We’ve been waiting for quite a long span
While our rivers and fish are less than.
The VSAs are no more
State Board, do what you’re for
And finish the Bay-Delta Plan
Westlands quit with a flounce and walked out
VSA’s are all over, no doubt
There’s no hope for a deal
Let the State Board reveal
A hearing schedule to save steelhead trout.
Trump issued a bullshit Bi-Op
Which brought Agreements to a dead stop
Now the rivers can’t wait
State Board, deliberate!
Please resume your duty as cop.
State Board, its time now, you must
Make river flows that are robust
Please do not cave
Our fish you must save
Please enforce our State’s Public Trust
Chair Esquivel. There will be no Voluntary Agreements for the foreseeable future. Westlands says so at their Board meetings. Met is supporting the Bi-Op, and says VAs are halted. Reclamation and the feds aren’t in a negotiating posture. I’m told there have been no VA meetings this year. The Newsom administration is primarily focused on the pandemic. The mainstream papers are reporting that the VAs aren’t happening. My friends and colleagues gossip that the VAs are over.
There are no Voluntary Agreements, and the conditions that would restore them are no closer. The discrepancy between the Bi-Ops and the ITP would have to be resolved. The federal administration would have to want to negotiate. The water agencies would have to think that they have better chances working with the State than they do with the Feds. None of those things are true for now or for the foreseeable future.
Time to restart the Bay-Delta Phase 1 plan. Are you waiting for the Newsom administration to take a break from managing the pandemic to give you the OK sign? Shame on you. The State Board is an independent agency, with the duty to protect the rivers of the state. You want Crowfoot and the rest to write a public message, admitting their failure? Spare them the embarrassment! Let them lay low and discreetly take up your responsibility. They already cost your board a year and a half; you should be furious about that.
The Bay-Delta Plan Phase I could be an inspiring change that sets a tone for dealing with climate change (no, we will not live by 19th century rules forever; no, extractors can’t have everything; there are higher values than capitalism). There could be COVID money coming down the pike for restoration. There could be a new federal administration soon. We are in a turbulent time and there is a lot of potential. A strong State Board could play an important role; it must step up to its responsibilities.
Governor Newsom. I understand that this will be hard for you to read. But the situation is clear. It is time for you to perform the Tasks of Grief for the Voluntary Agreements. I know that you wanted them very badly. I presume that you dreamed of a future in which they were a success. You sacrificed greatly for them, but do not let the sunk cost fallacy deceive you. The Voluntary Agreements cannot happen while the Bi-Ops and the ITP diverge, and you cannot ethically follow the Bi-Ops and the Trump admin will not follow the ITP. We are where we are, and you cannot will the VAs into being. You drove Wade Crowfoot like a rented mule, but being even harder on him will not give him good-faith negotiation partners. There is nothing left to do but what you should have done from the very beginning.
It is time for you to return to the BATNA. You will not have a negotiated agreement until the Bi-Ops are struck down for being arbitrary and capricious (or until the next administration abandons them). So let’s return to the best alternative. You are in luck! The best alternative is very good! You still have the Bay-Delta Phase 1 instream flow requirements. California has long had all the legal authority needed to force water districts to maintain fish populations below dams; you need not choose between instream flows and habitat restoration. You could get both.
Perhaps you are not yet ready to give up on the Voluntary Agreements. Thing is, developing the BATNA will also motivate water agencies to come to the table. It was Bay-Delta Plan Phase 1 flow requirements that brought them to the table in the first place and then you immediately stopped working on them! In parenting-speak, they lost all fear of consequences.
If you must still dream of real VA’s, give up on them for now. Reclamation will not be an adult negotiating partner; just today Brenda Burman wrote a letter tattling on you to Dianne Feinstein, who will do what? Scold you? The water agencies will not reevaluate their bargaining power until there is a new Secretary of the Interior. Set the process aside for nine months and release whatever hold you placed on the SWRCB. Tell them full steam ahead on the Bay-Delta instream flows. You cannot break the VA’s any more than they currently are. You’ll either put yourself in a strong bargaining position for next year or you’ll be the most environmental governor since Jerry Bown 1. Either would be better than remaining in limbo.
All the ag people sent a letter to Newsom saying, hey, it is a plague and there’s drought, so how about you give us all the water because food security. Also pay for the canals we broke by overpumping, pay for our on-farm irrigation efficiency and build more dams. Because we’re growing FOOOoooooOOOOODDDDD don’t you like to eat or are you just gonna let everyone STARVE during A PLAGUE?
I can’t blame them for shooting their shot. Why not? Even if it is long odds of working, it isn’t that hard to write a letter. They may even be genuine; I myself find that nearly all crises confirm my previously held policy positions. However, “let fish go extinct so we can grow whatever we choose and sell it wherever we want” is not a food security measure. An agricultural system that took food security seriously would look very different from our current capitalist market-based system.
The good news is that we have plenty of arable land and water to grow as much table food as Californians and some Americans need. A serious food security agricultural system could look like 3-4M irrigated acres and 1-2M acres pasture, with benefits and constraints on the participating farmers.
- They sell their food to Californians or regionally within America.
- They grow food for humans to eat.
- Consolidated in Sac Valley, east-middle of SJV, Salinas Valley
- Required biodiversity/cover crops/pollinator rows
- Minimum soil tilth
- The State guarantees them water in all years.
- Assistance and support with
- permitting (for standardized ag buildings, for irrigation discharge)
- with food safety standards (streamlined paperwork, free auditors to do paperwork)
- labor (paying part of labor’s salary)
- health insurance
- ag research
- processing (including slaughtering and packing)
- distribution (developing local food chains, making nutrition available to all)
Honestly, I’m not the person to design an ag system, but there must be enough sweeteners to make a system like this worth it, if not for current landowners then for farmers like these. In most years, the payoff to society for supporting ag to this extent would be diffuse (better lives for people in the ag system, more farm-based biodiversity, better food better distributed). But in unusual years (drought, plague), the payoff would be a robust, redundant local food system. Every part of the country should have their own sufficient redundant system.
This is what we would be doing if we were serious about food security, not ‘letting fish die so that millionaire and billionaire farmers can sell whatever they want to anywhere.’ But it is easy enough to find out how sincere the authors are about feeding their neighbors in this drought. Tell them we’ll consider their ask to continue the destruction of California’s rivers if, in return, they will only sell their foods within California until the plague is over. See what they say.
With the Voluntary Agreements no longer at stake and the entire ascientific worldview discredited, this is the perfect time for the Newsom administration to pivot to a strongly environmental water policy. It will fit more harmoniously with a progressive administration. Next year is likely to bring willing federal partners. The Newsom administration could be remembered for restoring rivers, for giving people access to clean cold rushing water, for reorienting to climate mitigation and adaptation. If the Newsom administration decides to do this, here are some things they could do:
- Jettison Bonham and Nemeth. They are the embodiment of ‘please just keep everything going ’til my watch is over’. At this point, they are also the embodiment of the failed Voluntary Agreements. DWR and DFW could have actual visionary leaders working toward actual environmental improvement. The agencies could be reinvigorated and inspired the way the SWRCB was under Felicia Marcus. Newsom could have his own Ron Robie!
- It isn’t too late! The Final Water Resilience Portfolio isn’t released. They can still scrub references to the Voluntary Agreements.
- Take a look at different problems. Stop re-working the same ground. Modernize the courts system/adjudication process. Bring water districts into this century; create watershed-scale districts with half state-appointed board members.
- Prepare for an environmentalist federal government. Use the economic recovery plans from COVID 19 to transform California.
- Immediately back the instream flow standards in the Bay-Delta Plan. Do every single restoration project that was offered in the Voluntary Agreements. They are owed; the districts indicated their willingness.
- Focus on re-building the connection between people and their rivers. Give the people of the SJV more and more beautiful river access.
- Rigorously enforce SGMA; rigorously evaluate SGMA plans.
Should the administration choose to do this, they should aggressively partner with the enviros they excluded from the Voluntary Agreement process. I mean, I personally am extremely petty and I would dance around the room exactly like this, continuing to the little-known second verse, “You Were So Wrong”. But the other enviros are professional and strategic and they would graciously pretend the first two years never happened.
The Newsom administration could still be a water policy triumph. They showed an admirable amount of not-giving-a-fuck about public opinion when they were working toward the Voluntary Agreements. If they applied that to working on better problems toward an enviro vision, they could still be proud of their remaining time.
Rumor has it that the lawsuits caused by the discrepancy between the Trump Biological Opinion and the State’s Incidental Take Permit have killed the Voluntary Agreements. If so, there are some lessons to be learned; let’s spell those out.
- The people who proposed and supported the Voluntary Agreements (Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, PPIC) have bad judgment on water policy. Their approach set the Newsom administration up for failure. It wasted two years of the administration and squandered substantial political capital for Newsom. The best that could be said for them is that they are prolonging the unsustainable status quo.
- Because there are polarized sides, when enviros told you that water users would never make a scientifically acceptable offer, their accurate assessment based on experience looked like sour grapes. For example, it was accurate when we said that Westlands would be a shitty negotiating partner. That wasn’t “the old binary” coming to the fore, evidence of tired and uncool thinking. That was experience, because that is Westland’s institutional culture under Tom Birmingham.
- Man, Bernhardt/Trump really fucked the Newsom administration with that Biological Opinion. It is scientifically indefensible, so the State couldn’t go along with it. But the ag bargaining partners wanted Newsom/Crowfoot to pretend it is scientifically adequate and there was just no way out of that squeeze. I totally get how Bernhardt wants to lock in any advantage he can, but if the negotiations were ever going to succeed, Bernhardt wrecked them.
This has got to feel awful for Crowfoot and the Natural Resources. They’ve been making wretched compromises and betraying environmental principles for a couple years now, and it has gone down in flames. (I imagine Newsom is too occupied by COVID 19 to notice much.) Now they have to establish a water policy from scratch. Out of the goodness of my heart, I will offer some suggestions in my next post.
William Bordeau wrote a piece for CalMatters, saying that CA water policy is restricting food production in the San Joaquin Valley and the COVID 19 emergency is revealing the importance of producing our own food. Cora Kammeyer answered that that’s not actually true about water policy restricting food production in the SJV. I have two different problems with Bordeau’s essay.
1. Growers in the SJV do not give a shit about producing food, as such. They are there to make a profit, and if they can do that by producing food, they will. But they are not growing food to feed hungry people. That is not the point of what they are doing. We would need an entirely different, non-capitalist system of farming if we want the point to be ‘feeding hungry people’.
2. If the COVID emergency reveals that America should never be dependent foreign countries to feed our hungry families, as Bordeau says:
This pandemic has undeniably affirmed the need for policymakers to absolutely ensure America retains her self-sustaining capabilities that keep grocery store shelves bountiful; and that we are never unnecessarily forced to entrust feeding our families to foreign countries.
then it also reveals that the rest of American cannot be dependent on California, as the dominant optimized farming region. If the COVID 19 emergency has shown that any place can be fragile and downed by disaster, then the solution is redundant, dispersed, resilient systems. Every region in American should be capable of feeding itself from non-plantation agriculture, even if all the regions aren’t as economically efficient as California.