Monthly Archives: March 2010

Two small notes on the KMPH stories.

I am actually quite worried about Captain Knapp’s third point about Valley Fever. I would love to see his data on that, and would relay it to the Dept of Health Services if they don’t already have it. (For those of you who aren’t local, Valley Fever is an airborne fungus that makes people real sick. In seventh grade, it killed my best friend’s father. I came home from trip, asked my best friend how she was, and her father had died of Valley Fever within a couple days of getting it from a dusty attic. Oh.)

I also thought of a few critiques of the first story in the series, which was about the effects of pumping restrictions on the “human environment” of the west side. You guys want to see those?

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Water and Lemoore Naval Air Station

KMPH, the Fox News Affiliate for Fresno, is running a story on how the pumping restrictions and regional water scarcity on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are threatening the military readiness of the nation. I am skeptical, but the story lists three things that apparently threaten “half of the navy’s total offensive combat strike power”*.  According to the air station base commander, Captain Knapp, the lack of water on the west side:

1.  Increases the number of bird strikes.  Somehow, cultivating the 12,000 acres of surrounding farmland used to decrease the local bird population (and it is worth pausing over what that says about their farming practices).

2.  Increases local dust and debris, which Captain Knapp’s airplane engines are apparently sensitive to.

3.  Increases incidence of Valley Fever among people living on the base.

Now, I am no military expert**, so I will not venture a guess at the dangers increased bird strikes and dust on a California naval air station pose to the air strike capacity of the United States Navy.  It seems to me that they’d have encountered these conditions before, but what do I know?  I am, however, a California bureaucracy expert and a water expert.  So I have a few thoughts.

First, what is Lemoore Air Station doing entirely dependent on the water allocations of an agricultural water district?  Lemoore has about 5,000 people on base, which means I bet they have more than 3,000 water connections, which means Lemoore Air Station should be writing an Urban Water Management Plan.  Then, in the event that they suddenly have less water, they could go to the required Shortage Contingency Plan and implement their plan for dealing with these foreseeable problems.  I bet Lemoore fell through the cracks, because it is a federal installation in the middle of an ag water district, but the state requires other comparable-sized cities to plan for these events.

Second, I don’t think a small city should be dependent on an ag water district’s water supply; there are different minimum health and safety standards for each, for example.  But given that it is, that actually makes the lines of communication simple and direct.  If the lack of 12,000 farmed acres around Lemoore is a national security issue, the base commander can go straight to the Westlands Board of Directors.  They’re right there and they meet every month.  But the word “Lemoore” doesn’t appear in any of the last twelve Board meeting agendas.  Apparently the danger to naval air strike capacity is bad enough for base commander Captain Knapp to tell a newspaper reporter about, but not bad enough for him to go to his water supplier and ask for a specific allotment for a buffer against bird strikes and dust.

Maybe Navy Captain Knapp is shy and doesn’t want to disturb the Westlands Board of Directors with a national security matter.  In that case, he has other options.  He can’t go to DWR for an emergency transfer from the Drought Water Bank, because he’d need an Urban Water Management Plan with a complete Shortage Contingency Plan in it.  But considering that the half the navy’s air strike capacity is endangered by bird strikes and dust at Lemoore, perhaps he could make a case to another federal water agency, like Reclamation.  His 12,000 acres of cultivated buffer would require about 36,000 acrefeet of water to grow a crop and preserve the nation’s military readiness.  Reclamation had ten times that amount in carryover storage in San Luis.  They were holding that against a dry 2010, but if a direct link between 36,000 acrefeet of water at Lemoore Naval Air Station and a pressing national security crisis had been proven to them, I find it hard to believe that Reclamation couldn’t have given Lemoore water that was already south of the Delta.  Captain Knapp complains that Reclamation wasn’t responsive, and perhaps that’s true.  But perhaps they weren’t responsive to a general plea for more water in the region, instead of a specific request for a fixed amount of water to alleviate a well-demonstrated threat to the military readiness of the country.  I’m only speculating.

Which leads me to two more points.  First, how far do you want to take this link between water and national security?  Does it go any farther than giving interviews to Fox News reporters who are trying to undermine the Endangered Species Act?  I ask because I’m worried about your long runways.  Look at them out there on the west side, where overpumping has caused about seven feet of subsidence in the past few years.  Are they cracking?  Do cracked runways in California put half the air strike capacity of the United States navy at risk?  Seems like it is at least as worrisome as additional bird strikes.  That might be a good reason to call for groundwater regulation (or a halt to overdrafting altogether) in California.

That brings me to my last point, which is that you work for me, Captain Knapp.  I am one of your many employers, and I don’t like your giving interviews to biased news stations that are trying to undermine the laws of the land.  I think that you shouldn’t be using the gravitas of your military service to try to influence court decisions through the news.  I think that is bullshit, and you should be reprimanded for conspicuously inserting yourself into civilian politics.  Now, half of your employers might think different.  But half of your employers probably think like me.  Since you’re sure to anger half your employers, you should stay out of politicking about water and stick to your military duties, which I am sure you serve well and admirably.

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This is wonderful.

Of course, I would just use my power to call someone a goatblower, but is good that real authors are making better use of our freedom to offend.

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Romans 3:23

Dear Mr. Weiser,

I write to inform you that at 9:20 this evening, Tuesday the 30th of March, the sprinklers at the Sacramento Bee (east side island strip) were on during the rain.  I trust you would want to know, and will discuss the matter with the groundskeepers immediately.  These things happen to the best of us; there’s no shame in an honest mistake, although I myself have unplugged my sprinkler controller to prevent exactly this occurrence.  It is early in the year for automatic sprinkler operations, wouldn’t you say?  I wish you the best of luck and hope you get good cooperation in your efforts to correct the Bee’s practices.

As ever, I remain, your humble and obedient servant,

On the Public Record

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Who told him?

This op-ed in the Orange County Register was helpful.  I can understand most interest-based positions, like people in the Delta thinking that through-Delta conveyance will be an implicit guarantee for their levees, or homeowners wanting to pretend that aging water mains will last forever or cost nothing to replace.  So if you’re a water contactor or an urban water user, I can take a rough guess at your position on water.  But I have a real hard time understanding water positions based on mainstream conservative/liberal ideologies.   They aren’t usually responding to a detailed water landscape.  They’re responding to imaginary things (Reisner for the liberals; FoxNews for the conservatives), so they say things about water that sound crazy to people who know about water*.   Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m the demon liberal in that op-ed, so it was good to understand his picture of me.  My dear readers, please don’t be shocked when I tell you that it is not a perfect match for my actual beliefs, here in the intersection of Liberal and Water.

This purposeful drying up of the San Joaquin Valley is part of a “green utopian experiment,” House argued. Since 1992, state policy has been pulling more and more water out of agricultural uses and diverting it to environmental protection. “They just keep coming at you.”

Environmentalists couldn’t care less about the smelt, a little bait fish. They will use any species or any excuse to shut down water resources to people and the farms that feed people. Environmentalists love doomsday scenarios, which give them the opportunity to control water (or land) to achieve their real goal of limiting growth and constraining the human use of nature. They want people to be crammed into high-density human islands and the rest of the land preserved under tight government control.

First things first.  Actually, I care about the smelt itself.  I don’t expect to see one, but I don’t have to see a fish to know that it is there, living a busy fish life and adding darting little glints of life to marshy sloughs.  I want the creatures of our world to be thriving on their own terms, because that’s how it was before people started messing with it.  When I hear that species are threatened, I want to know why humans had to go breaking something, and what good we got for the trouble we’ve caused to the beings around us.

Attributing doomsday scenarios to environmentalists is another interesting twist.  Seems like lots of people in water politics have done that recently.  I bring up severe climate change impacts to suggest that we would prefer a planned transition to much less California ag to an unplanned freefall.  I also invoke great big floods and old levees to say that the Delta won’t remain as is for long, and to promote my view that we should not rely on it for drinking water (and that people shouldn’t trust their lives to a Delta levee).  But I’m a mild optimist compared to people who are trying to eke political gain from drought and pumping water restrictions in isolated areas of the San Joaquin Valley.   Those are the people saying things like “dust bowl”, talking about a food crisis, desertification, and dead orchards.  They’re the ones who have to convince voters that a fairly normal agricultural year was so horrific that a Peripheral Canal is necessary.

Mostly, I wanted to object to that last sentence about cramming people into high-density human islands with the rest of the land under tight government control.  Well, of course I want that, but he’s forgetting the working landscapes aspect of California.  As a good hippie, I also want to eat local produce.  Which means I want local farms.  A lot of them, actually.  Since I’m so urban and effete, I’d like to see those farms worked by people who live in adorable towns that I can drive through along the 99.  I’d like to see farms that can keep a stable income for farm families, and support farmworkers in a lifestyle that I would recognize as first world.   Because I’m such a bleeding heart, I’d even pay more for my food if it accomplished those two things.  Seriously, Mr. Conservative-thinker-who-is-describing-an-environmental-despot, I have bigger plans than Urban Arks in the midst of Untouched Habitat.  When we shaded the maps for the Green Utopia, we definitely colored in Hippie Organic Farming, and lots of it.

I had one other big objection to the op-ed, because this just kills me.

Maybe it’s telling that this “era of limits” nonsense is taking hold again as the state prepares for a possible return to the governorship of Jerry Brown, who first put these dubious ideas into practice during his 1975-83 administration.

The concept that we’re in an era of limits is nonsense to this guy?  You know, I fault the old-school engineers for over-reliance on concrete, but actual engineers and scientists don’t ignore data the way ideologues do.  I’m sure that I wouldn’t agree with everything someone from the State Water Contractors is promoting.  But if we sat down and looked at overdraft in the west Valley, they wouldn’t pretend to me that subsidence isn’t a problem.  They wouldn’t say there is no limit to what you can pull out of an aquifer, that the ground isn’t falling.  They wouldn’t say that the falling ground isn’t cracking the Delta-Mendota Canal.  They are real sure about the costs of changing run-off patterns and losing snowpack. 

Which is why ideologues aren’t real interesting to people in the field.  People who’ve learned a whole lot and put a lot of time into protecting their interests in this complicated system can’t believe an ideologue that contradicts their experience.  Even the strokes from hearing someone confirm your biases don’t feel that good when the same person talks crazytalk in the next sentence.  It is hard enough to talk to laypeople about Water.  Talking to laypeople who are trying to cram the whole topic into some other arbitrary framing is that much more dissonant. 

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Why am I paying more for less water?

At a meeting today, a district board member asked how to answer the question he hears all the time: If I’m conserving water, why are my rates going up? How come I’m paying more for less water?

Oddly, no one on the panel told him the real answer. They mentioned deferred maintenance and the costs of obtaining additional supply, but no one explained it quite right. Mr. Board Member, next time someone in the public asks you why they’re going to be paying more for less water, here’s the answer you need.

You have always been selling two different things. You sell water*, and you sell reliability. By unfortunate chance, the costs of both of those are going up right now. You may be developing additional sources of water that cost more. But a lot of districts are going to need money to keep their reliability perfect, because their systems are nearing the end of their designed life and it will cost a lot to replace them.

Customers are not going to like hearing that they have to pay more for reliability, (a little bit because it is invisible and people really do not understand invisible things) mostly because districts have done such a good job buffering their customers from water delivery interruptions that it has never occurred to most Californian urban customers that reliability could be anything other than perfect. They think that having the water on during the night, or all the days of the week, is just how it is. They’ve never approached the tap and wondered whether water will come out this time. Deferred maintenance is coming due and many districts are facing the failure of systems installed in the fifties or before. Reliability must be paid for anew, and that’s why districts will need to charge more even as they’re asking people to use less water.

So that’s what you should tell the public, Mr. District Board Member. They won’t like it. Fortunately, this is a self-correcting feedback loop. If they don’t let you raise water rates, the district won’t be able to provide perfect water reliability forever. (It will probably cannibalize itself first, making it even harder to restore completely reliable deliveries in the long run, but that’s the cost of short-sightedness.) When water deliveries aren’t reliable, people will notice that immediately and realize they want it. Then you’ll be able to explain about the rates again.

[In the alternate, you could try to explain to them how expensive it would be if they were using as much water as they always have, and paying for the costs of developing new sources and the capital costs of replacing your system at the same time.  With water conservation, at least you have a chance of deferring the costs of developing new sources.]

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Subsidence and costs.

I’ve been thinking about subsidence and the damage it does to infrastructure, like the Delta-Mendota Canal and Highway 5. You know what would be handy? A law saying that if the ground level drops some amount (like, say ten feet) due to subsidence, all groundwater pumping in that aquifer should be immediately stopped until the ground surface level above that aquifer comes back up.

Then I got to wondering who pays for the costs of infrastructure repair due to subsidence for overpumping. I bet the State Water Contractors pay for repairs to the Delta-Mendota Canal, so that strikes me as their own private business. But if I were CalTrans, I’d want someone to pay me back for the cost of repairs to Highway 5 and its overpasses. I think the people pumping groundwater so fast that they’re lowering the roadbeds would be good people to pay for the damages they cause to the roads of the state. Can’t see why the larger public should have to pay for that.

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