Monthly Archives: March 2016

“More data” falls in the middle.

I know that I am being facile when I downplay calls for more data.  I actually do think that good data would be useful and good data well displayed would be even more useful.  I want to put my skepticism about calls for good data into context.  I observe a lot of collaborative processes and conferences and have come to rank policy solutions as follows.

This first category is nearly always just noise.  At worst, they are delaying tactics to prevent any serious work or addressing hard questions.  On rare occasions, they might be meaningful, but they would have to come from a speaker with substantial credibility for me to want to engage them.  If you say these without a lot of specificity, you should know a grumpy blogger in the audience is rolling her eyes.

  • A clearinghouse of already existing information.
  • Using social media to educate people.
  • Creating a framework for discussion.
  • No new work, just mining existing plans.
  • Breaking out of the silos/agency alignment.
  • A vision statement.
  • Defining the terms.

The second category can go either way.  Often the undertone for my impatience is “aren’t we past this already?”  A credible speaker with illustrative points will get my buy-in for these:

  • More data.
  • Translation into additional languages.
  • Paying for facilitation.  (Good facilitation is invaluable, but it does burn a lot of time upfront.)
  • Grant money for the good cause.  (Sadly, this often comes from bonds; the Youngs have good reason to hate us.)
  • A non-binding plan.

The third category will make me straighten in my chair and pay close attention.  These proposed policy solutions tell me that the speaker wants important change.

  • Proposals that acknowledge and address people’s emotions.
  • More data, with a dedicated source of substantial money and some detail about how the data would be gathered, stored and used.
  • Proposed governance structures.
  • Legally binding plans, with enforcement mechanisms.
  • Proposed regulation or integration into existing regulation.
  • Proposed legislation, with real money allocated.

 

I’ll add to these as I think of more.  Anyway, “more data” falls somewhere in the middle.  Have I mentioned my theory that we started the environmental Information Era in about the 1970’s, with the new EIRS and Timber Management Plans and fat volumes of information?  Then computers and the Internet started offering us even more ways to process and propagate that information.  Sadly, climate change is forcing us into the Management Era before we got good at the Information Era.  Now we have to do both at the same time.

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An example that illustrates our choices.

This is a lovely video about a very appealing citrus grower in Terra Bella ID.  Mr. Ramos personifies a lot of the choices we should face (3/24: link fixed).  Come to think of it, he probably also personifies what will happen because we refuse to make explicit choices.  I’ll give you a few minutes to watch the video.

1. A trivial aside.  His groves are predominately citrus, but at 2:10, that’s not citrus, right?  Those upright leaves, the angled branches?  Does that look like pistachios?  Definitely not citrus, though.  There!  Again at 2:30.  And 3:00.  How could that be citrus?

b.  At 3:40, California Citrus Mutual president Nelson says “People argue ‘you can always adapt’, but the people who will be left to adapt will be the corporate producer.”  This is our current default policy choice.  It will be the outcome of making no policy choice.  We could intentionally devise water rights to protect growers like Mr. Ramos.  We could decide that because we like farming communities, we will give the agriculture on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley water higher priority for water than the farms on the west side that are distant from any community.  We could decide that because we want four million acres of stable food production for humans, we will use water rights to preferentially shape our working lands.  Doing that will require active decision and political will.
We could also help maintain growers and farmworkers through droughts by giving them money to tide them over.  Mr. Ramos looks to have spent about $38K to bring in $16K this year; $33K of that was water (at 6:35).  The option that growers would prefer to return to is getting far cheaper water.  An alternate option, to preserve a resilient farming community, is to give them money in dry years to maintain capacity for wetter years.
  • Mr. Ramos laments his options.  He doesn’t want to “chase the water” to Washington.  I understand that is his deeply held preference.  That said, Terra Bella is a marginal irrigation district.  Super arid, no groundwater, rolling terrain, uphill from the Friant-Kern Canal. Were I to make project-level decisions about closing districts, I would probably choose Terra Bella as one to close down.  And if we were making an explicit decision, we could choose the terms.  Retire working lands, but help people live in place for another decade?  Retire farms at generational transition?  Buy out adjacent lands for habitat and pay growers and farmworkers to restore habitat?  Perhaps none of those options sound good to Mr. Ramos, but they might all sound better than letting his farm go bankrupt in two more dry years.
IV.  OK.  The video really only illustrates the main choice we face as climate change dries out California.  How do we want to retire irrigated acreage?  Who should we direct the burdens on to?  How can we minimize the burdens (loss of community, loss of identification with the land) that visibly pain Mr. Ramos?  Do we want to?  Do we care enough?

 

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Round-up and commentary probably better suited for Twitter.

Mr. King wrote a supporting op-ed for the Bakersfield Californian.  I am delighted with his picture.  I am amused by this:

The past policy accomplished the desired goal; California attracted people from all over the country and developed into an economic powerhouse.

Mr. King properly understands that publically elected officials set a policy goal (economic development) for their water works.  What is funny to me is that he doesn’t see that subsequent publically elected officials have set a new goal by the same process they once set the old goal.   By the lights of the old goal, allocating water to the environment is inexplicable!  THERE WAS AN OLD GOAL BACK THEN!  What madness has overcome all the politicians since sixty years ago?

***

Mr. Cline wishes agriculture would work together as one, like they last did when defeating labor laws.

Agreements have been few and far between. The greatest occurred 40 years ago when agriculture united to defeat Proposition 14, which would have given the United Farm Workers open access to every farm in the state.

This is the shining example of agriculture presenting a united front?  How inspiring.

***

I haven’t read the federal Drought Action Plan yet. I am afraid I will die of boredom from clichés and safe proposals.  This article about the plan emphasizes data, so there’s half of my fears realized. The headline to the article teases me: Obama calls for proactive drought strategy. What would that look like?

I’ll tell you what proactive drought strategy would look like.  In agriculture, it would look like consolidating what little ag water we get on lands that produce important food for humans, perhaps as a zoning scheme.  It tells growers in advance where we won’t allow water to go in dry years, so they will know not to plant permanent crops.  It regulates groundwater, even in drought, so we choose which communities take the economic hit. It holds growers accountable for the subsidence their pumping causes.  Proactive drought strategy prevents adjacent growers from sucking municipal wells dry.  Proactive drought strategy helps the growers we want to support bridge dry times, perhaps with direct monetary support.  Proactive drought strategy plans this in advance of dry years.  But I would be extremely surprised to read any of this in the new federal drought plan.  It is too shocking to write even in a State plan, in a state in Year Five of a drought, so I don’t expect to see it in the federal plan.

***

For all that we talk about Australia as an example, we sure don’t seem to be learning from it.  Nothing in the mainstream talk about Californian water markets mentions keeping foreign investors from speculating with Californian water rights.

h/t to Chance of Rain.

***

Delta Watermaster George’s report on how farmers in the Delta voluntarily cut their water use by nearly a third is wonderfully written, not government-ese at all.  Since I respect all well-managed irrigation systems and think the current emphasis on drip is overly simplistic, I liked the detail on alternate furrow irrigation.  I share the growers’ concern about salt build-up.

h/t to Alex Breitler

***

Idle speculation:

I will be pleased to vote for either Democratic candidate in November.  In general, I think they will be greatly constrained by Congress and have to work through their agencies.  I very much like the thought of a Bureau of Reclamation instructed by President Sanders to prioritize clawing back the wealth of the 1% over all else.  He is a single-issue person and that would be a very interesting single issue to determine Reclamation’s doings.

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Also, puppies are cute.

An op-ed in today’s N.Y. Times claims that massively improving water data would “unleash an era of water innovation unlike anything in a century”.  On Twitter, people respond that instead of gathering data to “fix water”, we’d do better to directly address the emotions of water users.   dezaraye points out that “many who manage water don’t want “water visibility” OR accessible data”.    frkearns suggests directly addressing people’s conception that cheap water should be limitless (my paraphrase).  I agree with both of those, and raise two other objections to the op-ed.

First, I find calls for data to be feelgood crowdpleasers.  Yes.  Sure.  Let’s get good data. Let’s even spend some real money gathering and managing it.  I myself love good data.  I think we should have accurate and timely knowledge of where water is being used, in some real nice display tools.  Great.  But that’s a pretty shallow recommendation.  Who is going to oppose “good data”?  This is the type of thing the State allows itself to recommend: good data.  (Right after “good data” comes “agency alignment”.) Calls for “good data” push difficult policy discussions down the road.

My more serious objection to the notion that data will unleash creativity to solve water problems is that I don’t think addressing the major policy problems will be changed by fine resolution data.  Coarse resolution data makes the policy problems pretty clear.  Here’s an example, from my mind:

In this last drought, the overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley has been 5-10MAF/year for three or four years.  My rule of thumb is that with a well managed irrigation system, a grower can finish a crop with 3AF/acre-year.  This tells me that 2 to 3 million acres were watered with groundwater overdraft in these drought years.  Now, this is astoundingly coarse.  I will happily agree with an adjustment of 25% on either the crop water use or the overdraft.  But that doesn’t change the policy problem: millions of acres were irrigated with groundwater overdraft.

How would making that data a lot more precise help?  We could change our predictions by 25,000 acres and one big farm would retract their opposition to the local GSA?  How long should we wait for data that precise before saying we need a plan for retiring a noticeable chunk of our 9ish million acres of irrigated agriculture?  Five more years?  What major water policy decisions are different based on coarse resolution data and fine resolution data?

Look, yeah, sure.  I support the calls for data.  Now that my water is metered, I look very carefully at our gppd.  But talk about data sparking innovation and behavior changes is cheap.  I’d be far more impressed by an op-ed showing how good new data would influence an existing policy discussion and drawing conclusions based on explicit values.

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Instead of ‘Supermarket to the World’.

When I was just a little girl, the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal broke.  Forever after, my father and I would mutter “bunch of crooks” in  unison when we heard their ads on NPR.  Today, wonderful people at the SEC tell us that Westlands Water District lied to investors to disguise the fact that they’d rather sell bonds they can’t afford to pay back than raise their water rates.  Evidence shows that General Manager Tom Birmingham advised to his board to do some “Enron accounting” and then verified the financial lies in their Official Statement.  For this he was personally fined $50K.

My thoughts:

  • The SEC holding is very clear, very clean writing.  If you can follow this blog, you can read the holding itself.  You might enjoy that as much as I did.
  • Mr. Birmingham should be disbarred for perjury.
  • Westlands Water District is broker than it looks from the outside.  Without “Enron accounting”, they can barely afford their debt service.  I have occasionally wondered how they could afford their very pricey stable of politically connected managers, plus the tens of millions they’ve shoveled into BDCP.  Apparently they can’t, not without raising their water rates.
  • I wonder how the SEC found this crime and why they pursued it.  If you know, please do email me.  I would love to hear the story.

My father sent me the breaking article about the SEC fining Westlands and two of their managers.  I am sure he’d be happy to append “couple of crooks” to their name, as a cozy father-daughter activity.

 

MORE, 3/10:

It looks like Ms. Schifferle was the person who drew Westland’s illegal activities to the attention of the SEC.  Great tactic, great work.

Schifferle said she filed a complaint with the SEC in 2011, and last year sent the agency minutes of a 2010 Westlands finance committee meeting, obtained through the Public Records Act, that discussed the debt ratio and revenue shortfall.

“I thought it was going in the round file,” she said. “Maybe they finally took a look at it.”

This is what comes of Westland’s willingness to make enemies. Making many enemies means having a lot of people out there trying different ways to expose any wrongdoing.

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I am sure he’s a lovely person.

CORRECTION, March 4th.  Dude.  I’ve made a fairly substantial mistake.  The statements I attributed to Mr. Levine were made by “David Festa of Mill Valley, senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund”.  Frankly, that makes the quote more egregious.  A senior professional enviro should have a better understanding of water markets.  We know more about them than we did when Tom Graff was promoting them.

I pretty much have to leave the original; I can’t see how to correct it and still have it make sense.  But I owe an apology to Mr. Levine, and want to redirect the gentle ribbing to Mr. Festa.  That’s how I should have written it in the first place.  MY BAD.  Sorry, Assemblymember Levine.

***

Friends, what I am about to write is both speculation and loshon hora; I should not.  But the conclusion is inescapable.  I strongly suspect that Marin Assemblyman Levine is out in public, talking about water markets without having read Dr. Haddad’s River of Gold.  I KNOW, RIGHT?!!  In public!  And if he hasn’t read Rivers of Gold, his new water market bill isn’t likely to create well-designed markets to achieve explicit social goals.

I am actually not too fussed about his bill.  From the description in the article (heaven forfend I should go read the actual bill), it looks to be a bulletin board to connect buyers and sellers.  I would enjoy following such a board; that information should be public.  But it doesn’t solve the problems of market thickness, transporting water, nor planning lead time.  I don’t think it would go anywhere.  So that’s harmless.

What isn’t harmless is this misunderstanding of Levine’sFesta’s, which reading page 34 of Rivers of Gold would have corrected.

Festa said greater trading would foster more trading between farmers as well as freeing up more water for the environment and urban dwellers.

“When you have more water moving around,” Festa said, “you don’t have to draw on ground pumping or taking more water out of rivers so right there you create an automatic benefit for the environment.”

No no no no no.  A market may be the cheapest way to reallocate a fixed amount of water to the uses that make the most money.  But if the amount of water isn’t fixed, a water market is an inexorable engine for drawing ever more water out of the source, whether that’s a farming community or the environment.  It requires very careful design of the market structure to prevent that.  I wish people with the power to promote water markets would talk about the specifics of that design.  Actually, I wish they showed signs of understanding that careful design is necessary.

 

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Actually, that rhetoric could have been very productive.

Interesting interview with Felicia Marcus in the L. A. Times today.  I should say some things up front.  She has done an amazing job over the past two years, and it must have been completely all-absorbing.  She has the right temperament for the leadership she did.  I have wondered how she has threaded the needle between conflicting demands and the Brown administration’s focus.  I am very, very impressed with her.

All that said, this is some bullshit false enlightenment that pretends that we can get through this drought with no losers:

“I worry about how those tensions exacerbate nonproductive rhetoric that pits urban versus agriculture, or fish versus farmers, or fish versus people. Or picking on a given crop when what we really need to be doing is embracing an all-of-the-above strategy so we can all get better together, rather than wasting time vilifying a number of very legitimate needs.”

My main objections to this approach is that it sacrifices some real leverage and it perpetuates existing inequities.

Mr. Arax describes the problem in Fairmead, California.  In Fairmead:

…the way it went dry is that one day last June, Annie Cooper was looking outside her kitchen window at another orchard of nuts going into the ground. This one was being planted right across the street. Before the trees even arrived, the big grower — no one from around here seems to know his name — turned on the pump to test his new deep well, and it was at that precise moment, Annie says, when the water in his plowed field gushed like flood time, that the Coopers’ house went dry.

The choices are that 1,450 residents of Fairmead can have no domestic water, or one big grower can have no agricultural water.  That is very powerful leverage; the unhappiness of having no water could be diminished by (1,449/1,450)%.  To do that, though, means making a judgment call about what water use is  more important, and the “all get better together” strategy refuses to do that.  Further, refusing to make a judgment call leaves existing inequities in place.  In Fairmead, poor people’s water was sucked away from them by someone with the wealth to install new orchards and dig a deeper well.  In practice, refusing to target anyone or any water use fucks the poor.  Again.

On a more diffuse level, the entire urban water conservation efforts of the state last year came out to 1.1MAF.  Nearly thirty-nine million people worked to achieve that on a near daily basis.  That is a cognitive load on all those people.  Not a huge one, but it is a small constant burden for nearly every Californian.  Urban trees took a substantial hit.  For the same 1.1MAF of relief on Californian developed water demands, we could fallow 350,000 acres of land, or 4% of the 9 million irrigated acres in California (in addition to the 7ish% of land that was fallowed).  Selectively fallowing land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley would minimize owners and farm workers hurt by that policy.  If we wanted, because they have feelings too,  we could compensate them with fat stacks of cash.  “Nonproductive rhetoric” about who is intensely using water is only nonproductive because the Brown administration didn’t choose to look for leverage to minimize misery during the drought.

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