Monthly Archives: February 2012

I want to put down some thoughts on drought before a drought is declared, before anything I say will necessarily be a response to drought politicking. I’d also like these thoughts to be more general, not the same stuff we had so much fun with last time (40,000 jobs! Thousands of acres of almond trees bulldozed! Bait fish!). These aren’t in order of importance.

  • If this year is as dry as it looks to be, the obvious question is whether we are in year 5 of a long drought (with a sporadic wet year).  Won’t find that out for a long time.
  • Drought is a very strange emergency, since it comes on so slow, without an origin event.  Emergency managers get flummoxed by it.
  • So far, the drought hasn’t been a severe one.  It was certainly not severe enough to provoke responses beyond “preserve the status quo!”.   It was forgotten in one wet season.  It was not so severe that the State thinks it needs to do anything to prepare for/avoid a repetition of the last drought.
  • It is very hard to know what to DO about a drought, especially for a State that considers itself broke and wants to decentralize power.
  • There are things a rich state could do about drought.  A rich state that prioritizes ag could simply give farmers or ranchers money instead of water for a year, so that they still exist as farmers when the drought goes away.  Money is a decent substitute for water, if what you’re after is agricultural resiliency.  Money could be used to subsidize Lifeline rates, so that urban water and energy users don’t feel drought-related cost increases as much.  You could use money to buffer a drought, if you had the foresight to sock it away in advance (during the wet years, as it were).
  • There are things a strong state could do about drought.  A strong state could demand effective Drought Plans from every district in the state, plans that actually spell out who gets water during droughts and who gets cut back first.  A strong state could combat demand hardening, by saying that 800,000 acres of almonds and 540,000 acres of vines is (more than) enough already.  I understand the argument that trees have to get water at the expense of row crops because trees are a decades-long investment.  I don’t understand why growers can unilaterally decide to grow a crop that will commit a chunk of water for the life of their trees given that water rights do have cutback provisos for drought.  A strong state could make the Model Landscape Ordinance retrospective, not just applying to new urban landscapes.  A strong state could do a lot more to make policy decisions about drought, but I haven’t seen any willingness to go that far.
  • The alternative to making State decisions about how to use water during drought is to use a mostly unspoken “let The Market sort it out” default.  Well, if a grower planted almonds where there isn’t water for them, the trees will die and he’ll go broke and in the aggregate of these failures, the problem will sort itself out.  That is a way to do things, but it is a pretty brutal one.  If it is too brutal for public opinion, the State will be forced to step in and save individuals anyway.
  • It is hard for me to see how droughts hurt cities, so long as cities get enough water for direct personal use.  Higher energy costs as hydro-electric power gets scarcer.  Damage to landscapes.  But then, what?  If people don’t get to wash their cars, they’ll still have cars that do all the things that cars did.  Higher water rates take money out of local circulation, although that money doesn’t leave the state economy.   My thinking on this isn’t clear.
  • The usual drought response is “Drought?! My God! Pour water on it!” Find water from somewhere and put it on that drought! If the Brown administration does this too, I’ll be disappointed. I’d rather people were looking at what is substitutible for water, and what societal structures are overextended during drought.
  • The folks hit hardest by drought were not the political noisemakers last time.  Ranchers feel droughts first, as their pastures falter and they have to buy alfalfa feed.  (Which should also tell you that alfalfa growers make out like bandits during droughts and you shouldn’t believe that ag is a monolith that feels drought pain evenly.)  Sadly, ranchers that lose their herds during droughts also commit suicide disproportionately.  Any serious drought response should include mental health counseling for ranchers and farmers.

If you have other conceptual understandings of drought, please put them in the comments.  But please don’t repeat political talking points.  We’ve all heard those.


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That Genius stuff was always a distraction.

This is preposterous.   “Water leadership up for grabs as deception fells Gleick.” There are several things wrong with that statement, which I will list for you.

1. Deception isn’t going to “fell” Dr. Gleick.  The dude has a track record of decades.  Pearl-clutchers are going to clutch their pearls for another week, and within a month or two, Dr. Gleick is going to get invited to conferences again for the same reasons he always was.  He knows the data, makes his point(s) clearly and is a good speaker.

2. This level of “deception” shouldn’t fell Dr. Gleick even if it could.   This was a situation in which there were two morally impure effective outcomes, and a morally pure ineffective outcome. 

a. Morally impure effective outcome #1.  Gleick does nothing; the Heartland Institute continues to deny climate change, damaging what we recognize as a comfortable world.  Billions of people in the Third World suffer more than they otherwise would.
b. Morally impure effective outcome #2.  Gleick uses subterfuge.  Heartland Institute is discredited, maybe can do less damage from here on out.
c. Morally pure, ineffective outcome.  Gleick tries to get more out of the Heartland Institute in an above-the-board fashion.  Nothing happens, except that the Heartland Institute now has the knowledge to hide the fact that they’re bought and sold denialists.

Of those options, Dr. Gleick chose the one that causes the least damage, which is the right thing to do.  The folks who whine on and on about being perfectly morally pure aren’t acknowledging that there are moral costs on the other side of the balance.  Sometimes all you can do is choose the least bad option.

3. “Water leadership” doesn’t depend on Dr. Gleick’s presence.  Outside the field, people are super impressed with him.  If I had to choose only one message to get out to laypeople, it would be Dr. Gleick’s, because it sets an enviro standard.  But inside the field, he is one good thinker among a half dozen, and he’s lost a fair amount of credibility with people who simply cannot agree with the Pacific Institute’s claims that there is substantial wet water to be gained from agricultural water conservation.  Lots of people agree there are very good reasons to manage ag water very closely, and many of them think that getting big yields of transferrable water is not one of those reasons.  I don’t think Dr. Gleick should be discredited over the Heartland emails anyway, but if he were, it wouldn’t create a leadership void in the field.

After saying all this, which I could summarize by saying that I’ve got the same respect for Dr. Gleick that I always did, I cannot resist needling him some.  He’s disapproved of my pseudonymity for years, but perhaps this has given him a new appreciation for separating your work from your identity.  The reason I have the same respect for him that I always have is that he does damn good work.  He does everything I want to see:  collects and shows data, shows his derivations, shows how he arrives at conclusions.  I have every reason to think that the next report they put out will be exactly the same, since he’s been doing that for thirty years now.  When I read that report, I’ll do what I always do, which is to look at all those, and either agree or be able to point to where we diverge.  It won’t matter to me that it now comes from Big Fat Liar Gleick or that it used to come from Sainted Holy Gleick.  Fuck that noise.  None of it should change how I read his reports.  If it did before, that was always laziness and taking the shortcut of going by reputation. Which is a big part of why I blog under a pseudonym.   I could be an extraordinarily debonair type with a wall full of illustrious degrees.  More likely, I am a debauched lout who blogs from a bar covered in the remnants of my most recent meal.  But you don’t know.  You will have to read my work to evaluate it.  Which is what I want you to do.  And how I hope you’ll evaluate Dr. Gleick’s stuff from now on.  And how you always should have.


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Plumbing is not destiny.

I often have a hard time understanding Devin Nunes, which is fine, since I am not his intended audience. Normally, I would use “narrow political interest” to explain politicians, but ever since Devin Nunes threw a fit and scolded (IIRC) Paramount Farms and the State Water Contractors for selling out to the radical environmentalists, I haven’t been sure who he considers his base. I have to consider the likelihood that Nunes is more motivated by spiting environmentalists than by representing Republicans/agribusiness in the Valley. If that is the case, his latest bill doesn’t represent what “his supporters like Stewart Resnick of Paramount Farms, and the 40 families or so who run the Westlands Water District” want, no matter what Ms. Barrigan-Parrilla says. Nunes might just be a rabid loose cannon looking for strokes from rightwing talk radio. But he might also have proposed a water bill that gives us insight into what big Valley ag wants. I’m not confident of that, because rabid loose cannon is such a plausible alternative, but for a few more paragraphs, let’s stipulate that his bill represents what big Valley ag wants. If that is the case, it is really fucking interesting that the bill “also nullifies the need to construct of a canal to bypass the Bay-Delta, savings $12 billion.”

Big ag in the Valley doesn’t want a Peripheral Canal anymore?! I see two interpretations. First, they realize they can’t farm with water expensive enough to pay back the costs of building a Peripheral Canal. They won’t get enough new water to spread those costs over, and the reliability aspect of a new Peripheral Canal isn’t worth the money to them. (Maybe they’ve come to this conclusion based on early access to whatever BDCP has produced, I don’t know.) AND, they’re willing to accept a different form of reliability.

My interpretation is that big ag in the Valley is willing to accept a re-write of water rights law giving them priority in lieu of a canal. They don’t need expensive new cement if they can get the feds and the courts to make sure they get the first portion of our variable supply. Maybe they’re willing to trust that because Westlands has been diligent about staffing the district with very politically connected folks from the Bush Administration and because their GM is an extremely litigious lawyer.

It makes for an interesting contrast to the widespread “plumbing is destiny” belief in the Delta and Northern California. Canal opponents in the Delta and NoCal simply do not believe that a Peripheral Canal won’t be used to “take more water”. If the big canal is built, it will get filled, and no governance structures (Delta flow requirements, a Delta Plan, state laws, agreements, DWR’s solemn promise) will stop LA and Big Ag from using every cfs of canal capacity at the Delta’s expense. I personally don’t share this view, but I understand that it is compelling.

I’m just guessing, and like I say, Nunes is too erratic to be a good predictor of much. But I’m intrigued by this possibility that big Valley ag isn’t interested in a Peripheral Canal anymore (even if they’re still looking for substitutes, like shameless governance structures that favor them). If they drop out, the purposes of a Peripheral Canal (insure a reliable urban supply to the South, separate water conveyance from Delta habitat requirements) become much purer and we can decide how we value those.


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