OtPR’s list of dangerous ideas in water management.

The California Water Blog recently created a list of “dangerous ideas in California water“.  Here are a few additional dangerous ideas in CA water management.

  • That conventional growth predictions are immutable and will pose new demand that we must meet.  There are a few predictions for the mid-century that I hear often.  The top two are: ‘California will have 60 million people’ and ‘the rising middle class in Asia will demand meat’.  Neither of those are immutable.  Future tastes (and sources) for meat are a matter of choice, which may not go in a predictable way.  Another possibility is that in two generations, people will simply not get to eat the meat they prefer.  Population size is subject to people’s optimism about the climate future and financial pressures, which are both pretty grim right now.  JFleck writes about de-coupling, in which cities grow without requiring additional water.  Predictions of inevitable growth pressures are not reasons for us to further damage the CA environment to develop more supplies for humans.
  • That water markets are a neutral, non-coercive way to reallocate water supplies.  Water markets are only a neutral way to allocate water supplies if every participant in the market starts with an equal amount of water and wealth.  When that is not the case, water markets do not represent the optimal distribution of water, utils and money. Rather, a water market is a way for the already wealthy to monopolize a good that once belonged to everyone.  Advocating for water markets is advocating for the currently wealthy to get more water supplies.  Water markets are not non-coercive either; remember that water gets sold after the three Ds (debt, divorce and death).  I further note that every single water market advocate that I’ve ever known of is in the wealth class that has the economic leverage to gain water supplies by them.
  • That California should grow all profitable foodstuffs.  Growing nearly any food takes about 3af/acre of land.  Not all foods, even the profitable ones, have equal nutritional and societal value.  Some foods have tremendous cultural value; some are facially ludicrous (sudan grass for luxury Japanese beef*).  The prevailing myths are that all agriculture produces valuable stuffs; that “profitable” is the right way to decide if they are valuable; that having an agricultural sector is a toggle -we either have it or don’t; that world demand for food creates an obligation for California to use all available water to feed an insatiable demand.  We could instead use values (i.e. varied and nutritious, primarily plant-based, diet for all Californians) to set the extent of Californian ag water use.

I may return to this list if I think of additional dangerous water myths.  Hope you’ve been well.  Enjoy your long weekend!


*You thought I was going to mention that pleasant snack, didn’t you?  I will not be predicable!


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7 responses to “OtPR’s list of dangerous ideas in water management.

  1. Chris Gilbert

    re: your first point, the Bay Area population increased by about 20% since 1986 but urban water use decreased by 25%. Whether that trend can continue is a question but when you look at water use for 2016 for SFPUC/BAWSCA, it increases by 50% in the summer. A lot of this is wasteful outdoor irrigation. Fixing leaks in 100 year old water systems in the Bay Area are another area were water use can be cut back.

    re: 3rd point. Simple-minded, feel-good assertions like “we feed the world”, and “what’s wrong with growing food?” (sample sign on Hwy 5) keep us pursuing a course that is increasingly destructive of our resources. Why should we feed the world? How about just California, or even the U.S? And what kind of food should we grow? Water-intensive nuts, 80% of which are exported, also export our water.

    Here’s a “successful” Almond Board campaign in Asia equating almond consumption with health and youth: “The campaign is based around the theme that snacking on almonds keeps you young at heart. In research conducted by the Almond Board, this theme resonates with consumers, as they already eat nuts as a snack and value snack time with colleagues, friends and family in a social atmosphere that is fun and light-hearted.” http://www.almonds.com/newsletters/handle/new-china-advertising-campaign-start-new-crop-year

    So, exporting increasingly expensive water from a semi-arid climate so that people in other countries can feel “young at heart”.

    • Saul Travers

      I would like to see a change to the California Constitution which affirms food grown for Californians as a “beneficial use”, food for other Americans as a “reasonable use” and food for other nations as “okay if we have the water”.

  2. Bill Kier

    Right on, OtPR

    I was recruited to run for an open seat on the Marin Municipal Water District board in 2002. My recruiter asked me to take a lunch meeting with the board’s most conservative member, who represented Tiburon and Corte Madera, for a little male bonding ahead of my service (I was elected). I did a fairly good job of nodding and agreeing until he got to his favorite thesis – that it is the duty of water agencies to meet the water demand, no matter how large that demand might become, and to stay out of the land-use planning process. He was about two-thirds of the way through this lecture when I simply blurted ‘that’s bull****!’ MMWD has seven reservoirs dotting the Mt Tamalpais/West Marin landscape yet it’s dependent on Sonoma County Water Agency’s Eel-Russian rivers system for a quarter of its supply. Absent conscientious coordination between water service and land-use planning MMWD will simply join the ranks of all the other salmon river-ruining water districts in the state.

    My earliest recollection of water marketing talk in California was that before the State Water Resources Control Board with the onset of the 1986-92 dry years episode. I made repeated appearances on behalf my salmon conservation clients before the Board against water transfers even as the Environmental Defense Fund’s Tom Graff appeared on their behalf. My position was that the proposed transfers did not take third-party impacts into consideration and did not conform to the California Environmental Quality Act. Tom’s position was that water transfers could obviate the need for new reservoirs.

    ‘Turns out neither of us got what he advocated for.

  3. Larry Farwell

    Well reasoned, as usual. I would add WINE as a product that is overproduced (because it is a great tax write-off). I would like to see the price of food rise so that less is thrown away (about 50% now). I would like to see those that can’t afford good food receive more support when food prices rise. I would like to see crops (alfalfa, hay, rice, etc.) return to rain-irrigated states – another reason agric. prices might rise a bit. I would like to see “polluter pays” as the source of groundwater cleanup funding. I would like to see funding for new surface water sources for agriculture be paid for by agriculture. I would like to see NO MORE farmland brought into production until groundwater basins are in balance. I would like to reduce our tax bills by $billions a year by ending agricultural subsidies.

    I look forward to many more of your posts.

  4. All of this, and….
    There appears to be a newfound belief that giving the federal government new powers over water rights will fix CA water policy. (See HR 23, linked in profile).
    Further politicizing water rights decisions can’t be the solution to our intractable situation in the Delta. And I sense the proponents would not like their brainchild as it grows.
    This is related to your last point.

  5. Saul Travers

    “facially ludicrous” ?

  6. So who in this Utopian world of perfect water use allocation will make those minute, detail decisions about who’s water use is beneficial and who’s is not? (Not you, BTW…)

    As for the assertion about markets, that’s simply incorrect. There are market failures that lead to the distorted outcomes that you list, but markets themselves are not inherently flawed in making these allocations, even if the initial resource allocations are not equal.