Monthly Archives: May 2011

More cowbell!

I didn’t know Prof. Lubell has a blog. I’d have been reading that, especially since he’s saying things I’ve been complaining about for a long time. Are there any other good blogs I’m missing?

That said, his recent piece doesn’t resolve much. The piece gives a nice reminder that we haven’t yet established that collaborative environmental policy-making works, and runs quickly through the drawbacks of other dominant ideas about how to solve environmental problems. He gives a very nice historical reminder:

From the political science point of view, the interesting thing about these debates is that they are ancient and go back at least to Plato and Aristotle. These are the classic debates about decentralization versus centralization, and expertise versus democratic participation.

But instead of asking his fundamental question “Is the current deadlock forcing us back along the spectrum towards centralized power, in the form of the Delta Stewardship Council? If so, are we doing it right?”, he goes a little astray. He sets up the vision of a Czar with strong centralized power, commissioned to “end the chaos” and dedicated to doing so perfectly. The Delta Stewardship Council is reading its grant of authority broadly (to my approval), which is sort of the direction Lubell is talking about. But the DSC isn’t tasked with ending chaos or solving all the state’s water problems or installing watershed management throughout the state. The DSC has two specific goals (still with a lot of wiggle room) and can be measured against those goals in particular. Huge as their task is, it isn’t as vague as the one Prof. Lubell matches them up against.

The qualifications that Prof. Lubell mentions for a Platonic ideal of centralized power are interesting, but only moderately so in the context of California politics. Since he establishes upfront that we haven’t found other good options, I don’t get why the DSC can’t muddle through, Lindblom style. They don’t have to do a perfect job with the Delta Plan, they just have to write something better than any other process would, which turns out to be a low bar. Besides that, though, Lubell suggests that a centralized authority should have perfect and complete information. It should be Wise (using that information well, in the context of full information about the ecology) and Just (not corrupt) as well. But look. To a first approximation, those conditions are met. Of course the Delta Stewardship Commission doesn’t have full and perfect information. But the broad strokes* are pretty damn informative and can lead to the steps we have to take in the next two decades. Yes, members of the Commission should be Wise, but we generally hope that we achieve that by having several accomplished members with lifetimes of expertise. They should be Just, true, but no one is worried that the Commission will make decisions based on personal enrichment. There are isolated problems, but generally, we don’t consider a culture of personal corruption to be widespread in state government. In the real world, we usually substitute “transparent” for “just” and figure it is close enough. If nothing else, the DSC has been transparent. Again, we’ve got this roughly covered.

That’s my objection to Lubell’s piece. It uses his extensive expertise to say, well, this is what you need to re-centralize power. But it doesn’t do real work. To my eye, it looks like we’ve mostly got the stuff he says are the pre-reqs. Does he see a problem I don’t? Is the current DSC set up in a way that violates the theoretical framework? Is there a specific problem that leads to a bad outcome, one that Prof. Lubell is alert to because he studies large scale environmental policymaking? Is he warning us about something that we should address? Lund and Madani showed us what it looks like to use policy theories in concrete ways. O’Hare does it with style. Prof. Lubell has the chops, but he’s just idly musing here.

Sustainable and adaptive water management requires striking the right balance, which is a very tricky business. Perhaps the Delta Stewardship Council brings in just enough of the Water Czar to improve things, or perhaps not.

Really, dude? Perhaps it does, or perhaps not? You’re using up pixels for that? You have a blog and tenure, and the internet waits to hear your thought. Maybe those cushy scientific journals let you get away with gently pondering questions. Here in blogland, we have higher standards.

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Field visits? The Legislature didn’t buy any field visits.

The State Auditor looked at how DWR oversees bond funds, given that the public has voted them billions of dollars to disperse and there’s still talk of an $11B bond being put on the ballot next year. The audit found that by and large, DWR does a decent job, especially in awarding grants and doing things like defining deliverables and requiring thorough invoicing. The State Auditor found fault with on-going monitoring of grants, citing a lack of field visits and groundchecking. The State Auditor also said that DWR and the Dept of Finance have been insufficiently transparent about Bond Funding, and asked why the software DWR just bought still can’t show the public how the money was spent.

I maybe shouldn’t write about this, because my normal policy is to only write about stuff I find on the internets already. This time, though, everything I’m going to say is based on work I’ve done in three grant programs. Based on years of my personal experience the State Auditor’s report gets it largely right. But it also misses the most crucial, most fundamental point, and given that all grant program managers only ever talk about the same thing, I’m shocked it didn’t come up in this report. In my experience, taxpayers of California got more and better oversight of DWR’s grants than they paid for through the bond measures.

The State Auditor doesn’t mention it in their report, but California bonds restrict administrative oversight to 5% of the money being granted. That is true within each grant and at DWR’s level as well. No doubt that is important to the legislature, to show that the bureaucracies aren’t growing fat off the money they’re supposed to hand out. But in every instance I’ve seen, 5% for administrative overhead isn’t enough. You get exactly what you’d expect from well-intentioned people being asked to do a job without enough resources, and exactly what the State Auditor found. They do a nice job up front while there are still funds to support staff. Then, two years into a three year grant cycle, the 5% admin overhead is spent, staff shifts to a different project and the sole remaining person can’t do ongoing oversight. In three out of the three programs I’ve worked for, the programs cannibalized their own funds to pay for oversight to finish out the grant round. They did that because they wanted to issue grants, which are the only way the department gets anything done. Programs subsidized the grant funding out of their own technical assistance monies or their other projects, because 5% isn’t enough to do good oversight for the length of the grant measure.

Honestly, I’m surprised the State Auditor didn’t mention this in their audit. For all I know, they have whole reports dedicated to the issue, so they don’t write the same thing in every audit. But they wrote banal recommendations about “strengthening oversight” without mentioning the fact that bond measures don’t give the Department enough money to pay for staff for the length of the grants.

The other thing the audit mentions is that the grant process isn’t transparent enough, with not enough public information about how grant money is spent. I can speak to that too, since I was supposed to enter that data into the databases that the public could search. I didn’t. I didn’t because the interface was fucking awful. I spent hours trying, but virtually everything was wrong with the interface. It was slow to load, offered incomplete choices, constrained my answers, wouldn’t let me go back to fix them. I remember writing to the person who maintained it, asking him to send me the database itself, so I could put our projects straight into that. He couldn’t let me do that. I asked if I could send it in Excel so that he could import it directly. No. Nothing worked, so I gave up. Sorry, public. But it was too awful. I’ll write you confessional blog posts instead.

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Oh this kills me. It is a piece in the American Prospect, talking about a new approach to fixing climate change, one that acknowledges political realities. The piece reviews a book in which the author (Victor) recommends:

Above all, he says, climate campaigners must abandon their scientism and take emission-reduction targets off center stage. National leaders cannot credibly promise particular emission levels in the short- to midterm. … What leaders can credibly promise are policies, and policies, not numerical targets, should be at the center of climate accords, Victor argues.

That thoughtful people are turning to this approach is bad news. It may well be true that promising policies that head in the right direction without specifying the exact target is the only political option. But California water policy has been doing that for a generation and it sucks. One of my fundamental critiques of how we do a lot of state level water planning is that we don’t make a choice of an outcome and then figure out how to get there*. Instead we figure out a set of practices and amble off in that direction, hoping it will get us somewhere nice. This may sortof work, in the sense that it improves our situation somewhat. But we don’t know whether it gets us far enough. There are physical thresholds looming, such as TMDLs, groundwater pumping costs as groundwater levels drop, fish counts, irrigated acreages, levee heights. Improving things with best practices may get us closer, but in the real world it is possible to fall short of something important, and our “do some best management practices” approach doesn’t tell us whether we will meet thresholds that matter to us.

We don’t specify those thresholds and paint very detailed pictures of the futures we want because, like the article says, those pictures are politically untenable. Urban folk, you’re at 60 gallons per person per day, and no you can’t have your roses. Delta folk, this is the acreage that should become habitat; look! your farm is right in there! People of Ag, we’d rather have your water than cheap alfalfa and this is the acreage that will go out of production. The book from the Prospect article may be right, that trying to pick a numerical target and get there is what is killing political efforts to minimize climate change.

Maybe planning by picking a detailed future and working backward to figure out what we need to do to get there is politically untenable, since politicians must face their enraged constituents. But policy elites who are frustrated by the noodling around are starting to wish for it. I was delighted to see ACWA saying the same thing in their comments on the Delta Plan (pg 1)**:

… In order to be successful, the Delta Plan must start by identifying the goal and work backwards to implement the goal with policies and recommendations. Like a complicated puzzle, the full picture must be in place before the pieces are cut up. The Council has yet to identify the full picture; it has yet to identify what steps would contribute to water reliability and what actions would restore the ecosystem. Furthermore, there is no discussion with regards to an integrated approach to address the coequal goals. Instead, the third draft has begun to manufacture pieces, such as groundwater reporting and Delta levee evaluations, in hopes they fit together and somehow resolve the Delta’s problems.

I am left without much optimism. Here in California water policy, we are taking the approach recommended in the Prospect article and while it keeps policy processes limping along, a lot of participants worry that it is inadequate. Over on the Climate Change side, an author got a book published saying that picking a scientifically detailed future and figuring out the approaches that will get us there is a political non-starter. This suggests to me that our democracy doesn’t lend itself to doing particularized unpleasant things to get us to a better future. If that’s true, we should start thinking about what exactly we want to do when a severe crisis gives us the opportunity.

*It crosses my mind that other planning efforts may be better about this. Perhaps the Flood efforts are based more on mapped and specific futures. Basin Plans by the Regional Boards might be more specific and place-based, for all I know. On the other hand, locals fight them pretty hard. Maybe the Salts Plan is better? Couldn’t tell you.

**Which is not to say that I liked the remainder of their comments. I still have plans to write about those, ACWA!


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Have a great weekend!

That’s enough for today, wouldn’t you say? I’m going out into the sunshine.


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The NAS review of BDCP and where to go from here.

You guys will be as shocked as I am when I tell you that people email me asking for constructive suggestions for what to do. I don’t see where I’ve ever given the impression that I have constructive things to say. Sniping from the internet is easy and fun, and it were easy and fun to come up with productive things to do from here, bright people would have already done it. Nevertheless, I’ll try.

There’s the question of whether and how the Delta Stewardship Council adopts the BDCP. They were supposed to, real quick-like, and that was the sneaky way that the Schwarzenegger administration was going to sneak the Peripheral Canal into being. Doesn’t seem like that’s much of a threat now. For one, BDCP is a national laughingstock, so that’s a problem. More importantly, there is a long list of legal requirements that BDCP has to meet. The NAS review is clear that it doesn’t yet, so the DSC doesn’t face this question quite yet.

Seems like the direction of BDCP is up in the air right now, with Resources Secretary Laird saying they are working on a big revision that will be much better and and Interior’s Deputy Director Hayes swearing up and down that they love science soooo much and would never write a plan without it. If the DSC has specific conditions for their adopting the BDCPlan, now would be a good time to weigh in.

Mostly, though, my advice for the Delta Stewardship Council is to make the policy decisions the collaborative process of BDCP can’t. I know the DSC says they are guided by the co-equal goals, but I also know that their process lives because of the ambiguity in those goals. I asked before. Does the goal of reliable water supply mean “making sure everyone gets all the water they want reliably” or “living within the reliable portion of California’s variable water supply”? Does “restored ecosystem” mean a farmed ecosystem? A salt marsh? Collapsed bay? Combination? Where and how much, precisely? BDCP tries to hover in ambiguity and while that keeps everyone involved, it also makes everyone mad and creates a bad plan. Sooner or later, the DSC is going to have to declare themselves. The sooner they do it, the better their plan will be, says me and the National Academy of Science.

The other thing I would point out to anyone running these big processes is that there is no conflict-free path. BDCP avoided the conflict of declaring what their plan does, and ended up torn to pieces by the National Academy of Science panel. Maybe the DSC wants to avoid the types of decisions that make ACWA send firm letters with lots of signatures. But if resolving the conflict calls for those decisions and they duck them, the strongly worded letters and yucky articles in the press will find them anyway. They will get abused no matter what, so they might as well make the decisions they think are needed. It’ll feel better.


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Timid policy-making produces weak-ass plans.

Here’s what I see a lot in big state-led policy-making efforts. As a backdrop, remember that these conflicts are genuinely complicated and long-running. The parties have a lot at stake, sometimes as much as their way of life; their representatives have been doing this for a long time and are very sophisticated. Our democracy is set up with a lot of veto points and ways to exercise power (through the legislature, through the executive branch, through the feds, through the press), so BATNA‘s are constantly shifting. Scarcity looms, in big and small ways.

For some reason, bright and well-meaning people are still willing to work on this problem and try to come up solutions. God love ’em. But, perhaps because nothing works, they have come up with a terribly constrained way of doing it. In these big policy processes, the default is: We will go as far as everyone agrees on, and as soon as someone says no, we scurry back like threatened mice. We continue to advance in the directions that everyone agrees to, and let the parts with disagreement languish. If people keep disagreeing, we let the whole effort collapse until the Legislature starts it over with a new name.

This is how we ended up with a mish-mash like BDCP (which I haven’t read. I’m basing my impression on the NAS review.). It was well developed along a few lines; it had a long wishlist of restoration projects and fantasy of a Peripheral Canal and a notion of adaptive management. But nothing controversial, like flows, or the purpose of the Plan itself (is a habitat conservation plan or a way to justify a Peripheral Canal?) or priorities, was settled. Without the external review, I bet that could go on for another decade.

This is how we do stuff and honestly, I understand why. Wading into the controversial realms is so painful. We just saw ACWA and a bunch of water districts act like thugs when the Delta Stewardship Council got into the controversial issue of regulating local control for consistency with their plan. We’ve seen Westlands and the State Water Contractors shut down BDCP by withdrawing funding. The legislature itself has punted; wisely realizing that they can’t weather the political storms that come with making Delta decisions, they delegated their power to a Delta Council made up of people who will never again run for office. As a subjective professional experience, the political storms suck.

But so do the products of processes that avoid them. The NAS review is very clear: without guiding policy decisions (“Yes, we want a Peripheral Canal, and here’s the best combination of restoration projects that could mitigate for that.” or “This is a habitat conservation plan and here is the conveyance option that we can accommodate within a fully restored ecosystem.”) a wishlist of options can’t be integrated or analyzed for full effect. For all the years of work and $150M that the contractors paid for, they got a crappy Plan because of fearful policy setting that avoids the hard, sucky part.

They’ve also reaped widespread scorn by trying to have it all. Hovering on the boundary of “it is a habitat plan! It is the way to get a Peripheral Canal!” and using whichever one suits your audience keeps this process limping along. It lives out another day, and maybe that’s enough because having no process is also unacceptable. But when sides realize the opposing message, it pisses them off. Westlands wants to know why it is paying for a restoration plan that may not bring them a canal or any water, and they have a really good point. Everyone else wants to know why a habitat restoration plan is essentially a brochure for Peripheral Canal, and that’s also an excellent question. Hovering over “both” means that either side has good reason to be mad when “which” gets settled. It also means that the people running BDCP will put off answering “which” indefinitely.

Which is why I honestly don’t think the Delta will be constructively “fixed” before it collapses. Honestly, I think the levee collapse will come first and when the repair work is done, we’ll have an “emergency” Peripheral Canal. Then we can get to work on that wishlist of restoration projects. Affirmatively and constructively working through a process that settles real conflict is so miserably unpleasant that it won’t happen. Not if the DSC backs off in the face of ACWA’s letter. Not if the state shows no spine. Not if the state can’t or won’t fund its own fucking planning processes, so it isn’t hostage to the self-interest of the people who are paying. We’ll get late, weak-ass plans and we’ll deserve them.


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“Science” in policy rhetoric.

I’m getting real tired of hearing about “good science” and “bad science” in these long-running complex conflicts, especially since “good science” often means ‘the outcome that I want’ and “bad science” means ‘results that favor the other side temporarily until the truth comes out’. There is occasionally “bad science” in the process, as when people like Julie MacDonald take completed studies, erase the results they don’t like and pencil in different ones. But most of the time, when I hear people complain about “bad science”, what they’re looking at is incomplete science. Early studies have indicated a finding, and another twenty studies or a longitudinal study could confirm it past statistical doubt, but that follow up work will take another decade.

Judge Wanger, in his efforts to bend the ESA to account for human costs which it clearly doesn’t under TVA v. Hill, has decided on a definition of science that scientists don’t share. Judges and lawyers and politicians seem to think that science is only good when it looks like basic Newtonian physics1, always and inalterably reaching a precise and accurate prediction. Biologists, ecologists and scientists know that perfectly good science makes better predictions than not, tells us a lot about the state of things but can always use refinements at the boundaries of our knowledge, sometimes only illuminates the complex interrelated factors. Done right, with clear and rigorous methods, that is still very good science2.

Further, scathing NAS review notwithstanding3, the problem with BDCP is not “bad science”. I understood the NAS review to say that the science in BDCP is good as far as it goes, and it can’t go very far because the policy process is a clusterfuck. This is not “bad science.” This is incomplete science and bad policymaking. So I’m tired of hearing about Science as an omniscient neutral kingmaker who is going to weigh in on an advocate’s side any day now. I don’t want to hear about whether science is good or bad from lawyers and politicians who determine the quality of science by whether they like the results4.

So, folks, a reminder. Bad science is science with a non-transparent method (transparent to other scientists; it doesn’t have to be immediately understandable to a lay audience) or based on a method that doesn’t isolate the question being asked, or, heaven forbid, based on falsified data. That is bad science, and that’s not the type of critique I ever see quoted in the press. A scientific study can reveal something that means you don’t get full water deliveries and still be entirely rigorous and good. A scientific study may not answer a policy question beyond any doubt and still be very well done science. The entire body of scientific knowledge may not tell us what we want to know. That is not bad science. That is incomplete science. Those are different.

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