Category Archives: Drought

Item 20 (updated 1/23, 1/25).

What’s that, Governor Brown? You requested subsequent actions that should be taken if drought impacts worsen? Here are some that I don’t think your Drought Task Force will bring up with you. Some of them blur the line between drought response and climate change adaptation, but I’ll suggest them anyway.

  • Train CCC members to fix dripping sink and tub faucets.  Stock some trucks with nuts and washers and have corpsmembers available to do free housecalls to anyone with a dripping faucet.  Sure, homeowners should fix leaks themselves, but I bet it would happen a lot faster if it were offered as a free service.
  • See if you can get the Feds to pay for a bunch of district-level system modernization, from district level leak repair to SCADA systems.
  • Since CDFA is so motivated by drought and loves to hold hearings so much, maybe they can chase down some food waste, either in the field or in produce distribution systems.
  • Create and advertise mental health services for ranchers and farmers.  Ranchers in particular commit suicide at higher rates when they have to cull their herds for droughts.
  • Get assessors in the field to price the damage to public infrastructure from subsidence.  Keep a tally and bill growers proportionally for the damage their pumping causes.  Maybe the state can’t regulate groundwater pumping, but subsidence is damaging the highways, overpasses and canals on the west side.  The 5 isn’t sinking because I drive down it twice a year; I don’t see why the costs of repairing it should come out of the general fund when we know who is damaging it and how.
  • The early estimates are that half a million acres will be fallowed this year (of about 9 million irrigated acres in the state). We can assume those are the most water-insecure ag acres. The folks at UC Davis predict that about 1-2 million irrigated acres will come out of production in the San Joaquin Valley. I’m on record predicting 3 million irrigated acres statewide will be retired in the next couple generations. We should use this drought to figure out the least painful way this can happen. If we believed this were coming, what would we do? Decide which million and a half acres we want to retire in the SJV? Does the state want them? Are they the current owners’ responsibility when no one will buy them later? Will banks end up owning them? Should they be managed? Is there salvageable capital on them? Is there some scale at which they are useful for solar power? This drought is an early look at a scenario heading our way. Does the State have or want a role in managing it?
  • Define food security.  Surprisingly, for someone who argues against Westlands WD all the time,  I really do take food security seriously.  I think California should protect its growing capacity and would support some interventions to do that.  But, I’d want a lot of clarity about what food security means.  Growing calories for direct consumption for Californians (truck crops)?  Growing field crops for animals that Californians eat?  Providing calories for the western U.S.?  Providing animal proteins to the western U.S.?  Providing wine and pistachios to the world?  I value food security enough to do things like zone agricultural lands against incursion or subsidize growers to be resilient against droughts.  But I wouldn’t give up one smelt so that the new middle class in China can have cheaper walnuts.

That should keep your Task Force busy, Governor Brown. Let me know if you need any other suggestions. Oh, last thing. Do not waste any time looking for ‘lessons from Australia.’ I heard an awful lot about Australia during the last drought. Their circumstances are different enough that nothing was useful. If your staff wants to research Australia, that means they are shying away from politically difficult situations here. Australia does not have magic answers for us.

Two more (1/23)

  • In the comments on an L.A. Times article, someone suggested using this drought to dredge silts and sediments that are filling reservoirs. It won’t give us any new water in this drought, but where it is something that has to be done anyway, it’ll never be easier.
  • Here are two early stories of water districts who are raising rates in response to drought, but have to go through a burdensome 218 process. Districts will be looking at higher rates if they have to pump deeper groundwater, if they want to put conservation pricing in place, if they usually offset water prices with the proceeds from selling hydropower, if they have to buy the next increment of more expensive water from somewhere. During the drought, Prop 218 shouldn’t be another hassle for them to negotiate, slowing their response time.

Added 1/25:

  • Override any HOA requirements for green lawns. At the least, declare that HOA’s cannot fine homeowners for complying with district-issued watering restrictions. At the most, have HOA’s require greywater systems for xeriscaped landscapes. My preference would be to destroy the HOA structure entirely (fucking conformist busybody authoritarian assholes) but that may be out of the scope of a drought response.

1 Comment

Filed under Drought

Manage what, exactly?

This drought is so very interesting. I love that it is so conspicuously dry that the standard initial response is self-evidently useless. Normally the first response to drought is “Drought?!? Pour water on it!” But this year there is clearly no water anywhere, so we’ll get to skip that step. Streamline all the transfers you like, state officials; I’ll be shocked if there are farmers north of the Delta offering water. Open pump capacity for north to south transfers and finding water for wheeling will be the least of your troubles. It is also clear that nothing that takes infrastructure will be available in time to help. We’re going into this drought with the system we have. This clears out a whole thicket of debate as well.

I am reading a fair amount of talk about the governor’s emergency powers. Messrs Peltier and Santoyo keep bringing them up. After an emergency is declared, they say, the governor could use his emergency powers to weaken environmental laws. I haven’t yet heard anyone speculate about any other emergency powers. Could the governor use emergency powers to choose a couple million acres of land to fallow, allowing the water we do have to go further on the remaining irrigated acreage? Could the governor decide that with what little water we have available, we can’t afford to be irrigating crops that don’t directly provide calories to Californians? Maybe the governor’s emergency powers could rule out irrigating alfalfa or almonds*. Maybe the governor should decide that in these crucial dry years, we must protect what’s left of the Central Valley aquifers by banning groundwater pumping. Maybe the discussion of what the governor’s emergency powers could do shouldn’t begin and end with ‘gut the Endangered Species Act’.

Governor Brown could decide he doesn’t want to get into that quagmire, and I wouldn’t blame him. There are useful things the state could do that don’t require emergency powers. The state could help with the burdens of fallowed agriculture, like disposing of downed orchards. The state could set up a mental health hotline for ranchers and farmers, since it is well documented they kill themselves a lot during droughts. If the state is deeply concerned about farmworkers on the west side, it could offer to buy out any housing they own, move them to Fresno and offer them admission to Fresno State. The state could offer money to growers to hang tight for one year, or could buy their lands to add it to the Grasslands Bypass.

It all depends on what the state is trying to achieve during this drought. Is the goal of drought management to keep native species alive? Is the goal of drought management to keep all growers in the state prepared to return to growing as soon as water returns? Is the goal of drought management to buffer urban consumers from increases to the costs of meat and dairy? Is the goal of drought management to get a water bond through the state legislature? The state could do a lot, but unless it has some specific goals, I doubt it’ll do much of anything. Just you watch. If the emergency drought proclamation doesn’t state very specific goals, I bet that at the state level, drought management will consist of futilely beating the bushes for non-existent transfers, a sharp-looking website, and a monthly impact report.

*I understand that almonds garner high prices worldwide and are profitable for Californian farmers. But maybe in an extreme drought, the governor could decide that he wants to spend our limited water on preserving our native species, and not providing Chinese people with pleasant snacks.

14 Comments

Filed under Drought

Doesn’t add up.

LATER: Turns out that Net Cropped Acreage is the wrong metric. That’s how many acres are planted; not the number harvested. In 2009, only 360,000 acres were harvested in Westlands.

Looks to me like cropped acreage is at a 15 year high.
I got curious about fallowed acreage, since people keep saying different things. Sen. Feinstein, for example, said “over 400,000 acres of farmland have been fallowed.” So far as I know, that is mostly on the west side (hearing no anecdotes to the contrary). Westlands WD generously keeps their crop reports online (Westlands, then News & Information, then Reports, the Crop Acreage Reports). So I graphed them. Hmmm.

1. I’m not seeing the problem here. (Perhaps the problems are rising costs of water, using salty groundwater, subsidence.  The problem is not acres-out-of-commission.)
2. Their reported fallowed acreage for 2009 was 156,239 acres. Where are the other hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres?
3. I was paying attention in 2001. I don’t remember hysterical pronouncements about Government Created Dust Bowl!!!

1 Comment

Filed under Drought

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.

1 Comment

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Drought

It is called industrial ag for a reason.

This is a nice piece, pointing out that farmworkers in California are always desperately poor and saying what cannot be said too often:  using farmworkers as cover for political bargaining after exploiting them for decades is fucking shameful, both in the sense that it is a  terrible shame, and in the sense that the assholes who implemented it have earned their place in hell.  If someone who organized the Latino Water Coalition happens by, I hope you know that decent people are disgusted by you.  If someone from United Farmworkers or California Rural Legal Assistance happens by, all my respect for your good and solid work.

I do want to say something else, a side comment on this:

Food aid is rolling in to the breadbasket of California. In Fresno County, the state’s most productive agricultural area, a hunger crisis has been unfolding for the better part of a year.

Yeah, Fresno is one of the nation’s breadbaskets, but in the best of times, with every acre planted and watered, it isn’t like farmworkers would eat food from their surroundings.  Sure, the county produces a lot, but if you’re picking in the middle of 600 acres of tomatoes, it isn’t like you would get your next meal from the agriculture around you.  These aren’t picturesque Amish farms with bulging gardens.  They’re monocultures all the way to the field on the horizon, where the lines change angles.  Farmworkers in Mendota get their food from stores even when the district bursts with almonds and melons.  The difference in this drought and recession is that farmworkers don’t have jobs to buy food; not that their former garden of Eden is parched by drought.  Mendota is living the tragedy of a factory shut-down, not failed food production.

Comments Off on It is called industrial ag for a reason.

Filed under Agriculture, Drought

A good synopsis; not new thought.

I was real interested in what the Congressional Research Service had to say about drought, but got puzzled reading the actual report. It didn’t add anything, or talk about what Reclamation should do, and I didn’t understand the point of it as I was reading along.   It wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t advocating anything or presenting new research, so I didn’t understand why they wrote it until I got to the very last paragraph.

At issue for Congress in the short term is how to evaluate legislative proposals for waiving the federal ESA or otherwise increasing water supplies that could result in the extinction of several fish species. Congress may also consider broader legislation that would help water users while working within the boundaries of the ESA, thereby attempting to protect endangered species as well as economies dependent on both reliable water supplies and healthy ecosystems, including declining fish populations.

OH!  That’s what this is about?  This is written in response to SJ Valley politicians trying to weaken the ESA, with their inane “Turn On the Pumps” stunts?  Oh.  In that light, the report is pretty interesting.   It is a good explanation of the many factors that are shaping the drought outcomes.  Says that most of it is from hydrology; some of it is from pumping restrictions; that the structure of CA water rights focuses and intensifies the drought effects on junior rights holders.  Mentions the trade-offs with the fishing industry if fisheries collapse.  Says that the recession is a big part of what is dragging down Mendota.  I’m thinking that if I were a Congressperson who didn’t know more about CA water then this report, I would think that there are a number of interacting factors, only one of which is the ESA-based pumping restrictions.  Which is true.  Good job, Congressional researchers.

3 Comments

Filed under Drought