Monthly Archives: July 2010

Less hookers and blow than you would think. Tragic, really.

I love the North County Times’ water reporting.  Couldn’t tell you whether the rest of the paper is any good, but I find their water reporting to be informative and thorough, with a good eye for detail.  This op-ed in the North County Times, however, lacks their usual nuance.  It is written by a Ms. Batra, who imagines her local water authorities to be an authoritarian bunch.  I am at a loss, however, to understand exactly how their fiendish plots will work.

On the surface, Ms. Batra objects to a recent reversal of district rate policy.  She writes that the people of Encinitas were promised a lower water rate if they conserved; on getting good conservation returns, four of five (city?) councilmembers cancelled the lower rates.  (I don’t know if this is the actual story, if there were a promise to reduce rates, what the vote was, what actually happened.)   I strongly suspect the city had the same problem many districts had in the past drought.  They had a poorly designed rate structure, one that spread the costs of their capital and operating costs over the amount of water they sold.  When they sold less water, they suddenly found they couldn’t pay their fixed costs.  The PUC is trying to introduce a decoupled rate structure into water service.  The costs of district infrastructure and O&M are bundled into a fixed rate, while the costs of delivering water are a separate variable price.  This way, districts will always recoup their infrastructure and O&M costs.  Most districts aren’t on this model yet, though, and the phenomenon that Ms. Batra observes (that you conserve and then your rates go up) really pisses people off.  Telling them that they would be paying far more if they hadn’t conserved, because then they’d be paying for more water, and some of it would be even more expensive water that the district had to go buy from some one never seems to soothe anyone.  Ms. Batra has illustrated one of the common policy problems of water conservation, but it is resolvable and not emotionally intractable, like some of our other water policy problems.  That’s not really what is bugging Ms. Batra, however.

The way I read Ms. Batra, she seems preoccupied with governments abusing authority.  She uses some pretty loaded language, for starters, all about bossing people around and authority.

…the state introduced mandatory water conservation measures… …we have been nagged to death about conserving water… …rules that dictated…

She goes on to state her thesis, which is where I started laughing.

It’s pretty obvious that City Council members will cherry-pick and follow only those rules that expand government and their own power.

This is funnier for water districts, and only barely more plausible for city council members, but WHAT POWER?  How does changing a rate structure consolidate a board member’s or a council member’s power?  Even if you change the rate structure so it charges more, how does that lead to personal power for a council member or institutional power for a district or city?  On the boring legal side, a special district or a city  has listed powers from their enabling legislation.  They can tax parcels.  They can grant water service.  They can get easements for maintenance.  They have some genuine and useful powers.  But they aren’t feudal lords.  They can’t get any powers that are any fun or make their institution be more than a water district. It isn’t like a district can get so strong it can invade a neighbor, and, um, force water deliveries on their new serfs.

That’s why I don’t get Ms. Batra’s argument.  According to her, because of this rate increase, locals will pay $10 more per month, and… then what?  The locals will become relatively more impoverished, and from their diminished socioeconomic class, look with awe upon the city council members, who then get to cut in line at the movies and get the best tables in restaurants?  The increased coffers of the city (which I think will go straight back to pipe maintenance, but lets say it doesn’t) will do… what?  With the ill-gotten hoard from that rate increase, city councilmembers will be able to eminent domain anybody they want and build their castles on the best land?   If the argument is that the council members in this case act out of base power-mongering, I think the case falls apart when you get to motivation.   I know you think it is all hookers and blow for glamorous water district board members, but sadly, even craven greedy rate increases don’t score board members anything a hedonist would want.  All that heady power barely gets them a parking spot and answers to their questions in staff reports.  I don’t understand the mechanism that Ms. Batra suggests, that shafting the public with a rate increase gives them personally or their agency more power.  And I don’t understand the result, that they have more power to do some unexplained but nefarious something.  What could it be?

I’ve edited this slightly for grammar.


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Jerry Brown is still not talking about water.

Candidate for governor Jerry Brown released two more campaign plans, on education and the environment.  He is still not talking about water.  Can’t blame him.  The field is turbulent and polarized right now; declaring himself on anything related to the Delta (and everything is related to the Delta) can only make people mad.  Personally, I would love for him to come out with some strong statement.  Folks in the agencies are reading tea leaves and entrails, wondering whether our on-going projects will be up-ended in January.

Bureaucrat that I am, I loved one thing  in particular about his plan for the environment.  Under Protect California’s Coastline and Ocean Resources (Item 3, page 5), he wrote:

…Complete and implement California’s Climate Adaptation Plan aimed at protecting against sea level rise, salt water intrusion, and increased erosion.

I am nearly overcome.  He is aware of an existing planning document!  He wants to implement it!  He will draw on already existing work, rather than have his administration start from scratch!  He knows enough about the state agencies to refer to some of their work and thinks it is good enough to keep it going!  This is amazing talk from a politician, this knowledgeable citing-of-plans.  How fortuitous that we also draw on that adaptation plan!  It suggests that multiple state agencies may actually be seeing momentum from coordinating their planning and working from a common information base.   How extraordinary.

 I wonder if Meg Whitman could name any of the major plans in any of the agencies.  Climate Change AdaptationCalifornia Transportation PlanCalifornia Water PlanFloodSAFE?  The California Fire Plan?  I mean, she probably could, because you just put a major issue in the middle of the words California and Plan.  But it seems as if Jerry Brown has (at least) a rough idea what is in them (which is the best I could do for transportation and fire and stuff).  Which is surprisingly encouraging for low-level agency staff.


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It’d be awesome to get this back.

We never had this to start with.  I am not blogger enough (nor bodybuilder) to explain thisThe playgrounds are worth a look too.


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The Delta flows requirement report (extra)

The State Board’s report detailing the flows that would be required to maintain native fish populations in the Delta make the choice very clear.  We cannot manage water the way we do now and have resilient native fish populations in the Delta.  We’ve known this, but now it is all official in a report.  Mr. Fitzgerald wrote:

Only now none can deceive. They can’t pretend fulfilling excessive water contracts – promising to deliver more water than exists – and restoring the Delta both are feasible goals. They can’t say we’ll all get better together.

California knows now that it is making a choice.  The mechanisms for making choices in Sacramento and the state are nearly hopelessly snarled and broken, and from what I’ve seen, we are particularly bad at choices with identifiable losers.  So we’ll tackle pieces of this choice in lots of venues, and if the solution doesn’t appear to be win-win, the forum will dissolve for another three years until it gets re-instated to create and select from a menu of non-existent win-win choices.  But I’m getting off track.   I really wanted to say something different.

There are thousands of water professionals, and maybe tens of very influential politicians, executives, technocrats and judges who will try to sort this out.  They claim to want to follow science, and that’s great.  But they are following science to implement a policy choice of the 39 million Californians in the state.  We project all the time about what those 39 million Californians want.  They want cheap food!  They looove salmon!  The Endangered Species Act shows that they love nature!  Their lawns show that they don’t care about nature!  They want convenience and blissful ignorance!  We guess, project and argue about what the people of the state want us to do with our water.  (They always agree with the speaker.)  What kills me is that “what the people of the state want to do with our waters” is knowable.

There are survey research companies that could detail, with good reliability and precision, the preferences of the 39 million people who would find this blog utterly boring*.  We could commission a large random sample, give them a board game and 80 pieces of water and have them allocate the 80MAF of water that fall on the state most years.  We could have them allocate in drought and surplus.  We could actually know, within a confidence interval, what the people of the state want us to do.  Maybe they don’t give a shit about a minnow.  Maybe they’d throw farming out the window.  But we could know.   We could know this within a few months and a few tens of thousands of dollars.  Perhaps the aggregate opinion of the people of the state should only be advisory, just as the Delta flows requirement report is advisory.  But as we get into the reality of this choice, change our lifestyles or let the natural environment collapse, we could know what the people of the state want to do.

Continue reading


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The Delta flows requirement report (supplemental)

Took the water users a couple days to come out with a response to the State Board’s new report recommending much higher flows to maintain a native fish population in the Delta.  Here, the State Water Contractors wrote this (and a bit more):

As the Board notes in the summary, the draft flow criteria have not been screened through the Board’s usual balanced and comprehensive process. They are premised on the erroneous assumption that all the ecosystem’s deficiencies can be addressed through flow alone. Moreover, there is no attempt to balance ecosystem with human water supply needs.

The head of the Northern California Water Agencies was quoted saying:

It’s equally important what is not included in the report, Guy added. “It basically looks at Delta fish without regard to any other considerations — from Southern California, to farms, to birds to fish in other parts of the state.

Which got me to thinking.  It is nice turnabout to see a report come out that has one sole focus, and that’s fish.  For decades, we’ve seen One Thing engineering, and no one thought that was odd at all.

Engineer: You know, if we channelize this streambed, I bet we could really move some high flows.

Biologist: Well, um, that streambed has trees and fish and creatures and stuff.

Engineer: I’m thinking a nice trapezoid, maybe with a low flow notch.  I like a low flow notch.

City Planner: It’s just that people like to come down to the creek with their kids sometimes.

Engineer: Get a smooth concrete surface, get that Manning’s N down, you could see some screaming velocities in there.

Local District: Thing is, that stream  re-charges our groundwater bas—

Engineer: Get that water out to sea in two hours flat, I bet you.

Reports with one sole focus, “without regard to any other considerations” were the way we’ve done things for decades, until CEQA and NEPA cracked the door open in the 80’s, and worse, brought those whiny biologists and planners inside the agencies to dilute the vision.  It isn’t that the folks who said the quotes above haven’t seen reports that focus on only one aspect of a problem before; they’re old enough to remember that era.  They’ve just never seen it focus on fish to the exclusion of everything else.   I admit, it is startling to have the water supply for the state treated as an unaddressed aside.  But that’s how the project designers treated the salmon runs of the state.  If the One Thing approach doesn’t seem like it offers practical solutions and creates additional spin-off problems, I submit that has always been the case.   Those new problems just didn’t matter to water managers before.  Honestly, I find the turnabout kinda wonderful.

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The Delta flow requirements report (dance remix).

Mr. Fitzgerald does something very handy in his opinion piece. He very roughly estimates the volume of water the State Board’s new Delta flow recommendations would keep in the Delta, which illuminates something crucial. His ballpark estimate is that the flow requirements to maintain native fish populations in the Delta would translate to about 7.5 MAF more water that has to make it to the Delta and flow west. The important thing that I want everyone to see is that I am so fucking right. We can convert this in our heads by now.

7.5MAF of in-Delta water * (1 acre of ag land/3 AF water) = 2.5 million acres of ag land out of production.

This is all extremely rough, with lots of factors in both directions.

For ag:
There’s no way Delta fish are going to get all those flows.
Some of the flows can do double or triple duty, go through the Delta and get used again.
Maybe some of that water would come out of urban, not ag. (I crack myself up.)

Against ag:
This is just the Delta. Imagine if we had real instream flow requirements for all the rivers in the state.
We’re going to have less water in general, falling in a form we don’t have capacity to catch.

I’m telling you. California ag is going to decline from 9 million acres to 6 million acres in the next few decades. If you are in ag and do not have the among the safest two-thirds of the ag water supply, your farm will not have water in 2040 and later. Do not plant orchards. No vines! If your self-identity requires farming, sell your land while someone might still buy it and buy farmland on the east side or the Sac Valley. If you are with the Farm Bureau or the Farm Water Coalition, you should be playing on the image of family farmers to extract the best transition terms from the rest of the state for that bottom third of farming*. Fighting to keep the third of farmers with the least secure water supply in business is fighting against the inexorable forces of climate change, population growth, and rising energy costs. I know you hate the liberal hippie scientists and big government, but they’re not the source of farming’s problems.  They’re the messengers, reporting that the physical world is changing in ways that will make a good chunk of the farming that we do now in California impossible.

*In their ten year drought, Australia went from 14,000 farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin to 5,000 to 7,000 farmers. They lost more than half their farmers. I’m predicting that we’ll only lose a third of the farmed acreage in California by mid-century. Faster if the drought happens sooner.


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The Delta flow requirements report (cont.)

Mr. Fitzgerald of the Stockton Record calls state employees the Delta’s “most destructive invasive species”.  My feelings would be hurt, but I was born in Rat Year, and am used to being called cruel names by people who are jealous of my shiny fur and agile climbing abilities.  I have grown beyond such petty slurs.  I remain interested in his perception of state government dynamics.  I don’t want to attribute mental states to anyone, but I wonder whether most people who don’t work directly in the field think of the state government the way he appears to.  He seems to think of the State as a monolithic, united agency.  In slight paraphrase, he talks about the state concluding that the Delta needs new water; the state being forced to admit that water users are taking twice too much; the state indicting itself, the state betraying the public trust; and finally, the state compiling evidence into this report.  From inside the state, I can tell you that it doesn’t feel like our monolithic state government has been forced to admit something that undermines our secret agenda to Break the Delta and Send Water South.  From inside the state, this feels just like usual.  One of the many, many factions who have an interest in the Delta has produced a professional and competent report that makes everything more swirly and confused, and we don’t know how it will play out either.  Just like always.

The State isn’t one entity, even in Water.  It doesn’t have one goal, because probably five or six thousand state employees are working on different aspects of Water, and they don’t all want the same thing.  Right now, the Schwarzenegger administration has the explicit policy agenda of pushing the Peripheral Canal; his political appointees are working to carry out that agenda.  But that’s no secret.  Further, below the level of political appointees are career bureaucrats who have formed their own ideas about what would be good for the state and the Delta over the course of their careers.  Those ideas vary.  Besides all that, at the crudest level, the state didn’t “indict itself.”  Rather, the State Board (water quality and water rights) finally performed one of its functions, showing that another department, DWR (water project and planning) has been performing its function at an unsustainable level.    I am sure no one at the State Board thinks they’ve condemned themselves; if they have any similar sensation, it is that they outed DWR.  No one at DWR thinks they have confessed to anything; it was a State Board report after all, and one with a limited scope.  Mostly, I am glad the legislature directed the State Board to write this report (especially to write it fast; I think the speed itself was valuable).  That was a good exercise of their authority, but even so, that makes them a fourth faction within state government (State Board, DWR, Schwarzenegger administration, legislature) jostling about in a crowded field.

(Shoot, I wanted to say more, but I’ve really got to run.  See you tomorrow, likely.)

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