Monthly Archives: January 2014

What I see in the Drought Proclamation (11-20)

A conscientious blogger would give a little italicized summary of each point in the Drought Proclamation, so you don’t have to go back and forth to read this. Unfortunately for you, after two years spent with Somali pirates, I disdain the niceties of civilization. You will have to rough it, as I did. I didn’t see much in the second half of the proclamation, so here are my not-especially-interesting impressions.

11 and 12. What I see here is the State getting ready to get involved in groundwater management. A report due by April 30th about basins with groundwater shortages and gaps in water monitoring? That report is sure to make recommendations. If I were an advocate rather than a scrupulously neutral bureaucrat, I would be pushing very hard on this opportunity.

13. If they have any sense at all, they would pay the Maven about a million dollars to design this and turn it over to CDFA staff.

14 and 15. Nice to see fish get a mention. I hope Fish and Wildlife are given the resources to do a good job assessing and managing the drought impacts on endangered species.

16. I don’t know much about this.

17. I don’t know much about this either. I have the faintest sense that it is tied to some nice work that DWR has done with JPL and NASA. But that’s as much as I know.

18. Yep.

19. This was such a hot political item in the last drought, because advocates for west side agriculture were trying to co-opt the image of farm laborers to get pumping restrictions from the biological opinions protecting smelt lifted. It baffled the emergency responders. They are very good at providing food services in emergencies, but it isn’t typical for the State to step in to help workers when a local industry fails. We all sort of agreed that we couldn’t complain too much about anything that helped people in Mendota, but it was clearly a political statement, not a usual way to respond to on-going local unemployment.

Since this isn’t a continuation of Schwarzenegger’s manipulations, I do wonder what the goal of this effort will be. Is it to help laborers in Mendota? They can be helped by giving them enough money to get out and giving their children ways to go to college. Is it to maintain a permanent local stock of laborers with forty percent unemployment that growers can draw from if the drought ends? Then they can maintain their own damn serfs, far as I’m concerned.

20. It is as difficult for the Drought Task Force to monitor the impacts of drought as it is for anyone behind a screen in Sacramento. My guess is that they’ll be reading the news closely, just like you. I do have some suggestions for Jerry, which I’ll make soon.

My overall impression of this Drought Proclamation is that it is a very strategic document. It leaves open a lot of opportunity for change, especially for groundwater management, drinking water and wildlife. I don’t think the authors of this know precisely where they want to go. If I were advocating, I’d seed local news stories with descriptions of a relevant impact, then point to those impacts, point to an item number here, and approach the Drought Task Force with the hoped-for solution.

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Drought as catalyst.

Dr. Lund is more optimistic than I am. My prediction is that in retrospect, this drought will be considered a continuation of the 2006-2009 drought, the full extent of the damage we have done to the climate will start to become evident this year, and the innovation we’ll wish we had started sooner is managed retreat.

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What I see in the Drought Proclamation (6-10).

Back when I was a pro, I would have written these all up and then posted them in reverse order so that you could read them top to bottom. Well, it was a rough two years in that dungeon and you will have to accept what is left of my ragged, diminished soul.

Governor’s Drought Proclamation, items 6-10.

6. This item strikes me as an opportunistic way to re-purpose old bond capacity. I believe there are some old bond items that were closely written for a use that never panned out, primarily items authorizing bond funds for low-interest loans for ag water conservation. They went out for proposals once or twice and never got any takers, because there were also grants available at the time. Now interest rates are so low that these bond funds still aren’t interesting. I am guessing that this is a way to reach back to those bond funds and use them without having to go back to the legislature to get them authorized for a new purpose.

7. This one is straightforward, no? Junior appropriators, back off. Enforcement interests me more than “notice”, but I don’t know how this is enforced. Flyovers to look at what is green when it shouldn’t be? Satellite pictures? Real wardens, going out to look?

8. Man, what a dilemma for the State Board. Choose between current river water quality, which they love, and future river water quality, which they also love?

9. Chris Clarke is already on this one; I think the enviro line is that Governor Brown has suspended CEQA for actions that mitigate the effects of the emergency. Maybe they brainwashed me in that dungeon, but I’m not convinced this is awful.

My most cynical self says that all the State agencies are going to do about the drought is have a nice website and write up monthly impact reports. And maybe feed people in Mendota. None of those require CEQA. If this waives CEQA for water transfers, it poses the same problems as “expediting” the water transfer process. But I also have heard that CEQA is just a monster problem for water transfers. It can take months to do a CEQA analysis on a proposed transfer and just that delay can render the transfer useless. Further, the buyer has to pay for cost of the analysis on top of the purchase price of the water and the carriage water. The whole transfer has to happen within weeks or months to be useful, and CEQA is a pretty outsized burden on anything but large, ongoing transfers. I get why the Drought Proclamation waived it. (I also acknowledge that Jerry Brown personally dislikes CEQA and may be seizing an opportunity.)

10. This item addresses one of the genuine problems of the drought, and one that doesn’t get much political attention. Small communities (in the Valley, along the coast, up in the foothills) on wells are pretty fucked in a drought like this. It poses real problems, because they are small and widely distributed (and thus expensive to help) and mostly don’t have their own wealth to tap. What do we do? Truck in water? Move them elsewhere? Nothing? What are our societal obligations to people who have chosen to live in situations where their own wealth cannot buffer them against variability? If you are thinking of farm laborer towns, you may be sympathetic. When I am thinking of people who move to beautiful places for a picturesque life remote from infrastructure, and who have perhaps been unwilling to spend in advance for reliability, I am less sympathetic.

My strength is not what it was, dear friends. I must recover before attempting items 11-20.

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What I see in the drought proclamation (1-5).

I assume you have a copy of the proclamation to hand. I’ll go point by point with my first impression.

1. Calling on Californians to reduce their water usage by twenty percent in one year doesn’t seem like enough when reservoirs are so drastically low. But if they do reduce by that much, after this year Twenty by 20XX will be relatively easy. I know some of the behavioral changes backslide when the drought ends, but this drought will be a big boost to that effort.

This drought feels very different than 2007-2009. People mention rain and guiltily enjoying the sun everywhere I go. I’ve heard so many mentions of the dry hills. The dry reservoirs are so blatant. I have come to believe that humans can only deeply identify with problems they can see (literally see –problems without a visible element (groundwater, greenhouse gases) will not be solved.) and this drought may be stark enough to qualify. I’d urge water conservation people to put pictures of empty reservoirs on billboards.

2. This point cracks me up. I read this as: do your fucking water management plans. Back when 20xtwentytwenty was written, the only enforcement mechanism for the requirement to write ag water management plans was that if your district didn’t do a plan, it wouldn’t be eligible for DWR loans and grants. Not much of a hammer. But I am very sure that any agency approaching the Drought Task Force for assistance will be welcomed with a sweet “What does it say in your Drought Contingency Plan, appendix to your water management plan?”. If the reply is that they don’t have a Drought Contingency Plan yet, I expect they’ll be told to finish that before coming back.

I see there’ll be a publicly posted map of which districts have updated plans. It is eighteen years since I proposed doing that at Reclamation and was told that was too sensitive. I am glad water districts have become less delicate since then.

3. State agencies implementing water conservation in our own facilities? Dude. I’ll believe that when I see it. DGS is invariably cited as the barrier to making green changes at state buildings. Maybe it will be different in the Brown administration, but I haven’t seen Governor Brown show any interest in shaping the state agencies.

4. They have to say this about water transfers. Water transfers are the politically acceptable win-win solution. Willing sellers, willing buyers, no one loses anything, the State “facilitates” but doesn’t dictate. From what I saw in the last drought, inter-regional transfers were nearly negligible, primarily because rice prices were high and because there weren’t available pumping windows that weren’t already being used for project water. This time I think inter-regional transfers will be even more trivial, because I don’t think many will have water to offer. There is real utility in local and regional transfers, so I hope those get “expedited”.

From what I understand, the danger in a rushed transfer process is that there may be secondary damage on the seller’s end. The transferred surface water may be immediately replaced on the seller’s end with groundwater that wouldn’t have otherwise been pumped. If that damages an aquifer or taps nearby connected surface water, that’s a transfer that wouldn’t be approved. “Expedited” transfer evaluations may miss this. My real opinion, though, is that transfers allow people to pretend that there is a pleasing solution, a feelgood thing the State can do. I think the real volumes are tiny and the secondary damages from transfers correspondingly tiny.

5. I don’t know what this item means in real life, so I don’t have impressions to type up.

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Couple backlogged thoughts on water financing.

I liked the Pacific Institute’s report on future water financing from back in November, but I’ll use this quote from the Conclusions as a springboard to one of my standard rants (just because it is something I hear around, and here is a version I can use).

New financing mechanisms and alternative revenue sources need to be explored for water conservation and efficiency, research and development, monitoring and data management, ongoing operation and maintenance, and upgrading failing water systems.

Look, y’all. This is not that complicated. The revenue sources are the wallets of the people of the state. If we aren’t using bonds to transfer the costs to future people, there are two financing mechanisms. There are taxes, where someone with authority takes an amount in a way that isn’t directly linked to a water bill, or there are fees, where someone with authority takes an amount in a way that is directly linked to a water bill. That’s it. That is the whole range of options. We talk about creative financing mechanisms and looking for alternatives, but in the end, if we decide to pay to keep our level of service up to first world standards, someone with authority will dip into the wallets of the people of the state.

I have some patience for discussions of whether taxes or fees will better accomplish policy goals, but I roll my eyes at discussions of “creative financing mechanisms”. Far as I can tell, the phrase is a placeholder for magic outside wealth appearing.

***
I loved every word of this Valley Econ post on making tree crop growers self-insure. Nut crop growers put a whole lot of capital into their orchards, then point to their orchards as hostages in drought time. “But we must get water, or our trees will die!” I’ve never understood why the public at large should be the backstop for the bad choice to plant crops with a constant water demand in a variable climate. If there is a state interest in growing nuts and grapes in particular, it hasn’t been explained to me. I understand the grower’s interest in growing a valuable crop, but since the profits from that aren’t returned to the state, I don’t see why the risk should be.

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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.

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