Two lovely things.

I am sincerely enjoying the work coming from women academics younger than me, demonstrating that mainstays of California water management are pretty well bullshit.

  • Here is Dr. Ulibarri pointing out that water districts spend substantial time and money on management plans that they do not use to manage their water and that we don’t use to hold them accountable. Also, the plans only really address water supply.
  • Here is Dr. Dobbin saying that SGMA agencies do not concern themselves with drinking water for small and vulnerable communities, and if we want them to, we will have to go beyond “outreach and engagement.”

I would love to stand behind the authors at conferences and be their anger translator. They’re saying such important things, but still saying them in academic language. I would gibber and howl and bellow things like “including DACs is worthless if you ignore them afterward!”or “if we’re going to make districts do plans, make them rigorous! If not, don’t waste everyone’s time!”

On the other hand, what I want to tell Dr. Ulibarri is that she cannot imagine how forcefully these plans were fought at the beginning. I had a front row seat. The districts were absolutely livid that big government would want to look into their internal affairs. One district manager spent the time to fill in every single blank in the guidebook with “N/A” and send it back to us. Aside from that, it was the early 90’s and the water districts literally did not have the information the water plans requested. Keep track of deliveries? Nope. Never did it; didn’t see why they would. Basic information management was a heavy lift (they told us) and doing that on a deadline was nigh impossible. They fought water plans so hard and the weakened outcome was the limbo we are in now: “turn them in and no one will hold you responsible for what is in them.”

Dr. Ulibarri is right, though. It has been thirty years since the 1992 CVPIA required Ag Water Management Plans. A generation and a half of bizarre limbo is long enough. Time for the next phase (SWRCB enforcing targets? Actually holding districts to their submitted plans?). Dr. Dobbin is right too. Requiring that agencies do outreach and collaboration with DACs is newer, coming on 10 years old. It is also a weakass process requirement. The truth is that districts will not accept strong re-direction from what they do now. They will fight anything that creates different outcomes. The other truth is that the State and Feds do not want the responsibility of actual factfinding and enforcement, so they’re happy to accept toothless process compromises.

I’m loving these papers pointing out well known, established water management practices are pointless. Keep them coming! I admire your work!


You know what else has been wonderful? It isn’t in Water; it is over in Housing. Friends, if you are not following the saga of the Builders Remedy, it is absolutely delightful. It is also a lesson about the importance of changing the BATNA. More or less, it goes like this:

State: Cities, you must write a Housing Element that adds sufficient housing and turn it in to us.

Cities: No, fuck you.

State: Actually, you do have to and we will tell you whether it is compliant.

Cities: Hah hah, here is our joke of a Housing Element, smeared with food from our lunch. What are you going to do about it?

MEANWHILE: When a city doesn’t have a compliant Housing Element, something called the Builders Remedy comes into effect, in which any project submitted by a developer is automatically accepted and cannot be revoked, even when the City does submit a compliant Housing Element. In the past month, a few cities’ Housing Elements were deemed incompliant and not corrected and finally, the city fell into Builders Remedy status. The developers were just waiting and submitted projects right away. Those projects are now permitted.

Cities: HOLY FUCKING SHIT, how fast can we get a corrected Housing Element to you and oh god can you review it quickly?

Now Water friends. Can you see the difference between that and what we’ve been doing with the Voluntary Agreements? The BATNA is everything. Water districts are getting what they want while the State tries to negotiate Voluntary Agreements. Their BATNA is better than the Voluntary Agreements and delay is the same as winning for them. Which is why, four years later, the Newsom Administration has nothing to show for their work. Now if the BATNA were flipped, as with the Builders Remedy, so that districts did not get water while they delay the Voluntary Agreements, well then. Then you would see the districts coming to the administration and begging them to negotiate terms as fast as possible.

Learn from the Builders Remedy, Newsom administration! Flip the BATNA! Everyone else, at least follow along and enjoy the schadenfreude. It has been just marvelous.


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9 responses to “Two lovely things.

  1. Noel Park

    Well I hate to sound fatalistic, but the end game is pretty obvious to me. When the 2500 foot + ag wells suck dry, the corporate growers will fold up their tents and retire to Beverly Hills or Carmel by the sea. I’m sure that the hedge funds have algorithms that show them that they will make their money before the inevitable happens. 21st century Dust bowl.

  2. Anonymous

    You are completely correct as always and I love it.

    • Noel Park


      I like to eat but thousand of acres of unsustainable almond and pistachio groves don’t do anything for me. There is more crop land than there is water. It has to come into balance eventually, but no on wants to face it.

  3. Maya

    When is the water bypass tunnel near Sacramento going to be built? We need water, not more cubicle-dweller commentary.

  4. Christo Gilberti

    What it took to get the housing situation moving was a huge movement, with a clever name, YIMBY, driven by young people (and financed by R.E. developers). Nothing like that is happening with water. Housing is an issue because of its lack (including for our children who can’t afford to live here.) Water keeps flowing out the tap in urban areas so it’s hard to get people outraged in the same way.

  5. Regarding your take on the Builder’s Remedy, I don’t think you’re looking at the full picture. The State requires that the Housing Element include upzoning to allow for the construction of new units, but there’s no requirement that any of those units fall into the Moderate Income, Low Income or Very Low Income categories as defined by HUD. The State required LA to upzone to accommodate over 400,000 new units, and LA complied, but there’s no requirement that any of those units will be affordable to moderate and low-income Angelenos. Based on recent history, 80 to 85% of what gets built will be for households that earn 120% or more of the area median income. And if you buy the supply/demand argument that just increasing supply will lower prices, please check out rents in NYC, where the City has been approving tons of new housing, much of it in super-tall skyscrapers where the rents start around $4,000.
    I’m glad you’re talking about mandates that never get enforced. You may have heard about the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). During each housing cycle, the State sets RHNA requirements for every jurisdiction in CA, setting out goals for the production of Above Moderate, Moderate, Low and Very Low Income housing. It probably won’t surprise you to know that almost every city in CA is out of compliance when it comes to building affordable housing. Since 2013, LA has built about double the amount of required Above Moderate housing, but it has fallen far short in every other category. And what consequences does the State impose for the failure to build affordable housing? None.
    The fact that State law allows the Builder’s Remedy, which gives developers the chance to build pretty much whatever they want, without making any effort to enforce affordable housing requirements shows whose side the State is on. The folks in Sacramento do not care if Californians have access to affordable housing. All they care about is making sure that the real estate investors who finance their campaigns are able to rake in a generous return on their investment.

  6. Paul Helliker

    In a builders remedy, the regulatory jurisdiction loses the ability to control the industry activities until it completes an acceptable regulatory plan (housing element). The analogy in the water world would be that the regulatory entity (the State Water Board) would lose the ability to control industry activities (diversions from surface water) until they complete an “acceptable” regulatory plan (water quality control plan/water right decision). That appears to be the opposite of what you want.

    As for UWMPs, they were never intended to be comprehensive planning documents, with all of the details included that would relate to the topics you lament are not discussed extensively. Water quality topics are typically covered by drinking water permits, infrastructure projects by master plans and capital improvement plans, cost issues by financial plans, environmental impacts by CEQA documents, and so on. Water agencies prepare and use all of these plans and documents, but adding that level of detail to UWMPs would not make them any better, and likely would be a waste of time and money, since fewer people would read them than read UWMPS. The good news is that all of these documents are available on water agency websites, accessible to anyone with access to the internet.

    • Noel Park

      Well, the housing plan model may not apply directly to water usage, but I think OTPR is saying that something equally draconian is going to be necessary to get water use in CA under control. How about if your plan is not acceptable, or if it is not enforced, you don’t get any more water? That works for me. Or, barring that, how about a state entity makes a plan for you and enforces it? I cringe at the thought of the bureaucracy it would require, but the current Wild West situation is clearly unsustainable.