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.

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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!

Love,

On

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

Analysis:
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.

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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.

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