Monthly Archives: March 2011

PPIC report: a public good charge.

Yes. Of course we need a public goods fee. The state desperately needs consistent funding for water management. Lurching from bond to bond is terrible: expensive at best, makes for inconsistent projects at least. I saw firsthand that it damaged people’s lives; locals trying to do bond-funded work had to lay off people between bond-backed grants.

But, local agencies are invariably opposed to a public goods fee. They don’t want to raise fees for their constituents; nor collect the fee; nor send it on to Sacramento. My perception is that most water policy folks both admit the strong need for a public goods fee and the political difficulty of instituting one.

I’m not saying this with my usual certainty, but last week I got to thinking that combining the conversations about regional legal entities and public goods fees may be a way to get both. Maybe local agencies would fight a public goods fee less if it went primarily to support their Region (and the regional DWM office) and they had some voting control over its allocation? Maybe they should have to pay into the Region whether they join the Region or no, so they may as well join? Sacramento could skim a little to support statewide planning efforts that cross regional boundaries, like flood and water rights, but honestly, with the Regions and the Project spun off, there isn’t much of a Sacramento office left (which is probably fine).

There are difficulties in supporting Regions with their local tax base; poor areas like the northeast would have puny little Regions and the south coast area could pave their regional building in platinum. But we could look to school districts for strategies for evening that out.

I’m not completely sold on this idea. But while I can imagine a legislature setting up a structure for Regions without funding them, I can’t see much hope for a public goods fee unless it is tied into the conversation about Regions. Maybe combining the two is the way to get both.

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PPIC report: governance.

I wrote about the state level governance structure proposed by the PPIC report back when it was the Little Hoover Commission suggestion. The PPIC proposal for state level bureaucracy is even closer to my preferences, and adds in cool things like a Public Trust Advocate. (Although, I’m never in private utility circles, so I don’t know whether people like the work of the PUC’s analogous Ratepayer Advocate. Has that worked out?) A new DWM would affect me directly, so I am naturally opposed just ’cause it is different. Aside from CHANGEBAD, however, it looks far better than our current messed-up bureaucratic structure.

I am more interested in the prospect for regional entities. I haven’t jumped on the bandwagon for regional management, for two reasons. First, my experience with regional offices has been that they are even more subject to regulatory capture than the Sacramento office, and come to consider their job to be buffering their local buddies from the outrageous edicts that come down from the out-of-touch central office. Which gets real frustrating, you know? I know that IRWM “Regions” are supposed to be more than that, but I’m starting with a bias against regions.

My second, and more reasonable objection to Regions is that they aren’t a thing. So far, they’re a set of agreements between a bunch of agencies with varying jurisdictions and authorities. That strikes me as wholly inadequate for serious water planning; what if the patchwork of eminent domain authority doesn’t reach the entire length of a proposed wetland? What if some local agencies can tax their constituents and others can’t? Who do you serve if you are suing a Region? There is nothing in there.

But, so long as the legislature is messing with the structure of California water governance, they could remove my objection by creating legal entities to bolster this notion of Region. Just like the legislature creates special districts and LAFCO regulates them, there could be something with more heft than a JPA behind the Region concept. I don’t know what shape it should take. A mixed appointed and elected board, with local agencies as voting members? Move county water authorities to the Region? Taxation and eminent domain powers? No doubt the lawyers could do a better job suggesting those than I can.

After reading the PPIC report I started to imagine these Regions being housed in the same buildings as the regional offices of the (new, proposed) Department of Water Management. They could write Basin Plans together! All of a sudden I started to distrust Integrated Regional Water Management less. Maybe there’s some potential in that approach after all. But only when a Region is an actual thing. The legislature should go for it, so long as they’re rearranging executive water agencies anyway.

ADDED 3/8: These Regional entities could run intra-basin markets as part of their authorities and duties.

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A schism over ag water conservation?

Dr. Gleick might or might not agree with my last post arguing that the PPIC report has an underlying theme of extracting water from ag. His complaint is elsewhere, that the report doesn’t recommend agricultural water conservation and include yields from ag water conservation as part of the solution.

The report’s biggest blind spot is agriculture, the state’s largest water user. The authors discount the vast potential for improving agricultural water-use efficiency because they misunderstand how it works in the real world, they overestimate its costs, and they misconstrue, misrepresent or minimize the benefits of these improvements. Why do they ignore this potential? Because they make the simplistic and false assumption, promulgated by some in the agricultural industry, that all excessive farm water use is already recaptured and reused.

This conclusion is at odds with history, science, field studies and the actual experience of California farmers. In reality, abundant water is lost to unproductive evaporation or to other sinks where it is not recaptured. Other benefits accrue from agricultural efficiency improvements as well, including better water quality, improvements in the timing of flows in important stretches of California’s rivers, reductions in energy demands and a savings of real water. Every one of these advantages would contribute to solving problems in the Delta and elsewhere. Efficiency improvements must therefore be central to any portfolio of recommendations for a new California water policy.

This editorial made me realize that I’m starting to see a schism around this issue. Dr. Gleick and the Pacific Institute are leading a faction that thinks there is enough inefficiency in ag water use that there are substantial salvageable amounts of water (and other benefits) to be gained from ag water conservation. I’m an example (although surely not a leader of anything) of someone who thinks that the basins have negative water (as shown by falling gw levels), that ag should switch to more efficient practices for the other benefits, and we’ll end up getting a good deal of water from ag by retiring irrigated lands.

On the one hand, this isn’t such a big difference. I strongly suspect both groups would call themselves enviros, and agree on prioritizing the existence of a bait fish while crushing out property rights of real Americans everywhere. We can all aspire to be the target of one of Devin Nunes’ rants together.

On the other hand, maybe there’s antagonism developing? I don’t love reading that my take on the situation is the one promulgated by the ag industry. Surely I’ve been clear enough here that no one mistakes me for an ag apologist. (More of a Kunstler-esque collapse pessimist, which is an entirely different motivation.) I read the Pacific Institute report, wrote about it here for a couple weeks. Then I came to a different professional judgment, which is that I don’t expect the SJV and lower Sac Valley to get much water out of conservation, although there are other good reasons for better ag water management. Which is what I imagine the authors of the PPIC report did, although I can’t speak for them, of course.

I hope I’m wrong about a schism forming, since I know (a little bit) and respect (a lot) people who hold both positions. They all care a great deal about getting us out of our current mess, and I am guessing they have substantial overlap in priorities (and that mine map fairly closely). Hmmm. Maybe one of the unlooked-for benefits of anonymity is that I can remain undeclared in my personal interactions with folk, stay low-pro. That will be my plan. You guys would not believe how mild-mannered I am in real life, all meekly polite and shit. They’ll never guess.


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The PPIC report and agriculture.

I was startled at Dr. Gleick’s editorial in the Sac Bee saying that the PPIC report lets ag off the hook for solving California’s water scarcity. I get that Dr. Gleick’s complaint is that the PPIC report doesn’t emphasize agricultural water conservation enough. But my consistent, recurring thought as I read the PPIC report was “Oh man, ag is NOT gonna like that.” My read was that extracting water from ag was a consistent theme throughout the report, starting in the first paragraph of the Executive Summary.

The third sentence of the Executive Summary, right after ‘things are bad’ and ‘everyone wants more’ is:

At the same time, the state’s economy no longer depends as directly on water to generate wealth: agriculture, which still consumes the lion’s share of water, represents a small fraction of overall employment and economic output, and manufacturing accounts for only a small fraction of total water use.

This is not pro-ag sentiment; it goes straight to one of ag’s favorite myths, that they’re an economic powerhouse in the state. And if ag isn’t a big part of the economy, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing if the water they’re using now goes to other things. Other parts of the report echo that.

In chapter 7 (p 317-322), the report recommends putting both the reasonable use clause and the public trust doctrine to work. Under the heading “Reallocating Water for the Environment” they talk for ages about the two doctrines, and end up saying they are necessary “for responsive adaptation to changing conditions.” The writing is still a little soft, but the truth of the world isn’t. If we “reallocate water for the environment” it will come from ag, because it surely won’t come from urban. Five pages about how legal it is to do that is not pro-ag. (Page 328, on bringing pre-1914 rights and riparian rights into alignment with the rest of our rights system, is a direct challenge to one of ag’s sweeter deals.)

The PPIC report recommends a public goods charge. Right there on page 344, they write define it as “a volumetric charge on all surface and groundwater used in the state”. This is another measure that lands heavily on ag, because they use a great deal of water. Imagine a fee of $10/af-year. Urban households now use somewhat less than an acre-foot a year; that’ll go down in the next decade, but a public goods charge will cost a household $10 or less per year. Farmers use a great deal of water. If Stuart Woolf irrigates his entire 20,000 acre farm in Westlands, he’d buy 60,000 af/year, roughly. He would pay $600,000/year into the public goods fund for water. Recommending a volumetric public goods charge puts ag squarely on the hook for the water they use.

Several aspects of their governance recommendations are about extracting water from ag. Frankly, I think that’s the primary motivation behind a water market they talk about at length. They suggest directly compensating people (like farm laborers) who suffer third-party impacts from water leaving ag. I thought their recommendation to re-examine the lengths of ag water contracts from the projects (currently 40 years) was one of their most dramatic recommendations (page 372). I haven’t heard much chatter along those lines, so it is a pretty bold thought.

I understand Dr. Gleick’s complaint (more on that in the next post), but this is not a document that lets ag off the hook. The entire report is based on the premise that much less water will be used for ag. It discusses legal mechanisms to loosen the water rights of ag users. It provides governance mechanisms for arranging the flow of water out of ag. It proposes that ag pay big dollars to the public goods fund, in proportion to their big water use. The text of the report isn’t quite as direct as this post, but for all of these recommendations, all that is required to see the implications for ag is one more obvious interpretive step. I can’t imagine that ag likes the report any.


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If you guys have specific questions about my read on the PPIC report, I’d give them some thought (with a caution that my expertise is not on the ecosystem side of things, so my thought there would likely be: “Huh. Dunno.”)

Otherwise, I’m planning three posts. One responding to Dr. Gleick’s critique in the Bee. One on my take on the proposed governance structure. One on the potential to implement a public goods fee. If you want more than those three posts, you should ask.

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Not much in the way of a 404 permit, neither.

A judge invalidated the incidental take permit for the Scott and Shasta Rivers? Good. That was always a horrible idea. The Department of Fish and Game was bending over for the ranchers in the Scott and Shasta Valleys, saying that if they signed on to the valley-wide take permits for endangered coho salmon, they didn’t have to get separate take permits for each of their own diversions. But the ranchers might still see restrictions on their operations, even under the more lenient valley-wide permit, (because they damn near de-water whole stream reaches) so they hated it anyway. If everyone is going to hate a compromise, then you might as well scrap it and have winners and losers. That way at least someone will be getting what they want.

By the way, this quote comes at the end of the article.

Park declined to say whether the groups would begin targeting individual landowners. Etna, Calif., rancher Jeff Fowle acknowledged there’s a risk of such suits, but he said landowners have taken many measures to protect fish and have only diverted water in accordance with their adjudicated rights.

Ranchers have put in Fish and Game-designed fish screens and permanent rock weir structures so they don’t have to use push-up dams, Fowle said.

You might not know what a push-up dam is. I didn’t. We didn’t learn about push-up dams in my engineering classes. Turns out they aren’t real technical. A push-up dam is when a cowboy gets his tractor out in the spring, and pushes the gravels in the streambed up to form a hump across the stream. Water stacks up behind the loose hump of gravels so the rancher can divert it to flood his pastures. Those gravels maybe had salmon eggs or hatchlings in them, but fuck ’em. The tractor probably crushed them, and they wouldn’t have lived anyway, since the push-up dam completely dewaters the downstream reach until the water reaches high enough to start coming over the gravel hump.

A push-up dam is such an outrageous violation that a local guy should know better than to mention it to the press. That’s the kind of thing that makes me wish for very strict, very personal application of the ESA in the Scott and Shasta river valleys. The valley-wide incidental take permits were too good for the ranchers up there. I’m glad a court invalidated the concept. Now I’d like to see some real enforcement up there, keeping tractors out of rivers.

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