Our leaders do not have the courage and vision to fix this*.

When I observe that we are holding 2MAF of 2021 and 2022 water in stored almonds, I have some thoughts.

  • You know, I don’t fault growers for mis-reading the first year. The shipping situation was extreme and odd and we now know that depending on returning empties is a brittle technique, but we didn’t then. What I do see is that the people who said that we shouldn’t be converting to permanent crops in our variable climate were absolutely right. Even knowing they’re on track to grow 30% too many almonds (buying expensive inputs, compounding an expensive storage problem) almond growers must do it anyway. They can’t fallow that land in a year of little water. The fundamental critique was correct.
  • People who think that the market does the best job of deciding how to use water are wrong on many fronts, but this situation illustrates that market corrections are too slow to free up water. Maybe in two years we’ll have half of a harvest in storage and growers decide to take out half the trees (650,000 acres). We’ll still have lost all the better things we could have done with this year’s 1.2MAF. Given the sunk cost fallacy, the corrections will likely be slower and the opportunity costs of 1.2-2ish MAF in drought years will be higher.
  • This was eminently foreseeable. Lo! Here I am, foreseeing it! I was on the front page of the L.A. Times for foreseeing this shit. I told the State Water Resources Control Board, back when it seemed like they might have courage, to put a moratorium on planting almonds in 2015. Had they acted, they would have seemed prescient in only six years. That is a short payoff on prescience! Nearly any climate change adaptation, however extreme, will seem reasonable in retrospect and retrospect will come far faster than our water leaders expect. The flip side is that failing to do the fucking obvious will look like cowardice very very soon. Well, already. But also very soon.
  • We do not have to manage ag water this way. We could, for example, designate land in 400,000acre tranches and tie those to the hydrograph. The first tranches, the ones with great ag qualities or that satisfy societal values like ‘being a greenbelt’, would grow table food for Californians and always get water, which would also address food security for Californians. The next tranches would get water in medium years; the last tranches would get water in very wet years. Drought management would consist of looking at the hydrograph and notifying the cut-off tranch. Done.
  • I see absolutely no appetite in our leadership for transforming our water system into a flexible resilient one that makes the most Californians as content as possible. Their entire mindset, as usual, is to try to patch this jenky-ass stumbling zombie for another year. Given that the sole administrative priority will be ‘get Newsom to the presidency’ for another four years, I think change would have to come from an initiative. I think we could insert our priorites into the “reasonable” definition. An initiative that says that “it is not reasonable to export CA water in form of crops while California’s rivers do not thrive and every Californian does not have some baseline amount of water” would probably do it. CA water rights have always been subject to a reasonableness definition; I suspect this would avoid the takings problem. Seems to me that all of CA’s cities should vote for this.
  • Look. I’ve been down with urban water conservation, especially where it doesn’t conflict with quality of life. Waste, like leaks or misdirected sprinklers or old appliances that use too much, is entirely unjustifiable. There’s been an awful lot of that for a very long time. But where that has been addressed and additional conservation cuts into urban people’s quality of life? My reaction is a heartfelt “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”
    • I am furious that our leadership’s imagination is so stunted that they cannot imagine a real solution and instead choose to immiserate people, even in tiny daily sacrifices of attention or small nicenesses. FUCK THAT. Imagine better and then dare to bring it about. There is water enough for city people to have small nice things and food.
    • We should do small bullshit about warm-up water because of a racist priority system? We have to all pretend that every CA city has a small bucket of water and if they use it up, there isn’t any more anywhere else? ‘Cause that’s just not true. We may mostly not know that unshippable almonds will use as much water as MWD this year, but so long as those trees are alive, there’s water enough for cities to have watered outdoor spaces.
    • I may or may not have assessed this correctly, but it doesn’t matter anyway. People are unwilling for reasons entirely outside water. Attention and conscientiousness are also natural resources and they’ve been exhausted the past two years. People can remember where their masks are or they can carry warm-up water to their flowers, but it won’t be both and it is clear which they’re doing (or maybe neither, but I think the water-conservation-but-not-pandemic-caution cohort is small).

After creating a pleasant vision of Californians having healthy rivers and a pleasant urban existence, there is of course the courage required to bring that about. But we aren’t even failing at the courage stage. We are failing because we have forgotten how to imagine a system that gives Californians a small sweet life**.

*Original observation from Kaitlyn Greenidge.

**This is an even stronger phenomenon in other fields, like housing and transportation. It applies in CA water as well.


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7 responses to “Our leaders do not have the courage and vision to fix this*.

  1. Patrick

    These posts really reflect my feelings about the current water situation. I did not know the 20-30% water needed to grow the almonds would meet MWD demand.

    I think it is important to know what the problem is, it is not how water is used but who has political control and how that is used. We focus on the obvious problem/solution and that is very short sighted. If that were the case the billions of dollars allocated to study this problem would have yielded any number of solutions and they would have been implemented.

    Pulling for a book, Secrets of Consulting, “If there is a problem, it is a people problem”. We have to look deep into the issue and say Why are they asking me to water my lawn once a week when they know it will be a waste of water and not serve to solve the problem? When we can answere that, we will solve California’s water issues.

  2. Thanks for writing, this is super interesting and entertaining.

    Alison Monroe


  3. Diane Livia

    Aside from keeping almond trees alive, the current system has enabled Stuart Resnick and others to become billionaires at the expense of keeping water in the rivers and our aquifers. I say, no one gets to be a billionaire on CA water. We have given these almond farmers our cheap water so that they could corner 80% or more of the world market in almonds.

    Why would we spend our water this way? Because there are billionaires, and billionaires don’t grow on trees…they take their money from the rest of us one way or another.

    And as for water rationing, once again EBMUD, rather than follow the lead of San Diego, has enacted a regressive tax: the same percent reduction for everyone no matter the size of the property or how much water a property owner over-used last year–let alone how many people are living in what size house. I live in Oakland. When Black Hawk is brown, I will take a short shower and let my native grass meadow go brown — not before.

    I’m wondering if there is a way to sue EBMUD around this.

  4. Noel Park

    I have often thought that the end game of Westlands (just to cite the most egregious example) was to somehow get the feds/state to buy out their properties before they get terminally poisoned by salt, selenium, etc. As a taxpayer, I would actually support it. We waste our money on stupider stuff. How about using the $3 billion plus budget for Sites for a start?

  5. John Bass

    Hello and my best wishes OtPR,

    Remember the PPIC’s “From Conflict to Reconciliation” moment in time? I’m sure you do, since you wrote about it back in 2011. I remember that their use of the word reconciliation piqued my curiosity. Such an important word, and a noble goal – a civil goal, even – if there is such a possibility anymore when talking CA water.

    It’s clear, and was clear then, that what PPIC proposed to be reconciled was dangerously underestimated. Smart people, but as you said then: “Reconciliation of What?”

    In the years since, your voice has grown more important as it has gotten angrier, more pleadingly desperate about what is happening as the water in the pot we’re in gets hotter and hotter.

    How long will it take for Californians (or any of us) to change our behaviour and politics given the clear and growingly insistent evidence that reconciling with an indifferent Nature is the only thing that matters? That it’s us who need to do the reconciling, collectively, since she doesn’t bargain?

  6. Anonymous

    Apologies if this is a dumb question or if you covered it in the past, but: I understand why you can’t truly fallow an almond orchard, but isn’t there some volume of water between “keep the trees alive” and “produce a bountiful crop”?

    Also, I live in a very wet place but am nonetheless much more focused on water conservation than pandemic precaution. Squandered resources offend me to my very soul.