Monthly Archives: May 2015

Australia didn’t get serious until their 6th year of drought. Two more dry years to go!

We spent a lot of time looking to Australia for answers during the last drought.  My conclusion after listening to a series of Australian visitors was that they don’t actually have much to offer us.  I can use a couple of points from these articles to illustrate why.

The public billboards:

Grant said one of the things he found interesting was the simplicity of one effective tactic—electronic billboards that flashed reservoir levels.

“Everybody could relate, and it showed what it would mean if they ran out of water,” he said. “They were galvanized.”

The guy who talked to my department said this worked wonders in Australia.  They have one reservoir and kept the public well informed about the reservoir level.  Everyone knew that number on a daily basis.  As the researcher himself said, this doesn’t translate to California.  Our system is tremendously fragmented, with multiple sources, and we weren’t even systematically measuring the largest buffer, our groundwater, until last year.   We can  move water to tap lots of sources, if necessary, as in last year when we ran the California Aqueduct backward.  There is no number we could flash on billboards that would mean anything.  (Come to think of it, this could be applied in Santa Barbara County, where they all drink from Cachuma, which is distressingly low.  But even there, it is Cachuma plus maybe some groundwater under Goleta and maybe firing up their mothballed desal plant.  What exactly should go on that billboard again?)

The Australian guy who talked to my department mentioned coordinating water agencies as well.  In the article, they write:

A regional water manager had the power to force water utilities, city agencies and reservoir managers to cooperate.

He suggested we do the same.  I asked how many agencies that involved and he said there are six districts in the Murray-Darling Basin, now directed by one regional water manager.  He winced when he found out that California has about four thousand agencies that are big enough to count.  (There are probably another thousand tiny ones.)

The Australian guy touted their water market and re-do of their water rights scheme, but when I asked him what they did about the takings issue, he didn’t know what “takings” meant. When I explained it, he said that it had never come up.  At that point I was done learning about drought management from visiting Australians.

All of Australia’s urban water use efficiency is very nice and California should copy the good parts.  There isn’t a good role for household cisterns here because we don’t have a monsoon climate. But let’s point out what Australia really did.  They talk big talk about modernizing their district-level irrigation delivery systems (all those new gates for a billion dollars; I do wonder how all those moving parts are holding up) and their water markets.  But those are just mechanisms.  What they did was fallow half their irrigated ag during the drought.  A third of their irrigated ag is still retired.

It took me a lot of looking to find this, but here are the stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Series 4610 (and also 4618).

And 2012 was apparently an extremely wet year.

The Murray-Darling Basin has no groundwater. When surface water went away, they lost half their irrigated hectaresacreage. Farmers here claim that a 6-8% loss of irrigated lands is a big deal, but when California gets serious about living within our annual water supplies, I predict something similar. We could look at Australia’s example for ways to do that, although frankly, even their water market doesn’t seem to have been a subjectively pleasant experience for Australian growers. I would like for us to do better by our growers, but so far we don’t even admit what is happening.


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I have questions too!

A more painful question is one posed by USC’s Jeffe: “When do we purposely hurt our economy in order to save water, and how do you explain to people that’s what you have to do?”

So far, no one in California, least of all its political leaders, has come up with an answer.

Really?  That is a very easy question to answer.  Here is a highminded answer:

California is rich enough that we can afford to leave some of our natural resources as living rivers and intact groundwater aquifers rather than converting them into cash.  If we were poor, we might have to sell off every nice thing we have in order to have cash wealth to support our people.  But we aren’t that poor and if we chose, we could take care of our people and have nice things even with a smaller for-profit economy.  Californians have long decided that we don’t have to destroy beaches to get every drop of oil out of oceanic oil fields, or cut down every last redwood for timber to sell abroad.  We can just as readily decide that the last of the fish in our rivers, or the benefits of a healthy aquifer are more important to us than a little bit more cash.

Here is an answer based on shameful demagoguery:

Why should some already rich almond farmers get to take the last of the rivers that run through your state and turn them into more cash in their pockets?  Why should the rest of us have to face cracking roads and overpasses as they pump our groundwater aquifers dry, give up our lawns and pools, so they can send a luxury snack to China and India?

Neither of those were hard to come up with, so politicians should ask me for answers more often.  What I wonder is why so few people ask the reciprocal question:

What do we need more cash for so urgently that we should let rivers dry up before they reach the sea and let our fish drown in warm shallow water?  What part of almond profits are so deeply valuable to the public that we should tolerate 5 million acrefeet of overdraft every year of the drought?  What is so sacred about that bit of profit that we should give up so much for it?


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That’s old school.

I liked this article fine, because it points out that there are trade-offs for most agricultural crops and farmers plant them for reasons.  I have said before that I tend not to care whether crops are “thirstier” because the difference isn’t that big, and I personally respect any well-managed irrigation method.  If we ever decide to do so, I’d prefer to judge crops by explicit values, such as whether it is an important source of calories for humans or whether it is deeply culturally relevant.  In that piece, Mr. Michael made the observation that:

Still, the nut boom has mostly been a rational reaction to changing economic circumstances. For years San Joaquin Valley farmers “were criticized for growing low-value crops,” Bowles Farming’s Cannon Michael said. “They took a huge risk on almonds, and now that’s what’s wrong.”

He’s right.  When I started blogging, the enviro line was that farmers grew too much low-value agricultural products and they should switch to higher value crops.  I believe the subtext was “so that they could make the same amount of money using less water and that would keep them happy and no one gets mad”.  I personally think of that as old-guard water environmentalism (I don’t get out much and don’t know whether anyone else sees it similarly).  My thinking was that climate change means we’re going to get substantially less water and be able to do much less with it.  That we would have to make choices about what we want to do with the precip we do get (or can catch).    That’s why I was never on board with “switch to almonds or vines.”  If we can’t irrigate as many acres, I’d rather have abundant table fruits and vegetables than snacks (or wine, or cheap meat and dairy).  I would certainly rather have table fruits and vegetables than provide snacks to the world.  Since then, I have also come to object to tree nuts for Piketty/Occupy-kinds of reasons.  They make rich people (who can afford the high capital costs of installation) richer by cheaply extracting California’s unprotected natural resources and selling them abroad.

These types of arguments are new to water policy; I can see why farmers might perceive this as environmentalists moving the goal posts.  From what I’ve seen in the media, I don’t think the environmentalists supporting almonds (and conversion to high value agriculture in general) have themselves changed their mind (although maybe they didn’t foresee the extensive expansion and reckless overdraft).  I think a new strain of environmentalist thought (more motivated by climate change adaptation and less concerned with finding win-win solutions with a decreasingly powerful agricultural sector) has entered the policy discussions.


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Maybe she’s in Nevada.

As this photographer struggles to convey the sheer immensity of removing one thousand acres of almond trees, her commenters make some helpful points.

An article on local resistance to measuring individual wells. That resistance needs some counterweights. I can think of two. First, a per-acre assessment for the costs of subsidence due to overdraft. Any farmer who wants to demonstrate, based on pumping records, that his or her assessment should be lower is welcome to switch to an assessment based on metered pumping. Second, a moratorium on permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels. Putting either or both of those in place would change the incentives for growers considerably. Neither requires measuring pumping well-by-well, but you’d shortly have growers requesting well metering and groundwater monitoring.


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Couple of great water blogs that are new to me.

I am blown away by this new blog in Los Angeles, digging into UWMPs and water supply policy. Very strong sourcing, analysis and conclusions. Like me, the author loves big concrete. If he or she doesn’t already know of FOVICKS, let this link be my welcoming gift to the neighborhood.

The Valley Citizen:
I’ve linked it here before, but only recently gone back to read through the archives. I’ve gotten great leads from the regional round-up (and been grateful for a nice mention) and a lot of good local insight.

I am always grateful for blogs that produce content, don’t reflect a predictable advocate’s position and convey the specifics of their topic. These two are great.


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Turning the tables on almonds.

The 2014 California Almond Acreage Report tells of 50,000 new acres of almonds.  The projections are for more almonds acreage.

Fairmead, CA is one town of a few hundred people who lost their wells to the deep almond wells next door.

In Tulare County, rural homeowners are seeing their wells dry up after almonds go in.

In Madera Country, rural homeowners are seeing their wells dry up after almonds go in.

In Stanislaus County, almond groves are terrible neighbors.

Longtime farmers locals are asking Fresno County to impose a moratorium on new almond trees.

This economic model, in which powerful outsiders come in, displace the natives and destroy local natural resources (the aquifers) to provide cheap unprocessed goods to a foreign country is pure colonial extraction.  I don’t see how it is different from slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon to provide cheap beef or cutting hardwoods like teak out of tropical forests.  Mostly I am just stunned that my state is on the receiving end; I thought we were first world.  I guess anywhere can be exploited if they aren’t willing to protect their poor or their natural resource.

I have been trying to think of ways that the Valley governments can turn the tables on the hedge fund almonds.  Could Fairmead incorporate as a town, including the almond acreage, and take it by inverse condemnation?  They need some recharge lands and the hydrologic connectivity is well established.

What if Stanislaus County thought of Trinitas Partners as the sweetest, juiciest fly that ever stumbled into their web?  They should bleed Trinitas shamelessly.  Make them prove their neighborliness by providing the new headquarters for their new groundwater management agency and fund the first few years of study and monitoring wells.  Any charity drive in Oakdale should start with a phone call to Trinitas requesting the donation of the big raffle prize.  Then, Stanislaus County can start with the real charges.  All those Trinitas trucks take a toll on county roads; an assessment for re-paving should be based on truck weight and traffic.  There are dust containment costs that should be assessed to the largest acreages, and it would be real neighborly ifTrinitas would pay for a new asthma clinic and air quality monitoring station.

The proper attitude for Stanislaus County is that some slow, rich pockets just got snagged and everything that could possibly be billed to them should be.  When Trinitas goes under, it should at least leave some nice public buildings and newly re-paved roads behind.  Does anyone from Trinitas Partnership vote in Stanislaus County?  The Commissioners’ actual constituents hate Trinitas.  They’ll reward Commissioners who find ways to internalize the externalities caused by the new giant orchards.

Finally,  those orchards will one day be abandoned when pumping depths and energy costs get too high.  The time to impose clean-up costs is now.  Poor Central Valley counties, do you remember 2009, when all those foreclosed houses were abandoned and it was expensive to patrol them, keep mosquitos down, mow lawns?  Did you wish you had laws on the books to force banks to pay those costs?  Pass those now, for when mega-orchards go under (drip tape disposal in your landfills, irrigation pipe clean up, restoration requirements if it was not ag land before, well closure costs).  They won’t be watching now and you’d have a hook to go for the rich hedge fund if they suddenly decide to divest from almonds.

I don’t know why California is allowing big agri-business money to dispossess her people.  That seems more like Louisiana or Texas.  I hope a local government can turn the tables.


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I wrote this for you, State Board.

Feel free to use it anytime.  No worries about attribution.

We are announcing a moratorium on permanent crops in groundwater basins with declining groundwater levels until the drought ends.  As you know, we have been staunch defenders of the many valuable crops grown in California, even against the diseased hordes of filthy almond-blamers.  We would never pick and choose which crops farmers can plant.  We will be delighted to approve any orchard or vineyard in a groundwater basin that has stable groundwater levels.  However, permanent crops create a constant need for water for the next twenty years.  This drought has shown that when surface waters are not available, those who have planted trees and vines will pump groundwater from any depth at any cost.

Last year California passed a historic groundwater bill that set up a framework for local groundwater management.  This framework will take until 2030 to come to fruition, and given the importance of our groundwater, we cannot handicap the groundwater management efforts starting now with a new, additional twenty years of demand and damage to our aquifers.

It might need some minor wordsmithing, but it is all yours, State Board.  Whenever you want, ready for you.  Make sure you emphasize that it is on the grower to demonstrate that the groundwater basin is stable and can handle the new load before planting.  It isn’t up to neighbors or nascent local groundwater management agencies to prove that the new orchard destroyed their wells once it has already gone in.

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Mark Arax on Fresh Air.

Mark Arax wrote the very excellent King of California; everything I’ve read of his is detailed and thoughtful and great.  Transcript of the interview here.

His summary of the almond debate, my emphasis in bold:

ARAX: Well, as these tribes – I call them tribes – the tribes of the north of California, the middle of California and the south of California start arguing, they start reducing it to kind of ridiculous little symbols [ed: hey, that’s me!]. And it used to be the farmers against the Delta smelt fish. And now it’s the urbanite against the almond. And you have to look at it from the standpoint of the almond grower. Many almond growers used to grow cotton. And cotton is a crop that can be grown anywhere in the United States. And it’s a crop that uses a good deal more water than the almond does. And so they evolve and decided that we were going to plant nuts. Nuts can only be grown really in California. It’s a high-value crop. And they’ve planted the hell out of them. I mean, right in the midst of drought here – I drive up and down the Valley, and they’re planting tens of thousands of more acres of almonds and pistachios. So the almond has become – I mean, this is all about whose draw of water is more righteous than the other. And so the almond farmer got thrown under the bus pretty quickly. And it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California. There are a million acres of nuts now. This has gone up, you know, threefold in a very short period of time. So the almond farmer’s going to tell you that I’m using my ground for something that’s very profitable. It’s a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa. So this is what’s happening. It’s almost a zero-sum game. And everybody has to now argue its commodity and why its draw of water, you know, is maybe not sustainable but justifiable.

This makes me wish intensely for explicit decision criteria. Righteous by what standards? I’m busy reducing types of water use to ridiculous little symbols, but even I know that people’s preferences depend on their priorities. I wish people expressed those more clearly, from the lofty to the self-serving. With those out on the table, we would stop hearing stupid shit like “stop demonizing almonds”. I am not demonizing almonds themselves. I recognize that they are an inert and tasty nut. But a million acres of them in California violates some of my priors, such as:

  • It isn’t important to me to plant every available acre in California; it is important to me to reduce the rate of aquifer overdraft.
  •  Californian agriculture should be primarily market crops and I don’t care whether Californian agriculture feeds the rest of the world. I care intensely that it is always available to feed Californians.
  •  I am more-or-less a vegetarian non-drinker, so I don’t actually have a dog in this fight. But I sense that cheap meat and dairy and wine are more culturally important than almonds, which are a taste acquired in the past 15 years.
  • I would rather have the knowledge that we have living rivers than the knowledge that we are the primary almond producing region in the world.  (I sometimes change my mind about that right after my dog rolls in dead salmon along the American River.)

You can deduce all these from my usual arguments.  But I have to deduce the arguments for a million fucking acres of almonds and I can’t tell if I am right.

  • Planting almonds reflects some sort of farmer autonomy that is inherently valuable?  I deduce this one from cries that an almond moratorium is “un-American”.
  • If planting that many almonds is the result of “the free market”, that alone validates it as the best outcome?
  • I like almonds and want them cheap.
  • Almonds draw monetary wealth into the farming economy that is more important that the externalities? Or that money goes to more important people than the people who are damaged?

It get very tiring to argue righteousness when I have to extrapolate, provide both sides of ‘righteous by what lights?’ and then counter all the possible opposing beliefs I can come up with.  I wish people were more explicit and precise about their underlying beliefs on this stuff so we could have the real conversations.


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