Monthly Archives: September 2010

See you in Mid-October.

Hey friends,

I’m travelling for fun for the next while.  I hope to have very little internet access.  At any rate, I won’t be able to keep up with Water stuff, much less write about it.  If I see any cool ancient aquaducts or neat irrigation schemes, I’ll post pictures when I get back.

Take care!  See you in a few weeks.



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There is no shame in not having a blog.

I just saw the Farm Water Coalition’s new blog.  That (and reasons in my powerfully mysterious real life) leads me to a rant.  Listen well, folks, because I know this part.

Do not blog if you do not want to blog.

Here’s how you know if you want to blog:

  • The voices in your head start composing sentences, and do not stop until you put them somewhere.
  • You read and like blogs.
  • You want to respond to news and some idiot blogger who got it wrong on the internet.

Here’s how you know if you do not want to blog:

  • You think your organization should have a blog, because all the cool organizations have a blog.
  • You want someone to be representing your side of the story.
  • It will increase your “web presence.”
  • You want to “market” yourself.

If you are blogging for those reasons, it will very quickly become a sucky chore.  Readers will know you don’t like doing it, and they won’t like reading it.  That starts a downward spiral, in which you resentfully blog for fewer and fewer readers.  Further, maybe you have unrealistic ideas about who you will reach.  Here’s the thing I’ve realized in years of doing this (here and elsewhere).  You will only ever reach people who like blogs.  No one else drops by.  You can mention people by name, discuss the things they are involved in, put up ideas that intersect theirs.  People who love you could know that you’re blogging.  But if they don’t happen to like the blogging scene, you will not bring them in.  By its very nature, people who like blogs are people who like text-based serial narratives.  That is not most people.  Most people will simply never know your words exist.  Look, I have what is likely the most influential water blog in the small world of California water.  I live and work in Water.  I have never heard anyone mention this blog in day to day life.  No one at a conference, in any meeting, in any gathering has ever said, “Well, I read this thing…”.  That’s because they almost all haven’t.  If I mentioned that I write a blog, they’d hum vaguely and get back to the real topic.

Do you want to know how many people will read your new blog?  On days when I post nothing, I get 20-30 regulars.  These are bored blog junkies.  When I get a high-placed link from Aquafornia, on a good day, I’ll get another 100 hits.  The AquaBlogMaven tells me that is high.  Most days, I hover around 60-70 people.  My best days, when I’ve tapped into some buzzing political activity, I’ll get a couple hundred hits for a few days in a row.  Twitter is usually good for about 10 hits, if one of you likes a post enough to Tweet it.  That’s it.  That’s all.  I’d bet money that all of those people are already water junkies who have pretty solid opinions. 

So really.  Are you going to go to the trouble of daily work, recurring slight hassle to reach 50 people?  Especially if you are going to be an aggregator with an ag and water focus?  Any RSS feed can do that, so if you aren’t going to add an editorial function, like prioritizing stories and highlighting the relevant content, there’s no point.  Besides.  The only way anyone would find that blog is if they get there from the excellent aggregator who is already a fucking professional at the work you’re just learning to do.  And who does it full time.  You aren’t prepared to put in full time resources on this, and your product will never compare to someone who does.

For all that, Farm Water Coalition, I wish you had a good blog.  I wish you had a blog that taught me stuff I don’t know about Farm Water.  I wish you had someone who loves ag water, who churns with thought and wants to tell the story of farm water every damn day, because they talk about it all the time if they don’t have somewhere to write it down.  I wish you were running a farm water blog that introduced me to ditchriders and district engineers and showed me pictures of gates and canals.  I would read everyday if you told me what it feels like when some mouthy blogger blithely points out that you’ll take the brunt of climate change.  If you wrote posts about how fucking impossible it is to jump through state hoops, not in the abstract, but in the details of trying to achieve a particular project, I would read that, link to it, and write about why the State came up with that bizarre process.  If you wrote about lobbying and defending your interests in all the crazy state venues, I would hang on every word.  I wish you had that blog, Farm Water Coalition.  But first you’ll need to have someone who wants to write that blog.

Last thing, Farm Water Coalition and everybody.  I swear a lot here.  You don’t have to swear to have a good blog.  But if you aren’t writing about something that is important enough to you to make you swear, don’t get started.  It will feel like work.  It won’t bring you want you want.


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News commentary.

I have two real topics (water and econ, and the LHC study), but those require that I think hard.  We all know that thinking hard is hard, so before that, a few quick reactions to the sudden rush of interesting news.

On the suit against the Kern Water Bank.  Mark Grossi’s commentary today (and the comments on the original story) prompted this thought: The usual distrust towards DWR and Metropolitan is based on what are usually half-baked contemporary conspiracy theories, and very real historical water grabs.  But it is interesting to see that for all that The State is mistrusted, private corporations are mistrusted even more.  Clearly, the Resnick’s and Paramount Farm’s interest is in maximizing their profits.  That’s not even wrong for a corporation.  But it is a facially evident mis-match for running a water bank that is supposed to serve public interests.  People know this in their guts, and it makes them mad.


Look!  Here’s more evidence of people mis-trusting DWR!  I don’t know what to say about this one.  BDCP is the hope, right?  The Legislature punted during their big reform bill last year.  I thought that was a wise recognition that the decisions were too political for them to make, so someone else should.  And the Delta Stewardship Council is supposed to do that deciding, informed by BDCP.  Looks like the out-going high-ups really want BDCP to lock in a path for the Peripheral Canal, and the article suggests also locking in commitments to delivering set water amounts, which is pure folly since they won’t be possible.  Committing to those could create a liability for the state, but it won’t create water.

I think the gears are locked and grinding, man.  I don’t see any movement unless the levees collapse catastrophically or the new administration radically changes direction.  ‘Course, both of those are fairly likely.


I still completely love the lawsuits brought by CWIN and their buddies.  They’re picking the huge fights.  Don’t know that they’ll win, but at least they’re testing the doctrines that environmentalists refer back to.  Let’s have this showdown over the public trust doctrine.  Why have it if we don’t use it?  When should we use if, if not as a last gasp effort for California’s salmon runs?


Really, SacBee editorial board?  If downstream people want to use our effluent, they can pay for (some of) cleaning it?  Look, I know tail-enders get the shaft, but that’s an artifact of the physical world, not an admirable policy that we say out loud.  What happened to “Leave No Trace” and “Clean up after yourselves.”?

We all know that the ammonia problem has been turned into a political controversy by the State Water Contractors, who want anything but flow to be the problem for the Delta.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve the ammonia problem.  Then, when the Delta is still broken, they won’t be able to point to it any longer.  There have long been good federal funds for wastewater treatment, and yes, of course if they’re handing out money we should get in line.  But there is no moral argument for passing our costs on to downstream users or letting the voiceless environment absorb them. 


As we learned last week, talk about the LHC study doesn’t have to be this dull.


I don’t even know why I do this, since I mostly agree with the Pacific Institute.  I am nevertheless going to question a trivial aside that doesn’t change the results of their report.  In a text box on page 7 of their recent report, the authors put a million acre-feet in context.  We LOVE context!  This is great.  But they wrote that a million acrefeet is:


-approximately enough water to irrigate all the grain produced in California annually.

I cannot begin to guess what they mean.  Here are the acreages for field crops in California.  Rice alone is 550,000 acres.  At a minimum of four acre-feet per acre for rice, that’s 2.2 MAF.  They’ve got to be excluding alfalfa (900,000 acres, 3 MAF).  I can see excluding winter wheat, since it isn’t irrigated.  Either that is some very strange definition of grain (grains for human consumption only, but not rice?), or maybe they slipped a digit.  That’s not the main point, and doesn’t contradict their findings (which I can’t personally discount or support).  I’m just curious about that line.


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A nicer letter than that post deserves.

Hey friends,

I got a letter from an actual economist. It said very thoughtful things, in a far more temperate tone than my post. This is great. On other occasions, I’ve started writing up my objections to using economic theory to water, but I had to stop, because I kept getting sidetracked into name-calling. But surely I could write to this economist in a better voice, so I’ll dig those pieces out and finish them. This is swerving away from the LHC study, about which I only wrote sort-of tangential things. If someone has real substantive questions about the LHC study, I’d take a shot at answering them.

The timing on all of this depends on whether my library delivers Mockingjay to me today. If it does, you won’t see me for a day or two.  No one will.


[I’ve taken some identifying text of out the letter.]

However I was a little uncomfortable with some (of what I read to be) shots your took at economists in that post.  In the interest of full disclosure I’m a fellow anonymous public servant who happens to work as an economist for an unnamed agency, so it’s possible I’m just being hyper sensitive…but this is the 3rd or 4th time since I’ve been reading your blog that I’ve caught something of an anti-water markets vibe.

… .  However, there are a number of good water resources economists who do understand the complexities of California water management (not me by the way, I’m a total dilettante.  I stay as current as I can, know enough about irrigated ag. and groundwater pumping issues to be dangerous, and am familiar w/ the flow recommendations from various BiOps but I’m still pretty green).  And most of these guys will agree that markets are generally a pretty good way to solve a number of water allocation problems.

If I read your past posts correctly, I believe your position to be that too many economists want water markets just to have a market.  With issues as complex as water allocation one needs to think very hard about what the end goal should be and, if I understand your beef, you don’t believe many economists have done this…that they are guilty of, “When all you have is a hammer everything is a nail,” type thinking (which, ironically is the beef most economists have with engineers when it comes to water).  I can sympathize with you somewhat here … .
I would like, respectfully of course, to point out that some excellent economists have spent a lot of time thinking about:

  • distributional issues – under what conditions would water markets tend to concentrate wealth and have secondary and tertiary community effects (i.e. if a market encourages fallowing how does that impact ag suppliers in the community?)
  • issues related to the spatial distribution of water rights
  • groundwater/surface water interaction issues and spatial externalities – do markets for surface water cause accelerated groundwater pumping?

Economists have been talking for a long time about these and other institutional/practical issues related to water markets and market design through the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Water Resources Research, and The Journal of Environmental Economics and Management and Contemporary Economic Policy.

In the interest of not writing you a book here I’ll try to summarize my points:

1.  Economists generally assume the goal of an allocation mechanism is to maximize total social surplus.  Whether that should be the goal of a water allocation policy is arguable…and economists generally are not well equipped to participate in that normative argument.  But if that is the goal (and economists generally assume it is) then markets are a pretty good way to get there.

2.  Some economists (like me) are in favor of more markets in water policy because…why the hell not?  We’ve tried lots of other ways to manage water and most of what we’ve done just ended up promoting an endless string of litigation.  Why not give markets a shot?  There are very few market based incentive structures in western states relative to number of watersheds with severe over allocation issues (where markets are likely to be useful).

A slight digression but…when it comes to California water issues the econ landscape seems to be thoroughly and unnecessarily dominated by predictive models.  That’s not meant as a knock on Dick Howitt or Jeff Michaels but we don’t need to get all our socio-economic info from input-output models that impose assumptions…we have data.  There are successful water markets in place on the Deschutes River in Oregon, Snake River tribs in Idaho, and the Scott River, in CA.


The writer is perceptive; I do have a chip on my shoulder about economists, mostly because I think they believe their models more than the real world supports the model. I suppose I should lay out my thinking, rather than keep taking potshots.  Or lay out my thinking and then keep taking potshots.


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More tacky than wrong, but also still wrong.

I expect better from Scientific American, honestly.  But this piece rang warning bells early, and those started clanging ferociously by the section on water.  I can’t even deal with his Reisner-era characterization of California’s water situation (“It is well known that 80 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture and that 40 percent of the state’s water goes to growing four crops: cotton, rice, alfalfa, and pasturage (irrigated grazing land).”), and far, far too facile resolution (“MARKETS!”), although maybe I’ll come back to that this weekend.

You know how I knew that the author’s thinking was shallow and facile in all respects, and not just because he’s applying one ideological lens to a problem that is vastly more complex than he understands, because he thinks he knows things about the real world because he studied economics is probably a layperson in Water?  I knew that on the first fucking page.  I knew that he isn’t a close observer of his actual surroundings, and that his stereotypes filter his perceptions when he wrote this bullshit:

This city self-selects people who want to live well. With the exception of me, we are well-tanned, physically fit, attractive people. There is an abundance of plastic surgeons; service providers offering you whiter teeth; swimming pools; and life coaches to pluck, wax, and generally improve every part of your body and mind.

One more time.  Los Angeles is a huge, incredibly heterogeneous place, that is majority-minority and has neighborhoods of tens of thousands of people who are immigrants and first-gen.  They look, a whole lot of them, like third-world people  If what you see when you walk around LA is tanned, teeth-whitened people, your confirmation bias of your own stereotypes is so strong that you are simply not-seeing half the people who pass you on a daily basis.  I was suspicious by that paragraph, and was saddened to find out I was right when I got to the section on water. 

How does bullshit like that get published?  Are there really so many economists who like to masturbate to familiar, self-soothing market theory that they can support entire book runs?


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LHC study: because it is all about me.

The LHC report proposes spinning off the State Water Project to its own home, then combining the rest of DWR, the instream flows section of Fish and Game, and the water rights section of the State Board into one new Department of Water Management.

My first thought? But I don’t want to be a beaten, hollow-eyed wretch regulator.  I’ve seen it lots.  Bureaucrats with regulating authority become broken, twitchy husks defensive.  They’ve been yelled at so many times, abused in public meetings and left to twist in the wind unsupported by high-up political appointees that they change.  They start to pre-emptively self-censor, muttering caveats and qualifications like pleas to escape a beating.  They hedge and cringe before they are challenged, and make bold proposals like ‘consider proposing a study to gather more data’.  The poor things have learned fear, because the public actually pays attention to their work, hates them, and tries to undermine them in any political venue it can find.  I can only assume the same thing would happen to me if I were back at a regulatory agency (says the pseudonymous blogger), so I’m not sure about working at a (new) DWM with authority over the outside world.

That said, from a less selfish perspective, if DWM is going to take on water rights authority, it should have water quality authority as well.  Water rights and water quality are inextricably linked.  The volume of water determines pollutant loads, both concentrations and temperature.  The State and Regional Boards are putting a lot of effort into managing salts right now; moving water IS moving salts, so that goes straight back to permission to move water.   The famous State Board decisions about water quality standards in the Delta are also flow decisions about how much water is required to push the salt concentrations westward.  If Water Rights were to come over to (the proposed, new) DWM, I think it would rapidly become conspicuous that they still need to do their work hand in hand with Water Quality.  Further, an emailer pointed out that the Regional Boards actually write Basin Plans, and Basin Plans should be tied into Integrated Regional Water Management Plans, shouldn’t they? 

Frankly, I think that if we’re moving the project out of DWR, and combining the rest with the Water Rights, we should combine the rest of the State Board as well.  Except maybe their weirdo appointed board/administrative court level, which is bizarre and does unpredictable things.  I could do without that.  I am all about picking up a group from Fish and Game, since everyone knows that Fish and Game staff are largely cooler than the rest of us.  Maybe they could wear their uniforms around the office.  I’m just saying.


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Reactions to today’s water news.

Posting one-liner responses to the news of the day is totally cheap, isn’t it?  I’ll write more thoroughly about that LHC study in a bit, but for now, I can’t help myself.

An editorial in today’s Silicon Valley Mercury News is all crazy talk about ocean-shipping water.  I’ll let rising costs of oil speak for themselves, although now I am intrigued by the idea of a third kind of ports: container, bulk and … canal ports?  It would make Northern California’s talk about “area of origin” rights look tame.  One has only to read the comments in any SacBee water story to see that people would far rather stop exporting water than become conscientious about their own water use.  Whatever.  I didn’t mean to give a substantive evaluation.  I was going to chat about a side point.   The editorial says:

Our challenge is to not only conserve more and clean up the polluted water we have, but also to transfer large amounts of water from areas that enjoy surplus resources, such as Russia, Canada, Alaska and northern Europe, to areas that face long-term scarcity, like California.

Back in grad school, I came across a World Bank? some sort of international gung-ho water project type of report that said something very close to:

Irrigation is the science of correcting nature’s mistakes.

I was righteously outraged, and immediately printed it out and posted it on my door, because I love outrageous things.  I doubt anyone ever got my irony.  Engineers don’t really look for irony, you know?  Anyway, our challenge of the next while is to get to work importing water (by sea!) from northern countries that have lots.


Big story about Asian carp.  I was all blah blah blah Asian Carp for a long time, because we all know that I don’t care about things that are east of the Sierras, much less the Rockies where they don’t even irrigate and are therefore outside of anything I could possibly relate to.  Then I went looking for Asian carp on YouTube.  Check this out, at about forty seconds.  Or watch this and this. Dude. I guess I believe the problem is real.

Is the Pasadena Star News always so biased? I’ve never read it, so I don’t know. They’re urging their readers to go to the next board meeting of their water district, which I love, to object to the practice of paying board members to attend meetings, which I don’t love. The part that cracked me up:

As shown in stories we published in 2008, members of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California were getting paid $230 per meeting. Not far behind were members of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District at $200 a sit-down. This can add up to $20,000 to $30,000 in annual compensation.

My god! $20,000 to $30,000 of annual compensation, for something that is probably a 15 hour a week job!!!  The Pasadena Star News suggests those meetings are superfluous, created just for the $230 the board members get each time.  I have no trouble believing a district can generate enough real content to hold those meetings.  I particularly objected to this, from the same editorial:

Despite two directors saying this was wrong, the board majority voted to give members credit cards anyway, to charge up expenses at will. The ostensible reason was because one board member, Willard Murray, said he could not afford to front the money for trips, hotel rooms, meals and gasoline and then be paid back by the district 30 days after filing for reimbursement. Well, if he can’t play by the rules, he shouldn’t go on trips or eat meals on the district’s dime.

Does the Pasadena Star News realize that it is creating a situation where only wealthy people can afford to do the business of democracy?  Those committee members are doing the day-to-day business of the community: refilling groundwater basins and providing urban water in a manner that is open, public, and subject to voter approval.  We want every person in those communities to be able to afford to give their time, not just the people who can afford to advance the district for the costs of doing the district’s business as well as donate substantial time.


See you later on today, when I plan to make gratuitous snide remarks about a sister agency.


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