweller conserves will will end up as cash in the personal bank account of some wealthy corporate farmers. It’s all part of the master plan because, even as the governor talks up urban conservation, he tries his darnedest to get them more water.

This is completely backwards.  Water NEVER goes backwards from urban to ag.  That makes no sense; urban water prices are far too high for growers to make a profit using urban water as a farm input.  Water freed by urban water conservation goes to other city dwellers in the same district.  Even that isn’t enough, so urban buys from ag.  But every gallon conserved in a city is a gallon that they don’t have to buy from a farmer.  The conserved gallons are the ones that do not end up as cash in a corporate farming bank account.  Schwarzenegger’s 20 by 2020 is the exact part that is NOT a wealth transfer to ag.

Fourth:

I couldn’t help but notice that your section on the myth of food shortage looked mighty familiar, what with putting fallowed farmland in context and discussing whether almonds are vital crops.  Seems to me that a fancy online magazine like Alternet could afford to buy hyperlinks in bulk, and spend one or two connecting  readers with your sources.  That’d be a nice thing to do.  The section on unemployment in Mendota owes a fair amount to the work done by Valley Econ, so perhaps you could throw a link that way, too.

There was more.  I loved the bonus myth.  I could go into other points here and there.  I enjoyed the tone, honestly.  I hope Mr. Levine writes more about CA water.  I hope the next piece is more accurate.

The next morning: Some minor editing for clarity.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Review: AlterNet’s piece on the California water crisis.

  1. I’m glad to see a few blogs like yours giving some needed perspective on that provocative article. I just wish that you would reconsider the anonymous blogging…my experience has taught me to consider a blog more credible if its author identifies him or her self.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    I’m afraid that it is pseudonymous or not at all. You’ll just have to evaluate whether the reasoning and sources are credible as they stand.