Commentary on the hearing in Fresno.

Oh for Pete’s sake. McClintock’s opening statement is just fact-free. Tens of thousands of families out of work from the drought? Well, yeah, maybe, if the coefficient before that is 0.0002(tens of thousands of families). But in English, we normally call that “two” thousand. He got his units wrong too. That’s jobs lost, not families unemployed. Are we back to fears of Chinese carrots? No amount of citing USDA crop statistics is going to change that, will it?

Whatever. McClintock is who he is. The more interesting statement came from Westlands manager Tom Birmingham.

At the bottom of page 2, he writes:

If any proposition should be made inarguable by the current situation, it would bethat the water supply for the numerous south-of-Delta Central Valley Project(“CVP”) agricultural water service contractors is not dependent on hydrology. [my emphasis]

This is it. This really is the heart of the difference between the two camps. The camps are roughly parallel to “abundance” Republicans and enviros, but I could name a bunch of stodgy district engineers who wouldn’t call themselves enviros but would be appalled at the statement that water supplies don’t depend on hydrology. I think Mr. Birmingham was setting himself up rhetorically for the remainder of his argument, that the real culprit was regulations. The real culprit is, of course, trade-offs.

Here’s the thing. We do have an extensive water collection and distribution system throughout the state, and it does provide a substantial buffer against any one year’s hydrology. What’s the saying? Canals move water through space; dams move water through time. We could build even more of a buffer. With very much money, we could store some more and plumb some more, so that Mr. Birmingham’s intake gates are full for an even higher percent of the time.

But. The size of our water use has brushed up against the size of our environment. Now, every new bit of capacity we buy is 1. expensive and 2. was being used for another use that is also important to people. Maybe those are just effete hippies that live in cities, but even so, those people want to know there are fish around and are willing to dedicate water to that use*. Those people, of whom there are many, have put in place some laws to make sure that happens. Mr. Birminham’s problem is not “regulations” that sprang into being from some bureaucrat. Mr. Birmingham’s problem is that many other people who vote want the same water to be used for the environment and expressed that want through their legislators. His other problem is that although we can build more buffer, we cannot use that buffer to withhold more water without the environment responding negatively, because we are at past the limits of environmental tolerance.

Right now, the worst thing that could happen to Westlands is for them to get the capacity they want (Sites, a Peripheral Canal, Temperance Flats) but have to pay for it. Again, the capacity they want is possible but no longer worth the cost, because constraints of the physical world (good damsites gone, costs of mitigating the environmental effects of taking the incremental water away from rivers and the Delta). This is the part that the abundance crowd keeps waving away. The full cost of water from new capacity would be more expensive than Westlands could afford to irrigate with. Their solution is that the rest of us should pay for some of it. In less broke times, that might have slipped through. These days, not so much. Their other option is that the environment should pay for it, by crashing and dying somewhere out of sight.

The conversation goes around and around this distinction: are we constrained by physical limits? It all boils down to that. It isn’t that enviros hate farmers and want them not to have any water. It is that every next piece of water comes with unacceptable trade-offs. (Actually, the fact that we have endangered species means that the last few pieces of water came with unacceptable trade-offs.) But people who argue for returning to abundance by changing our mindset or who say things like ‘our supply doesn’t depend on hydrology’ aren’t ready to talk about very concrete trade-offs. It’ll be a long repetitive conversation until they get there.

*This is a very human-centric utilitarian argument for environmental flows; I also hold a rights-based theory of water use that says that other creatures have a right to the environment they need to exist, but I’ll work off the utilitarian argument here.

**Which is why I think that MWD will get their small Peripheral Canal and ag won’t get a big Peripheral Canal. MWD can afford water that expensive; ag can’t.


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7 responses to “Commentary on the hearing in Fresno.

  1. It’s worth comparing the version of McClintock’s strategy you cover here with his previous one of a month ago. Jeff at Valley Economy covers the first one very well, and very hopefully. Or at least he takes the man at his word.

    Unfortunately, Mr McClintock (or more likely, an aide) probably looked into that first position afterward, and found out that that position was a loser, or at least that would be my guess. So option #2 kicked in – reptilianism.

  2. aaron

    I tend to get disinterested in subject matter when I perceive there to be little room for intelligent debate. I’m becoming increasingly uninterested in California water management.

    I think the current state of…err…discussion? on these topics has the potential to drive a lot of scientists away and attract a lot more kooks (both lefties and righties)…and that’s not the kind of party I want to be hanging around at.

  3. onthepublicrecord

    I don’t mind the kooks, generally, because I always wonder how their mind got that way. I like when I catch a phrase that shows me how their assumptions and reasoning differ from mine. That’s why I spend more time than is healthy reading newspaper comments.

    To my shame, the people that make me crazy are the earnest beginners, who take my time to explain to me that the Delta is really important or that we should pay attention to groundwater. Better souls than me can listen to them, but I get impatient too fast with beginning thought in my field.

  4. Delta.WildRose

    The ‘crazy’ is what makes all of this ‘fun’!

    Seriously, one thing I’ve found to be true, the real education or eye-openers are almost always in the comments!!

  5. To me, as frustrating as California water management is, we need to keep on trying because the stakes are too high to ignore if you are a resident of the state.
    There are so many different ways to feel about these issues, I do not mind if someone has studied the situation and examined all sides and has come to a different conclusion; at least that is an honest position and I totally respect that.
    What I can’t stand are the people who come up to me and start their opinion with “Well, the answer is easy!” That gives it away that they haven’t given it ANY intelligent thought and they truly know nothing because NOTHING about California water is easy!

  6. fish(er)hugger

    Just so you know, many of us are not “just effete hippies that live in cities.”

  7. onthepublicrecord

    My apologies. I was, of course, projecting.