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I have a better idea for a water initiative.

The San Joaquin Valley big boys are trying to get an initiative onto the 2022 ballots. They call it More Water Now; the proposition is to designate 2% of the general fund for water projects until the new projects yield 5MAF. Here are a couple op-eds against it. Here is an advocate’s case for it. (I have to say. Don Wright is the best possible advocate for anything Big Ag wants. He is so painfully sincere in his belief that they’re doing a good thing.) I assume all the good governance people will hate this initiative for ballot-box budgeting. I assume that water people will hate it because it funds all the projects that can’t be built because the water they yield is too expensive, even after it does away with environmental protection. Fine, whatever.

You might think that I would be sputtering outraged at the sheer gall of the initiative backers. Designate 2% of California’s general fund, the money that all taxpayers put into the state, for water projects that would primarily serve rich farmers in the San Joaquin Valley? (Because you know the first thing they’ll propose is their disaster of a Water Blueprint.) You are right. I would be, if it were the first time I’ve seen this. But it isn’t! Those rich fucks proposed something even worse a year ago! Summer of 2020, the even worse proposal was a 0.5% tax increase on the eight San Joaquin counties. I was beside myself then. I only consoled myself by imagining that the 0.5% tax earned the eight counties a substantial share in all farm proceeds or perhaps outright ownership off all lands that took irrigation water from new water projects. Now that would justify a general tax increase.

I don’t know whether the More Water Now initiative will get on the ballot or pass. I’ve given up on predictions. But if we’re talking about initiatives, I have one to propose. I think we should pass an initiative that sets a rigorous priority for “reasonable use” (municipal>environmental>ag) and states that it is not reasonable to allow water right holders to take water if a higher priority isn’t fully served. I believe that would allow us to sidestep our disaster of a water rights system without being a taking, since water rights have always been subject to a reasonable use restriction. I think an initiative like that could pass readily, since it is pure self-interest for nearly all of the voters in CA. I hadn’t really understood the extent of people’s resentment towards almonds until I heard the applause on this Bill Maher segment. I had thought that you and I shared a refined, hand-crafted, artisan resentment, available only to connoisseurs of obscure blogs. But no. Seems like lots of Californians are ready to change our water rights system to something that works better for all of us. So if there’s gonna be an initiative, we can do a lot better than More Water Now.

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Don’t know how I missed this.

Dam safety, drought, flood, extinction, extraction and subjugation. It is all the same. This clip captures my whole life right now.

h/t to EW.

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Why Californians are not conserving water this drought.

There are two things going on here. The first is that Governor Newsom and his water officials don’t have the pull to get good response to a public call for conservation. The second is that the burdening the public with behavior changes to save water has always been a symptom of failure. We should never have been proud that we made people’s lives harder in the course of getting through a drought.

Look. I don’t pretend that most people in California follow water, and I don’t expect that they are reacting to his delayed actions on drought the way I am. I don’t imagine Uber drivers exclaiming “The nerve of that man! Telling me to fix my dripping faucet after he vetoed SB1 in 2019!!!! Sheer gall, I tell you!”. I don’t think anyone besides me is reacting at that level. But I do think that the public feels no strong attachment to Governor Fingerguns and won’t go to much effort for him on the basis of affection. On water specifically, if they vaguely follow the news, they’ll know he’s made of … nothing. He fired the effective Chair of the State Board and replaced her with a pleasant fellow who shows no urgency. His top executives cannot state a clear goal. The Water Resilience Portfolio is some weak-ass “keep doing what you’re doing” document. Even the name of it is weak sauce. I wasn’t impressed by the Water Action Plan, but the name isn’t nearly as boring as Water Resilience Portfolio.

Look at the top takeaway on water supply in the Water Resilience Portfolio (pg 13):

Key insights from assessing the current health of California’s natural systems:
» Improved understanding is needed about the amount of water that must stay in rivers and streams to protect fish, wildlife, habitat, and water quality, and further actions are needed to support the availability of water for these needs.

Are you fucking kidding me? This wishy-washy passive voice, qualified bullshit? We need understanding, not actual water? Or, um, support for the availability of water? Again, I don’t think the broad public knows this level of detail and I don’t think that’s why they aren’t conserving. But there isn’t any good, strong core to the Newsom Administration on water and they do sense that. They can sense that there’s nothing there, and that Newsom doesn’t have the credibility or connection to ask Californians to conserve.

That’s the first problem. The second problem is that water conservation that requires behavioral changes is a small ongoing burden on people’s lives. Last drought, people had the capacity to do that. People I respect said that it was altruistic and not a problem, and I reluctantly went along with that even though I had doubts. I had doubts that it could last. I firmly believe the layering of small ongoing burdens distinctly worsens our quality of life. Now, in the pandemic, asking for behavior changes is just plainly a limited strategy that isn’t always available. Asking people who are managing the much greater burdens of All The Pandemic Things to please also keep a bucket in their shower? You are out of your fucking mind. That capacity is already taken by “where is my kid’s clean mask?”. It is not available for water conservation, even in a drought.

The solutions are systemic. They will be shifting substantial water from ag to urban and environmental use. They will be written into building codes and fixed into new landscaping. They aren’t “hope that the governor can call on people to do annoying daily things”. That approach is failing.

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We’re going to need it.

I first thought of “Ag Supremacy” in June 2018. I’ve held off on writing up this post because I doubt my understanding of white supremacy and didn’t want to make an insulting comparison. I hope that I have not. I am posting it now because I’m seeing a new awareness of how historic racism has been engrained in our water rights system. Water rights were claimed in eras when only white men could make resource claims and were, at the least, excluding Native Californians, Chinese immigrants, and other peoples from holding property. California’s water rights are historic racism made permanent and present.

This drought is forcing curtailments based on first-in-time, first-in-right. On the one hand, that sounds kinda fair, like the American preference for queueing. A deeper look would be that first-in-time (but definitely not Native!!! ) is a distillation of the innate racism of our water rights system, bringing it to its purest, most racist form. I would utterly love to see an analysis of the demographics of water rights holders by year the right was claimed.

As we discuss water rights this year, I’d like our own thinking to be clear. Clear of Ag Supremacy. Explicit and direct about the inherent racism of our water rights system. Conscious of what it means to uphold those rights and be complicit in that racism.

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A comparison of white supremacy to ag supremacy.

California faces a necessary discussion about how much of our water should be allocated to agriculture. This conversation is hampered by a set of beliefs I’m calling Ag Supremacy, seen at its purest in the “Thank a Farmer” campaign. I think many in ag and out have an unexamined sense that farmers are the core American identity and somehow purer, harder working and better than effete city-dwellers. Partly because of that, we don’t look clearly at the extent of their resource and labor extraction and hoarding. Below, I’ve pulled apart some of the elements of white supremacy to show the counterpart for ag supremacy.

Visually identifiable in-group:

  • White supremacy: white or light skin tone
  • Ag supremacy: western dress. Jeans, plaid button up shirt, cap or wide brimmed hat

Claim the essential American identity:

Saviorism:

God’s chosen people:

History erasure:

  • White supremacy: Erasure and minimization of slavery, genocide, dispossession and lynchings
  • Ag supremacy: in California, erasure and minimization of genocide, land seizure (from Californian Indians, from Japanese-American farmers in WWII) extraction of rivers (that the southern SJV was historically a lush lake, that the salmon return used to thunder so loud that people couldn’t sleep), of labor exploitation of brown peoples.

Fragility:

  • White supremacy: White fragility
  • Ag supremacy: oh my god they’re so instantly furious and whiny if you propose that ag is a valuable skilled industry among other valuable skilled industries but that doesn’t mean it should get the lion’s share of CA’s water.

Persecution/Annihilationist rhetoric:

Ag Supremacy is identifiable by its absence in other fields. Mechanics and restauranteurs work equally hard, but have no expectation that they be heralded as better people than us. We simply pay them for their labor and product. Power companies provide another daily essential product, but there is no “Thank Your Power Provider” campaign. Many of us take life-saving medicine, but there is no cultural sense that pharmacists should be illustrated in calendars.

As drought focuses us on the perennial question of allocation of resources, I want us to have that conversation with an awareness of ag supremacy. Recognize it in op-eds. Challenge it in our own thinking and policy proposals. Note whether we ourselves are reflexively promoting bullshit ag saviorism like “feed the world”. It is hard to see. These two writers struggle with it without knowing quite why they object.

I leave an analysis of the overlap between white supremacy and ag supremacy as an exercise for the motivated reader, but I note that none of the farmers in the first two pages of these images are, for example, Asian-Am. They are not a perfect overlap; I can think of at least one Asian-Am farmer who eats that shit up and of white farmers who appropriately value their professional skills without an overlay of supremacy.

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Emotional recovery will not be smooth.

Four years ago I wrote two uncharacteristic posts on grief. Now we have cause for relief and hope, so I want to talk a little about recovery. For four years, at the best, we’ve been fearful and tensed against destructive or disastrous news. Some of us lived through the destruction and disaster more closely than I did; hundreds of thousands of people did not live through it. Ecosystems and animals suffered greatly. Now that one energetic and cruel cause of destruction has been ousted, recovery can start. I want to warn that it will not be smooth.

I have two predictions. First, as your body stops bracing against the immediate threat, you will likely collapse or get sick. Second, that you will continue to feel better in jumps for a long time, and that each time, you will marvel at how bad you felt before.

Now that it is safe(r), you may collapse.

For four years, you have been braced against malignance to you and those you love. The cost of this vigilance and struggle will come due. As your body starts to relax, you may overshoot and collapse. Your immune system may let in illness (hopefully not COVID). If that happens, surrender and rest. Your body needs it. It is similar to getting sick after finals or when you get back from traveling.

Feeling better happens in surprising jumps.

My experience was that I consistently thought I was better, then had a sudden noticeable jump in well-being (more relaxed or more energetic or more capable of interest), then realized in retrospect how weak and fatigued I had been before. This happened sporadically for two or three years and each time I revised downward how bad I must have been at the depth. The climb out of the collective trauma of these last years could also take months or years.

Just like I did for grief, I suggest rest and patience with yourself. You do not need to feel relief or better yet. Don’t be surprised if you feel even worse for a short spell. Still, a terrible stressor has been removed from our lives. I think you will intermittently notice yourself feeling better. Let’s have a lovely spring, and keep the pressure on the Biden administration to do right.

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The Delta Tunnel is not a social justice project.

The pro-Delta Tunnel, pro Water Blueprint crowd, the guys supporting plantation agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, are living in this moment, just as we are. Seeing where the energy is going, they’re trying to use the language of the moment. It has been unfortunate. The SJV Water Blueprint tried to claim they were doing community organizing. Their consultants did a better job with the visual language of Blueprint outreach; now everything has the same triptych of [some heron, children drinking, and a meeting] and I can’t tell it anyone apart any more without reading the text. Over the weekend, CalMatters put this appalling opinion piece on their website, and honestly, CalMatters, do you have no standards for throwing up any old crap that gets submitted to you?

The heart of Mr. Kremen’s claim in the CalMatter’s piece is that without the tunnel, cross-Delta water transfers will cease, leading to fewer irrigated acres, leading to higher food prices, which will have the worst impact on the poor. That’s a bad take, second only to “if there’s less ag, the poors won’t have ag jobs“. Maintaining a low wage/cheap food regime isn’t social justice. The socially just response is to reallocate hoarded wealth to pay everyone well enough that they can afford food that doesn’t stay cheap by gouging labor, animals, and the environment.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kremen opened his piece with this claim:

As California confronts increasing water challenges, the most equitable statewide solution from a social justice perspective is the single-tunnel project proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, known as the Delta Conveyance Project.

If the goal is social justice, let’s talk about what else we could do with the $11B dollars that the Delta tunnel will cost.

  • We could ask everyone in the Valley to rank ways to spend $11B to help the Valley and see whether the Delta Tunnel is in the top hundred.
  • We could give $1.5B each to the general funds of Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Merced, Modesto, Stockton and Turlock.
  • If there are 500,000 farmworkers in the SJV, we could write every one of them a check for $22,000.
  • The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water fund is on the order of $200M. For the $11B of the Delta Tunnel, we could make it 55 times bigger.

The possibilities go on and on. If the $11B were an endowment, it could issue a basic income to everyone in poverty in the San Joaquin Valley.

There are some good lessons here. First, the Delta Tunnels are an engineering solution to a set of problems in the Delta and the state. They aren’t a social justice solution and calling them one is ridiculous. Second, if we are in the business of doing $11B social justice programs, they should be designed and run by the people who understand social justice work in the Valley, not rich white engineers from a coastal city. Third, people whose interests are in upholding the current social and economic system are using the language of change. This last CalMatters essay was too laughable to fool anyone, but as ever, these pieces require a critical read and understanding of the author.

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Variations on a theme

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

 

 

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Chair Esquivel. Time to re-start the Bay-Delta Plan.

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.

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Return to the BATNA, Gov. Newsom

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.

 

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