Monthly Archives: June 2015

I got your reasonable and beneficial right here.

The Banta-Carbona Irrigation District filed its complaint in San Joaquin County Superior Court, asking a judge to overturn the decision last week by the State Water Resources Control Board to temporarily suspend water rights dating back as far as 1903.

Among other arguments, however, water districts like Banta-Carbona argue that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over water rights issued before 1914. That’s the year the state Legislature first required water diverters to obtain permits.

Bad move, Banta-Carbona ID. Our current system of water rights is good for exactly one thing. The ONLY thing our current water rights system does well is determine the order of curtailments. Besides that, our current system:

Is not fair or just (as between people alive today).
Doesn’t allocate water by economic efficiency (that wouldn’t be my goal, but matters to others).
Isn’t an accurate reflection of available water.
Is not readily understood.
Does not reflect current hydrology or allow for the changing hydrology of climate change.
Isn’t part of a good data management system.

If I were the most privileged users of our current water rights system, I would not tell the State Water Resources Control Board that they can’t use the system for the ONE FUCKING THING IT DOES. If I were the State Water Resources Control Board, trying to accommodate those privileged fucks by using this impossibly junked up system and they sued me for it? I’d put the entire system to the torch. If senior water users are going to sue when we do follow their arcane, unwieldy, unfair system, might as well give up on it and put a good system in place.

Truly, State Board. Look twenty years down the road. What system do you wish you were working under? Be kind to the next generation of board members and give them that.

You could do basin-by-basin cap and trade.

I personally suggest giving every person in the state a headright of 40gppd, setting some nice instream flows, and choosing which six million acres of land should be kept in farming. The acres that should be kept in farming get a farming right of 3.5acrefeet/acre (that reverts if that land isn’t farmed that year). Give four million acres top priority; those get water even in dry years. Another million acres gets medium priority; those get farmed in normal years. The last million acres gets farmed in wet years. Straightforward, predictable, flexible, fair. All the things our current system isn’t.

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Two good items on local water planning.

Droughtmath is being brilliant again and calling out another sleeper issue. So far as I’ve understood them, the RHNAs are a real problem waiting for their day in the press. I say this as someone who was bitching about Prop 218 back in 2009 and who suggested the governor deal with Prop 218 back in January of 2014. I know a pending problem when I see one, often.

Addressing the RHNA issue is more squarely within the Brown administration’s purview than most of the drought problems he faces. Whomever he’s got working on city General Plan guidelines at OPR could sit down with whomever writes RHNAs for Housing and Community Development, and it wouldn’t hurt to have ACWA there as well. Those are all his own people (or very skilled lobbyists who are always happy to assist). They’ve got to get this worked out if they want city General Plans or district UWMPs to reflect reality.

Speaking of UWMPs and reflecting reality, I thought this suit by NRDC is great. The State doesn’t want to do any real enforcement or require penalties for not managing water well. They are not interested in wielding a stick, so they make our carrots contingent on having and following an urban water management plan. You want some of that sweet bond money? Turn in your UWMP and start following the plan. Except that the plan rarely gets followed and no one ever checks to see that it is before handing out grant money. NRDC is suing to change that, as well they should.

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A third, not well developed, thought about Prop 218:

I was explaining to a friend that Prop 218 says that districts can’t charge more than the costs of providing services to their constituents. My friend replied “then districts should take on a very expensive second service” (to bill for the conservation tiers). The obvious one, of course, is converting to solar power, either for powering their own operations or possibly for selling to the public.

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Fairness and paying for the infrastructure broken by subsidence.

Sneed and her boss at the US Geological Survey, Claudia Faunt, have tried reaching out to various government agencies and private businesses to warn them and inquire about the extent of damage being done to infrastructure.

“We tried calling the railroads to ask them about it,” Faunt said. “But they didn’t know about subsidence. They told us they just fixed the railroads and categorized it as repair.”

Thousands of miles of highways snaking through the state also are being damaged, she said.

“They go to repair the roads, but they don’t even know it’s subsidence that is causing all the problems,” Faunt said. “They are having to fix a lot because of groundwater depletion.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation said the agency does not track costs related to subsidence and was not aware of any current bridge repairs resulting from it.

But Faunt pointed to the Russell Avenue bridge that crosses the Outside Canal in the Central Valley. It sank during two previous droughts—one in the late 1970s and then again between 1987 and 1992. Now with the current sinking, the 60-year-old bridge is almost totally submerged by canal water.

This damage is not being caused by Californians as a whole. We are not cracking San Joaquin concrete by driving down the 5. If Californians end up repairing these roads, bridges and buildings out of the general fund, we will truly have gotten the shaft. The bill for repairing the damage caused by subsidence should be paid entirely by well-owners in that basin. I propose assessing them based on overlying acreage, but if they want to calculate a different payment based on pumping records, and if they care to make those pumping records public, that is also fine by me.

It is possible that assessing all well-owners in the San Joaquin Valley might result in a few growers being unfairly charged for damage they didn’t cause. But paying for repairs out of California’s general fund means that most of the 39 million people who live in California are being unfairly charged for damage they aren’t causing. They should be furious about that.

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Either you own the legacy of your farming ancestors or you don’t.

My usual objection to appropriative water rights is that I think seniority is a fucking stupid way to allocate water (and its corresponding wealth). I don’t understand why a farmer should get more water now because his grandfather claimed it a century ago. As between current users of water, having better grandparents doesn’t seem like it should make someone more worthy of having water.

That said, if farmers do want to claim the benefits from their grandparents, they should also own the downsides. There are several types of damage caused by farming that are now “legacy problems”. One of the persistent difficulties of cleaning up nitrates in groundwater, for example, is that current farmers claim that the excess nitrates were applied by previous generations and are not a result of the practices of modern farming. It would not be fair to make contemporary farmers pay for the practices of their predecessors. Soil salinity build-up and subsidence are another two examples.

Seems like the principle of inheriting from farming predecessors should be consistent. If it is right to get the benefits of a water claim staked by a farming predecessor, then it is also right to be on the hook to clean up that farmer’s mess. If it isn’t right to have to pay to clean up the nitrates, subsidence and saltification of previous generations of farmers, then it also isn’t right to get the benefits of their water rights. It isn’t consistent to take legacy benefits but shirk legacy costs.

I propose to start assessing contemporary farmers for the costs to clean up nitrates, subsidence and saltifications. When they howl about fairness, we can say that we’ll drop that assessment if they drop any takings claims for a water rights system overhaul. The environment will end up bearing the costs of polluted groundwater and soil, but t’was ever thus.

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More groundwater.

The title gave me great hope, but this post about saving our precious groundwater didn’t go anywhere useful.

Any regulation works best when those being regulated agree with the premises and objectives of the regulation. If most of the population thinks that the regulation is unnecessary because, for example, they are doing fine and their wells still produce lots of clean water, the regulation is doomed to ineffectiveness and may generate more government resentment than anything.

A key hurdle in making SGMA effective, then, will be giving the water users greater motivation by making transparent the ultimate consequences of ignoring the laws of groundwater nature.

His conclusion is to explain long-term self-interest to people overdrafting groundwater? They already know. They don’t fucking care. If things don’t get better, either the neighbor’s pump or buying scarce water will send them out of business long before deep aquifer salinization is a problem. They are hoping that the drought will end and they’ll get surface water within a year. Either way, they plant. If the drought continues, the bank might as well foreclose on a newly planted orchard as on idled land. If the drought ends, that newly planted orchard will be valuable.

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The PPIC writes that farmers themselves need sustainable groundwater management.

Despite the seemingly generous timeline for compliance, the law’s goals will be challenging to meet. By June 2017, groundwater users in each basin need to designate a local groundwater sustainability agency that will be responsible for local oversight. And by January 2020, these agencies need to start implementing their sustainability plans. In most places, getting this preparatory work done will require significant additional technical analysis to understand how the basins’ supply and demand work. It will also require coming to agreement on how to collectively manage what has largely been considered an individual resource, with each user able to pump as much as he or she can put to beneficial use.

I don’t think they can do it. It is a truism that the reconciliation of overlying acreage and sustainable groundwater yield should be determined by the locals themselves, but Lois Henry gives us a good look at how that is playing out.

I had thought Kern was ahead of the curve, having created the Kern Groundwater Authority back in 2012, two years before the state legislation was passed.

But things have stagnated.

Debates over how to account for water use and recharge continue to go round and round. Members of the Authority still haven’t even agreed on the structure of the Authority. Nor the level of authority of the Authority.

These people know they are going to be allocating substantial real losses and they have spent two years positioning themselves. They’re arguing the size of the losses; they’re debating the structure so it is most favorable to themselves; they’re minimizing the authority so it can be bucked when the hurting starts. They can’t do it, because doing it is going to fucking suck. The board member that suggests a mediator is exactly right, and of course it shouldn’t be a mediator from his own firm. But a mediator is their best hope. When all is said and done, they may wish in retrospect that the big bad legislature had done this hard work for them. At least an outsider would be to blame.

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The Legislature should put more weight on the pro-management side of the balance. The PPIC writes:

The groundwater law was not widely embraced by the farm community; indeed, not a single legislator from the San Joaquin Valley voted in favor of it. Yet California farming needs to strengthen groundwater management to support the growing investments in highly valuable fruit and nut orchards and vineyards, which must be watered each year.

Look, drying up the wells of poor towns hasn’t been convincing. Subsidence that is breaking canals and making canals run backward hasn’t been convincing. Farmers’ wells drying up each other’s wells hasn’t been convincing. Solid predictions of future problems hasn’t been convincing. They gotta WANT stable groundwater more than they don’t want to do the allocations.

A moratorium on planting permanent crops in overdrafted basins would be a good push for that. “Sure you can plant your vines, as soon as you show your Regional Board that groundwater levels in your basin are not declining.” (Not even, ‘can handle the demand from your orchard without declining’. For starters, stable groundwater levels would be enough.) The drive for sustainable groundwater management must come from them, not from other people who understand their long term self-interest, and this moratorium would change their incentives substantially.

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The nature and extent of California’s agriculture should be an intentional choice.

I have been somewhat baffled at Governor Brown’s reluctance to challenge agriculture during the drought. The crass explanation is that he has been bought by the Resnicks, but he isn’t running for anything again and I’d like to give him more credit than that. He may genuinely believe that whatever “the market” produces should determine what California ag should look like. Recently I have been wondering if Governor Brown’s picture of California agriculture is being distorted by his visits to Colusa.

Returning to his roots, the governor and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, spent the long Memorial Day weekend in a small cabin he had built on 2,700 acres of isolated family-owned property in Colusa County.

Colusa, in eastern Sacramento Valley, follows the rule that towns along the 99 are (or were once) charming and maybe have charming remnants of a main street. This is not coincidence; the towns along the 99 are the oldest of ag towns and were founded under the original rules of the Reclamation Act: small farmers, holdings of 160 acres, one-farmer one-vote (not voting by acreage). The farms are nice-looking, smaller orchards might have greenery under old walnuts, a couple goats, old water towers. Towns along the 5 are visually unappealing and so is the large-scale agribusiness there. The large-scale agriculture can have great efficiency and tremendous production, but visiting them, it is very clear that these are biological factories. There is no life between the rows (good for irrigation efficiency!), no quainte barns, clean hard lines as far as the eye can see.

If old-style farming is what Governor Brown thinks of when he thinks of ag, I remind him that it was created by the original rules of the Homestead Act and the Reclamation Act and will have to be intermittently reinforced by government rules. Large players like hedge funds are buying and consolidating lands for almonds. Wealthier farmers are paying for deeper wells and sending smaller farmers out of business. Having attractive small ag is a choice that must be made repeatedly, with new rules to combat capital consolidation, not a default.

The extent of California agriculture must also be a choice. This article deftly illustrates that there is more arable land than irrigation water, comparing land conversion to induced traffic demand.

At the same time, given the size of the state, we will always have more land available to bring into production than we will have water to put on it.

This paradox – that enough water will never be enough – means that efforts to increase supply of water or reduce demand for water will ultimately lead to more agricultural lands being brought into production, more water available for cities to grow, and more water to remain in streams to ensure a healthy environment. But, eventually, we will face a new drought, and water supplies will again be inadequate to meet the new, higher levels of demand.

Further, market demand for tree nuts (and increasingly, meat and dairy) is insatiable. I have been called a bigot for specifying that our almonds are going to China and India’s growing middle classes, but the fact that they are China and India is specifically relevant. Some smaller country’s new taste for tree nuts might eventually top out, but relative to our land and water supplies, China and India’s vast demand will absorb any quantity that California could supply. Since tree nut suppliers have shown themselves willing to use all available groundwater at any drilling or pumping costs, there is no effective limiting factor. If we don’t want indefinitely expanding tree nuts in the state, there must ultimately be a choice independent from land availability, groundwater sustainability or market demand. I suggest we choose that now, while there are still resources to preserve.

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The drought has been inspiring some very good writing.

For the first time in ages, I am seeing new kinds of writing about water.

Here are a couple lovely and relatable essays on residential water conservation:

First person stories like this are tremendously influential.

I find the reaction described here extreme, but it is certainly among the experiences people are having now. One of my reactions is that it is the job of local water managers to prevent this just surely as the manager should be targeting the top 15% of users in the district.

New ways of thinking through water use:

I thought this insight was brilliant (using convenient numbers to compare annual precip (80MAF) to a household budget ($80K)).

A detailed explanation of supply chain water use for bagged lettuce. Very clear about why it is hard to make comparisons.

More on East Porterville:

This is completely gorgeous storytelling. I do have one quibble. This anecdote sounds like a translation problem to me.

But for every Bill Wiggins, there is a horror story about another house just a block over there, where the landlord threatened to evict the family if they asked for county assistance.

If a house does not have potable water, the county is required to red-tape it. Just like people aren’t allowed to drink water out of a personal well if the arsenic concentration is too high, the state doesn’t allow people to live in houses with no water. I have no knowledge of this landlord, but it is possible that he was trying to tell his tenants that if they tell the county they don’t have drinking water, the house will get red-taped, not that he personally would evict them. The law has created a real problems, but the arguments on both sides are sound. Perhaps the solution is that if people live within half an hour of a water drop-off point, during droughts the red-taping policy doesn’t hold.

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