Category Archives: Climate Change

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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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.

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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.

***

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

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.

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Filed under Basic stuff, Climate Change

Couple examples.

You know how I talk about climate change making everything more expensive? I usually attribute that to actually having less stuff (run-off, hydropower, precip). But there’s also the fact that we’re optimized to the current climate. Changing that will be expensive. Those costs permeate everything.

Yesterday there was a story about installing new turbines at Hoover Dam, so they can continue to generate power when lake levels are low from drought. That’s a small, unexpected cost of $3.4M, that will help us keep the power generation we have now, not increase generation or improve our quality of life. Today there’s a story about changing ocean currents scouring more sand than they used to, so dredged materials aren’t enough to re-fill a local beach. It’d cost the local city $700,000 to replace that sand, but they don’t have it, so this year they only replenished half the beach. In this case, our quality of life is going down, by half a pretty beach’s worth. Not the end of the world, but we’re going to take these hits and feel these small costs in hundreds of ways. Increases in water and utility rates are just the blatant examples of the ways we’re getting poorer.

I saw an early presentation of this paper on how climate change will shift sands on SoCal beaches a couple years ago. It’s pretty neat.

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Filed under Climate Change

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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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

And paying. We’re fighting over who will pay.

This editorial from the Chico Enterprise Record is pretty much exactly what I would have written if I weren’t so lazy.

Last week, one north state water agency sued to block exports of water to the south, even as several other districts were conducting environmental studies needed to do exactly that.

 …

The lawsuit comes across as greedy in a time of drought: We get all of ours before you get any. It doesn’t seem a good political move in the current environment.

The effort also will seem suspect in the wake of several neighboring studies that would allow them to export water. Districts like Glenn-Colusa on the Sacramento River and Richvale on the Feather are among those laying the groundwork for water sales, although it’s uncertain whether they’ll go forward.

People are going to put one-and-one together, and think Tehama-Colusa is trying to get 100 percent of its contracted water so the 16 water districts it serves can sell it to those farther south.

Perhaps that should be their right, but it just won’t sit well with people who are seeing shortages. And it will give legislators — most of whom come from the dry lands — an easy target at time when they clearly don’t have the vision to actually fix the problem.

I’m not sure what would count as “vision to fix the problem”, unless that is code for “build new dams”. The legislative package shows that they do have a vision of solutions, but they’re boring solutions, like doing a bunch of distributed things like conservation and habitat restoration and setting up a system to evaluate a peripheral canal (but not commit to one!). Maybe boring solutions don’t count as “vision”. I complain about a lack of vision too, but I keep wishing for something a little different. I wish we had a vision of what we want to look like in a few decades (how urban people should live, what we want food production to be like, and what the state of the natural environmentment should be). Then we could start to do things that would move us towards that state. Instead the default always seems to be “um, whatever we’re doing now, I guess. But, like, in the future.”

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So long as I am nit-picking, I want to object to a phrase I heard a couple times at the Water Forum on Monday. I heard a couple advocates say (in response to different things): “They are taking away our water!”

No one is taking away your water. The annual run-off of the state is leaving by itself (from climate change). What we’re squabbling over now is who will get less water and get compensated, and who will get less water without compensation. Just saying.

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Filed under Climate Change

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.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change