Monthly Archives: April 2010

Terrible, I tell you.

On some quiet day when I haven’t posted anything, remind me to write about how the form of a meeting shapes the outcome and why Robert’s Rules of Order are terrible for representative democracy and soliciting real comment.

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What meetings look like.

Alex, thank you so much for posting that footage of a board meeting about a surcharge on groundwater.  I’m looking forward to your story on it this weekend.  Hey, reporter people.  You should do more of that.  You’re our eyes and legs, and now that we have some internets, you have the capacity to give us so much more than a written story.  I glean what I can from your written stories, but here’s what I got from that footage Mr. Breitler posted.

I’m mostly looking at it with the sound off.  I do not understand the battling ballot measures and don’t have a dog in that fight.  But here’s what I see:

  • A horrible bland room with no windows.  I cannot tell you how much of California’s water business gets conducted in utterly stifling rooms, disconnected from the physical processes the people are talking about.  Real things, like a budding orchard or a cracking canal gate, are an abstraction when you’re crammed into a box with no windows.
  • Six or seven ordinary looking people, behind two folding tables.  Folding tables.  I’m telling you, this is not a glamorous business, despite what you hear about oligarchs and the-new-oil and all those devastatingly handsome engineers.
  • Those six or seven people are sitting opposite tens of people, massed together.  The lopsided bulk of the room is intimidating, especially since the set-up of sides facing each other looks oppositional.
  • The audience is very old, overwhelmingly white (did I see one Asian dude?) and mostly male.  All of the speakers were old white men.  Doesn’t make ’em wrong; doesn’t mean that they’ll agree with each other.  Does make it likely that the range of views in the broader population isn’t going to get aired at that meeting.  And OLD.  Succession alone is going to transform California water policy.  I should have put that on my last list.  I bet it is in the top five transitional forces (climate change induced scarcity, coming to the end of mined wealth (gw, topsoil, carbon absorption capacity), something or other, something else, generational succession).
  • Hostile body language from the speakers, to a board that has to live with those people as neighbors every day.  Also, folks, you should remember.  The poor saps who sit up front and get yelled at get no pay for their efforts.  Maybe they get some minimal per diem for meeting attendance.  They do this work because they’re good citizens, interested, and want an outcome for their community.  They’re pretty much the saints of representative democracy, and I have a ton of respect for them.*

That’s what I can tell without knowing anything about the issue.  And I got that because that brilliant reporter Alex Breitler thought to post a video.  More of that, please, reporters.  This way all the sharks in the blog waters can look at the same things and offer analysis.

*Which reminds me.  I did listen to the Glenn County meetings on whether to keep membership in NCWA.  (Search for “ncwa” to get to the two recent relevant parts.)  First, every time I do that I’m blown away again, at how carefully and conscientiously local elected officials consider the issues.  I often don’t agree with the outcome, but I’m so impressed at how diligently they approach the questions.  Second, two listens in a row, and I still have no idea why they’re mad at NCWA.  There are some politics I’m not getting.  It might be about water transfers, like I speculated.  But they were real coy, talking about their disappointment with the recent direction of NCWA, and they didn’t say why.  For all I could tell, it could be personal animus.


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I’ll show you daring.

You know what?  Screw that.  Levine’s not some big radical on the water blogs.  What is Levine talking about anyway, a powerful cabal of billionaire farmers?  That’s conventional wisdom in California.  That’s baby talk for amateurs who watched Chinatown and read Reisner.  You want to know who’s saying really revolutionary shit that will up-end people’s lives?  Me.  I made a list, from least to most controversial.

Less controversial, but often goes unsaid:

We should save fish species because ending a species is morally wrong.  If the cost includes the end of some human lifestyles, then we should still pay that cost.

My faction is part of the problem and should pay for that part of the solution.

DWR should follow the fucking law and write EIS/EIRs for its programs before it does them.

California’s water rights system is massively unjust for current citizens.  Some people are awarded huge wealth by historical chance; others who are no less worthy as citizens and people are expected to pay the winners for any additional water supply.

Trade-offs should be explicit, and not left undefined.  The reader may prefer the other side of the trade-off, so it shouldn’t be hinted at darkly or left as an unconscious assumption.

A process-based objection is not proof that the policy that resulted from the process is wrong.

If an enterprise is not profitable once it has internalized its environmental and social externalities, it is an ongoing loss to society and shouldn’t exist.

Medium controversial:

Society as a whole will become poorer; at the same time, the costs of everything ecosystem-based will rise sharply.  People will be herded in from the exurbs and suburbs by the cost of everything.

Agriculture will substantially contract due to lack of water.  The ballsy part here is that I actually estimate an amount of three million acres, down from 9 million.   I predict the lost acreage will be from the west side, the Delta and most lands currently in alfalfa.

People will live in smaller places and eat less meat, because meat will become very expensive.

A market should be designed to do something, accomplish a goal that is bigger than existing as a market.

Subsidies themselves are not inherently bad.  Subsidies become bad when society shifts away from the goals they continue to promote.

Very controversial:

Local jurisdictions cannot be relied upon to work against narrow self-interest.  Where those conflict, a larger entity should compel them to act (to maintain, upgrade or move infrastructure), at their expense.

The ecosystem based part of our economy will contract for the next hundred years (at least).  We shouldn’t look for the gains of growth economies to lift us painlessly out of recession.

We could select and plan for a pleasant future; we could choose a transition that minimizes the pain of shrinking.  We are in the realm of minimizing pain, not expanding to additional consumption.

Population planning should be part of that transition.

Some of our dilemmas do not have win-win solutions.  The better choice for the whole state should be implemented even when there are people who are made substantially worse off.  (This is a taboo notion in a lot of state processes.  They simply dwindle to a stop when they can’t find win-win solutions.  We tactfully don’t mention the program again.  Four years later, the same problem generates a new program that won’t be able to do anything so long as no one can be made worse off.)


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I blame Howard Jarvis.

I only noticed Levine’s piece speculating that the Delta was deliberately neglected to support a water grab because Zetland objected to it.  My first impression was to laugh at someone expecting a piece by Levine to be prudent and accurate.  Levine was part of the Exile, which was pretty much a hole in civilization.  Levine’s role in water journalism is going to be provocation and extreme accusations, and we’ll value it as much as we value those two things.  Which I do.  With Levine out there, I’m mainstream.

After reading as much of Levine’s post as I could before my eyes blurred, I agreed with some of it.  I’ve said before that I expect us to end up with a Peripheral Canal, either by a planned orderly process that compensates landowners and averts a southern California water emergency, or by emergency powers if the Delta collapses first.  Further, I agree with Levine’s outrage that farmers (any of them, not just Westlands) would broker that water transfer and collect a huge windfall in the process.  That’s my main objection to our current water rights system, for example.  If we are at the point where the 22 million people in SoCal need drinking water for sustenance, I’m not much impressed with the notion of paying farmers for it.*

But I have two big objections to Levine’s piece.  First, enough with the idealization of Delta farmers.  They are, in fact, charming small players with a long history in a complex system.  But so fucking what?  There are charming and picturesque communities in Los Angeles and San Diego too, some of them with quainte customs that have been there for generations.  If the numbers and stakes were equal, I’d say to flip a coin and call it done.  But they aren’t equal, and the rationales and choosing of baselines get hopelessly tangled.  So then I go by the numbers.  In the end, choosing to maintain the drinking water of twenty-two million people over the lifestyles of five hundred thousand people is the right choice.  I couldn’t make that choice if I were choosing between two equal sized farming communities.  But the thing I’d like to see more Peripheral Canal advocates do is say outright, “Yes, the Delta won’t continue as it has been, and a small segment of society will feel the brunt of it, and it is still the right thing to do.”

The other thing I want to object to is the idea that there’s been a conspiracy about letting the Delta collapse, to drive need for a canal so that oligarchs can profit.  Dude, there’s no conspiracy.  The situation is just that mismanaged and fucked up.  For example, Levine writes:

The problem has been known for decades, and the estimated cost of fixing the levees is not particularly high — between $1 and $5 billion — but the issue just never figured high on the political agenda. California saw a whole legion of governors — Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and now Schwarzenegger — cycle through without giving it much attention.

Well, that’s because until 2003, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to fix the Delta levees. It was the responsibility of the local reclamation districts, organized for that purpose, with tax assessment powers so that the people who lived behind levees could tax themselves to pay for the maintenance of the levees they live behind**. Which they didn’t do, for the better part of a hundred years. Then, in a surprise legal decision, a judge handed the whole problem to the state, who was shocked to find itself responsible for hundreds of miles of failing levees, and has since passed one bond measure, undertaken tens of emergency repairs, created a new branch of DWR and is writing the FloodSAFE plan. The state has been working on it pretty hard, in the six years it has been the state’s responsibility.

Mistakes like that, and assuming bad motives permeate Levine’s article. Which is fine, whatever, but without them, there’s no conspiracy. There’s just a deeply fucked up situation. There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for us to get into a deadlocked situation with unpleasant winners and unfortunate losers. There just has to be a complexifying history*** and a battle over newly scarce resources to reveal the problems.

  Continue reading


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Since you asked, II.

John Bass wonders what legalizing pot would add to the ag economy. Again, I have no idea, but again, I’ll jump in with an estimate.

Prof. Kleiman at UCLA studies drug policy; here is his post on whether legalizing pot would stimulate the national economy. He writes: “the illicit cannabis industry in the U.S. generates revenues of about $10 billion per year”, which he thinks is negligible on the national scheme of things. That isn’t necessarily the case for California ag though, which could be a regional beneficiary.

1. California would grow most of the nation’s pot. We have a lead in this, don’t we? Although I think I’ve heard stories about hemp thriving in the south and midwest, with plants escaping and growing by the roadside. So perhaps pot would grow well throughout the country, and the south and midwest would want in on that ag product. Nevertheless, there is evidence that industries grow around first movers, and California has cornered the market on types of produce (lettuce, almonds) before.

2. But Prof. Kleiman thinks that criminalization inflates the value of the pot industry; his guess is about six times. So, a legal pot industry would be more like ($10B/6 =) $1.7B.

3. California ag annual ag revenues are about $36B, $37B. Pot would add a nice buffer, but it isn’t a transformative crop. It is, in fact, like almonds ($1.8B) or wine grapes ($2.24B). 

4.  It’d be nice to get a third high value crop for people to talk about, so that the conversation isn’t invariably almonds or vines.  I believe pot is an annual, which would offer nice flexibility for row crop farmers.  But as an ag crop, instead of an illicit product, I think it would have large but not disproportionate benefits for the California ag industry.

5.  Finally, if we’re introducing a new product into the ag world, and one that has always come with regulation, I wish a permitting system could be structured to accomplish a goal.  The federal tobacco program issued quotas to tobacco farmers, guaranteeing minimum prices.  It created a monopoly structure and it kept the price of tobacco artificially high, but farms lasted for generations farming 7-10 acres of tobacco.  The only crop I know of that keeps a tiny farm profitable in California is strawberries for direct roadside marketing.  If someone wanted, say, a robust and stable farming community along the east side of the Valley that provided living wages for small farms and their workers, that person might think that the way marijuana cultivation was legalized could help accomplish such a goal.  Given that the crop is currently criminalized, perhaps a regulatory structure for growing it wouldn’t seem so burdensome.  I don’t see why the default should be to go straight to the opposite end of the spectrum, and treat pot just like any other crop.

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Since you asked.

ScottB asked how much water pot takes, and frankly, I have no idea.  But I know how to guess.

First, I hoped for an ETcrop (evapotranspiration is how water moves through the plant into the atmosphere).  That’s a co-efficient that researchers have measured for all the major crops.  You multiply it against a reference ET, which is how much water a reference crop uses.  The California Irrigation Management Information System uses grass for its reference crop.  Other systems use alfalfa.  If you wanted, you could go to CIMIS and find out how much water a patch of grass transpired under each day’s weather conditions.  Then you multiply that by the coefficient for your crop, and figure out how much water you should put on to re-fill the soil profile.

I didn’t hope to find an ETcrop for pot, but I did find one for a type of hemp.  Under well-watered conditions, the seasonal average crop coefficient for Sunn hemp was 1.  So Sunn hemp needs the same amount of water as a patch of grass.  If pot and Sunn hemp are similar, pot has the same water demands as the reference grass for CIMIS.

All of that is thinking too hard.  If you don’t know, guess 3.5 feet per year.  Nod sagely and squint at the mountains in the distance.  If someone gives you grief, say “but did you consider your salt flushing requirement?”  Distract them with questions about their system’s filter capacity and ask when they last backflushed their filters.  Tell them the manufacturer specs require more frequent backflushing and then quit the field victorious.


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I am in favor of more Muscats. I could eat Muscats all day.

Great article on the surprisingly large grape harvest last year.  Last time they got so many grapes, it took “at least two years to work off.”  The quote that caught my eye implies that growers consider grapes and almonds as the two alternatives, but sense that both markets are saturated.  They need more options that bring stable revenue.


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