Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Delta flow requirements report (more).

You know what would be good and productive?  If I read the Delta flows report and gave a sophisticated and  nuanced interpretation that solved everything.  But what I’m actually going to do is read everyone else’s commentary and make fun of that.  Starting with the SF Chron’s op-ed.

The chief friction point, now as before, is cutting the flow of southbound water for Central Valley farming and Southern California drinking supplies. The report suggested cuts of 30 percent or more in these categories.

Heh.  You know what else the report suggested, two lines down (pg 5) ?  Higher inflows on the San Joaquin River.  They recommend 60% of unimpaired San Joaquin River inflows, as compared to the 20 – 50% the San Joaquin is delivering now.  My map says that the Mokelumne meets the Consumnes near Thorton, and both flow into the San Joaquin near Isleton* the Tuolomne flows into the San Joaquin near Westley.  This isn’t just a question of Central Valley farmers and So Cal cities taking less.  There’s a direct chain of rivers going back to SF’s supply too. Look, smug Northern Californians.  We’re in this together.  The State Board report also wants half again as much Sacramento River inflow, so we can all start kicking any junior appropriators in the Sacramento Valley we can find.  Or, we can admit that this is a collective problem that touches directly on all of our lifestyles and our choices for what to do with the landscape.

This is a battle over allocating scarcity, hopefully shoving it onto someone else, even better if it is someone you don’t have to look at the results directly.  But the civilized approach would be to spread it evenly, and the Delta is so entwined with everything south of Shasta, east of the Sierras and north of Imperial that there is cause for everyone to contribute to the inflows that would keep it alive.

I’ve got more, from other op-eds, but I’ve got to run.  Hopefully I can check back in a couple more times today.  The next (and my favorite) opinion piece I’ll look at is this awesome one, from the Stockton Record.

*My bad.  SF drinks the Tuolumne River; Berkeley and Oakland drink the Mokelumne River.  You’re on the hook too, EBMUD!

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Early thoughts on today’s Delta Flow Requirements report, released by the State Board.

I am quite enjoying the Draft Flow Criteria for the Delta, which was mandated by the legislature in the part of last Fall’s water legislation that wasn’t the water bond.  The legislature told the State Water Board to determine how much water should flow through the Delta to keep native fish species alive in the Delta*, and to do that within nine months.  Those flow requirements wouldn’t be immediately turned into any sort of binding regulation, but rather they would be an informational benchmark.  I don’t have the expertise to say whether those flow requirements are set at the right level.  But to my eye, this looks like a thorough report that explains its methods and gives a reasonable guess.  It also speaks remarkably directly and clearly for a government report**.  Perhaps this is the good influence of Phil Isenberg, whom I once saw direct his staff to write clear normative sentences for people to agree or disagree with. 

All of this makes me wish that the legislature would direct the State Board to come up with fish flow requirements within nine months all the time.  I’m thinking that the State Board was able to round up enough scientists to give them a good rough take.  After that first rough take, any more work on the report just leads to weaseling and backing down.  Maybe this was very expensive for the State Board to do; maybe their staff had to drop everything to get these flow recommendations out so fast.  But maybe the State Board should have to do this a few more times.  They could stand to do this for Butte Creek, where salmon are stranded.  For the Scott River, where they pretend that groundwater doesn’t come straight out of summer river flows.  For the Klamath.  For the Shasta River.  Maybe, after such a hurried process, the State Board might think that their instream flow requirement estimates could be off by five or ten percent.  But we would at least have somewhere to start.  Now we know we can have that very quickly, when the legislature tells the State Board to get a jump on it.

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Near Turner Cut, maybe?

This quote from a story on the San Joaquin River restoration caught my eye:

An intense fight is emerging on the Valley’s west side between farmers and activists who seem to have the same goal — protecting the San Joaquin River.

Activists say toxic irrigation drainage from the farms could undermine river restoration by poisoning newly restored salmon … .

Farmers, who have been voluntarily cleaning up the drainage since 1995, say the fish will be fine, because high restoration flows will dilute possible contaminants. (Emphasis mine)

I want to be sure I understand this. On the San Joaquin River, high flows can be used to dilute contaminants enough to make the water safe for fish? But in the Delta, high flows are useless in the face of trace nitrites from the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant? But the San Joaquin River flows into the Delta. Where does the magical power of dilution making the water safe for fish stop, I wonder? Where Interstate 5 crosses the San Joaquin River? I looked at my Delta map, but it doesn’t mark the spot where the magic of dilution stops working.

Look, “farmers” in the Fresno Bee story. Either big flows that dilute pollutants are good for fish, in which case designating minimum flows for the Delta helps save smelt. Or, fish can’t be made safe from pollutants by big flows, in which case you need to clean up your selenium drainage before salmon are reintroduced to the San Joaquin River. Me, I’m happy to believe that fish need large flows (for coolth and stuff) and no pollutants. This makes my life easy, because I don’t have to change my story as I canoe down the new San Joaquin River.

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Not around much this week.

See you next week. Hope you are enjoying your summer.


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When it rains, I blog a whole lot.

More on “beneficiaries pay”.  I hadn’t seen the Pacific Institute’s powerpoint presentation on the water bond when I wrote up my last two posts. I think it raises some of the same questions: how does the state want to pay for the next round of water infrastructure?  One of the questions the Pacific Institute raises is a little more leading:

Question: Should the public or project users pay to fix ecosystem damages caused by past projects? (slide eight.)

Rather answers itself when it is put that way, doesn’t it?  Except that:

1.  “Project users” don’t want to pay, and the political fight would be long.

2.  Depending how you define the project users, they may not have the wealth (even if we could extract it) to pay to undo the ecosystem damage the projects have done.  Could take that much money out of the farming sector (yes, because there’s a fair amount of wealth in it), and still have it be a farming sector (maybe not, because that wealth isn’t very liquid and is bound up in land prices and big harvestors)?  Maybe it isn’t important that it remain a farming sector, but that’s a much more loaded policy question than, should the people who broke our rivers pay for fixing them ?  Or are the “project users” the SoCal cities (or a combination of both, of course)?  Easy for people in Northern California to say, but at this point you’re talking about more than half the people in the state.  So the half the people in Northern California and the central coast especially don’t want to pay for project ecosystem damage?  They’re the ones who get to live near the prettified Delta and see the salmon swim by.  These questions get hard fast, all the more so when you realize that most everyone here was born into an existing system and didn’t make any decisions about whether to have the water projects we do.

I don’t know my own answers (although I’m strongly in favor of better budgeting processes, so it doesn’t cost us money just to collect and spend money).  Probably my own real answer is: “We should all pay for projects I like, and “beneficiaries pay” should be a roadblock for projects I don’t like.”


On re-reading, I’m not sure exactly what the two issues that Prof.  Bass wanted to discuss.  These questions:

How can the private beneficiaries be distinguished from the public ones?

How does a suburban developer in Palmdale get separated from the person he sold a house to ten years ago?

Or the larger themes of the post:

Who isn’t helped by the collective projects in the water bond? and

Isn’t the “pork” in the water bond also job-generating stimulus?

Since he is still reading the water blogs all the way from his vacation in India, I’ll take a stab at those questions.

How can the private beneficiaries be distinguished from the public ones?

I dunno, man.  You look at a specific project, try to track down some of the externalities (positive and negative), see whether the money creates value that mostly accrues to a private person or in a fashion that isn’t widely accessible even if technically public.  This is the wrangling part, and I can’t see how it can be done in the abstract.

How does a suburban developer in Palmdale get separated from the person he sold a house to ten years ago?

Holy shit, I love this question.  I might have to give it its own post, especially if I divert into the rant that is raging in my head.

Who isn’t helped by the collective projects in the water bond?

Well, you could do a lot of bean counting, and eventually come up with a county that got the shaft in this water bond.  They end up paying more in re-paying the bonds than they get back in their own “pork” project.  Or you could do lots of accounting and figure out that some district did quite well for itself, paying out less than the local project was worth.  Presumably every legislator thinks she is in that category, or at least that it turned money into a nicely visible project.  I think there’d be lots of money flowing around the state, and it is very difficult to put money values on the resulting projects, so an accounting attempt along those lines wouldn’t end up being useful.

I think some people would say: sure, in the water world it is all sort of a wash, but the whole world isn’t water.  I know, I know.  I can barely talk to those freakshows either; I back away from them while making reassuring cooing sounds in case they are dangerous.  But they say things like “schools” and “hospitals” would provide more societal value for the bond money we would spend on water infrastructure.  I have no way to evaluate their incomprehensible claims.

Isn’t the “pork” in the water bond also job-generating stimulus?

Presumably, since paying people to twiddle their thumbs would be job-generating stimulus.  Don’t know if I think this is the best and fastest job-generating stimulus.  It’d take a couple years to get those projects in the construction phase.  If job generation were my only priority, I’d pay for fuels reduction in the Sierras, or arundo eradication, which could be started up very fast.  But yeah.  Those projects would hire a lot of people around the state.


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Thoughts on “beneficiary pays”.

John Bass wrote a real interesting post raising questions about “beneficiaries pay”, which is essentially the concept that the direct beneficiaries of a project should be the ones to finance and pay for it.  He asks two questions, to which I’ll give my answers, probably not satisfactorily.    First, though, I want to muse on ‘beneficiaries pay’ a bit.  ‘Beneficiaries pay’ is pretty much the orthodoxy these days; the Sacramento Bee op-ed goes on to make the case for it:

California needs to invest in its water future, but it must make smart investments – and equitable ones. Before voters are asked to authorize more general fund debt on top of existing debt, the beneficiaries of water projects need to be identified and obligated to pay for their fair share.

And here’s Dr. Michael talking about it:

The most valuable water supply projects will still be constructed if the bond fails. Financially feasible projects will be appropriately paid for by the water users who benefit.

I hear the concept taken for granted in a number of venues and I hadn’t heard it questioned until my recent post and Prof. Bass’s linked post.  But I don’t think that “beneficiaries pay” should be so accepted that it is assumed to be the default.

  • So far as I can tell, “beneficiaries pay” is a signal detection problem.  The two extremes are uninteresting cases.  If we were taxing everyone in the state to give the City of Beverly Hills a shiny new local reservoir behind marble gates, this would be conspicuously unjust, and we would be right to tell people in Beverly Hills to pay for their own damn reservoir if they want one and are going to keep us out.  Beneficiaries pay is a great idea!  At the other end of the spectrum, it would be unjust to tell an economically disadvantaged community to pony up for a expensive wetlands project for their wastewater that was going to be the key to cleansing the entire San Francisco Bay and growing beautiful migratory butterflies that land on the cheeks of small children in San Diego and give them kisses.  Beneficiaries (of the narrowly bracketed wetland project) pay is a terrible idea!

Beneficiary pays is not intrinsically great or terrible.  Rather, most cases are in the middle, and what you see is a lot of wrangling about whether any particular project is closer to the Beverly Hills example or is providing wider benefits that have gotten overlooked.  Rather than dispute the concept, most people are saying that their project happens to be just over some undefined threshold where, yeah, basically everyone should chip in for it.  But people believe in that threshold, and have different ideas about whether false positives (paying for too many Beverly Hills reservoirs) or false negatives (paying for too few wetlands in poor communities) are the real failures of the system.

  • Environmentalists have gotten behind ‘beneficiaries pay’ because it is a good way to stop projects.  Want a new dam, farmers in the SJV?  Offer to pay for it first, and we’ll fight over it second.  It puts off a lot of fights when the people who want a project don’t even offer to pay for it.  When MWD offered to pay for the Peripheral Canal, it brought the project into the fighting stage. Since I’m hesitant about some types of projects, I do like that aspect of “beneficiaries pay”.  But I’m not hesitant about local watershed projects, so I’m listing arguments against it next.
  • I don’t know what the opposite of “beneficiaries pay” is; “collectively pay”?  But I know this.  “Collectively pay” gets projects in the ground.  It works.  Basically the entire country’s wastewater treatment capacity was built in the ’50’s through 70’s with free federal moneys.  Cities that missed that round of federal hand-outs for their wastewater treatment plants often still don’t have a wastewater treatment plant; they are facing costs of hundreds of millions of dollars to put one in now.  They say their citizens can’t afford it, and there’s some truth to that.  Given that the next round of state water infrastructure management is going to be relatively expensive local projects everywhere in the state, maybe it will take a huge push of state monies to get those built.  Maybe bonds aren’t the cheapest way for the state to finance those.  If I thought the state were going to use cheaper financing mechanisms, like taxation or a water finance charge, I would support those over bonds.   If I think the alternative to bonds is doing very few of those local projects (and those only in rich communities who choose to tax themselves), then I’m for whatever funding mechanism gets those projects going.
  • Finally, I think that given that the state needs to undertake local water infrastructure projects (unglamorous ones, like efficiency retrofits, and mountain meadow restoration, and putting tertiary treatment into sewage plants) throughout the state, and given that everyone is going to be arguing that their project generates butterflies that kiss us all, jesus fuck.  Do we really want to keep track of who subsidized what, and who came out slightly ahead, and which community was the slight loser?  Really?  Are we a state, a collective entity, or not?  Maybe that attitude is a luxury of a richer community, and is one of the things we lose as we become poorer and stingier with each other.

Seems to me, though, that some of the motivation behind “beneficiaries pay” is the conservative fear that somewhere, some community is getting a project they don’t deserve.  That maybe, somewhere in all this pork, it is unfair for the people of the state of California to pay for a dam removal in a well-off community.  One argument is that we all get some benefit from the dam removal.  But my argument is, so what?  So what if it is unfair?  Then what?  Will tornadoes come to punish us?  Will it rain frogs?  Will we go blind?  Besides the aggravation of unfairness, what bad thing will happen?  Again, I might be wrong.  We might genuinely be so poor that if we accidentally pay for a rich community’s dam removal, school children elsewhere will go without textbooks.  In that case, things are dire.  I understand that the state government is more than broke, mostly because of fucking Howard Jarvis a hopelessly tangled state budgeting process.  But I cannot believe that there is not enough wealth within the boundaries of the state to build the next round of water infrastructure projects (even if they don’t look like the gleaming canals of the last round).

The arguments for economists are different, and below the fold.  Prof. Bass, I didn’t even get to your questions, although I want to.

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One person’s pork…

Aquafornia put these up today, and I think they’re pretty representative of the anti-bond measure op-eds that have been appearing for the last many days.

From the Sac Bee:

Much has been written about how lawmakers cobbled together this $11.1 billion Christmas tree in the wee hours of Nov. 4. As lawmakers held out for more and more projects for the price of their vote, the tree became festooned with all kinds of ornaments. The cost of the bond package grew by nearly $2 billion.

The final package, approved as part of a sweeping set of reforms aimed at restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Deltaand improving water reliability, includes a little something for everyone. There is $20 million to help Siskiyou County with economic development; $100 million for watershed restoration in Lake Tahoe; $100 million for the San Vicente Reservoir in San Diego and more than $1 billion for unspecified projects – in other words, handshake deals.

Given the national backlash against self-serving “earmarks,” it is stunning that lawmakers and the governor thought they could get away with this. Yet the proverbial pork barrel is not the only reason this law should be repealed and revamped.

From the ChicoER:

The amount of money could make a difference, if it was in fact targeted to meeting the needs of the state. Instead, it’s dribbled out through several different conduits for projects that haven’t even been defined. It’s just dumping a bunch of cash out there for cities, counties, special districts, state agencies, nonprofits, conservancies, utilities and their armies of consultants to fight over.

If you were going to rationally solve the state’s water problems, you’d steer most of the money to fixing the delta and the rest to increasing water storage. But Proposition 18 allocates money to drought relief, “water supply reliability,” conservation and watershed protection, among other things.

My question for these newspaper editors is:  What do you think Integrated Regional Water Management is?  Maybe they don’t think anything about Integrated Regional Water Management, because who would, if you could be thinking about the World Cup instead.  But IRWM is DWR’s flagship program right now, and the wave of the future and the savior of us all.  (Actually, I have some doubts about it, but*.)  It emerged out of the 2005 Water Plan Update (as the only thing that no one hated); it is strongly backed by the legislature.

IRWM is California’s water policy right now, and these editorials tell me that people don’t really know what it is.  Because I promise you, IRWM is exactly things like watershed restoration, stormwater projects, local purple pipe infrastructure, and water conservation, splashed out in pieces all over the state.  If legislators gathered all those “pork” projects and bundled them into $2.5B for IRWM, would you approve of that, op-ed writers?  Because those projects are what look like the next best sources of water to the locals.  If they don’t get stand-alone money in a water bill, they’ll go to the top of the list in an IRWM Plan.  (Maybe you think that dispassionate bureaucrats should evaluate the projects as a field and be the ones to prioritize the projects in a grant funding round.  Eh.  Seems like letting the projects fight it out in a legislative frenzy is roughly the same.)

I know that op-ed writers want a pure, low entropy supply (like a big, beautiful, sparkly arching dam) to appear (with magic water to fill it), and we can fund that in one glorious purchase.  But those are gone.  We’re collecting the next best things now, the widely distributed local efficiency gains that we were rich enough to overlook before.  You can call it pork or you can call it IRWM.  But that’s our world now.  We don’t have to do those.  But if we don’t, we have to live within the recent drought years’ water supply and make life-style changes.

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