Monthly Archives: April 2015

Once more around the bowl, comrades!

In my advanced blogging years, I find that I have no new thoughts.  Worse, when I think that I do have new ideas, I search my blog and find that I wrote them up fully years ago.  My only real hope is that you, my loyal readers, have the memory span of goldfish and don’t mind that I say the same things over and over.  As I react to a few different articles today with my usual thoughts, I’ll link to the post where I discussed them before.

USC wrote about their own conference that included former Governor Schwarzenegger.  My first thought was that Schwarzenegger isn’t in a position to be critiquing anyone else on water policy, since he was utterly craven during the drought on his watch.  Then Schwarzenegger went on to say:

 Our current problem, in my opinion, is not the crisis on water,” said Schwarzenegger, Governor Downey Professor of State and Global Policy at USC. “It is the crisis of vision and commitment to long-term planning. Too often politicians cannot or do not look beyond the current crisis.

This is true.  There is no vision and it means our drought response is crappy.  The vision, so far as I can tell, is: exactly like today for a little longer, only using less water.  A vision would make preferences explicit and I’ve seen no willingness to do that from state level politicians.  I also fault the emergency management framework for responding to drought.  The point of emergency management is to return things to the non-flood, non-fire, non-hurricane default.  That carries over when we use emergency management to respond to drought (make it like a not-drought!).  I would rather the drought were viewed as a transformative agent (use this drought to get East Porterville on a reliable supply or use this drought to get communities to move away from systems based on shallow or fractured rock wells) instead of an emergency to get through before things can go back to normal.


Since I complain about what I would like the State Board to do, I should compliment the parts I like.  The new tiered conservation goals for water agencies are great and I have zero sympathy for the users with large landscaping demands.  No, spoiled communities don’t need additional time to adjust.  If they haven’t been aware of drought since 2006, this kind of shock to the system is just what they need to understand their appropriate response now.

Raising the limit for fines for wasteful use to $10,000/day is also great.  A friend told me of his difficulties getting homeowners in Montecito to conserve water in an earlier drought; his district simply couldn’t raise rates high enough to  “send an economic signal”.  (So he snuck out to the worst offender and put a homemade flow restrictor on his line.  The homeowner responded by purchasing bottled water to water his lawn.)  Fines that high ought to eventually catch even a wealthy homeowner’s attention.


This details in this story illustrate my objections to our current water rights system and to using water markets to re-allocate water.  EBMUD is trying to buy water from Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and two other northern Sacramento Valley water districts to get through the year.  EBMUD is offering Glenn-Colusa $700/af for water that Glenn-Colusa gets for $17.  Economists are delighted; this is a willing trade that gets water to a higher value use!  I am not delighted.  Why the fuck should farmers in Glenn-Colusa get that money?  They are not better people than people who live in the East Bay. They have not worked harder for that water, nor invested labor that created that water.

Honestly, urban people in California. It is time to vote for an initiative that revises water rights in your favor.  I propose an initiative that creates a commission to come up with a new water rights system that gets put before Californian voters in the next election.


Apparently I will not continue linking to my old posts that say the same thing.  In my advanced blogging years, I no longer have the concentration or follow-through. Here are a couple posts on drought I still like.


Filed under Uncategorized

A nice post on the drawbacks of local management.

I liked this part in particular:

Transferring power to local agencies may simply represent a higher body’s abdication of responsibility, rather than a strategic allocation of powers.  In this case, the California legislature did not have the mettle to create a robust groundwater management scheme.  Kicking the can into the local agencies’ driveway was a more attractive option for legislators than dealing with the problem head-on.

This is the second time we’ve needed people who are employed by universities, not water agencies to tell us this.  There is certainly no will to acknowledge this from within the state bureaucracies.  Local agencies are not magic: some are good, some are inept, some are overwhelmed.  We will find out which ones are which, but we’ll have lost years to the process.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

More almonds? Make them prove they have the water first.

Rabobank predicts that almond acreage will increase by 2.5% to 3% annually for the next ten years, drought or no drought.  If so, almond acreage would increase from 940,000 acres today to 1,200,000 – 1, 260,000 acres in 2025.  We can round down, take the easy number.  That would be an additional ~250,000 acres of almonds, which will peak at an additional million acre-feet of annual demand on our water supplies for the next thirty years.  Or perhaps 250,000 acres of something else will go out of production.  Does the State Board expect that climate change will bring an additional MAF of precip to the state?  Are the growers making planting decisions at this moment counting on reliable surface supplies for every year in the next twenty years?  In this year, a year of bare Sierras, a year of curtailments to senior diverters, you know that they are not.

Anyone planting almonds this year is calculating that the new groundwater management plans have such a long lead time that they can get one more generation of almonds in before declining groundwater supplies catch up with them.  In the meantime, before their wells fail or groundwater management plans catch up with them, they are choosing to burden our failing aquifers.

State Board or the legislature, you should change the default for these decisions.  You should issue a moratorium on planting permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels.  The connection between permanent crops and overdrafting groundwater is not a tenuous nexus.  Put the burden on growers to prove that the basin is not overdrafted and can handle the additional draft.  Once they show the Regional Board that, the Boards would be more than happy to approve new permanent acreage.

Think of all the newfound enthusiasm for groundwater management this would create.  Growers who want new acres in trees would want monitoring wells and management plans.  Rather than fight the upcoming changes from the recent groundwater management legislation, growers would be pushing to accelerate them.

What is the worst that could happen?  Growers who are over healthy groundwater aquifers might have a year or two of delay if the data isn’t available to them now.  Growers who are over overdrafted aquifers would have to wait until the aquifer comes into balance.  That is a good thing; those aquifers should not have a new twenty year burden placed on them before they can be recharged.

Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

A couple thoughts on food security.

Food security hasn’t been used as an advocacy point for California agriculture in the policy debates I’ve witnessed. I have heard that agriculture advocates hesitate to bring it up because the first question after we accept the premise is “how much land and water would it take for California to ensure its own food supply”. That number is so low that “ag” doesn’t want us talking about it.

We can estimate! California grows America’s produce and fruit on 4 million irrigated acres.
California’s population is 40 million people. America’s population is 320 million people.
40million Californians/320million Americans = 0.125.
12.5% of 4 million irrigated acres = 500,000 irrigated acres.

No matter the drought, no matter what climate change brings, Calfornia is going to get enough precip to grow food to feed itself. That said, I would still rather that food security were an explicit goal, which I would use to justify supporting a smaller agricultural base in our state. I predict that ag will shrink considerably, but I would like to see a healthy base of 5 or 6 million irrigated acres.

Economists (even here, in our own comment section) suggest that rather than ensure food security by growing our own, we could rely on being rich and getting food in trade. For important things like food, I’d rather maintain the capacity to grow our own. Just this week we saw an example of trade being inadequate to secure an important resource. When there isn’t none, you can’t buy none.

Because it has irritated me for several days now, I will correct a couple quotes I’ve seen in the recent news. This is sheer pettiness on my part, so I will hide it below the fold. Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

Links and reactions.

An article in the SacBee, about large inland water districts complaining that they must cut water back 35%.

At the San Juan Water District, another agency facing a 35 percent cut, General Manager Shauna Lorance said the board should take population density and lot size into account when setting targets. “We have a very low water use per acre,” she said. San Juan’s territory includes portions of Granite Bay, Roseville, Orangevale and Folsom.

It is true that they have larger landscapes in a hotter climate, but the point that General Manager Lorance may be missing is that no one else feels sympathetic if rich people can’t landscape their entire estates.

This presentation on agricultural water use is wonderful; we are indebted to Chris Austin for transcribing and posting it. The first presentation in particular describes agricultural water use the same way I would. (The speaker is more of an authority than I am.) I also liked this powerpoint presentation quite a bit.

I am dismayed at the reports that ag water management plans are still so crappy. Irrigation districts have been fighting those since the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and 22 years later, it doesn’t appear that they are actually using the plans to do their planning.

In the AgAlert, Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger is dismayed by climate change.

Wenger called for better water supply management and infrastructure improvements to avoid future drought disasters.

“My family has been farming the same ground for 105 years and we’ve never seen a situation like this,” he said. “The real question is: Can we adapt to drought? This situation is real and it’s not just about cutting back on watering lawns for a while.”

Wenger said farmers around the state are idling farmland and that he is also reducing production.

“We’re taking out 10 percent of our orchards this year so we can have water to put on the rest of the orchards,” he said. “Never would I have thought the day would come when we would have to do that.”

In addition, Wenger said that, like other farmers forced to fallow ground and rip out orchards and vineyards, he will continue to pay property taxes on his nonproducing land and cover any fees associated with ownership, as well as pay fees for water not delivered while being unable to use the ground because of lack of water.

Your family’s 105 years of farming experience do not reflect the current climate. You are reacting to climate change, not adapting ahead of time. I have been trying to tell you how to adapt for years. Own a farm very close to a river coming out of the Sierras or sell while there are still suckers. Since you are the president of the Farm Bureau, you might think a little bigger and try to negotiate a deal for other farmers to get out cleanly. You have a better hope of that then you do of building new dams to catch the precip that our state will no longer be getting.

In an NPR story on redistributing water rights:

Vegetable grower Tom Teixeira, for example, has already laid out a huge amount of money to ensure a reliable supply of water. “We’ve sought out and acquired land that had good water rights,” he says. “We paid substantially more for that ground than we would have paid for ground that had lesser water rights.”

Taking that water and dividing it up some other way, he says, would be like taking everyone’s paycheck, putting it into a pool, and saying: “We’re going to divide that up evenly. Even though you went to school as a doctor for eight or 10 years, and you’re making a lot more money than the guy who’s driving a school bus, let’s take all the money and divide it up evenly.”

Mr. Teixeira is demonstrating why analogies are the very devil. There is always a flaw and it is always in the arguer’s favor (else, why use the analogy?). Mr. Teixeira’s analogy makes it seem as if our water rights system rewards a living person’s foresight and effort. That the person who put in eight or 10 years of labor to develop their skills is the rightful user of water. But that isn’t the case. As the NPR story itself demonstrates, the key to having good water rights is to have a better great-great-great-grandfather. This is a royalty theory of property ownership, not a labor or merit-based theory of property ownership. Mr. Cannon is a very good farmer and has done me personal favors. But he inherited his water rights; he didn’t earn them. If there was any earning involved, it was by someone six generations ago.


Filed under Uncategorized

We are already used to single crop bans.

There seems to be the notion that banning a single crop would be a radical new response to drought and an unprecedented action by the state. But that is the world we live in now. There’s a popular lucrative quasi-legal crop that Californian farmers are forbidden to grow now, at the risk of becoming criminals. They can’t grow pot legally. No one thinks that this means the end of agriculture or this horribly distorts the market for other crops or that we are all Communists living under Mao on collectivized farms because of it. They just can’t grow pot and the world keeps turning.

Perhaps the growers who lose out under an almond moratorium could be compensated by getting a license to grow pot, like the tobacco licensing system. At least pot can be fallowed in dry years.


Filed under Uncategorized

I do not believe growers acting in “the market” should be the sole determinant of crop choice.

I should directly address what I believe to be the main reason that State agents do not want to get into crop bans.  My interpretation is that the Brown administration mostly believes that “the market” (which is synecdoche for growers acting individually within a market and going out of business if they are wrong and privatizing profit if they are right) can do the best job of selecting a crop mix and providing that mix at the cheapest price for consumers.  Here is an excerpt from DWR Director Cowin’s editorial today:

Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.

Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?

It is not the proper role of the state to tell farmers what to grow. Those who plant almonds, pistachios and other permanent crops take the risk that they can keep orchards and vineyards irrigated year after year. Some of those bets may not pay off.

And another:

“We really think the decision of which crop to grow is an individual decision that the grower makes based on a whole variety of reasons,” said Peter Brostrom, water use efficiency manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re not trying to intrude into that area. We don’t see that as the role of the state to tell people what to grow.” …

Jeanine Jones, the DWR’s interstate resources manager and deputy drought manager, has said increasing vulnerability of water supplies could prompt some growers to voluntarily change what they plant. But state officials say they can trust farmers to make that choice.

“They will look at their water supply and make the best decisions possible,” Brostrom said.

Well, now, see, that’s not what “the market” does.  “The market” is a machine for inexorably turning resources (water, labor) into private profit for sellers and low costs for consumers.  That is all it ever does.  If that’s not what you want, then what “the market” does is not the “best”.  If you want anything different, like sustainability or social justice or cute little farm towns, then you must put bounds on the market. Economists love to think of “the market” as wringing inefficiencies out of the economy, but those inefficiencies may have been people’s jobs, or pleasant lifestyles, or fish, or rivers.

I have written about “the market” before, to emphasize that it is a policy tool, not a goal of itself. Naturally, I have made fun of economists. But I want to repeat my main point. My policy preference is not economically efficient food production, so I do not want to set an undirected market in motion. I would happily give up some economic efficiency for: environmental stability, less wealth disparity in farming communities, food security for crops eaten directly by humans. As a consumer, I would accept higher food prices to achieve those things. As a citizen, I would support policies that create them in our increasingly variable climate. As a non-farmer, I don’t actually care if they make smaller (but less variable!) profits. Even with climate change, I think we are rich enough to sacrifice some efficiency for other nice things.

So, no. I do not want growers to respond to market forces by planting endless almonds, even if it makes the most money for them and even if they are accepting the risk (which they aren’t really because they either don’t believe in the risk or they are willing to suck aquifers dry or they think they can use politics to push that risk back on to the public). That is the efficient market outcome, and it is self-evidently absurd if you care about things other than the wealth of individual almond growers (and the way that wealth acts in the farming community).

It is manifestly appropriate for the State to choose a different priority than economic efficiency. They don’t want to make an explicit choice right now, but it would be easy to choose one and then figure out what qualities our agriculture needs to have to achieve that. Let’s try “Resiliency”. Our crop mix needs to be temporally flexible (not trees and vine); growers need support when they have fallowed lands; we need to be researching crops and growing technologies for variable climates; growers get a bonus for having experience growing a wide variety of crops. Or, let’s do “Sustainability”. Irrigated acreage can’t exceed surface water supplies plus sustainable groundwater yield. We prefer and support crops that are directly eaten (or worn) by humans. We protect agricultural lands from urban encroachment.

I see “water markets” critiqued on a logistical basis (water is too hard to move) and a justice basis (why the hell should senior water rights holders get all that wealth when they have no moral superiority over buyers). But my critique is different: I do not want an economically efficient distribution of water nor an economically efficient farming community. So I don’t think “markets” are the best mechanism. I wish they were not the unthinking default.


Filed under Uncategorized