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What it would have meant to take action in 2015.

I spent much of 2015 urging the State Board to issue a moratorium on planting new almonds (although I myself was too timid. I said to only restrict them in gw basins with declining water levels, although that is all of them so maybe that argues against my timidity). Yesterday I wrote that had they done that, they’d look prescient now. But in that counterfactual, I do not think we could have estimated the policy success.

In 2015, CA almond acreage was 1,110,000 acres. (3.3MAF/year)

In 2021, CA almond acreage was 1,640,000 acres. (4.9MAF/year. This is a low estimate, btw. I’ve seen ETAW up near 5af/acreyear for almonds in the south Valley.)

We would have 1.6MAF available to us this year* if the State Board had issued a moratorium on planting new tree crops in 2015, when it was abundantly clear that we have bad droughts. In the counterfactual, we’d be grateful for the flexibility, but I don’t think we would ever have guessed that without a moratorium those fuckers would go and plant another half million acres of almonds. (I notice that this increased acreage is about 30%, the same size as this year’s harvest carryover. It would have prevented the volume of unshippable almonds.) This doesn’t count the cumulative consumption of those trees over the years.

There are about 7,600 almond farmers in California, who use up one Shasta Reservoir every year (4.5MAF). Yes. We let 7,600 almond growers use three times the water of 19 million people in Southern California. We could do that, or MWD could get three times its current deliveries (1.5MAF) each year. Or we could have full rivers.

I know these are excruciating decisions for the State Board, or they would be if the State Board were confronting them. Water use decisions are land use decisions (and vice versa). It would require making choices based on values (I propose ‘make the most people the most happy’, but there are others). But we are reaching the breaking point; we are at such a blatant extreme that people are rebelling against conservation messages from a timid administration. Fuck shorter showers. Fuck an individual response. Fix things for Californians or Californians will fix it for themselves.

*We know this is wet water because those trees are alive. I don’t know how the growers are scrounging it (perhaps from other crops? very likely from groundwater) but no matter their official deliveries they’re getting it from somewhere or the trees would be dead. Huh. This reminds me of Arax’s profile of the Resnicks, in which Stuart Resnick felt safe from drought because the last one was so extreme and he felt another rare event wouldn’t happen again and I thought ‘who is advising him?’. Anyway, wonder how that is going for Mr. Resnick.

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Our leaders do not have the courage and vision to fix this*.

When I observe that we are holding 2MAF of 2021 and 2022 water in stored almonds, I have some thoughts.

  • You know, I don’t fault growers for mis-reading the first year. The shipping situation was extreme and odd and we now know that depending on returning empties is a brittle technique, but we didn’t then. What I do see is that the people who said that we shouldn’t be converting to permanent crops in our variable climate were absolutely right. Even knowing they’re on track to grow 30% too many almonds (buying expensive inputs, compounding an expensive storage problem) almond growers must do it anyway. They can’t fallow that land in a year of little water. The fundamental critique was correct.
  • People who think that the market does the best job of deciding how to use water are wrong on many fronts, but this situation illustrates that market corrections are too slow to free up water. Maybe in two years we’ll have half of a harvest in storage and growers decide to take out half the trees (650,000 acres). We’ll still have lost all the better things we could have done with this year’s 1.2MAF. Given the sunk cost fallacy, the corrections will likely be slower and the opportunity costs of 1.2-2ish MAF in drought years will be higher.
  • This was eminently foreseeable. Lo! Here I am, foreseeing it! I was on the front page of the L.A. Times for foreseeing this shit. I told the State Water Resources Control Board, back when it seemed like they might have courage, to put a moratorium on planting almonds in 2015. Had they acted, they would have seemed prescient in only six years. That is a short payoff on prescience! Nearly any climate change adaptation, however extreme, will seem reasonable in retrospect and retrospect will come far faster than our water leaders expect. The flip side is that failing to do the fucking obvious will look like cowardice very very soon. Well, already. But also very soon.
  • We do not have to manage ag water this way. We could, for example, designate land in 400,000acre tranches and tie those to the hydrograph. The first tranches, the ones with great ag qualities or that satisfy societal values like ‘being a greenbelt’, would grow table food for Californians and always get water, which would also address food security for Californians. The next tranches would get water in medium years; the last tranches would get water in very wet years. Drought management would consist of looking at the hydrograph and notifying the cut-off tranch. Done.
  • I see absolutely no appetite in our leadership for transforming our water system into a flexible resilient one that makes the most Californians as content as possible. Their entire mindset, as usual, is to try to patch this jenky-ass stumbling zombie for another year. Given that the sole administrative priority will be ‘get Newsom to the presidency’ for another four years, I think change would have to come from an initiative. I think we could insert our priorites into the “reasonable” definition. An initiative that says that “it is not reasonable to export CA water in form of crops while California’s rivers do not thrive and every Californian does not have some baseline amount of water” would probably do it. CA water rights have always been subject to a reasonableness definition; I suspect this would avoid the takings problem. Seems to me that all of CA’s cities should vote for this.
  • Look. I’ve been down with urban water conservation, especially where it doesn’t conflict with quality of life. Waste, like leaks or misdirected sprinklers or old appliances that use too much, is entirely unjustifiable. There’s been an awful lot of that for a very long time. But where that has been addressed and additional conservation cuts into urban people’s quality of life? My reaction is a heartfelt “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”
    • I am furious that our leadership’s imagination is so stunted that they cannot imagine a real solution and instead choose to immiserate people, even in tiny daily sacrifices of attention or small nicenesses. FUCK THAT. Imagine better and then dare to bring it about. There is water enough for city people to have small nice things and food.
    • We should do small bullshit about warm-up water because of a racist priority system? We have to all pretend that every CA city has a small bucket of water and if they use it up, there isn’t any more anywhere else? ‘Cause that’s just not true. We may mostly not know that unshippable almonds will use as much water as MWD this year, but so long as those trees are alive, there’s water enough for cities to have watered outdoor spaces.
    • I may or may not have assessed this correctly, but it doesn’t matter anyway. People are unwilling for reasons entirely outside water. Attention and conscientiousness are also natural resources and they’ve been exhausted the past two years. People can remember where their masks are or they can carry warm-up water to their flowers, but it won’t be both and it is clear which they’re doing (or maybe neither, but I think the water-conservation-but-not-pandemic-caution cohort is small).

After creating a pleasant vision of Californians having healthy rivers and a pleasant urban existence, there is of course the courage required to bring that about. But we aren’t even failing at the courage stage. We are failing because we have forgotten how to imagine a system that gives Californians a small sweet life**.

*Original observation from Kaitlyn Greenidge.

**This is an even stronger phenomenon in other fields, like housing and transportation. It applies in CA water as well.

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2MAF of CA water is held in stored almonds.

You may not know that the California almond industry has been unable to ship its almonds for two years (almonds used to be shipped to China in returning empties; the past two years ships aren’t willing to wait at port long enough to fill up with almonds). Last year, 20% of CA almonds were held in storage for lack of shipping. This year, the prediction is that 30% of CA almonds will be held over. Let’s do some fun math and then do some fun context. For this exercise, we will be b.o.t.e. people, content with a first approximation. It will not be so inaccurate as to change the conclusion, which is likely to involve swearing.

Almond bearing acreage is 1,370,000 acres.

2021: 20% of 1,370,000 acres is 274,000 acres.

2022: 30% of 1,370,000 acres is 411,000 acres.

I would normally say that any crop needs 3.5af/a-year to grow and prevent soil salinity buildup, but lets say that almonds are all on drip and super-efficient. I’ll grant them 3af/a-year. Oooh! This is exciting.

2021: 274,000 acres * 3af/a-year is 822,000 acre-feet last year.

2022: 411,000 acres * 3af/a-year is 1,233,000 acre-feet this year.

As a side note, if the almond industry were at full exports, that would be 68% of its crop.

1,370,000acres *.68 * 3af/a-year = 2,794,800af-year. To be clear, growing almonds means (3af/a-year*1,370,000) the full 4,110,000 af (more than Oroville Reservoir (3.5MAF), almost a Shasta Reservoir (4.5 MAF)) are not available to Californians to do other things. But of that 4.1MAF, 2.8MAF are shipped away from California in the form of almonds. That’s more than Trinity Reservoir (2.5MAF). If we ended almond exports, we would return one Trinity Reservoir to the people of California. But let’s return to the almonds that can’t even be sold in 2021 and 2022, these Years of Our Drought. Time for the fun context!

2021: 0.82MAF converted to stored almonds.

2022: 1.2MAF converted to stored almonds.

MWD delivers 1.57MAF/average year. (4,300af/day*365days) MWD could have nearly twice as much water this year instead of having stored almonds. That’s two watering days/week. With some deep mulch, my father might have been able to have a vegetable garden for his fifty-first year of gardening.

We could have a filled Folsom Lake (1.1MAF) and done some salinity and temperature control in the Delta. But instead we have stored almonds.

We could do 1.5 of the mythical “800,000AF for the environment” that reappears every five years. But instead we have stored almonds.

In these two drought years, we would have had at least 2MAF more if almonds were not a permanent crop, and could be flexed to fit the market conditions. I’ll do another post for the conclusions, but maybe you guys could do some contexting of your own in the comments! Please observe the format.

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The same people all liked almond expansion, back in the day.

It is actually a problem that the Newsom water administration are a bunch of goal-less fuckscannot articulate a clear vision for what California water should do. If we do not develop a clear new vision, we will keep operating from the old vision. That vision was clear as day. It was to eliminate the original peoples of the state, to destroy everything wild, to mine any valuable stock and to “feed the world”. They knew what they wanted and they put our water system in place to achieve it. This is the water system we are currently operating and it is currently achieving the same goals.

We cannot tinker around the edges and get to a different end result. We’ve had four droughts since 2000’s and our water leaders are still clinging to “please can we scrounge up some more water so we can keep things the same.” They call it different things now, like “resilience”. But basically every powerful person in water is offering some version of ‘stretch water to get more of the same’. Lund, of course, is all about muddling through. Gleick is still hammering on ‘everyone conserve even more!’ The actual administration’s only vision is to get Newsom elected president so they can go do some awesome resiliencing at the national level. We’ve got non-profits training up leaders, perhaps in the hope that one of them will have a vision. It is a shame that our bunch of brilliant lawyers spent all that time on a report with a bunch of tweaks to help us limp through. Brains the size of planets and that’s all they gave us.

The reason this lack of vision and imagination matters is that things suck out here and no one in Water is offering virtually every Californian anything good. Because we literally cannot imagine any other system (such as tripling the water available to urban CA by shrinking ag), all we have to offer people is more joyless conscientiousness. We’ve just lived through two years of joyless conscientiousness for pandemic reasons. Now we’re telling people they need to prolong their joyless conscientiousness for drought? No wonder they’re ignoring us.

My father in southern California has had a vegetable garden for fifty straight years. This is the first year since 1972 that he isn’t gardening, because he’ll be on one-day-a-week watering and veggies wouldn’t make it. There was a Twitter thread last week mocking residents in Thousand Oaks for worrying about their koi ponds. But you know what? Vegetable gardening and watching koi ponds are lovely low-carbon activities. Degrowth is the only pleasant way to decarbonize left to us. But if we want people to trust us that degrowth isn’t just some rich white bullshit, we have to prove to them that we care about their quality of life. We have to prove to people that we understand what makes urban life nice (ponds and gardens and local nature, partially supported by some water (and a whole lot of other housing and transportation stuff)) and that they can keep it even through a degrowth transition. We have to prove that before we ask people to move away from a consumption-based life. We have to show that degrowth will mean long sweet evenings, not infinitely nagging people to use less and do better.

We could do that. There is and will be enough water in California to have a couple million acres of regenerative agriculture to feed all the Californians and have healthy living rivers and have urban Californians have a slice of the Californian dream: a yard with flowers, maybe veggies, and a fruit tree. But we can’t get there from a system designed to kill all California natives, extract every resource, destroy every wild thing and feed the world. We could do it with a new system designed to make the most Californians content and minimize the misery of climate change. But first we’d have to imagine it.

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First, you have to grow the courtroom.

Yesterday I watched the CA Planning and Conservation League’s panel of law school profs releasing their recommendations for improving CA water law. Naturally I wish they had been bolder, but they likely anchored their starting point in currently existing law and that’ll drag you down. I’m not writing this to critique their report; rather I’d like to expose what appears to be engrained thought.

As an engineer, I had to laugh at the following contrast:

  • The lawyer profs write that there should be more extensive real-time gauging (which is true). Said Professor Lee, this is California! The state of high tech! How could we not have more real-time gauging?
  • Later they write: whelp, adjudications take many decades. Shame about that, but we just can’t do them faster and especially not big adjudications. Little ones might go faster, but your children will be grown before an adjudication of a big system is done.

We appear to believe in an unexamined default, where the laws of physics require multi-decade adjudications and real-time data collection just appears in your phone. In reality it is exactly the opposite. Real-time gauging and data collection and presentation is really hard! Gauges on water bodies are physically far apart, far from roads; you have to have electronics that can handle outdoor conditions; animals and people tamper with them; they require energy sources; data transmission requires dedicated communications systems. It is physically difficult and expensive and requires fulltime maintenance. California should do it! But it is hard to install and maintain.

Adjudications are just information in a room. I personally was hired to duplicate a historic adjudication once, for reasons; it’s just records and spreadsheets. Adjudications are not more difficult than personnel and project management. We could do them as fast as we care to purchase. That’s the key, of course. Doing them extremely slowly favors the water users that have already grown rich in the status quo. The only reason they take decades is that current water users and administrations are fine with them taking decades.

I would like to point out that if an administration wants to get something done, they expand their capacity to do it. The last two administrations have very much wanted to do the PeripheralTunnelsConveyance and they have created an entire shadow agency to design it and do the permitting. That’s a full JPOA, bylaws, directors, staff, consultants and an EIR. An adjudication is not more work than that. They simply aren’t a priority equal to this administration’s priority for Delta conveyance.

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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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