Monthly Archives: March 2014

In the comments, Francis says:


You’re not only picking a fight with every single non-environmental user of California water (including yourself), you’re also challenging the very idea of the appropriation to a beneficial use (which pre-dates California’s statehood).

Now, maybe you’re right and environmental flows under the public trust doctrine should be given such high priority as to dramatically reduce water available for M&I and ag. But I think your argument would have a little more weight if you recognized the massive shift in California law, policy and history that you’re advocating for.

I recognize the massive shift in California law, policy and history that I’m advocating for, although given my druthers, I wouldn’t be advocating based on a doctrine like the public trust.   Given my druthers, I wouldn’t be working in our current water rights system at all.  Appropriative rights are fundamentally stupid (lock in wealth and water use based on arrival times from two centuries ago?).  The only advantage they have is that they currently exist and include a prioritization method.  If I got to start from a clean slate, I’d do something like give every person a headright of 50gppd and prime soils 3AF/A-yr for farming.  If you don’t farm with it on that land, it reverts to a common pool.  If there’s leftover after environmental needs are met, the state can auction it for the short to medium term.  Given that I don’t have any respect for the current system, I don’t mind that what I argue challenges the very ideas that underpin it.

That said, my complaints about almonds in particular could be kludged into our current system.  A Constitutional amendment could declare that growing pleasant snacks that require a constant water supply for the rest of the world is simply not a reasonable use of water when our climate is becoming even more variable and our fish go extinct.  An approach from the “reasonable and beneficial” angle would fit the crazy system we have now but still solve this problem.


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Also, it isn’t for any one person to police what is a “serious” conversation about water.

From the same post on virtual water at the California Water Blog:

Talk of virtual water detracts from serious discussion of economic, environmental and hydrological objectives and processes important for real water and environmental systems to function. Virtual water discussions are all the more counterproductive coming in the midst of a very real and serious drought.

Conversations about the amount of water in almonds are especially important during very real and serious droughts. One of the strains of rhetoric that comes out during droughts is that farmers are especially deserving of water, generally for one or a combination of these reasons:

  1. Pathos and nostalgia about farming, with talk about generations on the same land and weathered faces on salt-of-the-earth type people.
  2. Farmers grow the food that feeds the nation.
  3. Farmers are especially dependent on water, and so droughts affect them disproportionately.

Once it is established that farmers are especially deserving, the follow-up is that because of some or all of these things, water should be directed to farmers even at the cost of the loss of fish species.

To the extent that “growing the food that feeds the nation” is an argument for prioritizing scarce water for farmers over endangered species, it is worth discussing what that means. If it means growing the lentils and rice that provides most of the daily sustenance for our people, then I could be persuaded. If it means growing a luxury snack for the remainder of the world, then it is no longer an argument that persuades me. Other people can decide where they stand, but first they need to know what is grown in the state and what happens to it.

During a real and serious drought, these arguments come to the fore and are substantially unchallenged in the press. They animate legislators’ political discussion as well. Giving the context to evaluate that rhetoric in real time is not counterproductive.


ADDED: April 2.  A couple links to examples of the rhetoric I referred to above.

From a farmer writing an op-ed in the SFChron:

When farmers “use” water, we are growing healthy, affordable, local food. It doesn’t make sense to criticize farmers for using water to grow our food …

From the Farm Water Coalition, in a press release about snow survey results:

Today’s announcement that California’s snowpack is a mere 32 percent of normal is continued bad news for farmers throughout California that grow the food consumers find at the store.

Note that when they are speaking amongst themselves, the conversation is about “key export markets”, primarily nuts.  Also, when they speak amongst themselves, the outlook, especially for nuts, isn’t that bad.


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Like an old timey blogfight.

Dr. Lund objects to complaints like mine about exporting water in the form of almonds. He says ‘no no, we also import a lot of water in other forms.’ I have two responses to this. First: I don’t give a shit about other places. If they want to wreck their natural resources to sell feed to animals in California, I can’t bring myself to care.

Second, I don’t agree with the underlying assumptions about virtual water and markets. I do not believe that we are working with fungible materials.

When water leaves Shasta Dam, it is public resource that can do things like be a sparkly river and host leaping fish. I am a public in California, and I have one-thirty-nine millionth of an interest in that. When that water gets pulled away to water almonds in Chico, it is converted from a substance that could be a river to dollars for an almond grower. Applying that water to almonds stripped away my interest in the resource; I cannot claim any of that money. My 1/39M of an interest has been changed to something I have no claim on when it is almond dollars.

BUT! say the market folks. You have a different money because of the awesomeness of California agriculture. Because of the awesomeness of California agriculture, instead of paying 15-20% of your income on food, you only pay 5-10% of your income on food. WONDERFUL! I exclaim. I would like to turn that difference, which is now cash in my hand, into a river for fish. I cannot. That money is not the same as water in the river and cannot be converted back. A good thing for me (cheaper food) is not a replacement for what I lost (a tiny piece of a right to a river environment).

These waters are not fungible. Water in the Sacramento River is not fungible with water from wherever else the footprint applies. Those waters have different properties. All of the water in the Oglalla cannot provide a river for me between Shasta and Sacramento. So I do resent that luxury crops export millions of acre-feet of Californian water away. The dollars they bring back do not do what the water would have done. I have experienced a loss that is not comforted by indirect monies to me.


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