Monthly Archives: September 2015

How Australia actually managed their drought.

This PPIC post describes lessons from Australia’s drought management.  But, like almost every article I see about Australian drought management, it is coy about what Australian management actually did.

The Australians also depended heavily on water markets to reduce the costs of their mega-drought. The flexibility and autonomy offered by water trading helped communities allocate water quickly and efficiently to competing uses, and also provided an effective way to recover it for the environment.

What they actually did to free up water was fallow half their agricultural acreage.  In California, that would be about 4.6 million acres, rather more than the 800,000ish acres fallowed here this year.  A quarter of Australian ag acreage has never returned.

I know hectares is gibberish, but look at the percentages.

Abstract talk about water markets “allocat[ing] water quickly and efficiently” disguises the fact that actively managing this drought will force us to do much less.  Water markets aren’t a magic ticket that allow us to do mostly the same things with much less water.  The water went away, and no matter what process we use to manage the drought, we will do less of the things that depend on water.

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What the Legislature should do with a special session on drought.

The Legislature knows the standard recommendations, so here I only offer less-conventional drought resilience recommendations.

Immediate payoff:

Moratorium on new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels.  This would give the groundwater basins some breathing room before the sustainability plans must kick in by 2040, but more importantly, it would change all of the incentives. Rather than resisting the new groundwater management act, growers would be howling for it to kick in already.

Direct unspent bond money to replicate Australia’s popular program of sending plumbers to people’s houses to repair leaking fixtures. The water saved is comparatively expensive, but people loved the program. It makes homeowners feel like they got something free and that the government is taking the drought seriously.

Medium term payoff:

Surveys of the Central Valley, both a geological survey and an assessment of broken infrastructure.  We’re going to need those baselines to assign costs for subsidence.

Direct state agencies (especially the water rights section of the SWRCB) to clear the way for agland groundwater recharge.

Longterm payoff:

Invasive species eradication: arundo and star thistle.  Forest fuel load reduction and meadow restoration.

If you can’t bring yourself to act directly, commission panels to report back to you in a year about:

  • getting rid of, or workarounds for, Prop 218;
  •  a public goods charge for financing water costs;
  • three new water rights regimes, one for climate change resilience, one for maximum market participation and another one.

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A rough answer by region and sector would go a long way.

I do read the pro-water market pieces and I consistently have the same reaction.  What would California look like after?  What would it feel like, on a daily basis, after a water market is up and running?  I live here and I want it to be nice.  How would a water market transform us?  I never get an answer with any specificity.  This lengthy piece gives the following list of good things that would happen, after the water market gets going:

  • prices would go up, creating an incentive to conserve
  • new technologies for affordable water generation would be spurred
  • consumers and businesses would make adjustments slowly

This piece isn’t even that explicit.  The good result of a water market is:

  • water will flow to its highest and best use, and (if I interpret a bit) more desal.

This piece implies that you’d reverse the problems caused by no-market, so presumably you’d no longer have weak pricing signals.

Again, you have to read for the implications in RAND’s proposal.  With a good new market, the results would be that the price for water would represent its true value and that valuable trades would happen.

None of those is in any way helpful or precise.  Before we put a market into action in California, what would the results look like?  Here, I’ll make some up, for examples.  (Truly, I have no real notion.)

  • Irrigation districts in the south valley would sell to Bakersfield and local oil fields.
  • Irrigation districts in Coachella would sell to San Diego, enough that San Diego could even grow avocados again.
  • The only farmland left in California would be 2 million acres of sugar beets.
  • California would produce nothing but solar cells and silicon chips for the next thirty years.

See, those are made-up examples of water market outcomes that I can ponder.  Would I like living alongside that?  Do I want that for my state?  Telling me what would happen after a market is put in place allows me to decide: do I want to support putting a market in place?  Water market advocates never do that, and certainly never with even regional-level or sector-level precision.

I don’t want to put words into others’ mouths, but I believe some water market advocates are advocating a process (a market is a process, not the result) specifically because they do not want to choose an outcome or make “winners and losers” explicit.  Maybe they think that enough of people’s happiness is captured in purchasing behavior that they can assume a water market leads to the best outcome, whatever it produces.  In that case, I would ask: is there any water market outcome that you wouldn’t want?  Could there be an extreme water market outcome that wouldn’t be pleasant to live amidst?  If the reductio ad adsurdum came to pass and a flexible fast water market meant that all of California’s agriculture became a 3 million acre monoculture of tree nuts, farmed by neo-feudal agribusiness, would you like driving past that on the 5 and 99?  From that answer, I’d establish whether the market advocate felt there is any role for values in making water allocation decisions.

If there is any role for values in establishing the bounds of a water market, then we shouldn’t be mucking around with an incredibly powerful process without first establishing to some rough accuracy what we’d get when the process is done.  I’m not asking for details at the zip code level, but I do want far more than the vague bullshit in the pro-market reform papers.  A water market would transform the state I love, so I want to know what this market would transform it into.


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Round-up and commentary.

Oh man.  I am slow and creaky.  I’ve been wanting to write some grand syntheses, but can’t pull them off.  Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I ease in with the easiest of blogging: commentary on divers items.


You may remember that I was forced to reprimand some of our state’s most prestigious water law professors very sharply indeed.  It was a regrettable episode, so I am delighted that I can praise them with equal force.  The program for this environmental law conference looks great.   I wish I could go, or at least watch some of the sessions online.  Session 16!  A discussion of the implications of growing the world’s supply of tree nuts while our own water supply dries up!  How wonderful!

Just the other evening, I thought of two more crops that California growers are banned from growing.  Besides the obvious, pot, California growers are also banned from growing qat and opium poppies.  Every day, right now, we live in a world where growers may not plant every highly profitable crop because society has chosen a greater public good.  Neither the existence of market demand for pot, qat and opium poppies, nor the good living they could provide to some growers are cited as self-evident, irrefutable proof that California growers should be allowed to grow them.  If crazed Libertarians proposed growing them so that Californian agriculture could respond to the widest extent of market forces, we would be very comfortable saying that our government has made a decision, based on values, to forego participation in those markets.


I agreed with much of this Q&A in the NYTimes, and disagreed with some parts.  I hadn’t read Mr. Fishman before, but admire that he laid out his arguments so neatly that I can parse where I agree and disagree.  That’s one of my goals for my own writing.  His best point is this one:

Here’s the hard part in tackling the problems: Facing reality. Water is subject to a remarkable amount of wishful thinking, even among the professionals responsible for making sure our water systems work well. Elected officials, water managers and the public all need to look at their situation with frank clarity — without optimism.

He’s right.  They cannot.  Absolutely cannot.  Today’s example made me smile.  In Stockton, an elected official with what may be extrapolated to decades of experience says of the new groundwater sustainability agencies:

“Who’s going to tell people, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t plant grapes because your groundwater basin is overdrafted and we can’t get you any more water?’ That’s almost what this comes down to,” Flinn said at a meeting last week involving many of the potential players.

That isn’t “almost” what this comes down to.  It is exactly what it comes down to.  That’s what local GSA will be doing.  He knows there has been a five-to-six million acrefoot overdraft in the Central Valley in the past year, and stopping that is the same as stopping planting.  He knows this.  But he cannot quite bring himself to say it.  He must soften the words, because the implications of the reality are so abrupt and difficult.

This drought IS what is predicted for our new climate.  When people face that reality, they’ll understand why my recommendations are consistently for cutting losses early, choosing what we want to keep, and making a gentle transition.


I will read it again more closely, but this proposal from RAND looks like a bad case of this phenomenon.  The problem I see identified in the RAND proposal is that “many valuable trades simply don’t happen”.  What is the goal?  What would be better if those trades happened?  Urban people are happier because they have more green lawn cheaper?  Many people are happier because the price of meat is cheaper longer into the new climate?  Growers make more profits, so farm towns are more stable?  The Resnicks can get even richer?  Ag lands get retired?  The goal isn’t to have a real cool market, so what is the fucking goal, exactly, in terms of our lived experience?  After that is made explicit, we can model whether a market is the best way to achieve that goal.

Also, what Mr. Devine said.

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