Monthly Archives: November 2010

Just one goat, just one time.

You know what this whole Wikileaks-releasing-the-diplomatic-cables thing reminds me of?  Facebook, and how Facebook forces account holders to be unitary people, rather than the different faces they like to present to work and family and friends.  I propose that this type of exposure, tying words and actions back to their originator, is what the internet inevitably does.  Rather than think about the relative power balances between countries, I see this as America and other nations trying to work by the old ways as the far greater force of the internet does what it does*.

The parallel to water is that in our case, the far greater force is the coming scarcity.  I think of scarcity as a sticky blob, and all the jostling players trying to push it on to someone else.  In the grips of massive forces like this, the daily politiking is fun and interesting, but the people who are thinking about what it means to have that force applied to us are the ones who will be best positioned down the line.   I don’t have a great sense of what the other big forces will be.  The internet.  Rapid onset of water scarcity.  Incidentally, I think markets are another big force, with inexorable outcomes.  That’s why I don’t love the ideas of water markets here until I know we want a society shaped by the market criteria of economic efficiency.  Before we loose big forces, we should decide if we like the way they push us (or that the trade-offs are worth it).

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Fresno, you there?

Hey friends,

I’ll be passing through the Valley late Monday night.  Anyone in Fresno want to put me up for the night?  I would be a terrible guest, arriving late and leaving very early and showing up empty-handed and sleepy.  But I’m worried about doing the rest of the drive that late at night, and I would be very grateful.   If that is convenient for anyone, please email me at (thisblogname)@gmail.com .

Thank you!

OtPR

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A whole cartload of schadenfreude for me.

Westlands is throwing a temper tantrum? How fun.  They’re stomping out of BDCP because an Interior official told them that they cannot be sure they will continue to get their record high water deliveries from the early 2000’s?  Good.  After that bullshit they pulled with Feinstein last year, I thought they should have been kicked out of BDCP.  I thought they had shown that they weren’t working towards a cooperative solution in good faith and had forfeited their right to be there.  But they were let back in, and now they’re quitting in a huff.  Because I’m a small, petty person, I particularly enjoyed this:

At a meeting last week in Washington, D.C., representatives of the Westlands Water District, a huge irrigation agency in the San Joaquin Valley, reportedly stormed out of a meeting with David Hayes, an Interior Department undersecretary. Other meeting participants told The Bee the trigger was a discussion that the plan may include reduced water deliveries.
It was only two years ago that Jason Peltier himself was Mr. High-up Interior Water Guy.  Now he’s representing Westlands at meetings with Interior and hearing the inevitable.  They will not reliably get the deliveries they want in the future.  There will not be as much water in California, because of climate change.  The obvious, that the Delta itself will need flow, has been substantiated.   Westland’s deliveries will go down, because Los Angeles’s will not.  This has been coming for years, but it took a new administration to say the words.
I think it is perfectly appropriate for Westlands to withdraw from BDCP.  They shouldn’t pay for a Peripheral Canal that can’t reliably deliver water to them.  Without the west side arguing for a large Peripheral Canal (for ag deliveries), the conversation about a small Peripheral Canal (to assure that L.A.’s water supply isn’t dependent on Delta levees) can go forward.  We’re watching the future happen, in jerky steps like this.  I hope the politicians don’t yield to Westland’s temper tantrum on this.  It’ll only drag the process out.

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Shame on you, Mark Grossi!

You are not some novice at this! I expect better from you! It is stories like yours that are perpetuating one of the contentious myths of CA water, which means that I’m going to have to hear this shit at cocktail parties with my laypeople friends. Worse, we just covered this! Last week!

The selling price in the Dudley Ridge deals — $5,200 per acre-foot for Sandridge Brothers and $5,850 per acre-foot for 3R and Jackson — is 10 times the water’s value to farmers. Farmers have little chance of competing for this allotment.

Look. If the Dudley Ridge farmers buy their water for $500/acrefoot each year, it must be worth at least that to them. Say that it is worth $510/acrefoot to them. This year it is worth $510/acrefoot to them. They’d buy it next year, and that would also be worth $509/acrefoot. It’d probably be worth a little less than $510, because it is farther out in the future, so there is more risk associated with it. This year and next year’s water has a value of $1019 to them. The future stream of water has a worth every year to them, and that adds up. That is what the Dudley Ridge farmers have sold. ALL THEIR FUTURE WATER. They sold an acre-foot of water right, and all the water that will come to that right in the future. I don’t know what that is worth. Depends on how reliable the supply is. But Tejon Ranch is willing to bet that each acre-foot of water right AND ALL THE FUTURE WATER IT CONTAINS is worth about $5K. The Dudley Ridge farmers are willing to part with a water right AND ALL THE FUTURE WATER IT CONTAINS for about $5k. If you wanted to buy one of this year’s acre-feet of water from a Dudley Ridge farmer, he would probably be willing to part with it for something reasonable, like $600.

I have zero love for Dudley Ridge, but you are libeling them when you say they’re selling their water for ten times what it is worth. Worse, you are making cocktail parties more boring for me when I have to keep explaining the difference between selling an acrefoot of water and selling an acrefoot of water right to some starry-eyed layperson. That layperson SHOULD NOT BE YOU, Mark Grossi. There are plenty of real complaints about Dudley Ridge. The way they’ve circumvented the democratic intentions of special districts. The unpriced environmental externalities of their water and drainage. The near-feudal system of poverty on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. But there is no outrageous profit on this sale*. You should understand this if you are going to write about water. You should issue a correction.

I cannot wait to lavish praise on the first water reporter to get this right.

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Is he taunting me?

JFleck and Francis argued here that David Zetland’s proposed solutions to California’s water dilemmas are over-simplified.  JFleck gave a quote of Zetland’s as an example.

[T]he solution to this problem is obvious. Lower demand. If you need a hint on how to do that, I can tell you in 3 minutes, or you can just go and RAISE PRICES.

Later, in the comments, Zetland wrote:

I’ve explained these ideas many times, but perhaps they are counter-intuitive to you all, perhaps because it involves unfamiliar ideas that have not been brought to bear in water — ideas from economics.

The combination of those quotes is particularly galling, because I am well familiar with the ideas from economics.   Learned them from the same professors as Dr. Zetland, in fact.  That’s why I know that the idea of lowering demand by raising prices is a great over-simplification, and in fact only sounds compelling because of an unfortunate pun.  To economists, “demand” is how much of something people want at a price.  Raise the price, and people are unwilling or unable to buy as much of it as they would at a lower price.  But to laypeople, “demand” sounds more like “heart’s desire.”  Those are not the same thing at all, and “heart’s desire” is what humans who use water are interested in, and our political system set up to respond to.

Here’s an example to illuminate the difference.  Imagine a boy saw Lassie at an early age.  The images were seared into his heart.  He wants a collie.  A collie is his heart’s desire.  He dreams of his collie, yearns to take long walks with his collie, whom he will name “Lassie.”  He wants to brush her and nap with her.  However, this is not a wealthy boy, and a purebred collie is more than his family can afford.  At $700 per adorable puppy, he can’t justify the purchase over necessities for his family.  If collies were $20 each, he could get one.  An economist would say that his “demand” for a collie has gone down as the price increased.  But any human would see that his heart’s desire remains; the boy yearns for the dog as much as ever.  He doesn’t get a collie at $700 per puppy, but he doesn’t want one less.

This distinction is why solving “demand” by raising prices is a trivially stupid solution.  Yes.  At $5,000 per acre-foot, I would buy far less than I do now, and have less of the amenities that water provides me.  My “demand” would go down.  But my heart’s desire wouldn’t change.  I would miss my garden and my fruit trees.  I would crave a long shower.  I would wish I could play in sprinklers with children.  Those desires would be an ache to me.  Or, perhaps there are uses for water that are important cultural markers, like lining streets with jacarandas or eating meat regularly.  We could (and may well) cut those out.  But we will be a different people when we do.  That may be fine; that may be the people we should always have been in this region and climate.  But if an economist saw that and thought nothing more than “Success!  Higher prices decreased demand!”, she would have vastly over-simplified that transition to a different cultural identity.

(Besides those things, which are actual experiential uses for water, I have a whole set of uses for water that have nothing to do with “heart’s desire” or  “demand”.  I want my clothes clean and my shit removed, but if that never involved a drop of water, I wouldn’t care one bit.  If magic fairy dust made my dishes clean, I wouldn’t miss filling a sink with warm soapy water.  My water usage is set by my need to have certain things happen; the price of water isn’t going to change my needs for sanitation, and water has properties (very solvent, odor reducing) that are extremely handy for sanitation.)

The reason that people don’t immediately latch onto “Raise prices!  Decrease demand!” as a solution is not that they don’t understand economic ideas.  Rather, they intuitively understand that not being able to afford something at a high price doesn’t mean that your heart’s desire goes away.  They know that using water is a close and intimate human experience (think of the best shower you ever took), and is deeply interwoven into culture (stupid, stupid lawns imitating the English Manor).  Before they blithely agree to make those unaffordable to any but the wealthy, they want to get used to the idea (change their heart’s desire to native plants, for example) or believe in a crisis that makes it necessary.  People care about their heart’s desire, not demand at a price, and in a democracy, politicians and their agency staff are going to care about heart’s desire too, lest they be un-elected.   It is very true that in coming scarcity, people’s heart’s desires for using water aren’t going to be met, and we need to figure out how to spread that injury out (or change their heart’s desire, get “buy-in” first).  But saying that “demand will go down at a high price” is an accurate statement that misses the real problem, the ache of unfulfilled heart’s desire.  If it weren’t a pun between economic jargon and common English, the concept of using price to change “demand” would be relegated to its proper place as one possible tool to address a part of the complex problem.

LATER: Some editing for clarity.

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Have we learned nothing?

You too, New York Times? Didn’t we spend all last year discussing this?

The farmers pay a maximum of $500 per acre-foot of water from the state water project, KFSN-TV reported. But the Tejon Ranch is paying the farmers $5,850 an acre-foot, meaning that the sellers will net $11.7 million.

Tejon Ranch is proposing to buy the water-right; it would pay approximately $6k for every acre-foot in the water right and all their future yields. This is not a profit of ten times what the farmers would pay for any one year’s water.

I’m pretty disappointed that this keeps getting perpetuated. That means that the reporters writing about this plain-out do not know the field*. I read that first story, about the Mojave Water Agency, and instantly knew that no one was paying $5k or $6k per acre-foot of water. No one does that. The highest price per acre-foot I’ve ever heard was about $1800/acrefoot. That was for de-sal in Santa Barbara, and it was so expensive that they don’t use their de-sal plant, all those rich people preferring to switch out their toilets to paying that kind of money. If rich people in Santa Barbara won’t pay $1800 per acrefoot, no one is paying $5K per acrefoot, especially not relatively poor people in a desert exurb. I would believe a bizarre money laundering scheme before I’d believe that anyone in California pays $5k per acre-foot. Frankly, anyone who reports on California water should have enough sense of scale to know that number is vastly wrong.

 

The shame of this is that these posts and articles miss the real story about Dudley Ridge Water District. They caught the ‘marginal agriculture is transitioning out at the state’s expense’ story, but the truly interesting thing about Dudley Ridge is the way it has completely circumvented all of the public processes that are supposed to tie a special district into local democracy.  They are answerable to fucking no one, not their constituents nor district staff, because they have none,  and not the county they’re in.  It’d take an act of the legislature to get any interests besides the few companies who own land in Dudley Ridge brought into their decision-making.  It looks to be legal, but it surely isn’t what special districts are meant for.

***

While we’re here, let’s update our idle calculations (Man, I just saw that I have those fractions upside down.  How embarrassing!  Why didn’t any of you say anything?):

($11.7M)/(1998 af of water right) = $5,850 per af of water right.

Compared to the Irvine Ranch sale of water and land:

($5,850 per acre for just the water right)/($8,400 per acre for the water right and the land) =0.70

Last time we said that water is 62% of the value of land in the western SJV.  This time we see that water is 70% of the value of land in the western SJV.  Same ball park, and not surprising.  I hope that bankers in the SJV are taking water availability into their lending practices.

***

I defend and make fun of engineers a lot here.  But when I see how reporters mangle the story because they don’t understand what is being sold, I return to my belief that engineers are the only people who are prepared to be the sober and devout stewards of our most important natural resource:  correct units.

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And I want a stand-up work station!

Got an email today asking what I would say to Governor-elect Brown if I got the chance to talk to him for five minutes. I listed some stuff, but have been thinking about the question ever since. I’d like to add a couple more things about changing the agency culture.

First thing I’d say is that although I never see it discussed in the press, one of the consistent themes of the Schwarzenegger administration was that the agencies must work together. I suppose that’s not news, because who cares how the agencies work (so long as they do), and shouldn’t they all be working together already? Sadly, no, there wasn’t much coordination, even between agencies working on the same stuff, as the public can tell you. But I can attest that the practice of working with other state agencies is creeping into the culture here; it is becoming more and more reflexive to ask who else is working on the same stuff and what do multiple agencies need to do to avoid contradictions or duplications. Governor-elect Brown would do well to keep that going.

I would suggest a couple more things that seem to me to could re-direct agency attitudes in ways I’d like to see.

1. Direct agencies to re-do their engineering design manuals in accordance with the priorities of AB 32. Try to get buy-in from the ASCE, so this trickles down to the county and local levels.

This seems like make-work, but those design manuals are the default for everything that gets built. They’re mostly from the 1950’s, and there’s little memory for why they make the decisions they do. I am very sure they weren’t written with mitigating and adapting to climate change in mind. There are thousands of small decisions that are now the Right Way to Build Things throughout those manuals. They set concrete specs, for example, but now we know that cement production is a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions and lower cement mixtures could be substituted for some uses. But the design manuals don’t reflect that. An enterprising engineer can select and defend a different concrete mixture, but if she isn’t motivated to do that, she can always rightfully default to the design manuals. Changing those manuals would change the default for decades.

2. Hire social scientists at the agencies, so that we aren’t forever making assumptions about what “the public” wants or relying on “stakeholder groups” to tell us.

My agency, at least, loves to talk about “integrated” water management. Oh, yes, they say. We no longer think only of concrete and canals, wonderful as those are. Now we want to integrate everything, flood and habitat and salts and water supply. We integrate both engineers AND biologists! I always sit off to the side, wondering who is integrating the thirty-nine million people that live in the state. The answer is no one, not in any meaningful policy way. You can tell this, because the foremost experts on any particular topic couldn’t begin to answer questions about how people interact with water systems.

What percent people prefer to wash dishes with the water running? Is that important to them? A lot or a little?
How well are people prepared to evacuate in a flood? How fast do they evacuate?
How much do people care whether there is a salmon run in the state? How much do they care about smelt? How much does that change if they see a salmon?
Do people want to keep a million acres of alfalfa in the state if it means that meat stays cheap?

These are answerable questions, even if the answers are things like a bi-modal distribution, or “people aren’t even aware of the issue”. Right now we don’t know the answers, and we assume that ‘whatever we are doing now’ is what the populace wants for as long as possible. It would be very useful to have someone sitting in our meetings who could say, “People don’t care at all about median strip irrigation, but don’t ever try to take their koi ponds away.” Then we could craft policy that accomplishes that! Relying on stakeholders to tell us is better than nothing (and better than guessing what the public wants based on what we ourselves want), but stakeholders don’t represent the general population well. They’re invested enough to spend time, which means that their opinions are more deeply held or set by the organizations that pay them. Which is fine, but not a good picture of the public at large.

Mostly, it kills me that the agencies have essentially no expertise on the largest driver in our system: people. They could argue levee requirements down to the millimeter of rip-rap diameter, but have no idea whether the people behind the levee have go-bags and evacuation routes selected. We don’t know why people keep moving into houses on faltering wells, or how often their house has to burn down or be flooded out before they’ll abandon the location. If the answer is “Never”, then we should get building codes to accommodate that level of risk. If the answer is “Twice”, then we can start setting aside money to help them move after the second time. How people act and what they want should be part of what agencies bring into policy decisions. But we don’t have any way of knowing that now. Bringing social scientists into the agencies would be as transformative as bringing environmental scientists into the agencies was. Gov. Brown should make that part of his administration.

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