Monthly Archives: January 2012

Thoughts on recent water news.

Like everyone else, I’m real anxious about whether we’ll get enough rain this winter.

Dr. Lund’s list of curiosities about water management is interesting. I’ve wondered about the State and Fed’s role diminishing, especially as the legislature and the agencies explicitly set their water management approach as ‘supporting integrated regional water management’. I worry about that some, since I believe that local governments generally don’t have the luxury to do anything more than work in their immediate self-interest and compete with their neighbors for “growth” and its accompanying new tax revenue, which will always require additional water sources. By the way, I read Robert Self’s book American Babylon: race and the struggle for postwar Oakland over my vacation in a tropical paradise. It was a fantastic discussion of the California promise to keep taxes low by continuously shifting the collective burden onto new growth. A little dry, but you should totally read it (it also mentioned race and stuff). Anyway, if “the locals” are going to be making most water management decisions in the future, I would still want the state to set regulatory boundaries that prevent both a race to the bottom between neighboring jurisdictions and perpetually relying on growth to fund government.

To my mind, the most politically important of his points on water management was the paragraph on how people immediately work to optimize whatever system exists, and capture the benefits from it. Which is sorta great, butcept that no matter how sucky a system is overall, there will be groups that really genuinely depend on some aspect of it staying exactly the same. “We bought this house in a floodplain and now you have to fix that levee forever.” They aren’t wrong; they have a legit reliance interest. But there would be people with a legit reliance interest no matter what the system is, because people love to optimize. So the existence of a section of society that genuinely needs things to stay as they are can’t be the only reason that a new policy gets blocked.

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I didn’t agree with Pia Lopez’s reasoning on the Peripheral Canal, but I thought she hit one of the most important issues squarely.

You can bet on this: Southern California water users are not going to spend billions on a peripheral canal if it only gives them the amount of water they’re already getting. They want to maximize water exports south of the Delta. More water, not just “reliable” water.

This is a tricky point. I think two contradictory things. First, I believe that water policy elites do understand they’d be paying billions for reliability and not additional water. The savvy lobbyists for the Peripheral Canal get this; they aren’t being personal hypocrites as they make their case for the Peripheral Canal and BDCP. Second, I have no idea whether they can sell that concept to their ratepayers. Ratepayers don’t even seem to like paying for local O&M, preferring instead to let their systems fall into disrepair and deferred maintenance. Can they really get behind paying lots more so that their supply is at much less risk from earthquake and sea level rise? I don’t know.

Which brings me to another point. To my mind, the thing that could convince SoCal users to pay billions for reliability is to calculate the costs of a disruption. Which would be a great piece of a full cost-benefit analysis of a Peripheral Canal. Which might also reveal that while SoCal cities might be talked into paying more for the water they get now, the costs of a Peripheral Canal could price water out of agriculture’s range. All of these things would be interesting! As far as I understand his argument, Dr. Michael thinks a full cost-benefit analysis of the Peripheral Canal would reveal that it wouldn’t be worth it to the water recipients. My own guess is that it would, but I don’t know that. So I’m joining him in saying that one should be done.

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Governor Brown’s State of the State sounds to me like a clear signal that he intends to back a Peripheral Canal. Since I’m in favor of someone making an arbitrary decision on that, I’m not especially sympathetic to the local politicians saying that he is ramming things through without enough study. But I do wonder that all the coded political reactions came out today. Honestly, what did people think it meant that the Governor’s budget includes 135 new positions for DWR to complete “preliminary engineering work” for BDCP. Whatever could all that staff be needed for?

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