Manage what, exactly?

This drought is so very interesting. I love that it is so conspicuously dry that the standard initial response is self-evidently useless. Normally the first response to drought is “Drought?!? Pour water on it!” But this year there is clearly no water anywhere, so we’ll get to skip that step. Streamline all the transfers you like, state officials; I’ll be shocked if there are farmers north of the Delta offering water. Open pump capacity for north to south transfers and finding water for wheeling will be the least of your troubles. It is also clear that nothing that takes infrastructure will be available in time to help. We’re going into this drought with the system we have. This clears out a whole thicket of debate as well.

I am reading a fair amount of talk about the governor’s emergency powers. Messrs Peltier and Santoyo keep bringing them up. After an emergency is declared, they say, the governor could use his emergency powers to weaken environmental laws. I haven’t yet heard anyone speculate about any other emergency powers. Could the governor use emergency powers to choose a couple million acres of land to fallow, allowing the water we do have to go further on the remaining irrigated acreage? Could the governor decide that with what little water we have available, we can’t afford to be irrigating crops that don’t directly provide calories to Californians? Maybe the governor’s emergency powers could rule out irrigating alfalfa or almonds*. Maybe the governor should decide that in these crucial dry years, we must protect what’s left of the Central Valley aquifers by banning groundwater pumping. Maybe the discussion of what the governor’s emergency powers could do shouldn’t begin and end with ‘gut the Endangered Species Act’.

Governor Brown could decide he doesn’t want to get into that quagmire, and I wouldn’t blame him. There are useful things the state could do that don’t require emergency powers. The state could help with the burdens of fallowed agriculture, like disposing of downed orchards. The state could set up a mental health hotline for ranchers and farmers, since it is well documented they kill themselves a lot during droughts. If the state is deeply concerned about farmworkers on the west side, it could offer to buy out any housing they own, move them to Fresno and offer them admission to Fresno State. The state could offer money to growers to hang tight for one year, or could buy their lands to add it to the Grasslands Bypass.

It all depends on what the state is trying to achieve during this drought. Is the goal of drought management to keep native species alive? Is the goal of drought management to keep all growers in the state prepared to return to growing as soon as water returns? Is the goal of drought management to buffer urban consumers from increases to the costs of meat and dairy? Is the goal of drought management to get a water bond through the state legislature? The state could do a lot, but unless it has some specific goals, I doubt it’ll do much of anything. Just you watch. If the emergency drought proclamation doesn’t state very specific goals, I bet that at the state level, drought management will consist of futilely beating the bushes for non-existent transfers, a sharp-looking website, and a monthly impact report.

*I understand that almonds garner high prices worldwide and are profitable for Californian farmers. But maybe in an extreme drought, the governor could decide that he wants to spend our limited water on preserving our native species, and not providing Chinese people with pleasant snacks.


Filed under Drought

14 responses to “Manage what, exactly?

  1. onthepublicrecord

    Be cool, y’all. Act like you’ve been here before.

  2. ScottB

    From a systems perspective, I really appreciate your enumeration of a partial list of possible goals and the simple (but clarifying) act of _asking_ for a goal – it would be nice to know what it is we (they? OK, we) are trying to accomplish when taking on the burden of using emergency powers. I hope someone with the governor’s ear is preaching caution and clearly identified goals.

    ps I’m sorry if I caused the drought – I humbly requested no rain until I could finish up a retaining wall I was building in the backyard, but it’s done now and I announced that.

  3. Isenberg, Phil@DeltaCouncil

    California may have a water drought, but the reentry of OTPR to the debate is a terrific sign that we will not lack for smart insight, sharp tongued opinions and provocative thinking about water and environmental policy. Now, let me read this post again to get my juices flowing.

    Phil Isenberg

  4. Very good to have you back.

  5. OTPR, such a pleasure to read you again.

  6. Great post, and relevant questions. Now the trick is to find a consensus answer :) I’ve already worried that running around ST actions will divert attention from LT reforms that we’ve been avoiding for decades…

  7. Mel Burke

    Chris Clark and canislatrans are all over your stuff. How anonymous are you?

  8. onthepublicrecord

    How anonymous am I? I don’t know. I hope I’m very pseudonymous, but sometimes I wonder if everyone knows who I am and they’re just humoring me.

  9. One minor factual omission. The “environment” takes from the top. Since 1990, CVP contracted water has been reduced 50% for diversions to the environment by court orders, regulations, and legislation.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Hi Christopher. Are you related to Wayne Lusvardi, who used to comment here?

  10. jaylund

    Nicely insightful. Welcome back.

  11. Let’s discuss facts and leave out political issues for the moment.
    Go to this link which is a slide show presented by DWR to Westlands Water District on Nov. 20, 2013.

    Once you open the link scroll down to the slide show. Hit the arrow at the top to scroll to Page 5. Look carefully at the bar chart created by DWR of the environmental set asides of water since 1990 for the environment. It reflects a 50% reduction in farm water allocations. That water is coming off the top of any contracted water for farms or cities.

    So New Melones Dam is now “captured” for the environment and maybe one or two years out of 10 years has enough water to spill to farmers. If the dam had to be built over again environmental releases could not pay off the bonds, only economic productive activities like farming could pay for the dam. If there were no dam there would be horrendo flooding in the valley below.

    The discussion about what should Californians value is helpful. What it usually boils down to however is that Californians want some environmental good but don’t want to pay for it. So the courts and regulators coerce someone to pay for, in this case farmers.

    The environment will continue to take off the top, cities will conserve and maybe work out some water transfers while drawing from groundwater resources if they have them. Farmers must disproportionately absorb the effects of any drought. So isn’t the appropriate question what can we do to help the (despised) farmers?

    You didn’t mention that Gov. Brown suspended CEQA in his Drought Emergency Declaration. But does that necessarily overrule prior court decisions and regulations? No. It only means that whatever impacts from drought measures don’t have to be vetted by public hearings.

    If we had to run our households like farmers and cut back our water use 95% it wouldn’t comport with our cultural values to take baths and water the rose garden (the urban environment). We could live like some places in Italy and Spain and not bathe for a month, but that is not our cultural value (yet!). How about plowing under all the grass in public parks until the drought is over? That is what farmers do.

    Texas uses less water per household than California, mainly due to agricultural districts managing the water instead of government. Also, there is a different cultural value in Texas. People with expensive homes let their yards stay parched in the hot summers instead of watering lawns. They don’t do xeriscaped gardens they just let the lawns go brown. But Californians value property values and want lush lawns.

    San Francisco doesn’t have lawns by and large and doesn’t have a linear canopy of street trees like some city like Pasadena. That is a cultural value.

  12. ScottB

    Hi Wayne,
    Thanks for the response. I’m afraid I’m the non-expert in this crowd, so I’m just gonna ask a bunch of questions that come to mind while I’m trying to make sense of the graph. Soon you’ll know exactly how much I don’t know :^)

    I’m on slide 5 of the docshare you linked to. Here goes:

    1) In the graph title, what’s CVP S of Delta? I’m guessing Central Valley Project South of Delta?? Is there a map showing me where that is, and what is North of Delta? How’s the water situation in the north??

    2) I assume your “50% reduction in farm water allocations” for environmental reasons is the difference between the ~92% starting point in 1990 and the ~43% number for 2009 at the right end of the graph. Right?

    3) Most of the items delineated in the graph sound environmental to me, but I was less sure about the “Water Quality Control Plan” – why is that grouped with the rest?

    4) The graph uses % of contract allocation. Has the contract allocation been constant over time? Is contract allocation the only way that water is delivered to farmers? I guess I’m trying to ensure that this is an apples-to-apples comparison and it’s OK to use the % of water allocated as a proxy for how much water the ag uses.

    5) Is the reduction in allocation completely due to the additional environmental requirements, or is the reduction also part and parcel with reduced amounts of water? I’m asking the usual correlation vs. causation question here.

    6) Were there other dam construction projects or capacity expansion in the south that means there’s more water there independent of the allocations in slide 5? Are the allocations you refer to only N-to-S transfers or are they all the water ag gets? Cuz I think it seems like the dams they list on the side of slide 4 are either north of central in the valley, and don’t include dams further south. Are those also use for ag water?

    7) The allocations shown in Slide 4 (which I assume are the basis for the % in slide 5) are _way_ higher than the water storage bars in the graph. Where does the rest of the allocation come from? If there’s other sources, do they still get those, even if the “allocation” number is reduced?

    I guess that’s it – I’m looking hard at slide 4, trying to make sure I understand the relationship between slide 4 and slide 5. Seems like slide 4 has more useful information in it about availability of water, etc. Is there a reason you didn’t point us at slide 4 when making your comments? I think slide 4 answers my question 4) above – since it shows that the allocation was fairly constant until 1990.