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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15 responses to “Also, puppies are cute.

  1. Don Rideout

    While I generally agree that more data doesn’t always mean more progress, there are some smallish, localized situations where more data would definitely help. I’m thinking of the Borrego Springs area of San Diego County. The lack of data on the status of the aquifer and on agricultural use of groundwater has allowed the growers to deny their impact for decades. Of course the growers adamantly resisted all efforts to get better data. But now data is coming in and it is proving beyond doubt that present ag practices are unsustainable. So I would say that data is not a substitute for action, but sometimes it is a prerequisite.

    • Noel Park

      Borrego Springs is like a microcosm of the SJV. We go there quite often. Every time I see the valley and the citrus orchards from up on the S22 the total unsustainability of the whole thing just slaps me in the face.

      I fell in love with the place and started looking at little weekend houses. I immediately got scared away from those with their own wells. Then I realized that the town water system depends on wells too and I just gave up on the whole idea. I guess we’ll just stick to the local hotels until the race to the bottom with the irrigators plays itself out.

      Actually, when I think about it, it’s sort of a microcosm of the whole state, or at least the southern half.

  2. Mike Johnston

    While I agree that “get more data” is often an excuse to punt the problem down the road, here on the Central Coast where over 80% of supply is groundwater and it is becoming increasingly contaminated with nitrates, now that we have really developed some pretty good data of what is going on in the aquifers and what nitrate from fertilizer and irrigation water is going onto the crops as a result of some tough battles to make data gathering happen, I see some real changes starting to happen. Some farmers who never wanted to be forced to gather and report data are now starting to look at that data that they were forced to assemble and figure out how to use it to lower their costs in pumping and fertilizer, with potential to reduce both overdraft and nitrate loading. We have a long ways to go but this data gathering has been useful…

  3. What, you mean we can’t study it and ourselves to death (/sarcasm)? Actually I agree with Mike, that in some cases data are useful. Information on groundwater stocks and contamination are pretty important right now, if we don’t want to pull a Syria (well, actually, we can’t really pull a Syria, because fortunately, California’s just a state, not an independent country. Still, the social disruption could get bad).

    However, you’re right. As with climate change, where the gross numbers haven’t changed in decades, better data are neither making the problem go away, nor are they solving the problem. The truth isn’t setting us free. As a bit of Facebook cruft suggested recently, the solution to things like climate change (and water management) involves dealing with some essential factors in our current consumer society: greed, selfishness, and apathy. That’s a sociopolitical problem, and a difficult problem. While I can understand when sociopolitical experts punt it off to the scientists, I can’t really condone their failure to do their jobs.

  4. Charles Fishman

    I don’t disagree with OTPR’s point here — that hard decisions are hard, and that in many cases, at least in California, there’s enough data to see that things are going badly. Yet, *that* data isn’t motivating good decisions.

    Two points I’d add, though. If we had 10 times the data we’ve got now on water use and water sourcing, or 100 times the data, it would unleash a wave of innovation. That wouldn’t come from government, necessarily, it would come from companies small & large piling through that data and finding ways to help manage water smarter, and also make money.

    Fathom water data analysis ( is a good example. They step up and show water supply utilities how to dig into their water meter data, and figure out, for instance, where the non-revenue water is going. They often step in and immediately help utilities increase revenue by 10% or 15% — just by showing them what’s in the data they’ve got — people getting water but not getting bills, for instance; yeah, dumb — or by giving them water meters to provide that data.

    And there are plenty of places where — puppies notwithstanding — good data would change public perception and bring political pressure to bear for change. Groundwater — from the Ogallala to the aqufers beneath Florida — is hardly tracked at all. If we could “see” the state of those aquifers the way we can see the state of a lake or reservoir, that would certainly help the public conversation — in terms of conservation, re-use, the environment, public policy.

    Leadership, political courage, actual persistence and determination to fix things, untangling 150-year-old legal regimes with no relevance to today — yes, all that is necessary too.

    I was trying to do one thing today: Answer the question, what could the US government do, what one thing that wouldn’t cost much, to tackle water problems. If the feds would step up and fix data, no, that wouldn’t in and of itself fix even a single water problem. But it would make fixing many of them much more possible, and give the people who want to tackle them a vital tool in that effort.

  5. jaylund

    Puppies are cute and data are good. Good data are better, but they are not always worth the expense and delay often needed. And usually the path to good data begins with no data (or one datum), then passes through a phase of not-so-good data. The hard part about water data in California is less the lack of data than the disorganization and non-disclosure of existing data. This is a hard subject technically, and a harder problem sociologically, especially among water agencies. It will be a long unsatisfying road until the state agencies get their standards together.

    • Barbara Hennigan

      At a recent gathering of hydrogeologists there was discussion about the difficulty of getting others to be willing to share their data.
      Imagine that you are locked in a room with a group of people and a bomb. Everyone has a few puzzle pieces and the completed puzzle will tell you how to disarm the bomb. Would you be willing to share your puzzle pieces?
      The task for those who understand the issue to make the case so clear and so compelling that everyone begins to understand that they are also locked in that room.

  6. Steve Bloom

    Here‘s a taste of the summer to come. Sadly models are much better at this sort of thing than they were at this winter’s rain.

    As I mentioned before this rainy season in the midst of nearly everyone foaming at the mouth about how this El Nino would be a deluge, a deluge I tell you, that ridging tendency is here to say. After the ‘orrible summer to come (pump, baby, pump, then pump some more) unless we somehow are lucky enough to get an El Nino echo (very unlikely) we’ll be back to the Big Dry.

    Scientists really dislike making prognostications based on poorly-understood phenomena like the mid-latitude effects of Arctic amplification, but perhaps they should consider starting (hi Jay!). I’m looking forward to seeing who’s first to call this a megadrought. (not accurate strictly speaking since it’s a new normal, but I suspect the term’s going to get used anyway).

  7. TJ Busse

    I have to admit I’m not the expert, but I only got into California’s water system as a San Francisco resident when the dire conservation warnings (and price increases) seemed to not match up with the public data on the Hetch Hetchy system. In short: San Francisco never had a drought. The negligible snowpack was cause for concern, but San Francisco never used more than 40% of its allotment at any time, and it was public data that keeps our public officials in check. They can spout forth their conservation ideology, but for Hetch Hetchy, conservation pricing is a solution in search for of a problem and a way for someone to laugh it all the way to the bank.

    There are alternatives to overdraft in the central valley, namely to reroute surface runoff stored from less balmy times, which is the whole point of the Central Valley project, if I recall. Hey, if SF doesn’t need Hetch Hetchy because we can drink our own toilet water, then instead of blowing up the dam, throw the garden hose over to the Westlands. We could raise the Pardee dam, and then there’s always the Eel river. And to be honest, I just don’t care about the Delta Smelt.

    • Noel Park

      T J Besse,

      You’re kidding, right?

    • onthepublicrecord

      I assume Mr. Besse means what he writes. I am glad he feels he can say that here. Honestly, I find directly expressed different values easier to work with than “let’s find win-win solutions that meet everyone’s needs!”.

  8. As Pirandello said, “Facts are like sacks. They don’t stand up unless you put something in them.” Something besides more facts, because we willl find, I predict that stuffing facts inside facts will become easier and easier to do, and more and more meaningless.

  9. Curt Sanders

    Calif groundwater overdraft is completely and utterly out of control. This issue is not being given the attention it deserves, not even close. More precise data would be nice but anyone who really studies the Calif underground aquifer systems knows the score. We need policy change yesterday. Why does the state continue to allow a few corporate farms ( water intensive nut farmers ) to drain the groundwater especially in the SJV at an obviously unsustainable rate? It is now Causing environmental, infrastructural, and sociological damage right and left. How much more evidence must we have before the critical policy changes are made? The Calif underground aquifer system is getting NO recharge just ever greater extraction. Time is of the essence. State leadership really needs to step up.

  10. dzetland

    Easy solution: No more g/w pumping UNTIL you’re collecting good data against the baseline.

  11. Sometimes data is used to hide data. I can think of one very large utility that does this in Los Angeles where actual data (metered supply) is buried by faux data (projected supply) such as transfers, various forms of storm water capture, groundwater, assumed conservation gains, etc,