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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9 responses to “I have questions too!

  1. Jan

    Reblogged this on Save the California Delta Alliance (STCDA) and commented:
    A good blog to read

  2. Steve Bloom

    Nicely put.

    That’s just SOP for Politico. Jeffe certainly should and probably even does know better, but her goal is to continue saying the sort of thing that keeps her name in print.

    The article also said:

    “A more complicated concern is agriculture’s current heavy pumping of the state’s groundwater supplies during the driest three-year stretch in 120 years of record keeping — a practice that Brown and the state Legislature sought for the first time to regulate with landmark legislation passed last fall.”

    Let me fix that for them:

    “A simple to address but politically unpalatable concern is agriculture’s current heavy pumping of the state’s groundwater supplies during the driest three-year stretch in 120 years of record keeping — a practice that Brown and the state Legislature cynically sought credit for regulating with relatively weak legislation passed last fall while being very careful that it wouldn’t take effect during their political careers.”

    I only recently started following your blog, but a topic I haven’t seen raised here is PPIC’s relatively recent move into water policy in the person of Ellen Hanak, who is an economist with no apparent relevant background. I’m no water policy expert, but the work she’s done for them on climate is at best thin gruel. IIRC PPIC has come down pretty firmly in favor of the tunnels, so I’m not expecting good things from them.

  3. onthepublicrecord

    Ms. Hanak has been working in water policy for a long time; she works closely with a group of professors at UCDavis. I wouldn’t go toe-to-toe with any of them on familiarity with California water and specific knowledge about the engineered system, or ecosystem, or modeling, or climate change.

    My main source of disagreement with that crew isn’t that we see the system differently, but that they have chosen economics as a primary way to understand the system and believe that water management is appropriately done through a business/profit/economic lens. I am no fan of economic efficiency and would prefer that water management were done in accordance with my values.

    Also, if you go way back in the archives, you’d see that I am also a supporter of the Peripheral Canal. I always laugh when the Delta folks re-tweet my anti- west side agriculture posts. I am not their ally on most Delta issues!

  4. Steve Bloom

    Interesting. Re Hanak, my quick search didn’t turn up much pre-PPIC on her, but I’ll take your word for it. And yeah, economists seem to be the physicists of public policy. I tend to prefer hydrologists.

    As with the PP, my basic problem with the tunnels is that they would make it possible to turn the Delta into Salton Sea north during dry years and more generally as our climate continues to dry. I see that as an unmitigated bad thing. The fact that we have, IIRC again just a week or so ago, limitations on Delta pumping due to salt water intrusion seems like sufficient proof of the problem. But I’m no expert on this stuff and would be interested in seeing your analysis.

    I’ve never looked into the details, but the best argument I’ve seen for some sort of Delta bypass is as a stopgap to allow some continued exports in the event of extensive levee collapse due to a big earthquake (interestingly the Cascadia seems more likely to be the cause of such than the San Andreas or associated faults). The tunnels seem a little super-sized for that purpose.

    Agreed that the Delta folks are a little too focused on short-term self-interest. OTOH it’s hard to blame them, since nearly everyone else seem to be.

  5. Anonymous

    usually I can enjoy your blog and ignore the weird comment section but calling economists the physicists of public policy is just as stupid as me calling hydrologists the plumbers of public policy…sure they’re uniquely qualified to tell you how much water will trickle out of pipe A in location B at 4:01 am on some day if the snowpack in range X was Z three months ago. But when that number is half of the demand for water from pipe A you might need a discipline that has an actual methodology for laying out who wins, who loses, what the winners get and what the losers lose in various allocation scenarios. As with any science, economics is just as much about process as it is about a result. If you paid some attention to economic process (here I actually agree with Steve in that I find the PPIC’s economic analysis generally opaque with regards some pretty important data and methodological detail) you’d probably find a lot of useful information in there.

  6. Steve Bloom

    Well, I think the cartoon is hilarious, but maybe that’s because I interact with physicists a fair amount. See Krugman’s blog for numerous examples of economists behaving similarly.

    Re Hanak on climate, mainly I’m reacting to this. IMO It’s poor work. To be fair it doesn’t claim to be an economic analysis at all, but could have at least discussed current policies relative to the risk envelope.

    This recent paper on the coming megadrought got a bit of attention at the time, but memory being short I though I’d link it. The key thing to note is that it doesn’t account for likely circulation changes (increased jet stream amplitude and atmospheric blocking), so things will very likely be worse.

    Hanak also refers to a high estimate of 66″ inches for sea level rise by 2100, but that figure was based in great part on ice sheet models missing a key term (ice cliff failure). Add it in as in this recent paper and four meters is more like it (although by no means a worst case — and there’s a related missing term, ice-elevation feedback, that may or may not kick in that fast but if it does could make things even worse).

  7. dzetland

    I know all those economists, and I’ve presented on both sides of the Peripheral Canal. What they are missing (sometimes) is a “fair” discussion on the value of social/environmental water and the need to balance between social and economic uses. I wrote about both sides in my books, to help people see (1) priorities to social and (2) maximizing benefits from economic. But some people only pay attn to $$.

    Oh, and “hurting your economy” is worth it if you’re protecting your society.

  8. onthepublicrecord

    “hurting your economy” is worth it if you’re protecting your society.

    That is wonderfully phrased. I’ll remember that.

  9. jack

    Ground water flows across property lines. How will use be determined. Those with the deepest wells and largest pumps or need. Which comes first thirst needs or profit needs?