Category Archives: Drought

Thoughts on Interior’s very well done Interim Plan for California water.

The Dept of Interior just released a 23 page plan for getting back involved in CA water after eight years of Bush administration neglect*.  I am very impressed with the document as a whole.  It is well written.  Everything it says is well connected to the situation as I understand it; I didn’t spot any outsider’s mistakes or cliches.  It did something fairly difficult, which is list a well-specified set of actions Interior intends to take that will concretely address the problems in the Delta.  It is hard to do that, so more power to the incisive person or group who wrote this piece.  I don’t remember any waffle-y bullshit about “considering possibly funding additional research to study writing a plan.”  On the whole, big ups to the authors of Interior’s Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta.

Against the background of my approval, some thoughts:

1.  Heh.  The plan slams the Bush Administration about as hard as a bureaucratic document can.  It talks about “mov[ing] California water issues from the back burner to the forefront of Federal attention during 2009” and “[a]fter several years of being on the sidelines, the Administration” (Pg. 3, paragraph 3).  It also talks about a dedication to science-based decisions, which get its own heading on page 4.  You know, you don’t have affirm that you make decisions based on science unless your predecessors just spent years and years making decisions on something else.  That’s all slight, though; I mention it only because it made me laugh.

2.  I found the section on Water Transfers (IIB, Pg. 9) to be slightly strange.  It says:

In 2009, Reclamation and other Federal agencies … facilitated the transfer of over 600,000 acre-feet of water by and among CVP contractors and users of SWP water to ensure water was available to the highest-priority users.

I don’t know what “highest-priority users” means.  Given the generally high quality of the Interim Plan, I’m prepared to believe it is a term of art that I’m not familiar with.  But unless it is a term of art, it doesn’t match up with how I understand water transfers.  There are two problems.  Generally, the word “priority” is similar to “seniority”, and goes with the “first in time, first in right” appropriative rights system.  But you don’t need water transfers to ensure senior/high-priority water rights holders get their water.  They get their water first,  all others be damned.  There’s no transfer about it.

The other problem is that to my knowledge, water transfers aren’t based on a prioritization.  They go to the highest bidder.  You pay more money, you get the water.  In real life, that overwhelmingly means that cities get the water (because they can collect more money to buy water), but I don’t know of an explicit prioritization of urban use**.  It is possible to be very precise about what water transfers do, which is move water to the highest economic use (measured by money and with attendant externalities).  That may very well be the goal (although I haven’t been convinced I want that), but I don’t know whether and when it was explicitly decided that the people who could pay the most were the highest-priority users.

Seems most likely to me that it a slightly loose word choice.  But so far as I know, awarding water transfers by a priority that wasn’t straight purchase price would be a major new policy initiative.  If that were the intention, I’d be very interested in how it comes about.

3.  Then, the heading for Section IID is very peculiar:

Assist the National Academy of Sciences in Its Review of the Potential Availability of Alternative Water Supply Opportunities

Because that is not supposed to be the main point of the NAS review. The NAS review is supposed to decide whether the Biological Opinion on smelt that was the basis for court-ordered pumping restrictions is based on the best available science. You know, to put lawsuits against the Biological Opinion to rest.  Which is already bullshit, because the ESA doesn’t say that Biological Opinions require an additional level of review by the National Academy of Sciences, especially not a review that directs them to please find anything else they can do to help the smelt besides curtailing pumping.*** Besides, it was a relatively new Biological Opinion (like, 2008 or 2009 or something) re-written on judge’s orders because the first one was so weak. If we don’t trust the federal FWS and NMFS to write decent Biological Opinions, that is a real problem that should get fixed. But unless we mean to fix a systemic problem with Biological Opinions, senators shouldn’t go arbitrarily asking for some of them to get extra review from the National Academy of Sciences to please find something else.

So why is Interior’s Interim Plan header emphasizing the potential availability of additional water supplies instead of evaluating the scientific evidence about the best ways to protect smelt?**** That’s hardly co-equal.

Anyway, I thought the Interim Plan was mostly very good, with those two odd notes. I would have added something about water district modernization to the section on water conservation; I think improving district-level operations and infrastructure has potential for water and reliability yields that gets overlooked a lot. I thought Section III E on Climate Change Adaptation was forward looking and gave specific avenues for development. Really, I was impressed.

UPDATE 1/9/10: Professor Doremus writes an excellent critique of the Interim Plan here.  I particularly liked that she called out perpetuating the win-win fallacy.  I have a hard time thinking of something the feds could do that would be a newer approach, but I’ll ponder the idea a while.

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I’m going to hold hearings too. With my friends. We’re gonna get drunk and find some findings.

This is fucking nuts. Republican Representative McClintock is announcing that he and his buddies are holding their own party in Fresno, because the rest of the House of Representatives have told them a bunch of times that they aren’t going to waive the Endangered Species Act, so stop asking already.  Fine.  I don’t know what their own hearings will accomplish besides political theater, but there’s nothing to stop them.  But Rep. McClintock is quoting some one who says that the feds need to lift Endangered Species protections because California is importing food from China to feed our starving workers.

Full Committee Ranking Member Doc Hastings (WA-04) [said] “There are serious problem with our Nation’s environmental laws that prioritize fish over people. This is evident when one of the most fertile agricultural areas is importing food from China to feed the needy. If it can happen in California, it can happen anywhere and that’s why it’s important for Congress to travel to the Valley.”

That is straight up gibberish. Believe you me, California is still a huge net exporter of food.  Actually, don’t believe you me.  Believe the California Dept of Food and Ag, who says that as of two years ago, California exported 28% of its agricultural production.   True, that was before the DROUGHT and THE JUDGE SHUT DOWN THE PUMPS!!!  But, the amount of land fallowed because the drought and ESA combined was roughly 300,000 acres, or about 3% of California’s ag land.  Meanwhile, the most recent California Crop Report shows no signs of a greater than 28% drop in agricultural production.  I think I’d have read something about that, if it had happened.  I follow the Hanford Sentinel and the Fresno Bee, you know.

Representative Hastings, whose constituents should be embarrassed that he represents them, seems to be relying on this picture for evidence that California’s needs food from China to feed itself.  He can reassure himself with actual data about carrots; looks like California grew 16,700 acres worth of carrots this fall alone.  Never fear, Rep. Hastings!  Protecting the Delta Smelt does not threaten the nation’s carrot supply!

More seriously, I actually do think the food security is a legitimate issue.  Some environmentalists think it is an absurd excuse to give more money to agribusiness.  They think agribusiness is plenty secure already.  Some economists think that our best food security is having big dollars, so that we can go buy food on the world market if we stop producing it.  But I worry a little.  Not in the short term, but I  think a combination of levee failures in the Delta that shut down the California aquaduct altogether and groundwater overdraft in the SJV could mean a very sharp and abrupt decrease in the amount of water available to farming in the San Joaquin Valley.  I don’t think that is a particularly far-fetched scenario.  If that happened during a worldwide drought (also no longer farfetched), there may not be all that much food for us to buy, and the rest of the world will also want it.  I’d feel a lot better with food in my (extended) backyard than cash in the bank.  I think that since we are so rich, we should pay to maintain that kind of security and assurance here at home.  But at current levels of production, we are a huge exporter and we have so much extra that we can grow a million acres of grains to feed to animals.  That’s a million acres of production that could provide about ten times more food for humans, should we need it.

The other reason Rep. Hasting (and Rep. McClintock by extension) have that fear completely backwards is that you know who faces a huge food security problem?  China.  They sold someone a box of carrots, true.  But China is so worried about feeding itself that they’re buying up Africa as a breadbasket.  I love that kind of longterm vision.  Respect to China.  But basically, every aspect of that justification for the pretend-Congressional hearing is backwards.  California produces more than plenty of food for itself.  China is never going to be an important food source for Californians; they’re rightfully worried about feeding themselves.  And these representatives don’t give a fuck about food security anyway.  They want to get rid of the Endangered Species Act and make not-even-specious arguments about its harms.  Whatever, dudes.  Enjoy your fake hearings.  The rest of  Congress will never care about them.

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I would love detailed, concrete answers, if you have ’em.

DWR released initial allocations for next year’s State Water Project contracts, and based on empty reservoirs, said that everyone would be getting just about nothing. This is a very conservative estimate, and kinda to-be-ignored. They can’t say anything else until they know whether the winter snows are good. There were a whole spate of reactions in the news, with most big water players saying that this is why we should vote ‘yes’ on an $11B bond measure next year. All predictable, but I got curious about this:

A spokeswoman for Zone 7, the water agency for Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, said that in a worst-case scenario it could draw on groundwater and possible rationing to weather the lack of storms.

“We can’t sustain this forever,” said

Zone 7 spokeswoman Boni Brewer, whose customers get 80 percent of their water from the Delta. “Long-term, we can’t sustain this. Short-term, were saying that we would be OK.”

First, Australia is in its tenth year of drought this year. Whenever Australians give talks here, the first thing they say is “it just kept going”. Their drought just kept on. I assume that was pretty brutal in years 4-6, but now they look chipper as they call it the new normal. I have no idea whether or how long the current drought will continue. But I want to know what, precisely, would happen to Zone 7 if it did. She says that “long-term, we can’t sustain this.” But a long-term drought is entirely plausible. So what would happen?

I assume she means that they can’t supplement with groundwater forever; their aquifers would dry out in some more years of this. Once that happens, if the SWP still can’t offer them much water, what can’t be sustained? Their current rate of new housing starts? The existence of lawns? Any industrial processes in the region? Their current water rates? What exactly am I scared of here? Loss of trappings of a middle class lifestyle? Decreased rates of growth? Dust bowl style evacuations, with Mad Max bandits living in the ruined suburbs?

Presumably there is some level of city in the Zone 7 service area that could be sustained indefinitely without SWP water. The size of that city depends a lot on lifestyle and efficiency (Both. I’m not using efficiency as a euphemism that covers lifestyle changes.). If Zone 7 cannot sustain what they’re doing now without SWP water, what do they intend to do if this drought lasts another ten or twenty years? That isn’t fiction. It is happening now in Australia.

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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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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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They may as well dance to the rain gods.

Yes! This quote:

Long story short, the super-simple proposal you’ve developed for ending piracy has probably already been thought of, and probably has a host of problems that you haven’t considered.

This is especially true if the super simple proposal for fixing California water is END WATER SUBSIDIES TO AGRICULTURE. I actually support ending water subsidies for agriculture and instead providing direct subsidies designed to buy the form of agriculture I want. But it is really rare to hear discussions of that. Instead you get blog commentors shouting that water subsidies must end, with no discussion of what that would look like. The problem with an abrupt end to water-based subsidies is that those subsidies are old now. They’ve been going on for fifty or more years, and their existence means that some noticeable piece of the agricultural sector has come to depend on them.

Losing water-based subsidies abruptly would set off the ‘host of problems’ that would matter to real people. Grower’s land would be suddenly worth much less. Some growers would find the costs of water tip the balance, so that farming is no longer possible for them. I keep saying that subsidized water grows field crops that are the basis of cheap meat. I don’t care if cheap meat vanishes, but I think there are a whole bunch of people who think eating meat frequently contributes to their quality of life. Those are attenuated problems, and maybe you aren’t very sympathetic to growers who are all MULTINATIONAL BILLIONAIRE CORPORATIONS anyway. But the first people who are going to hurt, as I’ve been saying all along, are farmworkers.

We’re seeing that now, that when water leaves the ag sector farmworkers hurt first and worst. But, even as farmworkers have all my concern, I have to say that their march this week just kills me. Farmworkers are marching from their dying town to a reservoir as a way to lobby for “state money for dams and canals and the lifting of pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were imposed to comply with environmental laws”. They’re deliberately evoking Cesar Chavez. I find that march to be a horrible perversion and wish they weren’t doing it.

I have to assume that to the marchers it feels like a meaningful protest that will draw attention and aid, but I can’t see how it will work. The primary problem is that they are asking for the wrong remedy. Specifically what they want is to lift the ESA restrictions on the pumps that protect salmon and smelt. I don’t really have much claim on Chavez’s legacy, but I have to say that it breaks my heart a little to have farmworkers using his tactics to shift the drought burden to the only entities in our water system that are suffering worse (farmworkers have it bad, but they are not physically ground to pieces by the pumps) and have less voice or capacity to escape the consequences of drought (fish, however, must be in drying rivers and cannot move to another).

That aside, this march doesn’t pressure anyone who can respond. In Chavez’s original marches, farmworkers and boycotts could pressure growers for better wages and working conditions. Those improvements were something that growers could give, or legislators could legally require. But knowingly breaking the ESA as a result of this march? Who could do that? Pres. Obama could call a God Squad, which I hope he doesn’t do. A judge or the state legislature could try, but the resulting litigation would last longer than this growing season. The Department of Fish and Game could reverse all their findings that this pumping regime kills fish that are already nearly extinct, but that would require some pretty surprising new scientific studies. So long as the ESA holds, we can’t do what farmworkers are marching for, which is to send more water to the farms that would employ those farmworkers.

The farmworkers have a different remedy, but to my regret, they aren’t asking for it. They don’t need water to go to those specific farms to get those specific jobs. They need some jobs, or failing that, they need money to live on and to transition out of a farming-dependent life. That’s something the state could do. They aren’t asking for it, though. I don’t know if it is politically impossible (because how would you take care of the farmworker victims of the drought without attending to the other victims of the recession) or if they haven’t thought of it (because the idea of the state taking care of its citizens has become a joke) or if they are too self-identified with the some bullshit rugged individualism made even worse by a western farming mythos.

I’ll say this, too. I don’t know this to be the case, but I get a yucky feeling that this march was cynically engineered by politically savvy water districts. I hate that feeling. It would mean that sophisticated large water users manipulated the hurt and restless energy of farmworkers and their desperate families and used the legacy of Cesar Chavez as cover to attack the Endangered Species Act. If that happened (and of course I’ll never know) it was a shitty thing to do.   Making this march about dams, canals and running the pumps more won’t get farmworkers the help they need.  All  the desperation and hope they put into the march will be disappointed.  That’s another disappointment they don’t need.


Filed under Agriculture, Drought

Cities and resilience.

I’m also trying to read up on cities and resilience, which is frustrating me.  This book, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster sounds like it would be just right.  It would be a totally good book if I were reading it for fun*.  But it isn’t helping, because they keep talking about sudden perturbations, like fire and bombings and earthquakes, which doesn’t help me.  Now I’m thinking that I maybe need to understand how cities withstand siege, but I can’t go chasing down all these tangents.

Droughts!  I need to understand.  What does the drought actually DO?   What does it do on the household and block and annual level?  How does it aggregate to effect a city?  How could that be countered?







*DAMN!  Cities NEVER give up.  Like, ever.  You cannot raze a city so bad that it goes away.  Like, some study showed that between 1100 and 1800, only forty cities stopped existing.   I suppose that makes sense.  I mean, the fact of a city not existing is so powerful that we remember it forever: Atlantis, Babylon, whatever that one was that got volcanoed.  I’ve been wondering if New Orleans and Galveston will be the leading edge of a new era of cities vanishing.  We’ll know in a generation, I guess.


Filed under Drought