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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  1. Nice post. Wouldn’t it be nice if AB1881 were made retroactive? It has never made sense to me that in Los Angeles leaving a car on the wrong side of the street on street cleaning day earns a swift $60 ticket but creating constant sprinkler-runoff into the gutter and mosquito breeding grounds in clogged storm drains is regarded as impossible to enforce.

  2. Managers determine when a drought becomes a shortage, so watch that space. Markets don’t just “happen” for water, since there are issues with EIRs, wheeling, etc. I’d LOVE to see DWR get ahead of that curve, since they screwed up so royally last time. Note that markets ALSO allow farmers/ranchers to get $ for what little water they have, instead of being stuck with 20% yields. Cities can deal with scarcity by raising prices. This will mean less landscape watering. Poorer customers need not suffer, if there’s some sort of rebate program (when revenues > costs).

    All of the economics are clear. Will the pols and engineers use them?

  3. Mr. Kurtz

    I don’t think we want a State Almond Board deciding which set of supplicants should be allowed to plant trees or anything else. Within a water district or mutual water company, every user has an equal right to their share of whatever the district can provide. I don’t think the State has any jurisdiction over how a Federal district is administered. If poor Mr Resnick makes a bad business decision and plants too many trees, then can’t cough up enough dough to buy more water to save his orchard, hard cheese. He sells out to someone who can, or the orchard dies. Every day, people open restaurants, make movies, put their life savings into inventions that turn out to be duds. Nobody helps, or cares, except their friends. Risk management is a fundamental part of any successful business plan.
    Ag is far better positioned to deal with drought than it was 10 years ago. Water districts have made huge investments in improving efficiency, and growers have invested millions in better management tools, leveling, and drip systems. The notion that there is a vast number of water-wasting Luddite farmers out there who need to be horsewhipped into obedience is false. The growers who are that dumb are dumb in other ways too, and are rapidly going out of business.
    IMO, the mental health counseling should take place *before* someone decides to go into farming and ranching.

  4. The balanced aquifer system of the Northern Sacramento Valley is required to protect the economy, the environment, and the water quality of Delta water whether it is for human or ecological use. Plans to drain the Northstate aquifers to create storage space for future water are premature at best. The likely outcome of ramping up water transfers from the Sac Valley that are replaced with groundwater (groundwater substitution transfers) would be to knock the current balance off, increase stream leakage into emptied aquifers (“recharge enhancement”), dewater common shallow (<250') wells and destroy groundwater dependent hardwood groves. Northstate aquifers must NOT be drained to create experimental groundwater banks.

  5. jim

    A basic question: Is this year a passing blip and soon we’ll be back to normal or was last year the anomaly and the current conditions the new normal?

    If this year is the anomaly, then it makes sense to prioritize trees over row crops to get them over the hump so that they can prosper in normal conditions. If last year was the anomaly, then the state can support fewer trees going forward and Mr. Kurtz’s hard headed let the underfunded ones die attitude is probably the best we can do.

    • The normal range of precipitation variability should be considered. To contemplate this range the paleo climatic record is critical. What is considered a drought in current terms is mild compared to what we can expect. It is only during the past 2 years that Calif. DWR is allowing “mega-drought” in the discussion though it has been known at least since 1996. Even so, multi-decade drought is not being folded into DWR/USBR planning. The ’96 Sierra Nevada Ecosystems Report explains:
      “During the period of recent human settlement
      in the Sierra Nevada, climate was much wetter, warmer,
      and more stable than climates of the past two millennia; successful
      ecosystem evaluations and planning for the future
      must factor climate change into analyses. Many resource assessments
      and consequent land-use and management decisions
      have been made under the assumption that the current climate
      is stable and indicative of recent past and future conditions.
      Water delivery systems (dams, diversions, anticipated stream
      flows) in the Sierra have been designed under the recent favorable
      climate… now being planned reflect forest conditions that developed under the current unusually wet climate. Periods of century-long droughts
      have occurred within the last 1,200 years and may recur in the
      near future.”
      http://ceres.ca.gov/snep/pubs/web/PDF/exec_sum.pdf
      Groundwater banking in the N. Sac Valley would eliminate the aquifer buffer that allowed oak woodlands and streamflow for salmon migration to persist through very dry periods.

  6. Over 100,000 of the 150,000 acres of land that were fallowed in Westlands Water District in the last drought were impaired lands that had been sold to the water district by owners who gave up trying to farm them. The water was transferred upslope to the almond orchards along I-5 in the former Westplains water district, as part of the settlement for the Sagouspe lawsuit.

    With another 100,000 acres likely going out of production over the next decade or two, the real question is not what crops can or cannot be grown in the district for the next 10 years, but what will happen to the 500,000 a.f. of highly irregular water contracts once the lands do go out of production.

    There are also questions about the impacts on Mendota, Firebaugh, Huron, and other West side towns. Much of the retired land is south of Mendota along I-33. When wheat prices soared in 2011, it became profitable to grow wheat, but most years it is not profitable. Some of the land is being used for grazing sheep.