Category Archives: Basic stuff

Deferred maintenance is the triumph of denial over intentions.

This quote from one of the constant stream of stories on rising water and sewer rates is wonderful.  Boardmember Clark says her district will need to raise rates because:

“Maintenance is the mark of civilization,” she said. “It is not sexy but necessary to keep sewage out of your house, out of your creeks and out of the bay.”

Building great works is fantastic and all, but single celled organisms can do that.  Maintenance, however.  Maintenance shows forethought and consistency and awareness of what we normally take for granted.  A mark of civilization, indeed.

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A shadowy cabal, let me tell you.

This is an interesting article on businesses facing the realities of climate change, because they’re feeling early effects.

This makes capitalism a curiously bracing mechanism for cutting through ideological haze and manufactured doubt. Politicians or pundits can distort or cherry-pick climate science any way they want to try and gain temporary influence with the public. But any serious industrialist who’s facing “climate exposure”—as it’s now called by money managers—cannot afford to engage in that sort of self-delusion. Spend a couple of hours wandering through the websites of various industrial associations—aluminum manufacturers, real-estate agents, wineries, agribusinesses, take your pick—and you’ll find straightforward statements about the grim reality of climate change that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from Greenpeace.

I can tell you who isn’t interested in debating the reality of climate change and faked data. Upper managers at my state agency are not at all interested in an argument over whether climate change is real. They don’t have time for that. They’ll argue over how bad it might get, or whether we can get moving on mitigation fast enough. They’re as happy as anyone to work on strategies for shifting the burdens to someone else. But they’re acutely aware that climate conditions have already shifted. They know that the plumbing we have now won’t work half so well if we lose the snowpack. They can’t pretend that we might not lose the snowpack, because angry water districts are going to show up with pitchforks if we promise water we can’t deliver. (They also might show up with pitchforks if we admit that we can’t deliver water.)

You know how denialists say climate change is all a faked-up conspiracy? I’ve never really understood what the conspiracy is for. Like, who gains? I’ve heard different answers. Thousands of university researchers are carefully faking data, in tandem, for grant money that will keep them employed. (But they’d get grants doing other science if they weren’t studying climate change.) Environmentalists made up climate change because they want to enforce their tiny-car and cloth bag-bringing ways on red-blooded Americans. (I suppose, I guess.) I’ve heard that The State is making up climate change to support a land and water grab for billionaire farmers. (But, we don’t actually get to have that land and water. The land will be undersea or retired, and any re-allocated water will be spread finely over the next ten billion people to live in our cities. It isn’t like we bureaucrats get awarded cute little cabins with pure cold springs, mores the pity.) I guess the story below points to beneficiaries for the conspiracy. Starting in the early Eighties, university scientists started making up climate change so that thirty years later, the Bureau of Reclamation would buy un-needed new turbines from turbine companies in North Carolina. That was far-sighted of them. They’re probably related to the turbine company owners. It’s the only explanation.


Filed under Basic stuff, Climate Change

Why am I paying more for less water?

At a meeting today, a district board member asked how to answer the question he hears all the time: If I’m conserving water, why are my rates going up? How come I’m paying more for less water?

Oddly, no one on the panel told him the real answer. They mentioned deferred maintenance and the costs of obtaining additional supply, but no one explained it quite right. Mr. Board Member, next time someone in the public asks you why they’re going to be paying more for less water, here’s the answer you need.

You have always been selling two different things. You sell water*, and you sell reliability. By unfortunate chance, the costs of both of those are going up right now. You may be developing additional sources of water that cost more. But a lot of districts are going to need money to keep their reliability perfect, because their systems are nearing the end of their designed life and it will cost a lot to replace them.

Customers are not going to like hearing that they have to pay more for reliability, (a little bit because it is invisible and people really do not understand invisible things) mostly because districts have done such a good job buffering their customers from water delivery interruptions that it has never occurred to most Californian urban customers that reliability could be anything other than perfect. They think that having the water on during the night, or all the days of the week, is just how it is. They’ve never approached the tap and wondered whether water will come out this time. Deferred maintenance is coming due and many districts are facing the failure of systems installed in the fifties or before. Reliability must be paid for anew, and that’s why districts will need to charge more even as they’re asking people to use less water.

So that’s what you should tell the public, Mr. District Board Member. They won’t like it. Fortunately, this is a self-correcting feedback loop. If they don’t let you raise water rates, the district won’t be able to provide perfect water reliability forever. (It will probably cannibalize itself first, making it even harder to restore completely reliable deliveries in the long run, but that’s the cost of short-sightedness.) When water deliveries aren’t reliable, people will notice that immediately and realize they want it. Then you’ll be able to explain about the rates again.

[In the alternate, you could try to explain to them how expensive it would be if they were using as much water as they always have, and paying for the costs of developing new sources and the capital costs of replacing your system at the same time.  With water conservation, at least you have a chance of deferring the costs of developing new sources.]

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Full props.

I got to the end of Matt Jenkins careful and thorough profile of Westlands and subscribed to High Country News. Solid and clear writing; no veering off into ideological blindness.

I’m always impressed with the long pieces I come across from High Country News, and today I’m grateful to Aquafornia for linking me to the story.  I very much appreciate Aquafornia’s constant work of aggregating, selecting and directing us to the news we want.  We’d miss a lot without it.

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Thought I’d sexy the place up a little. Pictures!

Shortage vs drought5
They showed this chart at the Water Plan meeting last week. I like it because it shows the different ways to address the gap between what we’ve got and what we want to have. You can move the purple demand line down (with water conservation, by price increases, by irrigating less land), or you can move the bouncy green line up (by conjunctive use, reservoir re-operation, or meadow restoration). The problem isn’t that mysterious. People have different guesses about which approaches have lots of leverage*, and they feel strong emotions about protecting the location of the purple line or embiggening the green line. What would be really great would be a chart that flips the yellow-orange line on its side, and puts cost on the y-axis. Then we should see the costs of lowering the demand line, raising the managed supply squiggle and experiencing shortfall all next to each other. But I don’t think anyone knows those cost numbers.

Couple more thoughts on that graph:

It shows the demand line rising over time; mostly from population increase, I suppose. But I don’t think there was ever a time when people thought they had enough water. They always felt like there wasn’t enough water, even when the population here was very small.

The squiggly green line should be capped at some max capacity, shouldn’t it? 

Love, love, love that it shows annual runoff decreasing.  Yep, that’s right.  It has already started.  I wonder if the green squiggly line shouldn’t be even closer to the bottom of the runoff line in the future if it is going to be harder to catch and store rainfall than it has been to catch slow snowmelt.


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Filed under Basic stuff, Drought, Uncategorized


There were a handful of articles last week about cities deciding to stop permitting new houses and buildings because of their revised estimates of their water availability.  I think this is fascinating stuff, and one day I hope to write more about it.  If this were the whole post on that, it would have:

A discussion of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which is a big part of the reason that cities can’t decide to stop permitting new houses, even if cities or districts don’t have enough water for them.

Speculation about what goes into a Will-Serve Letter, which is a water district’s promise that they’ll provide water to a new service hook-up.

A discussion of whether water availability is used as an excuse to keep (poorer, darker) people out of water district service areas. 

Making explicit the fact that when districts decide on a per capita amount of water (gallons/person-day), they are implicitly choosing a standard of living for their constituents (personal lawns, long showers, thirsty plants).  That standard of living has a strong present-day bias, which I don’t think we were ever able to afford and certainly can’t continue to provide.  (Well, it is possible to provide it, but people are already balking at the increasing costs of providing what we’ve got.  I think they’d go batshit if they saw the costs of getting the next source of water.)

Mention and illustration of the fact that (shortsighted, selfish) people get really pissy about being asked to conserve when they see new houses going up in their city.

Description of two policy holes: that planners take population growth as exogenous, and the gap between land use planners and water planners.


Anyway, that would be a rockin’ post, and I should totally write it.  Not today, though.  I can’t tell whether putting up this stub makes a developed final piece more likely or less likely.  I mean, you get the gist, right?


Filed under Basic stuff, Districts

Youngins, don’t you do what I have done.

The news in water these days is mostly about big bills in the legislature, trying to come up with a big fix for California water.  I can’t get too worked up over it.  I’ll be super pleased if they get the mandatory urban conservation measures passed, and they can start here in Sacramento, which is an utterly shameful water waster.  I’ll be a trifle sad if they pass Sites Reservoir, because I’ve been to that valley and it is beautiful.  I’ll be intrigued if they get the Delta governance structure put in place, because I think that’s a step towards a Peripheral Canal, but doesn’t guarantee anything.  I’ll be guaranteed employment for the next decade if they pass the $10B bond to do all these things.   So that’s what the papers are talking about.  For my money, though, the most important water story I’ve seen in years is this one.

PALMDALE – Residents of one of the city’s newer housing tracts on the east side feel financially drained by the Palmdale Water District’s recent rate hike, which ranged from 65% to more than 140% for some customers.

…”My bill went from $12.80 to $185,” Summerford, a Neighborhood Watch captain, told the water board.

“My water bill went from $139 to $468,” Sanchez said at that meeting. Since then Sanchez received another monthly bill, one for $324. Together that meant she owed the water district $792, plus a prior balance that brought her total to $924.

Water bills of hundreds of dollars a month?!  Man alive!  I am generally heartless and unsympathetic to people who complain about water bills.  I know they’ve been artificially cheap for years, as the environment absorbed part of the costs of moving water, and I know people got used to that.   As their bills go up, I am generally glad.  Yes.  You live in Palmdale and I don’t see any rivers near you.  You should expect that it will cost a lot for clean water to come out of your taps.  Still, even for heartless me, an unexpected jump of hundreds of dollars is a blow.

The middle part of the article goes on about a very familiar story, in which the intrepid neighbors decide to take on the unresponsive water district.  I’ve seen this one, so I’ll tell you the ending.  One of the neighbors will get FIRED UP! and empowered and activist.  She’ll run for the board of directors, vowing reform and low water prices forever.  When she gets elected, she’ll be faced with the realities of buying, moving and cleaning water, as well as maintaining the physical insfrastructure.  She will realize the rates are still too low and the district is still eating their reserves; that the previous board made inevitable decisions and did their best to keep the constituents happy.  She’ll end up supporting the next rate hike and be vilified as a traitor by her former activist buddies who got her elected.   Good luck with that, Ms. Sanchez or Ms. Summerford.

But the ending of the article.  This is it.  This is the turning of the California dream.  The rumor I heard was that railroad companies started Sunset magazine, to get people to move west and take their trains back and forth.  The railroads had nurseries full of palm trees, for cities to line their boulevards.  And Sunset magazine sold the dream.  Live here, in the sunshine, in a small bungalow with a yard and two fruit trees.  I don’t know if that is accurate and I don’t know how the dream got supersized into a huge tract home.  But Ms. Sanchez was clearly in the grip of this dream:

Sanchez had been elated to move into her first home but now has second thoughts, especially because she has cut back her outdoor water use significantly to try to lower her monthly bills.

“It’s sad for first-time buyers,” she said. “I feel really disappointed. I came up here working on a home that needed a lawn. You put all our money into it to make it look nice. Now my lawn is going back to where it was. I feel discouraged. I feel like we should have stayed in Santa Clarita and lived in our apartment.”

There it is.  There’s the end.  This is the turning point I’ve been waiting for.  With water costs this high, she’d rather be in a city apartment.  I’ve been wondering for years what would herd people in from the exurbs.  It struck me as a race between costs of water and costs of firefighting.  For a while, the cost of gas and the commute was coming on strong, but that horse fizzled.  Now we need people to know this before they lock themselves into houses.  Ms. Sanchez, don’t become a water district activist!  Spend your energy telling your friends not to do what you did!   Tell them the house and lawn isn’t worth it.  You can still save them.  That’s what we need.


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One of the memes that some in the agricultural community are pushing this year is that California is in a “regulatory drought”, that the problem is not that we got so very little precipitation, but that a judge gave what we got to scrawny fish in the Delta.  It is true that a judge stopped pumping in the Delta at some times of the year to protect fish, and that as a result, less water was moved south, and that junior rights holders like Westlands took the brunt of that.  But “regulatory drought’?  A regulation is written by bureaucrats in an agency, subject to the public process but usually filling in details that the legislature didn’t want to attend to.  The judge that reallocated water to scrawny fish in the Delta was enforcing the Endangered Species Act.  The ESA isn’t a regulation.  It is a huge law, one of the major legislative achievements of the 70’s.  It is not like the judge is down in the weeds, enforcing some obscure 432.5894.2(f)(3)(ii).  (Even if he were, it should be followed or changed through the public process.)  He is enforcing one of the major laws of the land, and he’s doing it because nothing less will preserve wild Californian salmon and the agencies sure weren’t doing it on their own.  “Legal drought”, maybe.  “Judicial drought”, if one must.  From now on, I’m correcting people who say “regulatory drought”.

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Long digression on the opposition to rate increases.

It is fairly common, if you follow a story for a few years to see a cycle of necessary rate increases followed by recall or ousting at the next election. Diehards get elected, swearing on their newborns that they’ll never raise rates like the last assholes. Then, the realities of the district beat them down. Two or three years later, they’re reluctantly admitting the need for rate increases. You would think that people would remember that they used to oppose rate increases and that would give their calls for higher rates some credibility. But I’ve seen vicious cycles where their previous supporters turn on them and yank them out next. The aversion to higher rates starts anew. I always wonder if anyone in the process gains self-awareness or enlightenment.

The story for opposing rate increases is always the same. People storm district meetings, afraid and angry and dogged, saying they can’t afford the increases. I never know what to make of that. In the first place, there are efficiency gains and cutting back. After that, though, what should I make of stories about forcing little old ladies on fixed incomes to eat cat food? Do I believe that increasing water rates are the last straw? Maybe that’s plausible, and I certainly believe that we’re in the beginning of a period when most environmental fees will go up. Gas prices, food prices, firefighting costs, development fees, water, sewage, waste collection. I fully believe those are all about to go up. I suppose any one of them could be perceived as the last straw.

But then, I think two things. I suspect that for lots of people, the reason they can’t pay those fees are that they transformed their income into illiquid extra square feet on their house. That is a huge bind, but I never respected their choice of a big house, so it leaves me a little unsympathetic that their mortgage puts them so close to the edge. Second, the truth is, most of those new fees are different forms of internalizing environmental costs. Someone who can’t afford to pay those cannot afford their standard of living. They’ve grown used to that standard of living under artificially low prices subsidized by the environment, but that is a false expectation.

So, on the one hand, I really do feel bad for any particular nice old lady eating cat food. When those stories get personalized, they really hurt. On the other hand, their fight is to impose the costs of their lifestyle, of which water is just one example, on anything else. The environment, most likely, or the collective as a second choice. Then I am not so sure that that lifestyle is such a valuable one that I care if they get to continue it. I am even less sure that I care enough to spend money supporting their lifestyles.

(Please note that I would make the decision to support some forms of farming, because it can have positive externalities that I want. So it isn’t like I’m absolutist on this stuff.)

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Bad news.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave an interview to the LA Times a couple weeks back, saying that we’re going to lose 90% of the snowpack, California ag is doomed, and he isn’t even sure we can hold on to our cities. It was a strong statement and I generally approve of strong statements. It is a worse fate than I expect. I’ve said below that my prediction is losing a third of CA ag, and how we should do that.

Anyway, the New York Times today discussed Chu’s statements, got a bunch of opinions about whether it was too strong or irresponsible. Did experts think Secretary Chu was on target? The answers vary, but none of them said something that I think is really important.

Secretary Chu picked the most extreme prediction from the suite of models. You can argue over whether the models are accurate; you can debate whether you should pick the upper bound or lower bound; you could squabble over how the effects will play out in real life. But the thing that none of those experts said in that interview is that right now, we are exceeding the carbon emissions in the most extreme model. Further, effects are arriving faster than we expected. Based on what we are doing now, the worst case scenario is the floor.

It is plausible that the next decade will see a sharp reduction in emissions, if Pres. Obama prioritizes it. If China joins us (or leads us, for all I know), in ten years we could be back in the mid range of the climate models. But until that happens, when you see a climate prediction and it gives you a range, assume that we are outpacing the worst prediction.

LATER: Apparently MIT has revised their models to include current emissions levels.

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