Category Archives: Basic stuff


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”.

Comments Off on Framing

Filed under Basic stuff, Drought

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.)

Comments Off on Long digression on the opposition to rate increases.

Filed under Basic stuff, Districts, Water Markets!!!

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.

Comments Off on Bad news.

Filed under Basic stuff


I got a question from a reader who wants to know what makes a good culvert.  She has some land, and an impaired stream crossing, and a mother with a bulldozer, who is not afraid to use it.  She has been offered a new culvert for Christmas.  I love this.

I don’t know anything about this stream or crossing, and am surely not offering engineering advice here.
A project like this could well require permits, from the Army Corps or from the state Fish and Wildlife department.

But, I can tell you in general what you want from a culvert. What you want from a culvert is that it doesn’t get in the stream’s way. From the upstream side, the culvert should be able to pass a flood’s worth of water. If is too small, or choked with debris, water will back up behind it. You’ll get a big pool behind it, if flood pressure doesn’t wash out the obstruction.

On the downstream side, the worry is whether fish can swim upstream. A too-small culvert is bad news for that. Water constrained through it will act like a fire hose; during wet periods, it can be a velocity barrier, too fast for fish to swim through. There are lots of studies and specs on fish flows. If you want to get precise, you can find out exact velocities for different species at different life stages. If you don’t want to be precise, you can look at nearby reaches with fish. They have small pools upstream of rocks, and eddies near the edges where fish can rest between bursts of swimming against the current. Stillwater refugia. You want that.

Fortunately, the solution to both these problems is the same: big wide culverts, with floors that look like the natural stream. (Here.) As a rough recipe, put in a big section of pipe as wide as the stream, buried about a third deep. “As wide as the stream” is wider than just the water, incidentally. You should look for bankfull width, where the sides start to slope down.

There is another potential problem, one that I hope is not plaguing the reader. It is possible that the streambed below the culvert has been eroding, and the culvert is now the most hardened point along the stream. (The nick point.) The perched culvert is the only thing stopping that waterfall from marching upstream. This is a big problem for fish (because it is hard to leap into a firehose and take off swimming against the flow), and a big problem for fixing the stream. Basically what you have to do then is elevate the downstream section of the stream with a series of weirs. That’s more project than I hope the reader faces.

So, this site is great, with lots of pictures. Another guide, with pictures of failures. Basically, make your culvert really big, as transparent to the stream as you can. 

Good luck!  Send pictures!


Filed under Basic stuff

I will never explain the unit “acre-foot” on this blog.

I’ve been slow to finish up my review of the Pacific Institute report, because that will mean that I have to get into the concepts of field and basin efficiency and I dread that.    I don’t mean to be a tease; I know how badly you’ve been craving more of this series.  I’ll put some peripheral thoughts here,  so we can have a clean discussion of field and basin efficiency and the core conclusion of the Pacific Institute report without them buzzing around and plaguing us.

A thought:

I agreed with the technical critiques in the irrigation professors’ report, which isn’t too surprising, since one of them trained me.  If you have any technical questions about anything in those reports, I’d be happy to take my best shot at answering it.  As much as those critiques cast doubt on whether the Pacific Institute report is identifying real potential for water savings, I’m also a doubter.

Another thought:

I said that I’d critique the Ag Water Management Council’s report.  Here goes.  This is self-reporting by a self-selected group of the most progressive ag water districts.  I don’t think the claims are very impressive; there’s a lot of hedging about how far along the districts are in adopting Efficient Water Management Practices.  That said, these leading districts are alert to the practices and implementing them at some rate unspecified by the report.  I don’t take this report as proof that ag is doing everything it can.  It is more like the best likely spin you could put on ag’s water use practices.  Also, man.  Love the pictures. 

Yet more thought:

For your sense of scale, here are some recent rough numbers.

3.5 million acre-feet/year – the Pacific Institute report thinks this is the amount ag could yield without hurting, or maybe even while doing better.

31.5 million acre-feet/year – this is roughly how much ag applies overall.  Am I really doubtful that irrigated ag could give up 10% of its applied water without hurting?  Are they really so tight that there isn’t 10% slack in the system?  Yeah, I really am doubtful, and I’ll tell you why when I tackle the field and basin efficiency talk.  But OH LOOK!

6 million acre-feet/year – this is how much warmer winters will cost CA in snow storage of water by mid-century.  That’s twice the amount we’re wrangling about in the Pacific Institute report, so as much as the Pacific Institute report seemed to be making bold claims, this should be twice as dramatic.

I’ll give you three more numbers that I find really handy.

10 million acres – the rounded-up area of irrigated ag in California.  It is closer to 9 million acres these days, but 10 million acres is easier to use.

California is about 100 million acres. 

As a very, very rough estimate, one irrigated acre uses about three acre-feet of irrigation water a year.  (This goes neatly with the 10 million acres and 31.5 million acre-feet/year.)

These are the numbers I use to get a gut sense of things*, decide whether a claim is big or little or ridiculous.  You may use them too.





Continue reading


Filed under Basic stuff, Irrigation!

Mitigation and adaptation

In the broadest sense, people talk about two aspects of addressing climate change, mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation is preventative, trying to shape our society so we put out as little greenhouse gas as possible and avert as much climate change as we can. Mitigation tends towards energy, sprawl and transportation policy. In California, mitigation is being handled by the AB 32 Scoping Plan. The other state agencies pretty much think that the Air Board has got mitigation covered and are now thinking about adaptation.

Adaptation is the acknowledgement that we will suffer from the effects of climate change already underway, so we need to get ready for that. Adaptation will heavily influence water resources, disaster preparedness and response, coastal anything, natural systems like forests and deserts, biodiversity and agriculture. The agencies that address those are now looking fifty years out and guessing what we need to do to be ready for a harsher world. They’re starting to issue reports, saying what they’ll do and what they expect everyone else to do. I’ll tell you about those as they come out.

Comments Off on Mitigation and adaptation

Filed under Basic stuff