Monthly Archives: January 2014

Links to various things.

I know we don’t do link+commentary anymore because that’s what Twitter is so good at. But here on the public record, we shall always kick it old school.

This purports to be a creative financing mechanism that greatly extends the money that can be used to build infrastructure. If I understand it right, it is securitized by future wastewater treatment rates, presumably higher to cover installing new capital. Wallets of the people of the state, taxes or fees. That’s all there is.

There’s nothing especially new in this report on dry landscapes from Press-Democrat in Santa Rosa. But the tone is more poetic than I’m used to in newspapers, and the comments go loony in ways that are new and funny to me.

The city of Sacramento is fundamentally unserious about water management. I deeply resent that I don’t have a meter and can’t know how much water I use at home.

There is little I love more than seeing agriculture turn on itself. You would have no idea that all of San Joaquin Valley ag isn’t Westlands from a CDFA hearing, but the eastern side of the Valley has different self-interests. The drought is bringing that out. Also, a Bakersfield voice saying that all those trees were a bad idea, looking straight at you, POMEGRANATE PISTACHIO PEOPLE.

This interview with writer Kim Stanley Robinson is lengthy; here’s the only part that’s directly relevant to us. Since we’re going to be fallowing 1-2 million acres anyway…

The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills

And a couple good books:
Don’t manage the new Central Valley Serengeti like Jon Mooallem describes in Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America Great, funny, troubling book.

I enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars as well. A good story, although it may be rough for dog owners. Given my single-mindedness, the entire book was essentially set-up for one funny scene.

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Before the water trucks roll in.

Head of the Drought Task Force said that a dozen or so small towns face running out of water in the next 60 days. The prospect of trucking water, or bringing in mobile desal plants, looms. Some of these towns may be very poor, and haven’t had the wealth to make their water supply resilient (second tank, line to a different source, pump lower in their reservoir to reach more volume). Some of them may simply not have other sources. Some of them, though, may have been living in denial about the risk of bad events. They may have had the wealth but been unwilling to pay higher rates.

Were it mine to do, I’d say that we, the people of the State, will help you once. Before a water truck arrives, you show us your new property tax assessment for water infrastructure that can withstand three dry years. The water trucks will arrive the day after you pass a rate structure that adequately funds your water reliability. We will not take your lack of water more seriously than you do. We will not truck water to you all summer without proof that you will not let this happen again. We don’t want to leave you with no aid at all if you don’t do this; we can post a few National Guard corps here to protect your empty homes against looters.

Communities that simply do not have the wealth to be resilient against climate variability pose a choice to the State. This drought is an example of the more variable climate future we expect. How long do we support people’s choices to live where they want if they don’t have the resources to provide for their water reliability? There are policy arguments for all sides, but it isn’t the kind of question that is pleasant to debate explicitly.

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Grasshopper and the Ant comes to mind.

Mr. Isenberg asked Mr. Croyle, head of the Drought Task Force, what story Mr. Croyle intended to tell about the drought.  There is already tribalism in the regions, and this drought could intensify that, especially since Southern California prepared for this and has a sufficient buffer that it doesn’t need to ration this year.  I have been trying to think of storylines that are applicable statewide.  So far, I’ve got:

1.  You reap what you sow/you get out what you put in.

2.  Early preview.

I like “you get out what you put in” because building resilience requires upfront wealth and the cities that are hurting now haven’t been willing to do that so far.  Then, when people ask why Southern California gets to have nice things, the answer can be the same story:  they are getting out what they put in.  They invested in conservation and infrastructure ahead of time. There is a touch of shaming in that framework, which distracts people.  That might be a downside.

Another potentially useful storyline is that this is an early preview of what climate change will bring.  Now that we’ve lived it, what do we want to do?  This ignores the issue of how any individual place got to be in dire straights and moves the thinking towards the long run.  “Never mind about your lawn this year, this is the least of the change to come.”  Maybe it is more useful to have people thinking about the contrast between now and the future they want than the contrast between regions.

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So entirely precedented.

Thank you, ACWA. This summary of the head of the Drought Task Force’s testimony at yesterday’s Delta Stewardship Council is exactly what I needed. It is admirably thorough, and sets me up with the straight line I would have scripted if possible. The title of the ACWA post is: Unprecedented drought could bring unprecedented actions, officials say. That title applied to yesterday’s testimony reminded me of one of Chris Clarke’s complaints about Burning Man:

Faced with one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the US, their response is to build a city. This is not creativity: it is dreadful, dull conformity. Finding one of the last sublime remnants of the unpopulated West, they want nothing more than to pack it with tender urbanites in a glorified tailgate party. This is not an alternative way of life: it is standard American operating procedure.

What the drought director said yesterday is utterly, straight-down-the-line, conventional thinking for the State agencies. There is nothing “unprecedented” about the State’s drought actions. He pretty much distilled standard operating procedure with every statement.

Before I go on to demonstrate this, I should state some qualifiers. First, this is the State’s dude, implementing the State’s plan. If his own thought parallels State thinking, the administration got the right person for the job. My second set of doubts is that I don’t entirely know how the conventional State approach came to be such weak sauce. I don’t like writing to you with less than complete certainty, so it is only fair to tell you my doubts. There may be good reason that I don’t understand for this mish-mash, goal-less approach.

Maybe, the State is still at the far end of the pendulum swing from building single-purpose big concrete projects. Because this generation of civil servants witnessed the side-effects of big-ass concrete and water supply uber alles, we are still in a countercycle where everything, all projects and purposes must be gently nudged forward simultaneously. Maybe, with more years wisdom experience than I have, senior civil servants have developed learned helplessness seen that goals that get ahead of the public simply do not get done; instead they push incremental gains. Maybe they are playing a longer game than I currently understand and know that in the long run, we will advance further with namby-pamby piddly measures by muddling through, Lindblom-style. Maybe the advocacy against a strong State role for directing water policy is so strong and mean that all the State will ever publicly talk about is doing a study, offering money, offering contingent money or dicking around with other State agencies. Wait, that’s not a good reason for a mish-mash goal-less approach. But I am not completely sure that my swashbuckling extremes are actually the most effective in the long run. Part of me wonders if maybe the senior folks in the State agencies have the right of it. But with that difficult admission out of the way, I can now write a post about why every last word I heard yesterday was utterly, completely precedented.

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Unprecedented, my ass.

Somehow, we have gotten to the point where there are exactly five things the State allows itself to do. The first four can be proposed aloud. The last goes unspoken. Here they are:

1. Conduct a study/gather data, with no mention of what comes after.
2. Offer money/help/resources.
3. Offer contingent money/help/resources.
4. Dick around with other State agencies. Directing local agencies to do something would be “interfering with local government”, so for the past few years and probably the next decade, our business is to “get out of silos” and “align State government.”
5. Allow the system to fail, but for the love of God, not with State fingerprints on it.

Those are the only options, and here’s what they look like in public.

[Drought Task Force head] Croyle said the state’s drought task force is in an “all hands on deck” mode, working with state, local and federal agencies to get out the conservation message to the general public and prepare for potentially far worse conditions later in the year.

Option 4.

He said agencies need to shift into a “mutual aid” environment to work together to address the crisis.
“This has got to be team ball…all of us at all levels of government working together,” said Croyle.

Option 4. I can practically see him interlacing his fingers now, to illustrate our aligned State selves.

Croyle added that state officials are already dialoguing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about addressing emergency situations should they arise

Option 4.

Among the possiiblitieis being discussed are mobile desalination plants, temporary water pipelines to move water where it is needed and the trucking of water to some communities.

Option 2, state funded assistance.

That’s all that’s from ACWA’s good summary of yesterday’s panel at the Delta Stewardship Council meeting, so let’s go to the drought proclamation and try those out. (I did that, and it led to a tedious list. Of the twenty items, we had seven studies, five handouts, one handout with requirements and three instances of “State alignment”. My classification didn’t hold up for three (maybe four) of the items.) Basically, if a bigwig state bureaucrat is talking in public, s/he is going to offer something out of those lists. The skilled ones do not go off-list and there’s no use trying to prompt something else, even with direct questions. The taboos against any options that would impose anything on local agencies, or suggest that the situation may have losers, or engage the state in a failure they don’t wish to be involved with are too strong.

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And pretend climate change isn’t about to make us poorer.

Part of the reason the State response is so uninspiring is that the State vision is uninspiring. Far as I can tell, the State vision is to keep status quo going just a little longer. With a boring-ass vision like that, there’s nothing especially pressing to do. Yesterday, the Drought Task Force guy could have said “When I get done with this drought, every damn treatment plant in the state will have tertiary treatment and be hooked right back into the supply main.” He could have said “Every last farmer in this state is going to be there when the rains come back if I have to hand them fat stacks of cash to get through.” He could have said “There won’t be a lawn in this whole state when I’ve had my way with this drought.” But there’s no vision but “please more of status quo,” so he’s got nothing to say but “the State will work together.”

Appendix A:
I am using the Drought Task Force guy as synecdoche for the whole executive branch. I don’t know a thing about him personally, and assume he is nothing but bright, hardworking and skilled. I don’t mean to imply a thing about him personally. I might if he becomes a public figure or starts giving awesome interviews, but for the moment, he’s just a stand-in for the California executive agencies. My apologies, Mr. Drought Task Force, should you ever see this.)

Appendix B:
By the way, I don’t think it’ll be the same for Central Valley flood. I think there is a vision (some Peripheral Canal variant) and flood response will come with diggers and concrete trucks. There’s no way a Delta levee break would get the same vague response this drought is getting and that’s because the State has a vivid goal for that aspect of water policy.

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Item 20 (updated 1/23, 1/25).

What’s that, Governor Brown? You requested subsequent actions that should be taken if drought impacts worsen? Here are some that I don’t think your Drought Task Force will bring up with you. Some of them blur the line between drought response and climate change adaptation, but I’ll suggest them anyway.

  • Train CCC members to fix dripping sink and tub faucets.  Stock some trucks with nuts and washers and have corpsmembers available to do free housecalls to anyone with a dripping faucet.  Sure, homeowners should fix leaks themselves, but I bet it would happen a lot faster if it were offered as a free service.
  • See if you can get the Feds to pay for a bunch of district-level system modernization, from district level leak repair to SCADA systems.
  • Since CDFA is so motivated by drought and loves to hold hearings so much, maybe they can chase down some food waste, either in the field or in produce distribution systems.
  • Create and advertise mental health services for ranchers and farmers.  Ranchers in particular commit suicide at higher rates when they have to cull their herds for droughts.
  • Get assessors in the field to price the damage to public infrastructure from subsidence.  Keep a tally and bill growers proportionally for the damage their pumping causes.  Maybe the state can’t regulate groundwater pumping, but subsidence is damaging the highways, overpasses and canals on the west side.  The 5 isn’t sinking because I drive down it twice a year; I don’t see why the costs of repairing it should come out of the general fund when we know who is damaging it and how.
  • The early estimates are that half a million acres will be fallowed this year (of about 9 million irrigated acres in the state). We can assume those are the most water-insecure ag acres. The folks at UC Davis predict that about 1-2 million irrigated acres will come out of production in the San Joaquin Valley. I’m on record predicting 3 million irrigated acres statewide will be retired in the next couple generations. We should use this drought to figure out the least painful way this can happen. If we believed this were coming, what would we do? Decide which million and a half acres we want to retire in the SJV? Does the state want them? Are they the current owners’ responsibility when no one will buy them later? Will banks end up owning them? Should they be managed? Is there salvageable capital on them? Is there some scale at which they are useful for solar power? This drought is an early look at a scenario heading our way. Does the State have or want a role in managing it?
  • Define food security.  Surprisingly, for someone who argues against Westlands WD all the time,  I really do take food security seriously.  I think California should protect its growing capacity and would support some interventions to do that.  But, I’d want a lot of clarity about what food security means.  Growing calories for direct consumption for Californians (truck crops)?  Growing field crops for animals that Californians eat?  Providing calories for the western U.S.?  Providing animal proteins to the western U.S.?  Providing wine and pistachios to the world?  I value food security enough to do things like zone agricultural lands against incursion or subsidize growers to be resilient against droughts.  But I wouldn’t give up one smelt so that the new middle class in China can have cheaper walnuts.

That should keep your Task Force busy, Governor Brown. Let me know if you need any other suggestions. Oh, last thing. Do not waste any time looking for ‘lessons from Australia.’ I heard an awful lot about Australia during the last drought. Their circumstances are different enough that nothing was useful. If your staff wants to research Australia, that means they are shying away from politically difficult situations here. Australia does not have magic answers for us.

Two more (1/23)

  • In the comments on an L.A. Times article, someone suggested using this drought to dredge silts and sediments that are filling reservoirs. It won’t give us any new water in this drought, but where it is something that has to be done anyway, it’ll never be easier.
  • Here are two early stories of water districts who are raising rates in response to drought, but have to go through a burdensome 218 process. Districts will be looking at higher rates if they have to pump deeper groundwater, if they want to put conservation pricing in place, if they usually offset water prices with the proceeds from selling hydropower, if they have to buy the next increment of more expensive water from somewhere. During the drought, Prop 218 shouldn’t be another hassle for them to negotiate, slowing their response time.

Added 1/25:

  • Override any HOA requirements for green lawns. At the least, declare that HOA’s cannot fine homeowners for complying with district-issued watering restrictions. At the most, have HOA’s require greywater systems for xeriscaped landscapes. My preference would be to destroy the HOA structure entirely (fucking conformist busybody authoritarian assholes) but that may be out of the scope of a drought response.

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