Monthly Archives: February 2011

PPIC report: From conflict to reconciliation.

Reconciliation?  Reconciliation of what? Northern and southern Californians? People living in regions that are about to get screwed with their fates? People and the new Californian dream?

Oh. Environmental and Human Water Uses, apparently. That’s a pretty boring thing to reconcile, because what matters in a political system is people’s expectations and their subjective experiences. Do they feel like they’re having their god-given American right to red meat at every meal yanked away from them, or do they feel like they’re planting native plants because they love the bees so much? The report says fuck-all about how to get people to buy into this, and so will the Delta Plan and so will the Flood Plan and so will every other state level document ever on the face of the earth because they don’t consider people and their feelings as knowable important components of what happens. The authors could even just acknowledge that if 38 million people feel like they can’t have what they’ve always had without being given something in its place, they’ll get their torches and pitchforks and recall a bunch of directors, pour encourager les autres.

I am obviously in too pissy a mood to review this right now, although it makes for easy writing. I’m not being entirely fair, because the PPIC report (from first glance) maybe goes on about local solutions to meet state level mandates, and how markets apparently console farmers for losing their way of life, which is a question we could put to the Australians, who never report on that when they detail exactly how wonderful their water market is after 7,000-9,000 farmers (out of 14,000 farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin, according to some guy from there who told me that after I pressed him for a while) were water-marketed out of the farming sector. Those are round-about ways of making people hate our upcoming impoverishment less, I suppose. But I wish we talked about that head on.

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Thoughts on the PPIC report to follow.

Sometimes I wonder what terrible thing I did wrong in a previous lifetime that I must now spend so much of my time in windowless hotel ballrooms listening to people read slides to me. 

This is an unfair characterization of this morning’s meeting, in which bright people spoke at me for hours after a short stretch of slide reading, but any amount of reading slides to me is too much.  I’m in for it tomorrow, too.  I must have been Vlad the Impaler.

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Review of the January draft of the Delta Plan – reactions to specific text.

Just a couple few, as it turns out.

Ch 5, p1, lines 8-11.  I think this paragraph summarizing the source of water conflicts within the state substantially misses the point.

Yet, for at least 50 years, because of the amount of water assigned by permit or water rights or contract, the serious overdraft of our groundwater supplies, and the growing need to protect the state’s environmental resources, we find ourselves in an unsustainable trajectory of water conflicts.

There is no agency in this summary.  I can see how agency doesn’t mean much when our directions were largely set in other eras, when people had understandable priorities for the time.  But the fact is that people are the drivers in this.  That’s mostly horrible, because people are all diffuse and complicated and don’t know what they want even while they want contradicting things simultaneously.  So that’s maddening.  But the problem isn’t that ‘rights were assigned.’  The problem is that people want and expect a lifestyle on a scale that has reached the physical constraints of the place we live in.  We are in protracted conflict because of us and our wants, not because of the mechanisms we put in place to try to satisfy those wants.

Ch 5, p.5, right after line 10:  I think you need another finding that the supplies can be gained from water conservation run along a cost curve, just as any other supplies do.  They may well be the cheap supplies now, but eventually conserved water will not be the next cheapest source.  The entire supply of water that can be generated from conservation may not be economically available to us, compared to developing sources like brackish de-sal or aquifer protection or buying out farmwater.

Ch 9, P1, lines 8-26, where it rhapsodizes about the Delta as a lovely place to visit.  That’s nice and all, but in real life, the Delta is substantially unavailable to visitors.  Much of it is privately owned; you can only reach it by boat; the natives aren’t looking for company tromping about.  I’m sure it is a lovely place, but it isn’t welcoming or accessible.  If we’re going to pour a lot of public money into the place because of its bewitching place-ness, that would have to change.  (Then Delta natives are all, ‘but we don’t want to be a twee museum for visitors’ and I am all, ‘then pay for your own levees, which you can’t do to a level of risk that is acceptable to us at a statewide level’.)

Ch 9, p 9, lines 18-22.  This finding sent me on quite the rant.

COMPREHENSIVE REGIONAL PLANNING BASED ON COORDINATED LOCAL EFFORTS CAN BEST ACHIEVE THE LEGISLATIVE OBJECTIVES OF THE DELTA PLAN.  Regulation of land use and related activities that threaten the integrity of the Delta’s resources can best be advanced through comprehensive regional land use planning implemented through reliance on local government in its local land use planning procedures and enforcement.

OK.  That may be a decision principle of the DSC.  It may be a necessary sop to Delta activists or the Building Industry Association.  It may have been declared in law by the 2009 water legislation, in which case it is stipulated.  But it is not a finding, because it is not a fact.  (Or if it is, you need to support it with citations.)

Mostly, local land use regulation is a seething cesspit of NIMBYism, self-interest, and local developers having just enough money to buy the marginal county supervisor.  It is too small to have an enlightened longterm self-interest; the institutions were impoverished by Prop 13 and haven’t been able to consider anything but immediate self-interest since.  I suppose some places may be better than others, but a landscape with development as ugly, unsustainable, and broke as pretty much everything built in California in the past half-century cannot possibly uphold successful local planning as fact.

Now, the state may be worse.  That hasn’t been tried.  But is certainly isn’t a finding of fact that the local or regional level is the best way to do land use planning.  Support that or take it out.

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Review of the January draft of the Delta Plan – at the general level.

Well, I’m intrigued.  True, they haven’t come to big decisions yet, and we all want to know whether we can start squabbling over some piece of it.  But they’re laying out the groundwork for something, that’s clear.  I like how heavily it relies on and quotes law.  I hadn’t realized how aggressive the legislature was in 2009, but the law definitely settles some points, so it is convenient to have that right in the text. I also like the “findings of fact” approach.  If this were a mediation, this would be where the people in conflict start to build trust by working together on the parts they can agree.  It isn’t a mediation, though, so instead I guess this is the public’s chance to object.  I can only imagine that the next step is for the Council to say that those findings lead to conclusions.  If you want to change those conclusions, now’s the time to speak up on the findings.

Oh yeah.  The whole plan is readable, in precise English words that make meaning clear.  That’s real nice, and wasn’t necessarily a given.  Someone should be proud of that.

Overall thoughts:

  • The Council is not shy about the reach of this plan.  They mention several times that it is legally enforceable and covers everywhere that feeds into or gets water from the Delta. “Power grab” is a cliche that doesn’t usually mean much, and one did not “grab” power if it was shoved into one’s hands by the legislature.  But they were given broad authority and they mean to exercise it throughout the state.  Good.  I’m more used to elected officials ducking authority and possible consequences.  This is a refreshing change from people who manifestly are not scared of the ballot box.
  • That said, I think they are on a collision course with another arm of the state.  They write that once their umbrella plan is written, every other plan in the Delta (or plan that covers an area served with Delta water or upstream of the Delta) must conform to the Delta Plan.  By my shaky understanding, this could well conflict with the Regional Housing Needs Assessment that is also dictated by state law. What is a county to do if the Delta Plan says “no more development without pricey new levees” and the RHNA says “Your General Plan must include tens of thousands of new units.”?  I don’t know this stuff well, but I think this needs to be sorted at the state level before the Delta Plan is done.   At the least, DSC staff should find out if I’m wrong, which is entirely possible.
  • Joe Grindstaff’s memo called out the findings that he thought were crucial, but I think the plan has missed the most important piece altogether.  The big thing that readers care about is: what does this mean for me?  The elemental finding is that the California dream (bungalow, yard with two fruit trees, cheap food) cannot be sustained at our population levels.  I think there should be a call for a new California dream, perhaps of a high quality of life, with access to a thriving environment and working landscapes and stable complex towns.  But not the Californian dream of suburban retreat to a personal castle.  Without a new dream, people will strive for the old one only to find that it wasn’t worth the trade-offs.
  • I have long thought that the entire co-equal goals (and Delta conversation) is being kept afloat by ambiguity.  When people say “Delta” it isn’t clear whether they mean the location, the communities, the current way of life there, or the islands themselves.  “Reliable water supply” has always been vague.  Does it mean “making our current supplies reliable” or “only using the reliable portion of our annual run-off”, which might be the first half or two-thirds.  Is the “Delta environment” the old tidal marsh?  The new farmed landscape?  When I talk ominously about collapse, do I mean collapse of the levee?  Of the farming economy?  Of fish populations?  Of course, I mean whichever is most convenient to my argument at the time.  But as these meanings become clearer, people aren’t going to be able to sign on to the vague broad goals.  The plan gets closer, generally on the strength of their enabling legislation.  But broad support will narrow as the words come to mean something.

I’ll get more specific later today.  If any of you have read the plan (you should!  While it is still short.), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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An innocent lost.

(Edited January 2016)

Oh dear.  A grad student wrote me, asking for sources to give her an understanding of California water.  I’ve never not been a junky (truly.  I did my 5th grade science fair project on watering radishes and my 8th grade History Day LA project on Mulholland and the Owens Valley), so it is hard for me to figure out how I would come into it now.  She asked for advice on what to read, since there is so very much material and after a year or so of reading, she still doesn’t understand the lay of the land.  That sounds about right to me.  I can make suggestions about what to read, but I’d say it took me the better part of two different graduate degrees and a decade of paying attention to start making independent connections.  I’ve now worked in agencies on and off for a couple decades, and am entirely ignorant about anything but the Great Valley and its projects.  I could not begin to advise her on the Colorado or the Klamath.  That said, she asked me, and here are some of the things that gave me insight.

Topics and texts:

Read Cadillac Desert for an understanding of how things were thirty years ago.  It isn’t accurate now (in fact, the book made itself obsolete), but Cadillac Desert fundamentally shaped the lay view of water in CA.  When a layperson has some outraged simplistic solution to water problems in CA, it’ll be from Cadillac Desert, so it is good to understand where they are coming from.

If you found my blog, you’re probably already reading Aquafornia Maven’s Notebook. Obviously I like the blogs on my blogroll.

Since you’re in grad school, take a water law class, and ag or natural resources economics classes.  Then read up on the behavioral econ critiques of the model of the rational economic actor, since the whole model is deeply flawed.  But you’ll hear people talk about market-based solutions all the time, so you have to know what they’re proposing, the limitations of market systems from within the model, and the critiques of the economic model itself.  I got lucky and took a History of Agribusiness class from Phil LeVeen (who boasts that for a year or so, he fully understood the milk marketing system).  That was fantastic.  Another formative class was an engineering class on water projects.  I very much wish that I had taken a basic soils class.  That lack taunts me a couple times a year.  My good friend would probably say to take a class about fish, but I don’t wish I understood fish as much as I wish I understood soils.

People say to read John Wesley Powell directly, but I did and didn’t get much from it.  Honestly, I can’t stand to read any of the general popular books on water, like The Great Thirst or that other one.  That’s likely because I’ve done this for too long.  I’m sure they’re fine.  I hear good things about Battling the Inland Sea, but again, I can’t bring myself to read it.

You know what was fucking fantastic? The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the the Making of a Secret American Empire.  Definitely read that.

That leads to the next subject, which is that you have to understand what a water district is.  They’re their own weird thing, spun off of a grant of power from the legislature.  So get a feel for what powers they have, and how they work (publicly elected boards of directors, a manager serving at the Board’s will, a few stodgy engineers, then staff and ditchriders that do all the work).  To get a better sense of the political implications, read Gooddall, Sullivan and De Young’s 1977 work on water districts about the different voting structures of districts along the 99 and the 5.  Wischemann’s 1990 paper on farm size and the health of towns is very good and relevant (reference added to this post in Jan 2016).

Try to get your hands on one of the old California Water Atlas, put out in the 1970’s.  They’re real big, bound in navy blue.  All the cool kids have one.  Don’t know if it has any information you couldn’t find online these days (here it is!), but having one in your office is part of the secret handshake.  I have my Dad’s, which might explain why I started on this at a very young age.

If you can find an original California Water Plan, that’s pretty cool too.  The optimism is old school; they had the courage of a single purpose vision back then.  Spend some time with the plats in the back.  There is not a stream in the state those guys wouldn’t dam.

***

That’s long enough for the moment, although I don’t know if I helped much.  At this point, I’m pretty much just taunting any of you who want to know what I think of the Delta plan.  I brought it with me, but I’m heading home to get some food.  Surely I’ll read the plan right after that.

***

Oh, and I should have said.  Welcome to the field.  It is a good one.  It stays interesting and there are a lot of niches in it.  (Even better, it hires people, which academia doesn’t do.)  People in Water do interesting work at levels from the local up to the federal.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

ADDED LATER:  Two more things!  There are wise people who understand CA water entirely from the perspective of sediment transfer.  A hydrogeomorphology class could well be fascinating.

Also, Storm over Mono is better than readable and explains the Public Trust Doctrine well.

I CAN’T STOP MYSELF:  I subscribe to all the NASS California Crop Reports.  I love these, mostly because they read like poetry.  The other reason is that they give me the sense of scale I need.  I purely love to able to say things like “Wheat is strong this year, and I see acreage in cotton is rising.”  I’m sure folks in the field knew that two months ago, but now when people tell me that Americans will die of carrot starvation because of a bait fish, I can be sure that carrot acreages are unchanged from last year.

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GCID’s base flow is 720,000 AF/year.

Rep. Nunes’ losing his shit and the Delta Stewardship Plan (which I am just about to read) are exciting and dramatic and all, but the most interesting water news I’ve seen is this story about the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and Reclamation.  You should watch this as it develops; there is a lot of wet water at stake in the Settlement Contracts.

The Settlement Contractors are farmers along the Sacramento River that were farming before Shasta Dam was built.  When the feds built Shasta Dam, they turned the Sacramento River into entirely controlled flow, and promised (settled with) the pre-existing farmers that they would provide them with as much water as they had always used out of the Sacramento for free (since that is what they already had).

That’s not unreasonable.  The dicey part is whether the amounts of base flow in the Settlement Contracts are really the amount that farmers had been using.  Sadly, the re-negotiations for the forty year Settlement Contracts happened during the Bush administration (2004ish), whom I don’t think wanted to take a hard look at that.  Anyway, when you hear about farmers in the Sac Valley paying tiny dollars for their water, it is very likely to be settlement water, thought to be theirs before Shasta Dam was built, untreated and delivered in the run of the river.

This news story interests me because it looks like Reclamation and the Settlement Contractors are contesting some of that base flow.  Looks like they’re fighting over how much of that water can be applied to meet endangered species needs.  If I’ve understood it from the news article, the Settlement Contractors are saying “No, our contracts say that Reclamation can only adjust those flows by 25% in emergencies and stuff.”  Maybe Reclamation is saying “No, we all pretend that water is original Sacramento River flow from before Shasta Dam, and original Sacramento River flow is just as subject to the Endangered Species Act (and the Public Trust Doctrine) as any other water.”  It is a very interesting fight, even more interesting for being about substantial amounts of real water only a day or so upstream of the Delta.

CORRECTION 2/25: Sorry, guys. I had the argument wrong. I got an email explaining that the dispute is over whether project water can be reduced to meet ESA needs. Base water is the water I was talking about above. Base water is the water they were using out of the Sacramento River before the feds built Shasta Dam. Once Shasta Dam was built, the feds offered the same contractors a chance to buy “project water.” That’s water that the dam stored that wasn’t available to the contractors before. By my new (still not very thorough) understanding, this dispute is over project water. Of course, I don’t understand why base water (original Sacramento River flow) is untouchable. Probably because the rights are so old. I know that’s how we do things, but it isn’t much of a reason.

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Devin Nunes doesn’t play a long game.

The striking thing about Rep. Devin Nunes’ riders to the budget bill (and subsequent doubling down in this post) is that both are purely ideologically driven.  Neither politicking nor reality constrains him now.

One of his two riders would de-fund the San Joaquin River Restoration Project.  That cracks me up, because the San Joaquin River isn’t even in his district.  There are growers who object to the restoration project, claiming that the subsurface flow of the river is subbing their fields.  But they’re up near Tracy, above and west of Rep. Nunes’ district.  He’s not serving his constituents; he’s borrowing trouble from the next district over.

I was real interested in his blog post.  Not the new one, one from a week ago, where he writes:

The language included in the base bill of the 2011 Continuing Resolution will prevent any federal funds from being used to implement the biological decisions responsible for reduced Delta pumping – effectively guaranteeing normal pump operations for 2011. [my emphasis]

That’s not how it works.  Withdrawing federal funding doesn’t mean that the biological opinions are nullified, nor the court-ordered pumping regime reversed, nor the species revived.  It just means that someone else has to pay for it.  The Kern County Water Agency noticed this with some alarm, since if the Feds drop out, the State Water Contractors may have to foot the bill or reduce their pumping to compensate.

That’s what is so striking about Rep. Nunes’ worldview, and Rep. McClintock’s as well.  They have an ideology that includes no constraints or mechanisms.  Rep. McClintock thinks the reason the state doesn’t build dams is that we don’t believe in abundance anymore, not because the remaining damsites would yield very little very expensive water.  Rep. Nunes’ thinks that taking away federal money to implement a court order will make the court order stop existing.

The extraordinary part of this, of course, is that when Kern County Water Agency and the Friant Water Users Authority, and Paramount Farms pointed out to Rep. Nunes that his budget rider wouldn’t work out well for them, he wrote a post saying that they’d been co-opted by environmentalists.  (I am sorry that happened to you, KCWA, FWUA and Paramount Farms.  That was a terribly unjust accusation, and I know how it must sting*.)  This is remarkable!  Those are either wealthy landowners or thoroughly established organizations in his own district!  What is he thinking?!  Does he think they can’t find another blandly handsome tall man to run against him next time?

Rep. Nunes is a wild card now.  His ideology is now stronger than even the most self-interested politicking; he’s flailing at his own.  Well, enjoy that, Kern and Tulare.  You brought him to this dance.  Perhaps it is time to pull him aside and remind him to behave himself in public.

 

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