Monthly Archives: February 2010

Still trying to figure this out.

You know, I really don’t understand the crop acreages out of Westlands.

Year: Net Cropped Acres
1993: 486,116
1994: 496,990
1995: 531,632
1996: 549,704
1997: 546,118
1998: 545,309
1999: 530,697
2000: 503,208
2001: 485,086
2002: 579,645
2003: 563,633
2004: 560,670
2005: 560,547
2006: 559,744
2007: 568,547
2008: 568,627
2009: 568,652

OK, I’ve slept on this. But now I am really confused. According to their own crop reports, Westlands grew crops on its second highest acreage since 1992 last year. Since the drought began in 2007, they’ve been cropping an extra seven or eight thousand acres a year. What is going on?

Dr. Michaels, if cropped acreage isn’t down (and in fact is at near record highs), why would any farm jobs be lost? Have you guys been running models on reports of fallowed land, assuming that everything that was fallowed must have been taken out of production? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Cropped + fallowed doesn’t look to equal some constant acreage number. I don’t understand.

Maybe fallowed acreage is in a different district. Then why is Westlands leading this charge?
How are they counting up the new fallowed acres? An extra hundred thousand of them seem to have appeared. Is this because they ate Broadview? Are they counting lands as retired that they had never counted before?
This echoes the USDA crop reports, which show 1-3% declines, not hundreds of thousands of acres.
Peltier talked sorrowfully about bankrupt farmers. Did they plant but not harvest? Which does the crop report acreage refer to?

I don’t get this.

LATER: I got an explanation. Net Crop Acreage is NOT the same as acres harvested.

If you look at page 12 of the Annual Drought Report, they also say that 568,562 acres of land were cropped. Then they report that only 359,000 of them were harvested. 217,000 of them weren’t. Which goes a long way towards explaining the missing fallowed acreage.

Hope y’all weren’t as confused as I was. Thanks to the folks who explained it to me.

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Doesn’t add up.

LATER: Turns out that Net Cropped Acreage is the wrong metric. That’s how many acres are planted; not the number harvested. In 2009, only 360,000 acres were harvested in Westlands.

Looks to me like cropped acreage is at a 15 year high.
I got curious about fallowed acreage, since people keep saying different things. Sen. Feinstein, for example, said “over 400,000 acres of farmland have been fallowed.” So far as I know, that is mostly on the west side (hearing no anecdotes to the contrary). Westlands WD generously keeps their crop reports online (Westlands, then News & Information, then Reports, the Crop Acreage Reports). So I graphed them. Hmmm.

1. I’m not seeing the problem here. (Perhaps the problems are rising costs of water, using salty groundwater, subsidence.  The problem is not acres-out-of-commission.)
2. Their reported fallowed acreage for 2009 was 156,239 acres. Where are the other hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres?
3. I was paying attention in 2001. I don’t remember hysterical pronouncements about Government Created Dust Bowl!!!

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This is why we can’t have nice canals.

Assemblymember Jared Huffman’s letter to DWR is wonderful.  Bullshit like this is exactly why people in the Delta feel like they have to fight the Peripheral Canal itself, rather than work for good governing agreements.  I hope we get to see DWR’s immediate response. 

I don’t know what an agency does when the legislature sets new policy directions (co-equal!) but the governor wants water delivered.  Hedge, I guess.  Delay.

Via NRDC Switchboard blog, via Aquafornia.


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Be careful with your words (lest they get overanalyzed by a blogger).

Dave Simmons left a comment on the “Fish, food, feedback loops.” post that I want to talk about for a second. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using it as a discussion point, Mr. Simmons.

3. Westlands has become the most productive in the nation and the most efficient in the state. We get the most crop per drop. That is why! We should be held up as an example to the rest of the state. If all other farmers were as efficient as us maybe there wouldn’t be a crisis.

But instead, our reward is death by strangulation.

First, it is true that farms in Westlands have tremendous irrigation efficiency. They have the capital to put in very nice irrigation systems; they’re the only place I know of where you can’t assume as a matter of course that they’ve undersized their filters. That said, I want to address his closing rhetorical flourish: “our reward is death by strangulation.”

This is why I hate metaphors and analogies. I know that Mr. Simmons did not mean it literally. Mr. Simmons doesn’t really think that as a reward for having very high irrigation efficiency and great yields, state or federal enforcers will systematically strangle all of the 600 growers in Westlands to death. Mr. Simmons is just using dramatic language to make a point. But nevertheless, there are a few problems with these kind of statements.

1. Now we know and Mr. Simmons knows that there will be no death by strangulation involved in any part of the on-going water conflicts. But you know who doesn’t know that? Mr. Simmon’s own un-thinking limbic system. His own body doesn’t know that, and when it hears “death by strangulation,” it thinks that is VERY VERY IMPORTANT and SOMETHING TO FIGHT. Mr. Simmon’s calm and measured mind understands metaphor, and that we are talking about the sequential retiring of fields as state water supplies dwindle. But people’s bodies are acutely concerned with things like “death by strangulation”, and after hearing things like that, bodies will stay activated and on-guard. It will feel the echo of that death-threat, and the next time retiring Westlands comes up, the body will remember that we are in a FIGHT TO THE DEATH! The body is not that bright, but it knows what it knows, and it knows that “death by strangulation” is VERY BAD. Identifying the well-being of Westlands with one’s own fight for life will make Westlands farmers fight sooner, longer and harder, more frantically than a business decision about resource use deserves.

2. The second reason that I don’t like “death by strangulation”, even as metaphor, is related to the first. Frankly, it spooks the horses scares the authoritarians. They’re already fearful; they see the end of the world at every turn. They’ve been permanently triggered; their shows shout at them, telling them about constant dangers and the chaos to come. I read the comments on Hannity’s show, and people are talking about black helicopters and jackboots cracking down on salt-of-the-earth farmers (I am just this second thinking about parallels between the fall of the Garden of Eden and pictures of bulldozers taking out trees). Now water scarcity may be having an inexorable effect on marginal farming operations in California, but the mechanism is not strangulation, nor killing farmers by any means. Rather, pump operators a hundred miles away are intermittently slowing down 13 huge pumps. No one is in any physical danger. But when fearful people see words like “death by strangulation”, even if they know it isn’t literal and discount it some, their permanently terrified perception is going to be closer to ‘DANGER DANGER DANGER’ than it is to ‘making hard planning decisions about crops, fields and water availability.’

3. Mr. Simmons, and every other farmer on the west side, your life is not at stake. Here are some things you can do when the climate changes and these drought shortages become permanent. You can farm in the Sacramento Valley. You can farm on the east side of the San Joaquin. If you aren’t bankrupt, you could (try to) cash out and retire somewhere. You can try to turn your land into solar energy farm. You can go to college and start a new career. You could be a foreman on someone else’s farm. Your existence is not at stake. Your lifestyle is at stake. Your emotional investment in your land is at stake. (Actually, those are both already gone, but I’m trying to be kind.) What you are used to is at stake. But you, as a thinking and self-determining person, will live past the end of Westlands Water District. You can move and adjust, because you are an intelligent human. The sooner you get working on that, the easier the transition will be.

You might also think about who you want to be as you face the end of what you have known. To keep farming the west side for a few extra years, what are you willing to destroy? Would you destroy salmon for everyone else in the state, so that you can keep driving around in a white truck on the land you are used to? Would you end a species of small fish, so that you can keep going to the diner in Three Rocks? Would you drown Sites Valley, just so you can look at the same horizon you’re attached to? Is that how you want your last few years in Westlands to be? Thrashing around, destroying beautiful places, killing small pieces of the creation, so that you can keep farming where you’re used to? Remember, you aren’t doing all those things to preserve your life, even if you’ve unconsciously linked those in your head. You aren’t even doing those to preserve your identity as a farmer. You, a fully functional person with a lifetime of skill, could move and farm elsewhere. You, if you keep up with your losing lawsuits and futile battle against climate change and salt, would be breaking all those things just to stay in place a few years longer. People will judge you for that.

4. There are participants in all this who do face death as a result of our collective decisions. They aren’t strangled. They are sucked into giant pumps and pulped. This is not a metaphor for the end of a way of life, or very hard decisions, or bankruptcy. They are physically drawn into pumps, crushed and mangled. We gather their broken bodies and try to guess whether we’ve killed so many the species will end, or if we can kill a few thousand more. You will outlive the end of Westlands, Mr. Simmons. Death by strangulation is not a threat to you or any farmer in Westlands. But a horrible death to smelt and salmon is a certainty; happened by the hundreds just this week. They wish death were a metaphor.


Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

Couple more thoughts.

I have a couple more thoughts on the “death by strangulation” metaphor for Westlands, because I always have a couple more thoughts.

1. There actually is a possibility for death by strangulation for Westlands farmers, and that is if they hang themselves. Farmers commit suicide at disproportionate rates; it is terrible. There’s a lot of research on this, and help is available. Please, please do not kill yourself. Growers on the west side, please also keep an eye out for your neighbors. If they look depressed or hopeless, please ask them how they are. In many farmer suicides, western cowboy culture keeps people from volunteering how bleak they feel. But they might answer if asked, and it could prevent a suicide.

2. My other thought is that I keep telling growers on the west side to get out. The water situation isn’t going to get any better for them. Did you see the 2009 State Water Project draft reliability report? But it occurs to me that growers in Westlands may have no exit opportunity. What, they’re going to sell their land? To whom? Without water, that land has almost no value.

At the water law symposium a couple weekends back, Jason Peltier (a manager at Westlands) said something interesting. He said (recalling, so I can’t swear by the wording), ‘Shoot, most of them are already in bankruptcy, but the banks don’t want to foreclose.’ Which was very interesting.

Who holds those mortgages? What bank in their right mind would want to own those lands? What would a bank do with them? Who knows if liability will change, and one day they’ll be billed for their selenium drainage? A bank can’t sell those lands without water any better than the current owners could. A bank could maybe bundle them, and sell them to someone trying to start a solar energy empire. It’d be nice if the Nature Conservancy would take them; managed would be better than empty. But I think the Nature Conservancy has higher priorities, with more biodiversity left in them.

Anyway, the idea that without water, those lands have negative value to the holder would make it hard for farmers to get out, even if they could walk away. Man, I don’t know how to handle that. Land swaps somehow? But good farmland with secure water is being farmed now. Transitions are hard. Too bad we changed the climate away from the one we were optimized for.

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Go for the contracts, not the infrastructure.

I think this approach, suing to re-consider the project water contracts is exactly the right approach for people who want to limit north-south water transfers.  I haven’t been sympathetic to claims that “plumbing is destiny,” that if you build a huge canal, it will inevitably be used to divert huge amounts of waters.  My unsympathetic reaction has been, ‘but that ship has sailed.’  Project contractors are allowed to take huge amounts of water under their contracts and the time to fight that was whenever the contract re-negotiations were.  Don’t prevent that big gulp of water by making 20 million people depend on extremely vulnerable infrastructure for their drinking water.  Fight that by going after the contracts themselves.  Looks like some groups are, so I’m glad*.

All this hinges on my (perhaps naive) belief that if the water contractors have smaller contracts, other interests will be able to monitor and limit the water deliveries through a Peripheral Canal to the lower legal amount.  That’s what pro-Canal interests are asking you to believe, that the deliveries through the canal can be governed by law.  I do understand why that is a hard sell.  But I like this step, of challenging the contracts themselves.  It does no good to say “The Peripheral Canal will be governed by law!” if the law is that contractors can take monstrous amounts of water.  I hope that bringing those contract amounts down, to match new hydrology from climate change and ecosystem needs, is a first step in getting us to a governable system that includes working plumbing.

*I haven’t read the complaint, and I don’t entirely understand the press release.  So I’m not endorsing the specific terms of this suit, which I don’t know.  But I like the overall concept.


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Don’t remember why I was googling Del Puerto WD, but something about this satellite view grabbed me. The redundant street view, perhaps.

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