Monthly Archives: February 2016

They never do the Australia analysis I want to see.

My real objection to the Australia love-fest today is that it isn’t specific enough.  That study and the write-up are about the lessons of Australian urban drought management.   But both those discussions say nice things about ‘Australia’s drought management’, which implies both the urban and the ag side.  The implicit endorsement is a problem.  Careful readers who look deeply into the text will understand it was a study of four Australian cities.  Most other people will just think that California should do whatever Australia did, both urban and ag.

My impression from afar is that Australian agricultural drought management was pretty damn problematic.  Here are the problems I know of:

  1. They spent A$1B on district modernization, mostly on remote controlled moving gates.  I’ve had strong doubts about how those gates are performing.  I still don’t know the answer to that, but apparently they are reevaluating the second phase of the project, another A$2B on district modernization.  I am a huge proponent of district modernization, but not with high-tech gates.
  2. The farmers’ subjective experience of the drought seems to have sucked.  Whatever the drought measures were, they didn’t change the rhetoric about government-created drought any.  That article once again describes the process of a water district crashing as water leaves a district piecemeal; this time, sadly, after they spent a bunch of money on the canals.  Water delivery infrastructure has a density threshold that must be met. If ag land is not retired by planning at the district level, it will crash at the district level.
  3. The support structures for their water markets, as described in Unbundling Water Rights, are more autocratic than anything I’ve ever seen in California.

My final concern is more of a question.  Do these endorsements mean that Australia’s policies, including their ag policies, are OK?  Are we following in their footsteps?  Because the effect of their policies (and the part that effectively absorbed the lack of water) is that they fallowed half their irrigated land.  They retired 15% of their ag land.  From Australia’s Series 4618.0:


Instead of the 600,000 or so acres of land that was fallowed in 2015 in California, an Australian level of agricultural drought response would have been fallowing about 4.5 million acres.  (Which would decrease human water use by ~13.5MAF.)  Do endorsements of Australia’s techniques include that?  If so, I am all in.  I would love to talk about a zoning approach for ag land that designates whether irrigated acreage gets water in wet, normal and dry years.  If it doesn’t mean that, I wish the Australia advocates would be a little more specific about which lessons we should bring back home.



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Lots of good stuff on the internet today.

A couple great posts over at ValleyEcon today.


High Country News, always wonderful, reports on southern San Joaquin Valley farmers’ fears of going out of business from a dry future.  The tagline to the article asks: Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what.  Dude.  We know “what”.  California will lose 1-3 million acres of irrigated land.  The interesting question is how.


Mr. Fitchette writes a post urging agriculture to speak with a united voice.  This paragraph caught my eye:

As I understand it, the roots of California’s water woes tap into the federal Endangered Species Act and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which set in motion later court challenges and decisions from the bench that did not support production agriculture.

As I understand it, the roots of California’s water woes come from historic assumptions that the supply of water for human use could be expanded infinitely, our realization that the total quantity is fixed, and that further withdrawals will cause environmental damage that we don’t like.


Mr. Cannella’s confusion about the way state regulators operate would go away if he understood that state regulators do not hold the amount of irrigated lands constant.


There has to be a better way forward on water conservation than encoding #droughtshaming (& naming, with addresses).

— Faith Kearns (@frkearns) February 22, 2016

During the last drought, I attended workshops in which one of the State’s water use efficiency experts told water districts  to rank their water users from lowest to highest, privately contact the top ten water users and work directly with them to lower their water use.  (Then do that a few more times until the chunk of disproportionate water users at the top is gone.) My recollection is that water districts said they didn’t have the data, didn’t care to mine it like that, and weren’t in the business of approaching their customers that way.  But yes, collecting and using their data and directly contacting big water users could have saved quite a bit of water and bad publicity.

I diverge from the UC Davis group’s drought analysis here:

Global food markets have fundamentally changed the nature of drought for humans. Throughout history, disruptions of regional food production due to drought would lead to famine and pestilence. This is no longer the case for California and other globally-connected economies, where food is readily available at more stable global prices. California continued to export high-valued fruits and nuts, even as corn and wheat production decreased, with almost no effects on local or global prices. Food insecurity due to drought is largely eliminated in globalized economies (poverty is another matter). Subsistence agriculture remains more vulnerable from drought.

I do not trust global food markets.  We may have the wealth to participate in them as winners (which hurts the global poor).  But I would rather use that wealth to support a healthy farming community in our own state as insurance against unpredicted extreme climate change effects.


None of what I just commented on was nearly as interesting as this look at a macadamia farm in Hawaii.  Trees planted straight into the rock!



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Two kinds of changing wealth.

I don’t see the new emphasis on stormwater as a changing paradigm.  I see it as a society that has become poorer looking to the next-lowest-entropy source of water.  This is the behavior of people who have lost wealth (high elevation snowpack) and on top of that, have to spend wealth to make the new higher-entropy source act like the old low-entropy source (by gathering and cleaning distributed dirtied water).  Climate change will cost and cost and cost.


You know, if the AroundDeltaWaterGo doesn’t end up happening, the State Water Contractors will have ended up transferring a few hundred million dollars to slightly lefty urban environmental consultants for no tangible benefit.  They will have underwritten some environmental research in the Delta in the process.  Thank you, Westlands!


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Applying my three questions to existing water markets.

Returning to Mr. Lustgarten’s close look at water markets in practice, I am pleased that my three questions for prospective water markets would have predicted the success and failure of the examples.  A reminder of the three questions:

  1. What social goal is the water market trying to achieve?  That goal cannot be “have a real good market”.  Water markets are tools, among other tools like regulation or planning, that can be used to achieve something.  What is that thing for this specific proposed market?
  2. What is the built-in mechanism that ensures that the market is redistributing a fixed amount of water with economic efficiency, rather than efficiently drawing an open-ended amount of water out of the environment, the ground, and rural communities?
  3. What is the built-in mechanism for the Kaldor-Hicks compensation?  The Kaldor-Hicks criteria says (roughly) that the water reallocation would create so much more value that the winners could compensate the losers (beyond or outside the sale itself).  But that never actually happens, so I would want to see a mechanism for that built right into the market.

The answers for Crowley County, the example of a water market destroying small towns:

  1. No explicit goal.  The implicit goal was to put a structure in place that allowed cities to buy water.
  2. No built-in mechanism for limiting the water sales to a fixed quantity of water.  Cities were able to purchase all of the farming water in the county.
  3. No mechanism for Kaldor-Hicks transfers, so third parties got no compensation.  The money directly from the water sales themselves seem to have mixed effect.  The farmer and son-in-law quoted sound as if the money didn’t keep them as satisfied as farming and having a healthy town would have.  But perhaps Mrs. Tomky and the children who used the money to move away were quite pleased by the sales.  I don’t know how the utils balance out.

The answers for Palo Verde, the example of a transfer that looks like a success:

  1. The goal was to get some reliable water for MWD.
  2. The transfer water is limited to water from fallowed acreage, which is capped at 35% of each farmer’s holdings.
  3. MWD “has also invested $6 million in the community, to counter whatever economic harm might come from the fields’ temporarily drying up.”

My readers with water rights!  Here’s what you do.  If Mr. Deane approaches you to buy your water rights, do not let him make his pitch.  Keep him at bay with a pointy stick and ask him those questions until you get answers you like.  Do not sell your water rights unless you understand and you like the answers.


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A close look at water markets in practice.

The Atlantic is running Lustgarten’s detailed piece on a hedge fund manager brokering water sales.  I appreciated getting a specific example of the phenomenon that I described here.  I wrote that individual farmers acting independently in a market are the wrong scale to be making water use decisions.  Water infrastructure needs a support base.  Individual farmers selling water away will crash their whole district.

Orville Tomky … tried to resist as the pressure mounted. “My wife every night at supper would say, ‘When are we going to sell the rest of that Twin Lakes water so we can have a lot more money?’ ” he told me. One night he divided up the water rights, giving 20 shares to each of his four children, five shares to each of his five grandchildren, and 30 shares to his wife. Selling the shares put some of the kids through graduate school, gave them down payments for their own homes, and paid for a family ski lodge in the mountains.

Eventually, though, Crowley County passed a point of no return. With so much water gone, the empty irrigation ditches didn’t work; one lonely farmer at the end of the run would see all his water soaked up by the soil long before it ever reached his farm. And with fewer and fewer farmers around to share the expense of maintaining the ditch systems, the cost kept rising. Farmers had little choice but to sell, and all but 11 in the county did. The place literally dried up.

Market advocates say that the market is less coercive than a guvmint Stalin, but in practice, farmers felt plenty coerced.

An intentional program of reallocating water could be based on social criteria.  It could protect small towns, choosing instead to close the farms of the 1%.  It could choose to protect acreage that grows truck crops for Californian consumption instead of luxury food exports.  It could decide based on the engineering elegance of the irrigation district infrastructure.  It could choose based on the potential for retired land to become wildlife habitat.  A state that foresees decreased water supplies from climate change and publicly decides what it values could prevent shit like this:

Kneeling in his driveway changing a truck tire last summer, Tomky’s son-in-law Matt Heimerich recalled what the town had lost. Though tens of millions of dollars in water rights were sold, few of the proceeds were reinvested in the community, he said. One by one, families moved away. The tomato and sugar factories shut down, and without goods to ship, the railroad stopped sending trains through town. Ordway’s car dealerships closed, and the tractor store went bankrupt. As though someone had pulled a bottom block out from a Jenga tower, Crowley County fell into an inexorable collapse.

“I couldn’t have eaten enough Prozac,” Heimerich said.

One could view Crowley’s loss as an inevitable part of the larger downturn in American farming—and a justifiable reallocation of resources. Crowley County was itself diverting water from the Colorado River system, after all, under a legal system that encouraged waste. But the people still living in Crowley point to the green fields in adjacent counties, and say the water sales killed their towns. Of the 60,000 acres once farmed there, about 4,000 produce crops today. Ordway’s Main Street is a procession of boarded-up buildings.

It may be that Crowley’s loss is the least-harmful choice.  But making a choice and planning for transition for the town would be kinder than letting individuals twist in the market.

Continue reading


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Mr. Amaral: not woke.

A couple weeks ago, Rev. Ford and Ms. Jagannath wrote an op-ed for the Fresno Bee, contrasting Westlands Water District’s demands for irrigation water with those of the farmworkers within the district, who often don’t have access to clean potable water.  Last week, the Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District responded with his own op-ed in the Bee.  I will let my readers judge the respective merits of the pieces for themselves.  Instead, I want to talk about the tone of Mr. Amaral’s piece.

Mr. Amaral’s op-ed clanged for me the same way the old, male panels at CA Water 2.0 did.  I hypothesize that both efforts were reflexive attempts to persuade the people who have always been in power, and that the important audience has changed enough that the mismatch calls attention to itself.  Mr. Amaral’s tone in that op-ed is personal and condescending, asserting a great deal amount of power for itself.  He claims the power to declare who is an activist, what other people’s real concerns are, what they ignore and what they understand.  Given the relative societal power of the authors, it is a pretty nasty example of punching down.

Now, an op-ed is an attempt at persuasion.  So who is Mr. Amaral trying to persuade with a condescending tone towards two women, one visibly of color?  Perhaps he never considered the question.  Perhaps his unconsidered default reader is a man with power.  But that’s not how it is anymore.  I watched carefully as you subscribed to my blog, and I can tell you.  Half of y’all are women.  The internet (or maybe the new era) has taught us to consciously notice the dynamic rather than subconsciously accept it.  What we see is that Mr. Amaral does not care if he pisses off at least two substantial groups in the water conversation.  He never thought of them, or he doesn’t believe they have enough power to matter.  That’s the old way.  As times change, it stands out more and looks uglier.


A kinda funny side note is that there is another group of farming advocates who is tirelessly working to be personally appealing ambassadors.  They are friendly and widely available and a visit to their farms show that they’re doing really neat agricultural work.  The heart of their argument is “but you’d be taking water away from nice people.”  Which is true but irrelevant and only part of the story.  (This piece is a good example of someone falling for that hard.)  Anyway, ag ambassador people.  Mr. Amaral’s undoing your good work.  You might want a word with him.


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Going to be an interesting year.

Mr. Curlee’s commentary notes that he and California farmers are detecting new trends in California.

Although most farmers prefer farming to politics, they know that the political process affects them directly so they try to keep an eye on it. What they are detecting currently is a noticeable drift, particularly in California.

As government-imposed rules proliferate, farmers also wonder if some of them might be imposed by those in the power structure who don’t like the free enterprise system and prefer to replace it with something more liberal (socialistic). But they have learned that expressing that doubt only results in ridicule, often by their own millennial offspring. {my emphasis}

That surprised me, because I am also getting an inkling of a changing of the guard.  Mr. Curlee indirectly reports that the children of farmers don’t share their concerns about government policies overriding the free market.  I’m also sensing a generational change.  I’ve been having a hard time articulating it, which is why I’ve not been writing here.

My sense is that the PeripheralCanalFix2.0 has been occupying CA water policy for ages,  by soaking up money, attention and political strategizing.  We’re at the beginning of a very big year for TwinEcoRestorePipes, and seeing a full court press from the big boys.  It feels very much like a final push of the old water establishment. It may work, I don’t know.  But whether it does or not, settling the question of the AroundDeltaWaterGo is probably their last big effort.  Getting new federal and state administrations up to speed (pro or con) would be too much work, especially if the next governor doesn’t come in with Jerry Brown’s priorities.  With the question of the ZoomSiphonRiverMover settled, more water policy arenas would be less fraught, because participants wouldn’t be simultaneously evaluating whether an outcome is good or bad for the GravityBlastTunnelGulpers.

So Mr. Curlee and I, as ever, are of one mind.  It feels like change is coming.



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