Category Archives: Drought

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.


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I’m reading a lot about Australia’s drought these past couple days.  Two things.  First, it looks exactly like an accelerated version of my dystopic version of how California agriculture will respond to climate change.  I’m always relieved at validation, because I thought through that post from first principles, not from copying a drought scenario.

But, one real bad thing is that one of the sidenotes in my old post is pretty prominent in these articles about Australian drought.  Farmers kill themselves a lot.  I guess the identification with their land and way of life is overwhelming.  Maybe people at the Department of Public Health know more about that, but I don’t think many water managers think of responding to that as part of their job.  Also, the first and worst victims of California’s water scarcity are and will be farm workers, but I don’t see mention of suicide in any of the newspaper stories about them.  Why do farmers kill themselves but the more destitute farmworkers not?  (Catholicism?  Different sort of self-identification?  Sampling and reporting error?)   What’s going on here and how does it become part of drought response?

Later: Relevant. And another article mentioning drought and suicide.

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What does the drought cost?

I got to wondering whether the drought will necessarily cost us money.  The numbers for ag are clear:

Richard Howitt, professor of resource economics at UC Davis, last week offered sobering numbers to the state Board of Food and Agriculture.

Using computer economic models and DWR water data, Howitt estimates 40,000 jobs will be lost, along with $1.15 billion in income.

But this is just the first splash of trouble, because Howitt’s estimate applies only to areas of the Central Valley south of the Delta, and only in the farm sector.

They get quoted all the time, but I can tell you for sure that the reason they get cited so much is that his study is quite literally the only study we have. People want to quantify the effects of the drought, so they give the only numerical data we have. That’s understandable, although people confuse “the only thing we know” with “the whole story”.

However, this drought has also been a huge spur for urban conservation. If the premise behind conservation is true, that measures like fixing leaks and lawn removal and fixture replacement are pure efficiency gains, then presumably most of the urban drought measures will have some payback rate. Districts could have gotten those returns at any point, but it took a drought and someone else’s money to get them moving. I’m also seeing stuff like this, where the drought has brought enough pressure to get institutional realignments. I don’t know anything about that one in particular, but presumably the participants think there are gains from it. If so, and if the infrastructure and behavior changes stick around after the drought, racheting down inefficiencies in urban use could plausibly have a positive payback within a few years.

I don’t know that to be the case, and I don’t know how it will compare to ag losses. But it that is the kind of contrarianism that drives traffic to blogs and gets an econ grad student big press. So I’m hoping that some econ grad student takes it up. I’m sure Howitt’s study is fine for what it is, but I’d like to see more of the picture.

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What drought means to most Californian urban users.

The people I’m generalizing about in this post are residential water users who grew up in a modern urban water system, with a district providing them with flawless water reliability.  I know that’s not the case for most of the world, but I want to make a point about my peers.)

Drought, for most urban users in California, is not about water. Furthermore, residential users in California do not care how much water they use.  People in California are not emotionally attached to using a certain number of gallons per day; no one wakes up and ponders, ‘do I want to use 135 or 145 gpd today?  I need a little pick-me-up.  145 it is!’.  People can be trained, through their water bill, to start thinking of gallons per day, but no one feels better just for using any amount of water.  Rather, residential users want a number of aesthetic experiences for which they need some water.  My guess is that they appreciate, from most utils to least utils, a shower with water pressure*, drinking water, washing dishes with the water running, growing some houseplants, having a green landscape, washing driveways.  They also use water in ways that they derive no satisfaction from.  Carrying human waste away, leaking from faucets, overwatering plants, washing clothes in it.   The results of those things are nice, neutral or annoying, but if the nice things could be achieved with something besides water, it would make no difference to people.

Because most urban Californians will never experience an interruption of water service, nor rations small enough to threaten their bodily uses of water, what drought really means to most people is that they have to pay attention.   What they really want is a few daily experiences (that don’t have to take much actual wet water) and that they don’t have to think about it.  In a society as rich as ours, a drought starts the moment casual users have to think about it.  The marker of the start of a drought is completely independent of snowpack or precip.  For most people, a drought starts when they get a bill insert or see something about it in the news. At that point, the privilege of living in such a wealthy society that you don’t have to fix your broken sprinkler is gone**.  That is what drought will mean to most people.

Water managers focus on meteorology and absolute amounts of water, but the way to alleviate the experience of drought for most Californians is to reassure them that they can keep the water experiences they value and to make giving up the other ones trivially easy.

This is not a particularly focused prescription, and it is the real effect of most of the conservation measures that cities and districts are employing.  (Put a nozzle on your hose when you wash your car, don’t serve water unless it is requested.)  It also suggests that scaring people about drought is itself the drought for most people, but I don’t mean to argue that they shouldn’t be aware of it***.  My point here is that what is important to people is their subjective experience.  That is as true for their uses of water as it is for their perception of drought.  We have to manage water, but it might be more important to manage the casual user’s experience of drought****.

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Why districts are slow to charge market rates for water.

Why don’t districts pass the marginal costs of water on to their constituents?

HAH! Do you see what I did there? Constituents? Not customers, constituents. That’s the first reason districts don’t want to raise rates and pass the marginal costs of supplying water to users.

Districts are public institutions.
Districts are not companies. They have no profit function. They do not, for themselves, want to capture the full willingness to pay for water. That is not what they are for. In fact, their mission is some variant on “cheaply and reliably deliver water”. Because that is why local citizens organized and incorporated a district. Charging any more for water than it costs to get, treat and deliver is failing their mission. It is often also violating their bylaws, charter or the state laws that give them authority.

From the district side of things, they don’t want to make water expensive. Once O&M is covered, they have no incentive. What would they do with the money? Gold plate their pumps? They don’t have shareholders to distribute it to.

This neglects the ‘price signal’ aspect to charging lots for water (show the public it is valuable! no wasting!). There’s a lot to be said for that, so why don’t districts raise rates for that purpose and, um, give any revenues above operations and maintenance to an orphanage?

Board members are publicly elected
The people who set rates for a district are the board members, who are publicly elected by people in the district. They are not strongly motivated to increase rates for abstract considerations like “send a price signal”. First, they’d be increasing rates on their very own water. Second, they are answerable to the people in the district at the very next election. If you go back to those stories on raising rates, did you notice the part about how people are pissed? And organizing? Those are the friends and neighbors of board members, and also the people who will yank them out of office at the next election if rates go up (long digression on the opposition to rate increases in a post below).

But maybe a district really does need to raise rates, to pass along higher costs of getting new water or in this drought year, to encourage conservation. A standard technique is to charge very little for some small amount of health and safety water, and then high prices for frivolous extra water like elaborate water fountains in your tropical rainforest garden, Richy Rich. Economists are all, this is SO OBVIOUS. Do this already. Yeah, well, until last October, it was illegal. This is why economists need to pay closer attention to the law side of things.

Motherfucking Howard Jarvis.
There is an elaborate legal backstory, but basically, one side effect of Proposition 218, put forth by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, was that it became illegal to charge any household more than the costs of conveyance to that parcel. It was illegal to charge punitive rates to send a price signal to wasteful users. The last year of drought made this such a problem that the legislature corrected it.

So you have all these economists telling districts they could solve their shortages by charging more for excessive use, and districts saying, we’ll get sued. It was illegal until six months ago. I went to a number of different agency meetings, where everyone talked about how conservation pricing was such a great tool, and I kept saying, it is illegal. I think we should stop recommending illegal measures to the public. (Or, if we don’t care about legality, I think we should get far more imaginative.) People didn’t believe me because it evolved over three court cases, but then I’d explain Prop 218 and the court cases, and they’d realize that was a huge problem. Fortunately, Assemblymember Wolk solved it.

So when people say, ‘why haven’t districts instituted conservation pricing already when it is the obvious solution’, one answer is, ‘because there have only been three board meetings since it became legal to do that?’ Then my question is, did you know that? Did you realize that there are legal and institutional barriers that slow districts down? Do you know what they are? It isn’t necessarily ignorance or backwardness on the part of the district. The world that districts operate in is far more complex than the world of economic theory.


Filed under Districts, Drought

Why it isn’t simple to charge market rates for water. Background.

I see this stuff all the time (sometimes, I see double!): an oversimplistic assessment that raising rates for water would end shortages. I am, actually, in favor of charging by unit of water (so you pay more when you buy more, a concept so straightforward that it is embarrassing to have to say it explicitly, but not always the norm for water pricing). I am also in favor of charging a rough marginal rate for water. These days the cheap chunks of water are thoroughly exploited and the next source costs more to collect, treat and deliver. I’m fine with water users seeing that cost for what it is. So it isn’t that I’m opposed to the concept of raising rates on water. But I do get frustrated when people act as if that is straightforward and obvious and the full solution. Districts aren’t dumb. There are reasons they have the pricing structures they do.

Some things to get out of the way:
1. No utility sells water. Water is free. What they sell is capacity and distribution. You are renting a length of pipe as water moves through it. The way to tell how much you bought is by measuring the amount of water, and that’s how they charge you. For your billing and behavior, this is just like charging you for water, so this is a minor technicality that makes no difference. It just bugs me to hear people saying to charge more for water, because I am hopelessly pedantic and literal minded.

2. It isn’t coincidence that the people you hear saying that pricing water is the bulk of the solution are all economists. A lot of the reasons pricing structures change slowly are over on the legal and institutional side; economists dismiss those as trivial, malleable impediments, but lawyers understand that they give districts a different set of incentives.

3. Rates ARE going up. Fast and hard this year.

4. The word “shortage” is doing some work that gets skipped over a lot. When everyone says “drought” and “shortage”, what we basically mean is “less then we’re used to”. We don’t mean, and won’t in the foreseeable future, “not enough to drink and bathe”. So far we’re not even close to that range. What we do mean is “not enough to use it like we’ve always been able to”, on lawns and embedded in our meat supply and on wasteful appliances and by deferring maintenance on leaky pipes.

Now here’s the thing. When laypeople hear No More Shortages, they think, ‘there’s plenty, I can continue hosing down my driveway just like I always have.’ When economists say No More Shortages, they mean charging so much for water that people cut out the uses they don’t want to pay for. Then supply curve intersects demand curve, and the economic definition of No Shortage is met! Yay! In real life, high price signals that cut out less-intensely-wanted uses means no lawns, fewer burgers, switching out appliances and replacing leaky pipes. That is what laypeople thought was a shortage! It is not the careless plenty they grew up with.

I am personally fine with this. I don’t have any emotional attachment to careless water management or lawns. I do want to point out, however, that when economists say No More Shortage, they are talking about what the broad public considers a shortage (less than I’m used to and I have to pay attention).

5. One of the standard critiques of markets is that since wealth is distributed unevenly, the marginal value of a dollar is different between rich and poor people. The rich will be able to afford their swampy lawns while the poor scrimp to drink. You can create pricing structures to alleviate this (a very low rate for the initial chunk of water, or refunds to low-income users), if environmental and social justice are important to you. Those are worth explicit consideration and decision.

All that out of the way, lets get to the good part. Why don’t districts pass the marginal costs of water on to their constituents?

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Fix California’s water system!!!

My main take-away from this meeting on a California Constitutional Convention? I didn’t expect to hear so much about water. The first speaker, from the Bay Area Council, listed water as the second most important crisis the state has to solve, after resolving budget procedures. The next speaker, Walters from the SacBee, mentioned it alternately first or second every time, water and the budget. It came up a couple more times, always as an important function of government that California was failing at.

Huh. I pay a lot of attention to water, but I don’t personally consider it a scarier problem than climate change, converting our energy sources and distribution to renewables, densifying cities, matching up our population to a quality of life. I’m pretty scared of the way we imprison people, actually. That strikes me as a real nasty feedback loop. I mean, yeah. Our water system poses some hard problems, but I wouldn’t have picked it as one of the two top problems in the state1. I wonder how much that public perception has to do with being in the third year of a drought.

Anyway, all that talk of the government failing at water made me wonder what the state could actually do for water systems, in a beautiful world of very good governance. These people who want the state to fix the water problems, what can they expect?

I know what they want. They want to keep using water they way they do now, not pay much more for it, and have so much faith that it will always be there when they open the taps that they never think about it again. That’s the standard they’re used to. Heh. A perfectly functioning state government couldn’t provide that. We will have less water overall, spread over more people, and the best Constitution in the world will not make it rain.2 Water will be scarcer and more expensive.

What, then, could the laws of our state actually enable? Three things: reliability, certainty and allocation. This is not the same as more water. Our old strategy was to have so much that even with sloppy management sloshing water all over, reliability, certainty and allocation were largely met. (Unless you were a salmon or smelt.) Now, though, we’re going to have to focus on what people really want.

The way to support reliability is through the budget process. Paying for O&M on our existing plumbing, putting in cross-ties and canals so that regions are served by multiple systems, instead of one that can fail and leave them stranded, reconstructing and getting rid of existing bottlenecks. Our current projects could be optimized and better controlled. Better reliability could be bought by a state government that could budget for it.

Certainty and allocation come from distribution rules, and this is where overhauling the state codes or Constitution can actually have some effect. I have opinions about what that should look like, but it is more important that people realize that this is the field of play. “Fixing water in California” does not mean “perpetuating what we’re used to”. It means making rules for who gets how much of what little water arrives and why. It means deciding who gets the shaft when flood or drought arrives, and whether there will be compensation. It means that Silicon Valley execs can know that they’ll get all of what they need nearly all the time for a lot of money. It means that growers who commit to accepting flood waters know they’ll get paid back from a community fund, so they can exist as farms the year after. It means that cities can plan for expected populations and know they’ll have a smaller but reliable amount of water for all the households they serve.

That’s what new rules could do. That’s the best a new Constitution could do. It won’t “fix the water system” in the sense of making more water exist so we can live like we have. “Fixing the water system” means meeting the underlying needs (reliability, certainty, allocation) so that people can adapt and choose.


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