I’ll show you “provocative”.

Today I got an invitation to “the most provocative water conference” of the spring.  I nearly died of boredom just reading the speaker list.  We keep hearing the same fifteen voices and they keep saying measured things that have a chance of making incremental progress.  I bet the range of debate at the “most provocative water conference” of the spring is whether the State should spend lots of money building storage and give out only a little money for integrated water management, or spend a little money building storage and give out a lot of money for integrated water management.  I used to mind that I am a low level bureaucrat that doesn’t get sent to conferences, but I haven’t heard an interesting thing at a conference in years.  Even the crazies from the public are predictable, since I can read them in newspaper comments (not you, my treasured readers!  Never you.).

I should say that I have a lot of respect for the speakers on the regular circuit.  They are a conference organizer’s dream.  They show up with their presentations clean and ready; they can speak for whatever length of time is needed.  They speak clearly and can answer anything.  That said, they are pros.  They represent an administration or an organization and they are not going to be questioned into saying anything unscripted or controversial. If you heard them at the last conference, you can make an excellent guess at what they’ll say at the next conference. It will not be provocative. The range of public water discourse is very narrow; it is all incremental change from how we do things now.

Here are some provocative ideas that will not be explored at this conference:

  • Urban water users will not change their behavior to conserve water.  They may use less water if they can do so passively, as by switching fixtures.  But even in a drought, only people who are already ideologically motivated will inconvenience themselves to conserve water. People will need the motivation of high bills to change behaviors.
  • Groundwater users should pay for the damage subsidence has caused to public infrastructure.  Once the cost of repairs has been determined, they should be assessed proportionally, by overlying acreage.
  •  If the goal is drought resilience, we could use money instead of water to keep farm communities intact until a wet year.  If it is important that farm workers in Mendota live decent lives during droughts, we don’t have to find non-existent water for their employers’ farms.  We could just hand the farm workers fat checks.  Similarly, if it is important that no farmers go out of business during a drought, we could pay them to be there in the next wet year even if they grow nothing rather than having them live off the profit from a crop.  (This doesn’t work for permanent crops.)
  • Water is a public resource whose uses are properly decided by the State, not by “the market”.  It is proper for the State to decide that it would rather a public resource be used to grow staples for its population than luxury crops that maximize individual farmer profit.

I have to go, but as I think of more concepts that would make conferences actually interesting, I’ll add to the list.


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9 responses to “I’ll show you “provocative”.

  1. Here’s another one:
    • Come up with an alternative to the BDCP that takes out more water at periods of high flow in order to replenished the overdrafted ground water basins, and even less water during periods of low flow.

  2. Douglas Wallace

    Dear OPR, not so many water conferences are self-described as “provocative”, so maybe it’s the California Water Policy Conference you’re referring to. I urge you to attend (even incognito) before you conclude that no real debate or new thought is taking place. And I f I knew who you were, I’d invite you as a speaker, without hesitation.

    Doug Wallace
    CWP Conference Chair

  3. alejokrauspolk

    Doug Wallace,

    I believe OPR may be referring to the Water Education Foundation’s Executive Briefing in Sacramento on March 25th.



    If you only have time to attend one water conference this spring this is THE event to attend.”

    Hard to keep track of them all…


  4. Anonymous

    In reference to the previous post, getting rid of grape monocultures sounds like smart policy given that wine tastings are being prioritized over the basic needs of California residents. It would also be nice to see government agencies provide some type of financial incentives for rehabilitative growing practices as part of an integrated watershed management plan. This is a very informative blog, by the way. I’ve been hanging on the edge of my seat waiting for updates.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    Mr. Wallace,
    Thank you! That is very kind. Unfortunately, if I were a speaker, I’d be under the same constraints as the usual speakers. I do not represent my agency, no no no, but I would inevitably be affiliated with it and I don’t want to put it in an awkward position. So I would toe the administration line and that is the speech that higher ups can give better anyway. In real life, inviting me would not add value.

  6. jrfleck

    “If it is important that farm workers in Mendota live decent lives during droughts”…

    The median household income in Mendota was $25,111 back before the drought, compared to a statewide average of $70,231. (I looked at 2007-11 Census American Community Survey, but the story’s basically the same regardless of the time slice you choose.) I don’t know that it changes your point in any way – your suggestion seems like provocative policy of the best sort. But the numbers suggest that even when there’s *not* a drought, the farm workers in Mendota are, relatively speaking, not living decent lives despite the enormous public benefits in subsidized water being showered upon Fresno County and the like.

    I don’t know what to do with this

  7. I thought that jrfleck was going to say that maintaining the standard of living in Mendota with cash in lieu of water could be affordable given the median household income there. Instead, he’s on to the next injustice down the chain.

    I think that the answer is that we stop when the problem is bounded by solutions that we can afford to implement. The population of Mendota is about 10k people. Let’s say there’s 5k wage earners. $25k*5k = $125M. Multiply that by the number of similar communities that we’d want to cover and you could easily get billions of dollars. That sounds like a lot, but the state already spends about $20B on welfare, so if the costs could be contained to a 5% o 10% welfare cost growth ($1-2 B) then do you think you could convince Californians that it’s a good idea?

    Now it is the time to say, “I don’t know what to do with this.”

  8. dzetland

    Nice post. I agree on the “taboo topics” and will link back tmrw.

    @Fleck — the point your making is that they have ALWAYS been poor (water or not), and this is not to be fixed by welfare, but reform of labor conditions (I’m a free market guy, but I know monopsonistic abuse when I see it, as did Chavez, before I was born). OPR’s point about “profit maximizing farmers” works for crops as well as labor practices.

  9. Westlands, provocative and clearly in need of erasure, stipulated.

    On to other big problems. It would be worth mapping all the groundwater-only, mostly almond, agricultural development of the past two or five years happening in places like the Modesto foothills. That might be provocative, especially for those further down in the groundwater basin who have been around for generations. Map it, mappers – pose a few obvious questions about the commons, and move onto any number of other topics. There is no shortage of opportunistic and unsustainable activities that need light shed on them.