Category Archives: Agriculture

More about the Dudley Ridge water transfer.

I want to write about the Little Hoover Commission’s report on the structure of California water governance, but there’s so much in there that I’m overwhelmed.  Soon.  In the meantime, a couple rough thoughts about Dudley Ridge’s response to the Kern County Grand Jury report.


Dear Hanford Sentinel,

Would it kill you to give a link to the source materials, so I don’t have to rely only on your reporting?  It took me long minutes to track it down on the County website, which is the kind of strenuous reporting that bloggers don’t like to do.  (There you go, gentle readers.  The Grand Jury report is on pages 6-11; Dudley Ridge’s response is on pages 12-13.)  That would be great!




The Grand Jury’s report called for stricter oversight by the county and DWR, so that transfers that permanently sell away a noticeable chunk of water don’t happen by surprise.

Recommendation 3:
While short term water exchanges are acceptable and common, permanent transfers need more forceful oversight on the part of county officials and local public agencies.

Dudley Ridge’s response:

Response to Recommendation 3
We disagree that “more forceful oversight” is necessary. The District and the County are sister agencies, and each is an independent political subdivision of the state. Neither has authority over the other, and each is charged with specific responsibilities. The District, like the County is bound to follow certain statutory mandates. It did so in connection with the subject transfer, and it rigorously attempts to do so in all cases. If the Grand Jury believes the District (or any other party complying with the law) should act in a different manner, it should take those issues up with the Legislature in an effort to change the relevant requirements.

I kinda like that for the big “Fuck you, Grand Jury.  Take it up with the Legislature.”  I’m also in doubt, because I do think that counties have authority over districts, but honestly don’t know and shouldn’t opine on that issue.  But mostly, the thing that always strikes me about Dudley Ridge is that unlike anywhere else I know of, there is no District identity.  The “District” can’t disagree with anyone, because there is nothing that would ordinarily make up a “District.”  No one lives in Dudley Ridge, unless maybe there are some laborer camps.  So there is no “public” to go to district board meetings, issue comment and run for the Board if they don’t like the direction the district is going.   The owners of the land, and therefore the Board Members, are corporations like Vidovich in San Jose.  They don’t have staff.  They have one “Engineer-Manager”, but so far as I can tell, he’s a hired consultant from Provost and Pritchard (page 26).  You know how easy it would be for them to replace him if he ever got to having opinions?  I am sure that CH2MHill could have someone in there in a week.

Dudley Ridge is unusual in this (which is probably also why they were able to do something as unusual as permanently transfer water rights).  I’m not describing a state of affairs that shows how corrupt all SJV water is.  I’m only boggling that none of the usual checks of local democracy apply at all in Dudley Ridge’s case.  They’ll do what they like, which presumably is whatever is profitable for those companies.  If you don’t like it, take it up with the Legislature.

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Thinking about Mr. Middleton’s post on water conservation.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Middleton is tired of hearing about water conservation:

Is anyone else tired of the word ‘conservation’?

Author: Brandon Middleton

I know I am. It seems you can’t go a day without being reminded of the need for water conservation in California.

He’s got a long decade ahead of him.  I am sympathetic.  We’re living through transition, being forced to hear new and frustrating things in our adulthood, just after we formed an opinion about how things should be.  I myself am tired of hearing about species after species on the brink of extinction.  I’d love to get through a week without a dire new symptom of climate change showing up.  The end of narcissism is always trying; no one wants to become aware of limits and the consequences of our actions on things around us.  I’ve said for a while that for privileged westerners, this will be one of the main costs of climate change induced scarcity, that we will all have to start thinking like the poorer people we are becoming.  It seems like a minor cost, but everyone will pay it.

Mr. Middleton acknowledges that water conservation will be useful, but goes on to complain that the federal government is wasting water, by sending it through the Delta to protect fish.

While Californians listen to the repeated requests and demands to conserve, our own federal government takes water away from these same consumers and gives it to a two-inch fish, the delta smelt.  State water projects have lost approximately 800,000 acre-feet of water this year due to restrictions to protect the delta smelt, salmon, and other fish species.

To someone who doesn’t prioritize species protection and healthy ecosystems, I suppose that would seem a waste.  However:

  • In California, ecosystem flows are legally classified as beneficial use.  So it isn’t legally a waste of water.
  • I’m not sure who “the federal government” is.  Judge Wanger specifically?  One man is “the federal government”?  Reclamation?  Reclamation is following Judge Wanger’s decisions.  Congress, for not overturning the Endangered Species Act?  Fish and Wildlife Service, for writing the Biological Opinions?  I suspect we’re getting closer here.  When I was a student intern, I was over at Reclamation on Cottage Way.  We had the usual cube farm, and I didn’t think much of it one way or the other.  One day I went over to the FWS wing of the building for something.  They had the most dilapidated, busted out, old jenky furniture and desks and computers.  I couldn’t believe it.  I looked around, staring.  “Jesus,” I said.  “They hate you.”  Even the demonic FWS isn’t the cause of the content of their Biological Opinions.  They’re messengers, not the source.  They’re reporting what is happening to fish in the Delta and reporting what Science knows about how to fix it.  If you don’t like what the Biological Opinions say, don’t blame the FWS.  Fix the Delta.
  • There’s an interesting dogwhistle in that phrase, a subconscious signal to the intended audience of Mr. Middleton’s post.  I wonder if he even noticed it or if he passed it straight through from the State Water Contractors.  Eight hundred thousand acre-feet of water?  I’ve heard that number before.  That’s the annual allocation to ecosystem needs that the CVPIA required in 1992 (PL 102-575 Sec. 3406 (D) (2)).  Every grower in a Central Valley Project water district knows that number well.  It would resonate with them.
  • The ever-present problem of baseline setting shows up here.  Who is taking what away from whom depends on what baseline you establish.  If your baseline is an era of full contract allocation, then using some of that for fish would be “taking it away”  from consumers.  If you consider the previous millennia of using the full flows of California’s water for a mostly unexploited environment to be the baseline, than diverting some of it to farming would be “taking it away” from fish.

Gotta run, but I do love deconstructing this stuff.


Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

Other stuff on the internet.

I loved this slideshow of agriculture around the world, which I looked at long and hard (not least because it loads painfully slowly). I tried to guess the crop and country before I read the caption. I could tell the dairyman was in a first world country because of all the capital in the shot (the nice clean buildings and fences), but wasn’t sure where until I looked at the hills in the background. Oh, home. Absolutely, without question.

Picture 4 blew my mind. Those furrows/beds were machine dug, right? It reminded me of my irrigation professor’s statement that nothing would be more useful to African agriculture then laser leveling.

Looks a fair amount like coastal Central California. Americans should wear more color. Start ’em early.

The picture of the lettuce harvesters reminded me of my perennial internet debates. Sen. McCain once infuriated people by saying that Americans wouldn’t pick lettuce for $50/hour. I don’t agree with Sen. McCain on just about anything, so I should be warned. But I agreed with him here. After spending a summer in fields doing irrigation system evaluations and seeing how hard the laborers worked, I believe that anyone with any alternative (a minimum wage job stocking shelves indoors, for example) wouldn’t do farm labor. I also believe that people who didn’t do manual labor growing up couldn’t pick at a speed that growers would pay for. That picture of lettuce pickers reinforced my take on this stupid, pointless question that I should learn to ignore.

All the pictures are fantastic, but the last one that stuck with me was of the Afghani herders driving their goats. Such beautiful goats! Then, right there, graffiti-ed onto the rock, an American surveying station in ugly orange paint. What did the Americans start there? Can they finish it? Did the Afghani’s want the reminder? What did the locals write in response (coincidence that the response is in green, color of Islam)? In that picture, they’re going along their daily business, not bothering anyone, with the beautiful goats and ugly reminders of imperialism.

Another amazing photo series on the food families around the world eat in a week.

Gene Logsdon has been writing about driving animals, and what a big part of life it used to be.

An interesting take on the Resnicks, from before the drought politicized them in water circles. I stumbled on this by accident as I was looking for beekeeping information, and was surprised to see them in other conflicts. Hard to believe there’s life outside Water, but sometimes it pierces my blinders.

Couple interesting pieces in the SF Chron today. A hay farmer holds out against turning a Delta island to a wetland. My take-away is that we shouldn’t have made contracts to maintain levees in perpetuity for free. Like water rights, it was too much to offer.

Also, an interesting read about a Californian cotton grower who doesn’t want his cotton subsidies. He’d rather compete on quality. Next Farm Bill reauthorization is in 2013? First year of Pres. Obama’s second and final term? Interesting thought.


Alex Breitler pointed us to a new site, put up by South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts to argue against a Biological Opinion for preserving steelhead on the Stanislaus River.

I like the site. It looks like the authentic work of the people who posted it, not smarmy bullshit by paid-for PR firms. You can tell. This is good, because now I can get a feel for what SSJID and OID actually think. I’m glad they put it out for public analysis.

That said, their argument is wrong on two fronts. First, they say that the Biological Opinion is flawed because it will drain New Melones reservoir 13 times over the next eighty years. But keeping the reservoir full isn’t the goal of the Biological Opinion; just because the reservoir empties doesn’t mean that the Biological Opinion won’t achieve what it is trying to do, which is give the best chance to steelhead. I’d be real interested in seeing that report. I’ve seen similar DWR reports, of state reservoirs going dry about 20 times in the next century. I wonder whether the New Melones/Stanislaus modeling included climate change, which will make the problem much worse (less water, plus you have to release more cold water to cool off warmer rivers). Anyways, the report’s results sound roughly right to me, and point to much more active reservoir operations in the future than we’re used to.

The real problem with their argument is in the last two bullet points. They’re essentially saying that once the reservoir is empty, the river will run dry and it will be terrible for steelhead. That, they claim, is the flaw of the Biological Opinion: “The implementation of the BO could kill the very fish it attempts to save…”. This is true. Once there’s no water left to send down the river, there’s no water left. But holding that water behind the reservoir will also dry up the river, making it terrible for steelhead. Every year the rules laid out in the Biological Opinion draw the reservoir down to almost nothing is another season that the Biological Opinion did exactly what it was written to do, keep water in the river and save the steelhead. I can’t tell from the write-up on their site, but that looks like it might be 22 years in the next 80 years. (Or maybe the 13 years of complete drawdown come out of those 22 years; I can’t tell.)

So far as I can see from the write-up on their site, the problem isn’t that the Biological Opinion is flawed. The problem is that it is likely the right thing to do for steelhead, and that will direct water into the Stanislaus and away from SSJID and OID’s growers. Also, it looks like there isn’t enough (cold) water in the system even if it all went to steelhead. I do love seeing growers and districts take such an active interest in invasive species, stewards of the land that they are.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Districts, Uncategorized

In our lifetimes.

I’ve heard these numbers on food waste before, and don’t have any gut feel for whether they’re about right. (Via.) I’ll say what I always say, which is that the pounds of food waste could be huge (millions and millions), and still be a small percentage of the overall foodstream. But I don’t know. Maybe it is noticeable percentage of the foodstream.

If a noticeable percent of the foodstream is wasted, I think that using that making better use of that food has good potential to use less water in ag. Honestly, I think it holds more easy gains than straight up engineering solutions to irrigation techniques. There are still improvements to make on the engineering side of things, but contra the Pacific Institute, I don’t think they free up a ton of water. The three avenues I see for using much less water in ag without fallowing are: decreasing food waste, improving soil tilth, and bio-engineering crops.

The other thing I’d like to point out is that the farmer quoted in the food waste story said that farmers account for a five percent food loss in the fields. Last year, the year of the Communist carrots and the scares about loss of food production from drought, California carrot acreage was down 3%. This year, because of late rains, California carrot acreage is down 11%. But no one is going to go shrieking about rains causing us to import carrots from China. The food threat from the last three years of drought is completely unfounded, less than the annual write-off from harvesting waste (before food gets wasted at every other level of transaction).

Then, because I can’t help hammering home my usual theme, I have to point out that doing stuff like reducing food waste and improving soil tilth is exactly the type of intense management for small gains over widely spread territory that no one wants to do. We’ve exhausted the big, low-entropy sources of water, so if we want more, we have to get it in small bits from ungleaned fields everywhere. We are still rich enough that it is there for the taking. But we’re getting poor enough that we’re starting to be interested in taking what we never thought worth it before. This is what a transition to relative scarcity looks like.


Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

Since you asked, II.

John Bass wonders what legalizing pot would add to the ag economy. Again, I have no idea, but again, I’ll jump in with an estimate.

Prof. Kleiman at UCLA studies drug policy; here is his post on whether legalizing pot would stimulate the national economy. He writes: “the illicit cannabis industry in the U.S. generates revenues of about $10 billion per year”, which he thinks is negligible on the national scheme of things. That isn’t necessarily the case for California ag though, which could be a regional beneficiary.

1. California would grow most of the nation’s pot. We have a lead in this, don’t we? Although I think I’ve heard stories about hemp thriving in the south and midwest, with plants escaping and growing by the roadside. So perhaps pot would grow well throughout the country, and the south and midwest would want in on that ag product. Nevertheless, there is evidence that industries grow around first movers, and California has cornered the market on types of produce (lettuce, almonds) before.

2. But Prof. Kleiman thinks that criminalization inflates the value of the pot industry; his guess is about six times. So, a legal pot industry would be more like ($10B/6 =) $1.7B.

3. California ag annual ag revenues are about $36B, $37B. Pot would add a nice buffer, but it isn’t a transformative crop. It is, in fact, like almonds ($1.8B) or wine grapes ($2.24B). 

4.  It’d be nice to get a third high value crop for people to talk about, so that the conversation isn’t invariably almonds or vines.  I believe pot is an annual, which would offer nice flexibility for row crop farmers.  But as an ag crop, instead of an illicit product, I think it would have large but not disproportionate benefits for the California ag industry.

5.  Finally, if we’re introducing a new product into the ag world, and one that has always come with regulation, I wish a permitting system could be structured to accomplish a goal.  The federal tobacco program issued quotas to tobacco farmers, guaranteeing minimum prices.  It created a monopoly structure and it kept the price of tobacco artificially high, but farms lasted for generations farming 7-10 acres of tobacco.  The only crop I know of that keeps a tiny farm profitable in California is strawberries for direct roadside marketing.  If someone wanted, say, a robust and stable farming community along the east side of the Valley that provided living wages for small farms and their workers, that person might think that the way marijuana cultivation was legalized could help accomplish such a goal.  Given that the crop is currently criminalized, perhaps a regulatory structure for growing it wouldn’t seem so burdensome.  I don’t see why the default should be to go straight to the opposite end of the spectrum, and treat pot just like any other crop.

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Since you asked.

ScottB asked how much water pot takes, and frankly, I have no idea.  But I know how to guess.

First, I hoped for an ETcrop (evapotranspiration is how water moves through the plant into the atmosphere).  That’s a co-efficient that researchers have measured for all the major crops.  You multiply it against a reference ET, which is how much water a reference crop uses.  The California Irrigation Management Information System uses grass for its reference crop.  Other systems use alfalfa.  If you wanted, you could go to CIMIS and find out how much water a patch of grass transpired under each day’s weather conditions.  Then you multiply that by the coefficient for your crop, and figure out how much water you should put on to re-fill the soil profile.

I didn’t hope to find an ETcrop for pot, but I did find one for a type of hemp.  Under well-watered conditions, the seasonal average crop coefficient for Sunn hemp was 1.  So Sunn hemp needs the same amount of water as a patch of grass.  If pot and Sunn hemp are similar, pot has the same water demands as the reference grass for CIMIS.

All of that is thinking too hard.  If you don’t know, guess 3.5 feet per year.  Nod sagely and squint at the mountains in the distance.  If someone gives you grief, say “but did you consider your salt flushing requirement?”  Distract them with questions about their system’s filter capacity and ask when they last backflushed their filters.  Tell them the manufacturer specs require more frequent backflushing and then quit the field victorious.


Filed under Agriculture

I write this blog just for him.

Dave Simmons left another comment below, one I promised to address. This has been a talking point recently, so I’m glad to get a chance to think about it.

But seriously, I don’t know about Salmon but the smelt are on a death spiral no matter what happens to us they will continue to decline. Because even the most respected scientists point to the fact that it is probably a combination of factors that is effecting them. The whole picture is not being looked at. No one really seems to focus the smelts’ myriad of other problems. How can you solve any problem when you are only willing to look at one narrow view of the situation. It is easy to just blame the farmers. Radical environmentalists have know to be wrong before. I sure as heck don’t trust them. They have their own agenda.

It is amazing to me that you can be so certain that it is the farmers that are the ones at fault. Is it easy for you to overlook the sewage wastewater pollution, numerous non native species, acres of wetlands gone, pharmaceuticals and the latest pytheriods (sp) form urban sources and many other stressors? In fact, it is getting to something like 95% of the life in the delta isn’t native! But you are sure it is the export pumps and your willing to have us “strangled” to find out. It maybe to late for the fish by then. I say we need to find and fix the problems and not “strangle” people till we find the right problem. Today it is us. Tomorrow it might be you!!!

I don’t know anyone who thinks that the pumps are the whole problem or the only problem. Every knowledgeable person would agree that the fisheries collapse in the Delta is a combination of pumps, invasive species, habitat destruction, wastewater discharge, pesticide run-off from farms and lawns, ocean conditions. The smelt collapse is a problem with multiple causes. The pumps are a conspicuous cause, possibly the predominant cause, but certainly not the only one. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is not because of causes, or because of blaming farmers, or casting moral judgments. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is because of remedies. Look at all those likely causes. The pumps are the only one with an available remedy. They’re the only part that we can control today. The other causes are exactly the kind that are hard to fix; widely distributed small effects that become a problem in the aggregate.

People are working on fixing those other causes. There’s a couple billion dollars in the water bond for habitat restoration, but habitat restoration and reversing invasive species will take years. Mr. Simmons is right; part of the solution will ‘come for me’. I live in Sac and expect my sewer bills to go up tens of dollars a month, as they should. But that won’t happen fast. We can slow the pumps today.

Right now, the pumps are the only dial we can turn to save fish species in the Delta. It is definitely true that we should be (and are) addressing the other causes. But I want to point out, it is not wrong to control the one contributing cause we can control. That’s the fallacy in the talking point: ‘the pumps aren’t the whole problem, so we shouldn’t turn off the pumps!’. The law field of torts has spent a lot of time thinking about causation, including multiple contributing causes. That’s nice, because it means that I don’t have to. From the linked Wikipedia page:

Concurrent Actual Causes
Suppose that two actors’ negligent acts combine to produce one set of damages, where but for either of their negligent acts, no damage would have occurred at all. This is two negligences contributing to a single cause, as distinguished from two separate negligences contributing to two successive or separate causes. These are “concurrent actual causes.” In such cases, courts have held both defendants liable for their negligent acts.

Right. Where more than one thing causes the problem, all the causes are responsible.  I said I hate analogies, so I’m being a big hypocrite by offering one. Because I’m ashamed, I’ll put it beneath the fold.

Continue reading


Filed under Agriculture, Peripheral Canal

Be careful with your words (lest they get overanalyzed by a blogger).

Dave Simmons left a comment on the “Fish, food, feedback loops.” post that I want to talk about for a second. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using it as a discussion point, Mr. Simmons.

3. Westlands has become the most productive in the nation and the most efficient in the state. We get the most crop per drop. That is why! We should be held up as an example to the rest of the state. If all other farmers were as efficient as us maybe there wouldn’t be a crisis.

But instead, our reward is death by strangulation.

First, it is true that farms in Westlands have tremendous irrigation efficiency. They have the capital to put in very nice irrigation systems; they’re the only place I know of where you can’t assume as a matter of course that they’ve undersized their filters. That said, I want to address his closing rhetorical flourish: “our reward is death by strangulation.”

This is why I hate metaphors and analogies. I know that Mr. Simmons did not mean it literally. Mr. Simmons doesn’t really think that as a reward for having very high irrigation efficiency and great yields, state or federal enforcers will systematically strangle all of the 600 growers in Westlands to death. Mr. Simmons is just using dramatic language to make a point. But nevertheless, there are a few problems with these kind of statements.

1. Now we know and Mr. Simmons knows that there will be no death by strangulation involved in any part of the on-going water conflicts. But you know who doesn’t know that? Mr. Simmon’s own un-thinking limbic system. His own body doesn’t know that, and when it hears “death by strangulation,” it thinks that is VERY VERY IMPORTANT and SOMETHING TO FIGHT. Mr. Simmon’s calm and measured mind understands metaphor, and that we are talking about the sequential retiring of fields as state water supplies dwindle. But people’s bodies are acutely concerned with things like “death by strangulation”, and after hearing things like that, bodies will stay activated and on-guard. It will feel the echo of that death-threat, and the next time retiring Westlands comes up, the body will remember that we are in a FIGHT TO THE DEATH! The body is not that bright, but it knows what it knows, and it knows that “death by strangulation” is VERY BAD. Identifying the well-being of Westlands with one’s own fight for life will make Westlands farmers fight sooner, longer and harder, more frantically than a business decision about resource use deserves.

2. The second reason that I don’t like “death by strangulation”, even as metaphor, is related to the first. Frankly, it spooks the horses scares the authoritarians. They’re already fearful; they see the end of the world at every turn. They’ve been permanently triggered; their shows shout at them, telling them about constant dangers and the chaos to come. I read the comments on Hannity’s show, and people are talking about black helicopters and jackboots cracking down on salt-of-the-earth farmers (I am just this second thinking about parallels between the fall of the Garden of Eden and pictures of bulldozers taking out trees). Now water scarcity may be having an inexorable effect on marginal farming operations in California, but the mechanism is not strangulation, nor killing farmers by any means. Rather, pump operators a hundred miles away are intermittently slowing down 13 huge pumps. No one is in any physical danger. But when fearful people see words like “death by strangulation”, even if they know it isn’t literal and discount it some, their permanently terrified perception is going to be closer to ‘DANGER DANGER DANGER’ than it is to ‘making hard planning decisions about crops, fields and water availability.’

3. Mr. Simmons, and every other farmer on the west side, your life is not at stake. Here are some things you can do when the climate changes and these drought shortages become permanent. You can farm in the Sacramento Valley. You can farm on the east side of the San Joaquin. If you aren’t bankrupt, you could (try to) cash out and retire somewhere. You can try to turn your land into solar energy farm. You can go to college and start a new career. You could be a foreman on someone else’s farm. Your existence is not at stake. Your lifestyle is at stake. Your emotional investment in your land is at stake. (Actually, those are both already gone, but I’m trying to be kind.) What you are used to is at stake. But you, as a thinking and self-determining person, will live past the end of Westlands Water District. You can move and adjust, because you are an intelligent human. The sooner you get working on that, the easier the transition will be.

You might also think about who you want to be as you face the end of what you have known. To keep farming the west side for a few extra years, what are you willing to destroy? Would you destroy salmon for everyone else in the state, so that you can keep driving around in a white truck on the land you are used to? Would you end a species of small fish, so that you can keep going to the diner in Three Rocks? Would you drown Sites Valley, just so you can look at the same horizon you’re attached to? Is that how you want your last few years in Westlands to be? Thrashing around, destroying beautiful places, killing small pieces of the creation, so that you can keep farming where you’re used to? Remember, you aren’t doing all those things to preserve your life, even if you’ve unconsciously linked those in your head. You aren’t even doing those to preserve your identity as a farmer. You, a fully functional person with a lifetime of skill, could move and farm elsewhere. You, if you keep up with your losing lawsuits and futile battle against climate change and salt, would be breaking all those things just to stay in place a few years longer. People will judge you for that.

4. There are participants in all this who do face death as a result of our collective decisions. They aren’t strangled. They are sucked into giant pumps and pulped. This is not a metaphor for the end of a way of life, or very hard decisions, or bankruptcy. They are physically drawn into pumps, crushed and mangled. We gather their broken bodies and try to guess whether we’ve killed so many the species will end, or if we can kill a few thousand more. You will outlive the end of Westlands, Mr. Simmons. Death by strangulation is not a threat to you or any farmer in Westlands. But a horrible death to smelt and salmon is a certainty; happened by the hundreds just this week. They wish death were a metaphor.


Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

Couple more thoughts.

I have a couple more thoughts on the “death by strangulation” metaphor for Westlands, because I always have a couple more thoughts.

1. There actually is a possibility for death by strangulation for Westlands farmers, and that is if they hang themselves. Farmers commit suicide at disproportionate rates; it is terrible. There’s a lot of research on this, and help is available. Please, please do not kill yourself. Growers on the west side, please also keep an eye out for your neighbors. If they look depressed or hopeless, please ask them how they are. In many farmer suicides, western cowboy culture keeps people from volunteering how bleak they feel. But they might answer if asked, and it could prevent a suicide.

2. My other thought is that I keep telling growers on the west side to get out. The water situation isn’t going to get any better for them. Did you see the 2009 State Water Project draft reliability report? But it occurs to me that growers in Westlands may have no exit opportunity. What, they’re going to sell their land? To whom? Without water, that land has almost no value.

At the water law symposium a couple weekends back, Jason Peltier (a manager at Westlands) said something interesting. He said (recalling, so I can’t swear by the wording), ‘Shoot, most of them are already in bankruptcy, but the banks don’t want to foreclose.’ Which was very interesting.

Who holds those mortgages? What bank in their right mind would want to own those lands? What would a bank do with them? Who knows if liability will change, and one day they’ll be billed for their selenium drainage? A bank can’t sell those lands without water any better than the current owners could. A bank could maybe bundle them, and sell them to someone trying to start a solar energy empire. It’d be nice if the Nature Conservancy would take them; managed would be better than empty. But I think the Nature Conservancy has higher priorities, with more biodiversity left in them.

Anyway, the idea that without water, those lands have negative value to the holder would make it hard for farmers to get out, even if they could walk away. Man, I don’t know how to handle that. Land swaps somehow? But good farmland with secure water is being farmed now. Transitions are hard. Too bad we changed the climate away from the one we were optimized for.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Drought

Fish, farms, feedback loops.

With the House Congressional hearings and Judge Wanger’s decision to allow pumping for a couple weeks right now (on the grounds that the pumps are allowed to kill about 23,000 juvenile salmon and so far have only killed about 1,200, so, you know, might as well pump a little), there’s been a whole lot of the now-familiar talking points.  Regulatory drought will be the end of California farmers!  Fish and ecosystems are collapsing!  I’m also seeing the new “Communist carrots!”, which I greatly enjoy.  I can only assume these are Maoist carrots, partly because they’re from China, but mostly because of course carrots would favor agrarian socialism.  Their role in the Cultural Revolution has never been fully explored.

I want to talk about the way “farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are hurting!” has become “farmers are hurting!”.  This is interesting because 1. it is entirely unsupported, and 2. that gets the mechanism backwards, and 3. leads to interesting politics.

1.  So far as I know (and I watch this stuff as closely as I can from behind a desk) growers on the west side have fallowed acres from water delivery cutbacks, and avocado growers in San Diego county stumped their trees.  Besides those, I never hear of specific other growers fallowing acres.  There might be some.  If you look at the USDA ‘s California Vegetable Review for 2009, most crop acreage is down a percent or two; it comes out to 6,500 fewer acres of vegetable crops in CA last year, out of 760,000 acres of vegetable crops.  The Field Crop Report is the same (tiny drop in acreage, mostly cotton; rice is booming), and so is the Fruit and Nut Review.  None of those drops in acreage add up to the couple hundred thousand acres that Westlands is claiming they fallowed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about different accounting methods between the crop reports and a district assessment.  My point is, I’m not hearing or seeing evidence that farmers in the Sac Valley, or Salinas, or Imperial, or the even the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are fallowing acreage from the drought.  There’s a lot more to California ag than Westlands.

(Also worth noting that ag acreage and ag profits aren’t the same.  Those crop reports show that 2009 yields and total values were up in 2009.)

2.  But, say the strawmen in my head, Westlands is the tip of the Drought Iceberg!  The thin end of the wedge!  The start of the slippery slope!  After Westlands is gone, the drought will come after the rest of California ag!!!  I want to point out that this is not true.  There is a direct causal relationship between reduced water deliveries and fallowed acres.  Very roughly, one acre of land has to be fallowed for every three feet of water that aren’t delivered (moderated by efficiency improvements and groundwater substitution).  And then, that’s all.  The drought doesn’t spread past that one-to-three relationship.  There aren’t synergistic effects.  It isn’t like a network, where taking out one link weakens the rest.  In fact, it is the opposite.  Farmers are in competition with each other.  Every lost acre of almonds in Westlands makes an almond grower in the Sac Valley just a little bit more secure.  Fallowing will track water run-off and water deliveries, but it isn’t contagious.  It isn’t a slippery slope; it does whatever annual run-off and water deliveries do.  It doesn’t spread to more senior rights holders or even across the San Joaquin Valley.

Contrast that with the fisheries, salmon or smelt.  Those truly are feedback loops, or a downward spiral.  A lost juvenile salmon now is also lost salmon descendants and lost food from the foodchain.  Taking pieces out of that network weakens the whole system, unlike fallowing, which strengthens the remaining farmers.

3.  I’ve been wondering how Westlands has convinced so many Congressmen and some of the public that they’re the symbol of all California ag.  I keep wondering whether farmers will hang together, and how long they’ll consider Westlands’ interests their own.  Farmers in the Delta (530,000 acres) and Westlands (600,000 acres) are on opposite sides of the Peripheral Canal debate.  Sac Valley farmers are a little suspicious of Westlands’ (and L.A.’s) intentions.  The coastal ag valleys and the southern ag valleys are entirely different systems.  So why is the rest of California ag willing to let the Farm Bureau and the California Ag Board and the California House ag Representatives act like what is good for Westlands is good for everyone?  All the other contractors are going to end up paying for infrastructure to keep some of their biggest competitors in business just a little longer before they transfer their water rights to L.A.  How does that help the Friant?  How does that help the Sac Valley?  Their representatives have been hijacked, and I wonder how long before it starts to bother the rest of CA ag that representing Westlands doesn’t represent them.


Filed under Agriculture, Drought