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.

*  I have theories!  (I apologize up front for projecting into Dr. Gleick’s head.)  One theory: the Pacific Institute feels that the morally worst use of water is waste, and there’s plenty of waste and no need to move to the next worst until there is no more waste. Butcept, why tease us with this adjacent moralizing about stealing from our grandchildren without being explicit about the rest?

Another theory is that for people my age and older, the idea that market outcomes can be straight up bad is utterly taboo.  Those outcomes must be somehow justifiable, by cheap food or by something somewhere.  But I watch and begin to think that the Youngs don’t share that taboo.  I believe they are ready for a values-based message, or are already telling us theirs.


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

  1. Jan

    Don’t apologize – it needs to be said. Again and again.

  2. aaronmandell

    On what basis do you isolate wealth accumulation from farming nuts as a “terrible use of water”? What about bottling drinking water for profit, running a data center, extracting oil and gas, having a green garden? There are plenty of great arguments that food production actually IS a more important use – hence the reason it is subsidized.

    You can price water and you can regulate demand, but you can’t pick and choose who gets to profit from it. Otherwise you are falling into the trap of playing the finger pointing game like everyone else.

    Aaron Mandell 617-823-6004


    • onthepublicrecord

      My objections are more to west side ag than to nuts themselves. I think a nice 300,000 acres of nuts in the Sac Valley would be a good way for Californians to have all the almonds they want. I’d object to west side ag no matter what they grew, primarily for the way their huge farms concentrate wealth, although the arrogance of planting permanent crops there is especially galling.

  3. No need for regrets. You are right on the money!

  4. WatergrlJD

    What I think you’re seeing is the deliberate bloodlessness of water issues in general. It’s human nature to want to create a world with no losers — where the fish win AND the farmers get their water AND urban users get their share. A decision-making process like the one you’re describing would require something akin to a French Revolution in water policy, and it wouldn’t be at all bloodless.

    • onthepublicrecord

      I complain about the “no-losers” aspects of water policy quite a lot. In addition to that, I think there’s a different type of hesitation in the activist/liberal mindset in the cohort above mine. If I’m right, there’s a sense that it is condescending or patronizing to criticize market outcomes. “Well, the people have shown us, by their use of money, what they really want, and far be it for me to be a snob and say they really want rivers instead. Criticizing market outcomes doesn’t respect what the masses want.” That is true to some extent, but in California in 2016, that is strongly skewed by the fact that some few are so wealthy. Their use of money isn’t a good proxy for the utils of the masses any more.

  5. John

    Income redistribution will solve the almond and pistachio issue. The State of California should confiscate all profitable farms and redistribute the profits to cubical dwellers everywhere. Equal outcomes for all, Comrade!

  6. Yes, we must get to sustainability. I believe the law is on our side if we choose to invoke it and enforce it. The State Board must quantify the amount of water in the system…you can not manage what you don’t measure. The paper water promises are skewing the system and causing the decline for everyone. The short term gain for greed must stop. Once the measuring is honestly done, then the Public Trust Doctrine must be applied. We can do this!

  7. Being explicit and partial to some values above others is of course a fool’s errand for those perceived to be “calm, authoritative, far-ranging, impartial and always accurate” public intellectuals. Those people know that they must rely on facts and science, and not fuzzier, values-based principles, for their authority.

    As you know, I have thought long and hard, and written, about where my values are situated when it comes to California water issues. In a politically toxic political landscape of dug-in positions of self-interest and super-talented lawyers, I’m okay with having my values reside in an impossibly in-between project of shared Climate Change risk and acceptance of resource scarcity. The tunnels, in my view, perpetuate the opposite of both of those principles.

    Anyway, I agree with your argument here, and think you walk the walk you talk better than anyone else engaged in this debate. But I would draw a distinction between Dr. Gleick – and the Pacific Institute – and Mr. Baldassare and the PPIC. If what you wish for from the state’s public intellectuals is for them to take sides, then the Pacific Institute has been consistent and explicit in giving priority to environmental health and sustainability. Have we seen that from the PPIC?

    Explicitly stating values helps people make political decisions. Especially hard ones. As Luigi Pirandello wrote, “[f]acts are like sacks. They won’t stand up until you put something in them.”

    • onthepublicrecord

      But I would draw a distinction between Dr. Gleick – and the Pacific Institute – and Mr. Baldassare and the PPIC.

      This is a substantial fault of mine. It is so much easier to critique someone who’s views are adjacent to mine for some small distinction than to take on someone with completely different priors. I really try to curb that. I know that the Pacific Institute under Dr. Gleick’s leadership has done longterm substantial environmental justice work. I have also seen Dr. Gleick do something I’ve not seen anyone else do, which is stand in front of a room and say ‘it is just wrong to end a species, not for any instrumentalist reasons, but wrong in itself.’

      That said, I do think that dodging the way that wealth distribution and water distribution are influencing each other means that an important moral issue is not getting the attention it could. Further, I think the public is ready for that conversation, possibly more ready than the Olds (I include me) realize.

      Actually, I want to spell that out. My age is the exact year of the turning point. Younger than me, Democratic Youngs liked Sanders. Older than me, Democratic Olds liked Clinton. I suspect that people of my age and older may not know how ready the public is for explicit conversations about wealth distribution. I tend to forget how many younger people there are in the field now, now that I’m not one of them.

  8. Diane Livia

    Thanks so much for bringing this topic up. I’ve been trying for years to get my dear friends in the water policy world to open the discussion to what the people of California would like their water to be used *for*.

    And since 75 -80% of developed water, to say nothing of groundwater, is used for agriculture, why are we not talking about what we think that industry should be accomplishing with our water? This is not actually a moral issue; it’s simply a question of whose water it is, and whether that constituency (the people of CA) has a right to decide how that water is used.

    Do we choose to use our water to allow private profit to corner the world market in almonds while we live with bowls of un-flushed urine in our homes? Do we choose to grow alfalfa for China with our water, or do we choose water security for our residents? Do we choose to provide any produce at all to China when they are busy destroying much of the little arable land they have to accommodate their new millionaires? Do we choose to subsidize the single-minded pursuit of individual profit in the Valley instead of pursuing human well-being?

    Maybe we do; maybe we don’t. But so far, we have not had a chance to make those decisions about *our* water.

    I have questions: what percentage of that grown in CA is used in CA? and I don’t mean as a natural resource to make a product that then is sold overseas — I mean actually used by the people of California. What percentage of that grown in CA is used in the greater US? And what percentage is either sold directly out of the country, or used to make a product that is sold out of the country?

    There is nothing wrong with any of these uses, but I think the people of California should determine the answers to these questions and make decisions about how we want our water used. Because this water is *our* resource — our potential wealth and well-being. We won’t get water from anywhere else — we only have our own to use.

    Maybe we would decide we want everyone in the State to have potable water coming out of their taps. Maybe we would decide we don’t want the Delta smelt to go extinct. Maybe we would decide we want our water to serve our local and regional purposes *before* it is used in the global economy — before it is used to make huge profits for a few — before almost everyone in the world that buys an almond gets a bit of CA water with it.

    I’ve heard UC officials argue that we have a net import of water if you consider the water embedded in the manufacture of all the goods we import, and therefore the question of how we use our water is irrelevant. That is a red herring argument. First, if we really want to start balancing the embedded energy, water, land use, pollution, human rights in our goods, we would need to throw our entire economic model into the air—let’s just stick with real water, an element not globally tradable. Second, there is nothing wrong with a global economy – a global economy is based on the uneven balance of trade of certain elements. But, global economy does not translate to “use as much as you like for overseas products.”

    The problem with globalization is that it tends toward using scarce resources at rates that will ultimately harm the “owners” of that resource. Exporting our water, if you will, in the form of food or goods is a fine thing — *if* we have enough water do to that. I don’t believe we have enough to maintain a healthy environment (which is the basis of human well-being), deliver clean water to our entire CA population and make unlimited profits on ag products all at the same time.

    Californians should be making these decisions consciously. We need to open up the ag industry to scrutiny and take control of our water. And water policy leaders should start the conversation.

    • Larry

      Whenever I read your words “Our Water” I recoiled. We should back up one more step and say that California’s water serves all life forms and we each have a share. Many other life forms cannot just move away or buy bottled water because their actual existence depends of the availability of water. Back to Gandhi – “the world has enough for what everyone (everything?) needs but not enough for what everyone wants.” If almonds for China (or Californians) means the extinction/destruction/diminishment of other life forms then we will live without almonds.

    • onthepublicrecord

      The thing that gets me is that almonds only became a thing in my adult life. I also think that we’re producing more wine and meat than is good for our environment, but I understand that wine and cheap meat are deeply embedded in our culture. But almonds! They’re just a snack, and a snack that no one cared about even fifteen years ago. I remember!

    • Diane Livia

      The almond issue is important because the growers (Resnicks?)have used our water to capture 80 – 90 percent of the market. That’s far beyond any reasonable use. The almonds are emblematic if the over arching issue.

    • Diane Livia

      That’s 80 – 90% of the world market.

    • Although it was alluded to when Diane asked if growing for export was “reasonable”, largely missing from this discussion are the rights to use water that are attached to property in California.
      As things stand now, all Californians do not have the power to decide how water is going to be used – those decisions belong to property owners who have historically diverted and used water. The strongest rights go to those whose properties lie next to rivers and streams and the next rights go to those properties which diverted water for “reasonable and beneficial” uses earlier in history.
      But I think that the word “reasonable” as understood when these rights were being decided in courts might not include the right to grow alfalfa to ship to Saudi Arabia using a worldwide shipping industry that did not exist 40 years ago.
      I would like to see the courts rule on this issue.

    • Diane Livia

      I think the point to all this discussion, and definitely to my comments, is that the current state of our water rights is not serving the people of CA. Our arcane system which includes 5 or 6 different kinds of rights, needs an overhaul. It’s mostly appropriative rights that are the problem, but this is a huge issue which will require years of legal work and creative thinkonv. I’d just like us to start talking about it as if an overhaul is possible. That discussion must rest on the assumption that we have the power and the duty to change things.

    • John

      There is no discussion here. The exalted OTPR is censoring all the
      opposition speech, and forming the illusion that the public is in favor
      of this perversion of democracy and free enterprise.

    • onthepublicrecord


      Eh. The censorship is partial. I’m moderating/holding comments that are back-and-forth arguments, because they are boring for everyone else. I’m also moderating/holding comments that are only slogans. If there’s good thought in a comment, regardless of viewpoint, I let it through. Repetitive stuff I also moderate/hold because we saw it the first time.

      I intend to keep moderating to suit myself. I will not let the comment section here become boring, and one-note comments are boring. For the record, compliments with no other content are also boring to everyone but the blogger. I’d hold those too, but it gets difficult to explain and feels ungrateful.

    • John

      OTPR : If you mean what you say you are delusional. This is a one-sided
      “discussion” centering around leftist eco-babble intent on collapsing
      capitalism. Income redistribution and social justice will not fix water shortages. When we have gasoline shortages, the solution is more gasoline. When we have toilet paper shortages, they produce more toilet paper. To curtail agriculture as a solution to water shortages is counter
      productive and ineffective, and demonstrates the evil of creeping socialism.

      I came to your site this spring trying to find out why California is dumping
      more water into the sea than storing for people to use. Believe it or not,
      you and your merry band of followers have made the problem clear.

    • Larry

      The ‘products’ you compare with water are either produced in a factory or the supply expanded by utilizing new technology. Water is a natural resource like the air we breath. There is a limited amount of fresh water and all of it was previously being used by other living beings and processes humans depend on for environmental benefits (like beaches). We can produce more water by desalinating ocean water but it is expensive, generally produced near the ocean, and not affordable for agriculture. I am unsure why you think it is effective to throw around emotive terms like delusional, eco-babble and socialism. To me it seems that those that resort to attacks instead of joining an adult discussion fear that the coming change will cause their piece of the economic pie is vanish (think buggy whips). You may want to familiarize yourself with California’s Public Trust Doctrine (it does not apply to toilet paper).

    • Diane Livia

      Just to put things in some perspective, here are a few quotes from a recent Commentary article in “AgAlert: The weekly newspaper for California agriculture” (a must-read publication) dated June 22, 2016 by Zippy Duvall:
      a. (Editor’s note: Farm Bureau estimates the TPP would increase cash receipts for California farmers by $1.1 billion per year, and improve net agricultural exports from the state by $924 million annually, by reducing or eliminating tariffs and trade barriers in the 12 nations participating in the agreement.)
      b. Farm Bureau estimates an annual increase in U.S. net farm income of $4.4 billion, compared to not passing the agreement. (TPP)
      c. Our farmers and ranchers need market expansion like never before.
      d. Overall U.S. exports would increase by $5.3 billion per year with this deal. (TPP)
      e. We’re in a growth business, but if we want to keep that up into the future, we need good deals like TPP to remove trade barriers and open up new markets.
      f. In spite of negative political rhetoric, the fact is that every day we wait to approve TPP, we lose ground. … We fall behind our global competitors. We give up billions in business.
      g) TPP would increase cash receipts for a variety of farm products, including rice, corn, cotton, beef, pork, poultry, dairy, fruits and nuts, vegetables, soybeans and wheat. Overall U.S. exports would increase by $5.3 billion per year with this deal.
      (Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Georgia, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

      I don’t have much against the TPP, except that it, like all our international trade agreements, gives foreign businesses the right to damages if our environmental laws decrease their ability to do business here. Often, the agreements give them the right to condemn property here. That’s how TransCanada, proposer of the XL pipeline is suing the US for $15b:
      “After a long delay, last November the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project that would have linked oil sands in Alberta with refineries in the Gulf Coast of the United States. TransCanada, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, is now seeking $15 billion in damages under the North American Free Trade Agreement and has asked a court in Houston to overturn the decision.” NYTimes Mar 10, 2016.

      I should think those that are sensitive about our sovereignty would object to this.

  9. We’re seeing some of the worst aspects of good-old American capitalism at work – lay off employees (who don’t make a living wage in the first place), don’t give your current employees a living wage (or decent water to drink, or decent housing), suck up natural resources that the planet needs to survive and voila! Instant profit! Thank you Oh Hidden One for your post.

  10. Todd Shuman

    Just a note: all that almond kernel production in the Westlands Water District and elsewhere is also associated with twice as much almond hull production that is then sold to the dairies and then fed to livestock in the dairies. And all those cows cumulatively emit a lot of methane that helps further bake our planet. Is production of such climate-disruption-associated commodities reasonable in an already-drought-besieged state? Maybe the almond growers should do something else with those almond hulls (like compost them and reapply the compost to the soil to promote CO2 sequestration) ….

  11. Anonymous

    Yep. I have been getting increasingly depressed by a career working on California water issues when so much that needs to be said cannot be said for reasons real and imagined. It’s crazy-making and dysfunctional, like being in an alcoholic family where everybody dances around what the actual issues are. If even, or especially, those with the seeming privilege and power to make a stand here won’t do it, I see little hope.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Thing is, I am not actually sure that the topic is still that taboo. I wonder whether breaking the taboo would bring on the firestorm or get someone marginalized in the way people seem to fear.

  12. Michael

    Thanks OTPR for this post, and providing such helpful links on this elephant in the room topic. The articles in Mother Jones Aug. 9, 2016, Jun. 10, 2015 and Reveal June 2, 2015 were excellent, insightful, and scary. But who else is reading them? Where are the investigative reports and headlines in the major newspapers? I really enjoyed Anonymous’ analogy of working in the water business is like being in an alcoholic family where everyone dances around what the actual issues are. I also appreciate Larry’s comment on “our” water although being a regular reader of your blog I feel you hardly need admonishing regarding the fair distribution of this natural resources for all species. Many others in our state could use a heavy dose of this truth. I worry about the smaller farmers losing out to the mega farm corporations who can afford to hire lobbyists and lawyers, I worry about a loss of aquifer capacity with subsidence, and I worry we are long past carrying capacity here in California. And unfortunately I imagine the concept of sustainability is a bad or at best a misunderstood word in the water world.

  13. Rar

    This is a most valuable entry into the debate on CA water use. Thank you for your efforts!

  14. Curt Sanders

    Some wonderful posts here. Yes, The importance of grappling with the question of water management in Ca is hard to underestimate. My feelings for some time have been that the abuse of our liquid National Treasure has gotten completely out of hand, especially here in CA. The governor and his water management team, as well as several of our state representatives certainly know my feelings. The scale of destruction is already daunting. From fracking to the continued expansion of water intensive crops such as almonds in Ca is completely unsustainable. We have to keep making our voices heard. A constructive change is possible but time is of the essence.

  15. caroleekrieger

    I still believe the key is getting real with how much water there is in California…get rid of the paper water promises. Combine this with a Public Trust assessment much like what was done for Mono Lake and we might have a chance to straighten this out. But first we have to get real with how much water there is in the system.

  16. OTPR, Sorry my comment was inappropriate to post. Too commercial?

  17. Judith Moman

    OTPR, I have deeply enjoyed reading your blog for the past year and this is a great topic. I hope the rabid responses have reassured you that this post is nothing to regret.
    I break my timid fly on-the-wall posture to mention an aspect that I don’t think was touched on yet: Image control. The romanticization of agriculture and the fantasy that almonds are the best source of legitimate eco-friendly health food combine to create a thick smoke screen on this issue.
    The folksy over-all wearing family of hard workers is a myth that has hung on in public consciousness and policy despite the fact that Millionaire hi-tech agribusiness rules every large scale ag producing area in our country and others. There is huge emotional public support for “farmers” and their crops even when the means of production for those crops involves countless public harm ranging from labour and human rights abuses to large scale environmental destruction.
    Similarly, millions of well educated, well meaning, well heele consumers have been flocking to ALMONDS as a source of protein (The perfect snack for vegans!) and almond milk as fat/lactose/dairy free/paleo/vegan/ inflammation suppressing nectar. None of them know a thing about water rights, smelt, or Big Ag. They might very possibly be horrified to understand the connection- but maybe not. I’ve been shrugged off numerous times when attempting to discuss the dark underside of Almonds. Thanks for taking my call.

    • Anonymous

      Shameful. Using a few Beverly Hills mega-farmers to depict all California farmers.

  18. onthepublicrecord

    Thank you everyone. I’m closing comments now.