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.

*Broad strokes:  Sea level will rise a lot.  Fish populations collapse when lots of flows are diverted; the amount of water that should be diverted should be halved if the only goal is fish restoration.  Sacramento’s sewage is also a big problem.  Levees in the Delta are real fragile.  Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley is severely overdrafted.  Exported water is underpriced, keeping food cheap in California.  Cities have room to conserve more water than they do.  Run-off is changing from slow snowmelt to fast, earlier rain run-off.  You would want more detail on all of those to build any specific marsh or new storage.  But you don’t need full and perfect information on those to direct policy.  The rough picture gives enough information to get going.


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5 responses to “More cowbell!

  1. You bring up some interesting points in your blog that I completely agree with. First, my post doesn’t adequately consider the scale of the Delta Stewardship Council’s mission, which does not cover the whole state. Second, I don’t offer a “golden ticket” solution to the problems or an opinion about the potential efficacy of the DSC. Let me clarify my thoughts on these issues, as long as you allow a little pondering. A little bit of pondering is what blogs are for after all (if they were peer reviewed…it would take months at least to get them out…), whether or not you have tenure in a university or the security of a civil servant position.

    Yes, the DSC is charged with a mission of providing a Delta solution. And sure, they have tons of information and expertise available to them. But that does not mean the DSC is exempt from the criteria of Wise and Just. The Delta has implications for the whole state and is a complex ecosystem where goverance requires coordinating the activities of many different actors and policy processes. Even if the DSC had perfect information about the implications of their management decisions at this particular point in time (which is very doubtful), they will never have perfect information about how their management decisions will unfold over time in the face of things like climate change and other non-stationary variables. So the centralized power of the DSC needs to be complemented with some capacity for continued decentralized decision-making, somehow striking that magic balance between centralization and decentralization that makes a system adaptive over time. Most people think that balance was not right during the CalFed era, and thus a little more central authority was created. It also calls for adaptive management over time, which is great in theory and name, but rarely implemented in practice. In the case of a large scale plan like the Delta Plan, it going to be hard to reshape the eventual deal in light of new information.

    In terms of Justice, the issue of corruption is probably (hopefully) fairly minor given the reputations of these officials and the intense stakeholder and public scrutiny they are facing. The bigger issue is fairness and whether or not the DSC will give an equal voice to multiple stakeholders. Obviously, for any given outcome, it is difficult to know if one particular set of interests had an undue influence and the selection of the DSC itself ostensibly represents a wide range of stakeholders. But if the Delta Plan comes out with a preferred alternative of a peripheral canal (or whatever you want to call it), I guarantee that some opponents of the peripheral canal will come out saying that “special” interests dominated the DSC. Just not their special interests. As I mentioned at the recent IRWM conference, is there really any such thing as a “non-special” interest?

    As to providing a “solution”. Well, I definitely prefer to be solution oriented as much as possible. But for me, the jury is still out on what the solution might be. I’ve been critical of collaborative approaches including IRWMP. But that doesn’t mean I think we should throw these approaches away. They still have a lot of theoretical and practical merit, and while their success has not been demonstrated, neither has their failure. I think my blog, and generally some of my other work, provides a service by pointing out some of the problems and roadblocks these types of approaches might face. Things that must be considered before the label of effectiveness can be conferred. At the very least, this might help decision-makers and observers of California water policy avoid crashing into obstacles. But also making sure people aren’t thoughtlessy jumping onto one bandwagon or another, or just pretending that they have THE solution, is worth doing.

    Will the DSC be effective? It may perhaps work better than CalFed if it comes up with workable plan that can adjust to future changes, and if state agencies really take the needed actions to implement that plan. Of course all the other actors who influence the Delta must also cooperate and the DSC doesn’t have authority over them. So it is not just the DSC and the Delta Plan that will influence outcomes, but also a whole lot of other policy processes (e.g.; BDCP, urban water management plans, TMDLs, flow criteria, etc).

    Believe me, if I had the magic solution to all of this, I would tell you. Let me know if you beat me to it. And be wary of anybody who does tell you “this is the solution”, because there is no panacea and many snake oil salesmen.

  2. jp

    First, let me say with humility that I am thankful for this website and others that have helped me understand California water history, politics, and policies. I am a newbie in this universe, and I only wish to contribute that which I am capable of.

    Mark, it seems you think that OtPR is attacking you but she/he is not. (From now I will refer to OtPR as masculine because I can.) I believe he is just tired of b.s. op-eds, press releases, and other non-committal statements from governing bodies that do not amount to anything. He wants you to come up with anything (whether referred to as a “golden ticket” or “silver bullet” or not) and present it as a possible solution. People who actually earn money in this field with decades of experience will then critically analyze the proposal, and we may be one step closer to restoring the delta. Or not.

    For those opposing the environmentalists and delta interests, they don’t give John Kerry-esque responses to important questions. Whether it be ACWA, Congressional Republicans, or Westlands Water District, these groups don’t bring up Plato and Aristotle to advance their agendas. They look after there own interests and all externalities be damned. ACWA wants a centralized role for governing if it means that Sacramento will continue not to regulate groundwater; but then they don’t want the legislature involved to help restore the delta.

    As someone who has viewed nearly all of the Delta Stewardship Council meetings, one of the problems I see (with the lens of a newbie, of course) is that no one wants to make a big splash with a bold but necessary proposal. Although Felicia Marcus is a great environmental leader, and Patrick Johnston, Dan Nottoli, and Phil Isenberg are all trying to protect delta interests, the Council seems to focus more on bureaucratic minutia. There is hardly any talk about over-allocation of rivers, or the interesting water rights system that protects the most junior rights holders over public trust resources. I would love to see one of the Council members just say that we shouldn’t give anymore water to the most junior rights holders (Westlands) and then just fallow the land and put up a giant solar farm. That being said, I think all the Council members are hard workers and are trying to do the best to fix a broken and chaotic system that should have been fixed at least in 1978 when Jerry Brown called a commission to do just that.

    Regarding golden tickets, Professor Richard Walker says that California should have a water engineer who can deem certain water uses as reasonable or not. (By the way, that Lloyd Carter radio show should be on every week and mandating listening for all of us in the Golden State.) I know the Delta Watermaster has talked about how the SWRCB has the power to enforce the reasonable and beneficial use doctrine, but I don’t know if that body is willing to exercise such power. It will be interesting to see how the importers continue to react if the DSC continues to regulate the rivers that flow into the delta. I wonder how long before they start using rhetoric like “socialist engineering,” or “San Francisco environmentalists” to bolster their arguments.

    Just remember that there are many highly-payed people spending most days on trying to figure out how to maximize imports from the delta. They don’t have time to partake in Socratic discussions to discover the best form of management. I do not mean to offend or be hurtful, I have just had it up to here (hand near my forehead) with the phrase “adaptive management practices.” I’m sorry that I don’t know what that means. The water importers will argue with delta interests just so as not to lose the upper hand. At a DSC meeting in early April, a woman from the San Joaquin River Group Authority had the audacity of disagreeing with Chair Isenberg about whether the San Joaquin River had salt in it! He was talking about how the river had pesticide run-off and salt and how that was affecting the delta (and why the DSC needs to regulate outside the delta to prevent this), and she said that she could not agree with that assessment. That is the type of person delta interests are up against. Talking about striking the right balance between decentralization and centralization is not an appropriate question to debate, in my humble opinion. There needs to be heavy regulation to restore the delta and it’s not going to come from individual water districts across the Central Valley. Actions of the water importers create externalities that affect the delta, and only the state or feds can stop this.

    Let’s start the conversation. OtPR, propose something ridiculously bold to show Mark how you roll.


  3. Robert Pyke

    Oh, come on, it is irrelevant whether the members of the Delta Stewardship Council, their staff and their consultants are hard-working or not. Certainly I admire the capacity of the Council members to sit through long meetings where the usual suspects are trotting out the same arguments over and over again, but that is their own fault for not coming up with a meaningful plan to advance the tri-equal goals (the co-equal goals plus one).
    This stalemate has developed partly because Phil Isenberg seemed to think that he had been appointed the California Water Czar, with powers to regulate statewide conservation, water use efficiency and sustainable water use, whereas in fact the legislation only says that the Delta Plan shall promote those things, however desirable they might be. The resultant squabbling has diverted attention from the fact that there is to date no “plan”. There was no plan at all in the first draft; there was no meaningful plan in the second draft; some people liked the third draft better than the second draft because the regulatory emphasis had been toned down at least a bit. But, there was still no plan with quantified or otherwise measurable targets, as required by the legislation. Now that the ACWA lobby has pushed back on the regulatory aspects, maybe we will see an actual plan in the fourth draft, although I am not holding my breath.
    What’s my point here? It does not matter that much whether people work hard or not or whether you have centralized or dispersed control. What matters is first that you have technical knowledge adequate to understand the present issues, and second, that you have the vision of a better future. That is why quantified or otherwise measurable targets are important. If you can’t spell out where you want to go, how will you ever be able to get there? Draft targets should have been included in the first staff draft in order to give some focus to the subsequent discussion and to save us from these interesting but long-winded blogs!

    Peace to all on the occasion of Memorial Day.

  4. Long replies.

    I went to much of this conference, and it did seem that if you were there to exchange knowledge with your colleagues in other parts of the state, it was good. So much can be accomplished locally, no doubt.

    But I left thinking that
    1/ Was Jeffrey Mount disingenuous when he (kept saying) said that he was glad not to talk about the Delta when he gave his keynote? Must’ve brought it up six or so times, much to the (schadenfreude) chuckles of his audience. Yes, the Delta does trump the local triumphs highlighted at this conference. It’s okay to say so. Take advantage of the moment, even if it undermines the pretext of the conference, professor.

    2/ It was like lots of blind people feeling an elephant, all of whom have a solid feel of the sort of thing they are touching, and are correct, so far as it feels. But it is just an important piece. Was especially impressed by John Carlon’s presentation of work in the North Valley flood plains. At stake are issues that transcend the cooperation of regional agencies and businesses.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    Thanks for your answer, Prof. Lubell. I agree with much of your comment. I wasn’t asking for one solution, and don’t myself know what it would be.

    jp, it would be fair if Prof. Lubell felt was attacking him, since I did tweak him a little in the last paragraph. But he gave a great answer; I didn’t see any defensiveness there. Also, I don’t say provocative things just to be provocative. I say them when that’s what genuinely springs to mind.