Monthly Archives: August 2016

What do Californians get in exchange for ‘feeding the world’?

Mr. Michelena, a West Side grower, writes a column for the Modesto Bee lamenting that Californians have abandoned the vision of “feeding the world.”  He ties that vision back to JFK, but I have never heard a coherent argument for why California should feed the world.  Why should California exhaust her limited natural resources to meet a relatively infinite demand?  This is before my time, but perhaps JFK’s motivations were altruism and the optimism of the 1950s.  (I find myself resentful of Eastern politicians who view western resources as trading chips, even for noble things.)

Even with the best of motivations, is there any limit to how far California should draw down her waters to feed the world?  Here are possible bookends: California feeds only herself, on perhaps a million acres of irrigated lands (about 3.5MAF/year), an amount that the natural environment could readily provide.  At the other bookend, California could attempt to meet world food demand; we could divert every river, drain our aquifers below the levels that are cost-efficient to pump, drain every dam every year, pay the increasing costs of generating new pieces of water that are clean enough to farm with.  Which end of the spectrum are we closer to now, with ag water consuming about 30MAF/year?  If we continue or expand the irrigated acreage to feed the world, when does each incremental unit of water diverted cost us something increasingly precious, like a creek or a species?  Somewhere on that spectrum of water diverted for agriculture, there must be a point where the trade-off in natural resources gets too high.  Mr. Michelena’s column is part of our larger conversation about where that line should be.  I personally believe we passed that line more than two decades ago.

But I have more questions about this concept, that California should feed the world.  We could use our excellent soils and abundant sunshine and limited water to feed the world.  But what will the world give us in exchange for that?  In exchange, will they send us cold rivers?  Or historic salmon runs, that we can witness and be thrilled for?  Will they send us millions of live smelt, to swim in our estuaries or even to be bait on our fishhooks?  Will they give us swimming holes in granite boulders?  No, they can’t do that.  In exchange for food, other places will give us money.  Money is nicely useful, although it cannot recreate the things we lose by diverting rivers.  Worse, this exchange takes a communal, public resource that almost all Californians get the benefit of (water in rivers, aquifers, estuaries) and turns it into a private resource that few (several thousand farmers) get the benefit of.

And here it is time to talk about how ugly this distribution of money has become.  The next economic argument is that those farmers move that money through the farm economy out to other Californians, who will be able to buy things they want more than the rivers they lost.  That is not true of all farming in the state.  It is true of some farmers, in some local economies.  But for most of the acreage in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, the money from ‘feeding the world’ becomes concentrated among the already rich.  The Resnicks are the first among those, but there are many millionaires alongside them.  Today, with the way that wealth and farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is currently distributed, “feeding the world” means turning rivers and canyons and fish that all Californians could visit into additional wealth for the already wealthy.  As it now stands, that doesn’t even mean wealth percolating through a local farm economy; it means that all Californians get back for the waters they lost is whatever philanthropy those wealthy few happen to pursue.  That may be a worthwhile deal for Angelenos who like art.  But most other Californians might choose differently, and I’d like the choice to be explicit.

 

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I’m going to regret this, I am sure of it.

The way wealth is accumulating through farming on the west and south San Joaquin Valley is not new.  The recent almond and pistachio profits are astonishing and call new attention to that wealth.  But even with the new populism built on the Occupy and Sanders’ movements, I still don’t see mainstream think tanks willing to directly address it.  I see Delta advocates pointing it out, because it helps their advocacy.  I see WaterFix proponents dancing around the issue.  (On Michael Krasny’s show the caller asks, what about unsustainable farming in Kern County?  Secretary Laird answers by talking about Santa Clara.)  But I have not seen mainstream environmentalists (who have worked for years on environmental justice) publically make a value judgment along these lines.

For example, Dr. Gleick’s recent editorial:

 In California, even in an average rainfall year, demand outstrips supply by several million acre-feet. There is no polite way to say it: The unsustainable use of groundwater and the excessive diversion of water from our rivers is stealing from our children and grandchildren in order to satisfy today’s wasteful demands.

The unsustainable use of groundwater by whom, Dr. Gleick?  By the birds of the sky?  By the beasts of the field?  No.  Are all unsustainable uses of groundwater and excessive diversions morally the same?   Can we get greater societal leverage by focusing on a few egregious ones?  If they are not morally the same, what values would you use to rank them?  By some combination of the damage done by the extraction and the virtue of the wealth gained in return?  And if you would use values to rank them, then why not make public explicit value judgments about the observable extreme end of the spectrum*?

Or this, from Capitol Weekly’s description of Mr. Baldassare and the PPIC:

 Calm, authoritative, far-ranging, impartial and always accurate, the PPIC is invaluable

Oh no no no.  I can only speak to PPIC’s water coverage, but it is far from impartial.  The PPIC’s water coverage is deeply saturated with conventional economic thought, so much that it is not even self-aware of the extent of that influence. With wealth accumulation based on water use as skewed as it is now, that conventional economic thought is dangerously at odds with cultural and values-based judgments about water uses.

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Recommendations for the incoming presidential administration.

Friends, you will be appalled to know that influential people are reading blogs, including this one.  Worse, one of them wants my thoughts on what to recommend to the incoming presidential administration.  I’ll propose some things, and I would love to hear from you as well.

If you have recommendations for the next administration, please leave them in the comments.  To make this constructive, please follow this format.

  • No advocacy comments on any of the following topics: the Delta, the tunnels, new surface storage, the ESA, or almonds.  Those debates are well fleshed out; re-reading them would bore me.
  • Present your recommendations as purpose, then method, with links if you got ’em.  (i.e. To re-fill groundwater aquifers, support research and pilot projects for on-farm recharge.)  If you aren’t sure how to insert links, just cut and paste them.  I’ll go back into the comments and anchor them to text.

Here are my first few thoughts, to inspire you:

  • To support SGMA as it gets up and running, issue planning grants to the new GSAs (short term action).
  • To improve agricultural water use efficiency, develop remote sensing capacity for irrigation distribution uniformity.  Frankly, I’d love for the agencies to have the staff, equipment and capacity to be doing their own remote sensing of all of California’s farmland, made publicly available.   If we were going to be doing stuff like this, I bet the forestry agencies would have suggestions for useful remote sensing.  We don’t have to cede this field to the private sector.  Weekly remote sensing images could be publicly provided infrastructure, like CIMIS.
  • To improve water holding capacity and carbon sequestration, fund programs that improve soil tilth.
  • To increase urban water use efficiency, develop a program for municipal-level leak detection.  I have heard that cities have a hard time paying for leak detection.

OK friends.  Please leave constructive, do-able ideas for what the feds can do in the next administration.  Why, then what, with links to details.

 

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