Monthly Archives: February 2010

I’m so bad, I should be in detention.

Is it bad that I’m becoming a sucker for Tim Quinn? That I find myself nodding a lot when he talks? I can’t tell what is going on with that. My younger, wild-eyed self would be horrified to see me agreeing with ACWA. ACWA! Have I become centrist and moderate, or some crap like that?! I’d hate to think it.

But Mr. Quinn seems to genuinely believe in having all sides negotiate from their position of strength (perhaps because he has done this long enough to be pained at the thought of re-negotiating everything in eight years because it wasn’t done right the first time). He talks pretty freely in public forums, and says things that I had also thought. He says he was a big part of the last year’s water legislation, and I mostly like last year’s water legislation. I’m trying to stay skeptical, so I remind myself that you don’t get to be one of the big players without being good at talking in public. I dunno, man. I might have to bargain with myself. Like Tim Quinn on the one hand, give a donation to the Earth Liberation Front on the other. To keep my self-respect.

UPDATE: Or maybe my instincts are good. Westlands’ letter of resignation from ACWA complains about Mr. Quinn.  Thank you for releasing that, Mr. Weiser.

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No one likes large unpredictable actors.

I was pretty surprised to see that Westlands quit ACWA. I didn’t know what to make of the first reason they gave:

Spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said Westlands quit the Association of California Water Agencies because of budget priorities. Its ACWA membership cost about $19,000 a year, she said.

Westlands, the nation’s largest farm irrigation district, is engaged in a number of high-profile lawsuits against wildlife protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is choosing to focus on those efforts, Woolf said.

“We just have to be very strategic on where we put our resources right now,” she said. “We are in a lot of court cases and that’s not cheap.”

One must have priorities, but what does it say about the district that they’d rather apply their money to suing than being a member of the predominant association of water agencies? (To me, it says that they don’t think they have allies, and that they think that being adversarial in court is their best remaining option.) Second, things are so tight that they can’t scrape together an additional $20K? Really? If that’s the case, that’s interesting. I don’t have the faintest idea about the internal budgeting of Westlands (although I have the vague idea that a water district’s budget is public information, so I suppose someone could get it). I’d imagine it to be in the millions, and don’t expect that the big name upper managers come cheap. So I’m surprised to hear that they’re at the point that they don’t have $20K to be part of the most mainstream, established water agency association. Are they just done with the public perception of legitimacy? They’re past it, they don’t care?

I’m afraid that is what has happened. You know, Westlands wasn’t always like this. There was a time in the late 80’s, early 90’s, when they were one of the most progressive water districts in the Valley. They were atoning for Kesterson, and they hired great people to do (at the time) very advanced water conservation and irrigation efficiency stuff. They had one of the first and best water management plans of the CVP contractors. Then the board turned, and they hired an aggressive lawyer to be their GM. Fifteen years later, I think we’re seeing the end stages of an isolationist policy. Now we know. It takes about 15-20 years (and the beginnings of climate change) for an insular, adversarial approach to run a district into the ground.

We’ve seen this before, when a group of (mostly) smart people turns inward and stops hearing outside, critical voices. (I think that brought down CALFED, for example.) The inside people stop being capable of realistically evaluating the world. They only talk to each other, and always agree with how clever they are. They double down where they should retreat, and wonder why everyone else doesn’t understand. But something has clearly gone wrong inside Westlands. They have no internal regulator anymore, so they’re just baffling to the rest of us. Remember about two years ago, when they were bargaining for what they could get in exchange for building the San Luis drain themselves? And the first thing they asked for was fee simple ownership of Los Banos reservoir and all the plumbing on the west side? Did they have no idea how that would look to everyone else? Did they think it was remotely possible? Or this bid with Sen. Feinstein? In the middle of everything going on this year, and fading hopes for passing the bond, they overreach with this crude and infuriating “jobs” rider? Now they’re quitting ACWA? One of the few avenues for a mainstream, compromising voice to reach into the district, and they quit it? This is a feedback loop, in which they get more isolated, more extreme, and more sure of themselves because they hear no objections.

I’m not on the ground in Westlands, so I have no idea if people there are self-aware enough to recognize the problem or if there is momentum building for a change in how the district engages (and shuts itself off from) the world. It is a problem for us because they’re running amok. But in the end, their isolation, absolutism and adversarial approach will hurt them most.

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And paying. We’re fighting over who will pay.

This editorial from the Chico Enterprise Record is pretty much exactly what I would have written if I weren’t so lazy.

Last week, one north state water agency sued to block exports of water to the south, even as several other districts were conducting environmental studies needed to do exactly that.

 …

The lawsuit comes across as greedy in a time of drought: We get all of ours before you get any. It doesn’t seem a good political move in the current environment.

The effort also will seem suspect in the wake of several neighboring studies that would allow them to export water. Districts like Glenn-Colusa on the Sacramento River and Richvale on the Feather are among those laying the groundwork for water sales, although it’s uncertain whether they’ll go forward.

People are going to put one-and-one together, and think Tehama-Colusa is trying to get 100 percent of its contracted water so the 16 water districts it serves can sell it to those farther south.

Perhaps that should be their right, but it just won’t sit well with people who are seeing shortages. And it will give legislators — most of whom come from the dry lands — an easy target at time when they clearly don’t have the vision to actually fix the problem.

I’m not sure what would count as “vision to fix the problem”, unless that is code for “build new dams”. The legislative package shows that they do have a vision of solutions, but they’re boring solutions, like doing a bunch of distributed things like conservation and habitat restoration and setting up a system to evaluate a peripheral canal (but not commit to one!). Maybe boring solutions don’t count as “vision”. I complain about a lack of vision too, but I keep wishing for something a little different. I wish we had a vision of what we want to look like in a few decades (how urban people should live, what we want food production to be like, and what the state of the natural environmentment should be). Then we could start to do things that would move us towards that state. Instead the default always seems to be “um, whatever we’re doing now, I guess. But, like, in the future.”

***
So long as I am nit-picking, I want to object to a phrase I heard a couple times at the Water Forum on Monday. I heard a couple advocates say (in response to different things): “They are taking away our water!”

No one is taking away your water. The annual run-off of the state is leaving by itself (from climate change). What we’re squabbling over now is who will get less water and get compensated, and who will get less water without compensation. Just saying.

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Get all verklempt and shit.

It isn’t like I knew anything behind the scenes when I wrote that last piece. I am so far down in the department; I hear no inside gossip. I read the news and find out about stuff that way. When I wrote that last piece, it was pure reasoning about what makes sense. But now y’all are starting to write to me, and I heard that my flippant last paragraph is, in fact, true. Secret people tell me that the big boys are huddling, trying to figure out how to get out of the shitstorm. Westlands, of course you can’t believe I’m sincere, but I am telling you truly. This is perfect for you. This is your chance. If you had planned this, I would be in awe. This is how you start the extortion to move on to your next incarnation. You can back out of that mess you made and get going on your new career in solar power in one move. You don’t deserve your good luck.

The key here is that you pulled this shit in the jobs bill. Your plausible retreat is to keep talking about jobs. You are so sorry you acted so rashly, but when you think of all those farmworkers out of work in Mendota, you just lose your head. But now you’ve realized you don’t want to destroy the environment, you want protect it. You don’t want to fight climate change to hold on to the industry of the last century; as stewards, so close to the earth, you realize you have to adapt to the reality of climate change. You want to lead the way into green energy generation. You know better than anyone that there is less annual run-off. That means less hydropower. You feel the hotter summers, meaning increased energy demand for air conditioning. You have hundreds of thousands of acres of land to put to use, and some available water for dust control and cooling. You yearn to put people back to work in this exciting new industry. You have always been adaptable. You have always worked with new technologies. You have sunshine. Pres. Obama loves green energy. You could be poster children, like British Petroleum.

You would drop this rider that has gotten people so riled up if Congress promised to get jobs for all those workers you love so much. Jobs installing subsidized solar farms, that you would own. The west side would also need some new substations and transmission, and you would be willing to sell the easements for those transmission lines, if need arose. You could tie into a methane harvestor at the CAFO in Coalinga! New infrastructure means construction jobs. Surely the kit fox could co-exist with solar panels!

Sen. Feinstein has been such a wonderful advocate for the Valley, and campaigned on climate change in her 2006 re-election campaign. Surely an experienced and tireless worker for California is just the person to connect growers in Westlands with the solar power sharks who are putting in bids on BLM lands in the desert. This is a chance to shed a few controversial desert projects as well, and I bet you could score some points with Interior for that.

Westlands, when are you going to get a better opportunity to make a good future for your district? People will give you a lot to make this jobs bill rider go away smoothly, or if you play rough, they’ll force it down your throat and be mad at you everywhere else you go. What good would two years get you? The chance to worry about your drainage, to worry about the Delta-Mendota Canal, to start whatever new groundwater regulations are coming down the pike? You giving good odds to a favorable Farm Bill next time around? You could jump on a new bandwagon right now, and start becoming a solar power empire. Think of it. Think of the all the subsidies in a start-up industry. Think of getting in early in a new field, when prices are volatile and people don’t know what to pay yet. Think about getting your smaller growers out of bankruptcy. Think of setting your corporate growers loose in an unsettled legal frontier. For that matter, imagine being policy wonks in a field that Reisner didn’t ever write about. Think of not having to give a damn about fish. Think of ditching the endless, dull salt management talks. Think of not even caring whether the stupid bond passes. Dream about not even paying attention to the February revision of the contract allocations.

This is your two-fer, Westlands. You want to keep being farmers, facing huge problems on all fronts? You looking forward to walking back into BDCP and listening to those hippies talk about fish and marsh plants? Are you expecting any good news from anywhere, or do you only fight to delay the collapse? But you have a bargaining chip now: how easily you’ll give up this rider. Use it to start your new empire. Pretend jobs (and the environment) are the reasons. You’ve got the cover of a jobs bill, the momentum of an administration who wants to do stuff in energy, and a senator who needs to save face on this.

Or, you know. Let your growers collapse individually, go into bankruptcy, and have someone else come in to collect the pieces to put solar in the west side. Whichever.

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Maybe Cheney’s fourth branch of government can save Westlands.

Everyone is all “powerful corporate agribusiness pulling strings in Congress for WATER GRAB!!!” but what this Feinstein/Westlands ploy shows me is that Westlands is pretty well out of options, and they don’t have enough power to pull off the options they try.

This move, Sen Feinstein adding a rider onto an entirely different Congressional jobs bill.  What does it show?  First, that the state courts aren’t getting it done for Westlands.  They’re fighting in Judge Wanger’s court, and between the two listed species (smelt and salmon) and the two species protection laws (federal and state), Judge Wanger’s efforts can’t get both sets of pumps turned on for more than a couple days.  They can’t get any traction elsewhere in the state.  Gov. Schwarzenegger may take pictures with the faux Latino Water Coalition, but he doesn’t have the clout to sway anyone on anything; the speaker from the Little Hoover Commission at the water law symposium said he sees little political will to change the ESA (state or federal); the farthest the legislature is willing to go is to create a separate panel to (maybe) OK a Peripheral Canal (in ten years) so long as every single legislator is bought off with some nice watershed projects in her district.

At the federal level on the executive side, the Obama administration doesn’t put out for Westlands.  I haven’t read even a rumor of Obama calling in the God Squad to override the Endangered Species Act.  The Interior Department has gotten picky about backing decisions with science; they didn’t move ahead on Two Gates even though Westlands wanted the project.  Secretary Salazar isn’t mouthing Westlands’ contra-factual talking points about food security.  At the recent irrigation conference, the director of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region, Don Glaser, said he sees no political will to overturn the Endangered Species Act.  Westlands (and Resnick) did indeed get a pet senator to propose a rider to a jobs bill, but let’s look at that.

Westlands got one CA senator; the other is certain to be opposed.  It has be a rider on something popular, because it would go absolutely nowhere as a stand-alone measure.  As a stand-alone measure, it has already been shot down a couple times already (DeMint’s version and wasn’t there another?).  When this goes down, (which it will, since it raised quite a firestorm) where can Westlands go next?  At the federal level, the executive branch isn’t with them.  This is their best chance on the legislative side, because the circus clowns in the House are only embarrassing themselves when they hold their own special hearings and bring fishbowls to real hearings.  At the state level, the executive can’t get it done.  The state legislature did what they are willing to last year.  The judicial side is in Judge Wanger’s room, and locked in knots.  Public opinion?  The public doesn’t know much about Westlands; thinks the 5 is ugly; and if they do know any tidbit at all, they quote Reisner.  Corporate agribusiness1!!  This jobs bill rider is Westland’s best shot, and it is a crappy one.  When it fails, what is their next venue?  The next California elections can only bring in a more hostile administration.  They don’t have a next venue, except maybe the collaborative Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.

They don’t even have this venue.  A day after a wishy-washy announcement by Sen. Feinstein, the LA Times, the SF Chron and the Bee slammed the measure.  Since then, everyone has piled on with additional commentary.  The blogs are digging into what usually slips through as banal rhetoric.  This sort of thing doesn’t go un-noticed any more; there is no cover for legislative moves.  Other legislators are standing up to Sen. Feinstein.  The public is deeply primed to repeat any story that sounds like a Reisner characterization (agribusiness, bought politician, water grab).  And this move has pissed people off.  Seriously, the worst case for Westlands is that Sen. Feinstein somehow gets it through.  Imagine it passes, and the water Feinstein wants to deliver comes out of Met’s allotment.  Really, Westlands?  You want Met as an angry enemy?  You were hoping to personally piss off twenty million people south of the Tehachapis2?   Think of all the stories this summer about rationing water in LA so that Westlands can grow an extra hundred thousand acres of cotton.  Every last water district in LA will point straight to Westlands when they have to raise rates.   “The drought is over, but you can’t water your lawn because some corporate growers took your water to grow alfalfa in the desert.”  Imagine it passes and  causes the collapse of BDCP.  Do you have any idea what the agencies have invested in BDCP?  Westlands may think that because it is the last good hope, because so much has been spent on it, they can fuck with BDCP and people will have to go along.  But if they actually break BDCP, Westlands will be the people who killed the last good hope and agency staff will be beyond furious.  Suppose it passes, and the pumping kills a bunch of salmon.  Then enviros can legitimately say that Westlands (and Westlands alone, because they’re the ones who rigged this) is not only bird-deformers, but salmon-enders.  This move was a serious over-extension for Westlands; they cannot have thought about how it would turn out for them if it actually worked.  Perhaps they thought it would quietly slip by, but those days are gone.

Westlands’ best bet is a fast retreat, vowing new appreciation and love for collaborative solutions.  They won’t win this, and it would be a huge disaster for them if they somehow did2, 3.  I suggest:  “Because we love BDCP so damn much, we are voluntarily asking Sen. Feinstein, wonderful person that she is, to please join us and the NAS review in exploring long terms options for the health of the Delta and the farming economy.  P.S. Vote for the bond.”  Then Westlands should fire the person who thought of this.  It showed the rest of us that they don’t have better options than this terrible idea, and they don’t even have the power to pull it off.

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The milieu.

I watched the start of CALFED with a skeptical eye.  Everyone heralded the beginning of a new collaborative approach that would satisfy everyone and bring an end to the endless lawsuits and gridlock and impossibility of water in the 1990s.  I wasn’t so sure.  I’d been forced into the Garamendi Process, hosted by Reclamation in the 90’s, which was also supposed to be a collaborative approach that would satisfy everyone and find the win-win solutions.  But the Garamendi Process wasn’t professionally facilitated, and turned into the most unprofessional bullying I’ve yet seen.  (I still resent Garamendi for that, and also for being such a fucking tool that he insisted that the process be named for him.  Since it collapsed into nothing,  I’m happy for him to own it.)   Anyway, coming out of a terrible collaborative process, I was pretty suspicious about another big one.  Far as I was concerned, endless lawsuits couldn’t be more hostile and produce less than the collaborative process I’d just witnessed.  Then CALFED fell apart, without much accounting for the billion dollars it spent*.  What I’m saying is that I wasn’t convinced that joint collaborative solutions are better than endless lawsuits and impossible gridlock.  I haven’t seen it work, you know.

But, the lawsuits this past year have been astounding.  Day to day reversal of temporary restraining orders**?  Aquafornia reports new suits, some of them reaching the foundation of our system, nearly every day.  There really is no certainty, nor hope of future certainty like this.  The different suits crack me up, because I have little at stake.  But another year or so of this, and I’ll start to think they’re worse than collaborative solutions after all.  If collaboration can’t work*** when the BATNAs are so fluid, and the suits are in too many venues, with too many appeal options, I don’t see a process with potential for longterm certainty.  A statewide watermaster with dictatorial powers?  Dunno.

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I write this blog just for him.

Dave Simmons left another comment below, one I promised to address. This has been a talking point recently, so I’m glad to get a chance to think about it.

But seriously, I don’t know about Salmon but the smelt are on a death spiral no matter what happens to us they will continue to decline. Because even the most respected scientists point to the fact that it is probably a combination of factors that is effecting them. The whole picture is not being looked at. No one really seems to focus the smelts’ myriad of other problems. How can you solve any problem when you are only willing to look at one narrow view of the situation. It is easy to just blame the farmers. Radical environmentalists have know to be wrong before. I sure as heck don’t trust them. They have their own agenda.

It is amazing to me that you can be so certain that it is the farmers that are the ones at fault. Is it easy for you to overlook the sewage wastewater pollution, numerous non native species, acres of wetlands gone, pharmaceuticals and the latest pytheriods (sp) form urban sources and many other stressors? In fact, it is getting to something like 95% of the life in the delta isn’t native! But you are sure it is the export pumps and your willing to have us “strangled” to find out. It maybe to late for the fish by then. I say we need to find and fix the problems and not “strangle” people till we find the right problem. Today it is us. Tomorrow it might be you!!!

I don’t know anyone who thinks that the pumps are the whole problem or the only problem. Every knowledgeable person would agree that the fisheries collapse in the Delta is a combination of pumps, invasive species, habitat destruction, wastewater discharge, pesticide run-off from farms and lawns, ocean conditions. The smelt collapse is a problem with multiple causes. The pumps are a conspicuous cause, possibly the predominant cause, but certainly not the only one. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is not because of causes, or because of blaming farmers, or casting moral judgments. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is because of remedies. Look at all those likely causes. The pumps are the only one with an available remedy. They’re the only part that we can control today. The other causes are exactly the kind that are hard to fix; widely distributed small effects that become a problem in the aggregate.

People are working on fixing those other causes. There’s a couple billion dollars in the water bond for habitat restoration, but habitat restoration and reversing invasive species will take years. Mr. Simmons is right; part of the solution will ‘come for me’. I live in Sac and expect my sewer bills to go up tens of dollars a month, as they should. But that won’t happen fast. We can slow the pumps today.

Right now, the pumps are the only dial we can turn to save fish species in the Delta. It is definitely true that we should be (and are) addressing the other causes. But I want to point out, it is not wrong to control the one contributing cause we can control. That’s the fallacy in the talking point: ‘the pumps aren’t the whole problem, so we shouldn’t turn off the pumps!’. The law field of torts has spent a lot of time thinking about causation, including multiple contributing causes. That’s nice, because it means that I don’t have to. From the linked Wikipedia page:

Concurrent Actual Causes
Suppose that two actors’ negligent acts combine to produce one set of damages, where but for either of their negligent acts, no damage would have occurred at all. This is two negligences contributing to a single cause, as distinguished from two separate negligences contributing to two successive or separate causes. These are “concurrent actual causes.” In such cases, courts have held both defendants liable for their negligent acts.

Right. Where more than one thing causes the problem, all the causes are responsible.  I said I hate analogies, so I’m being a big hypocrite by offering one. Because I’m ashamed, I’ll put it beneath the fold.

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