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A old-style blog commentary post

Maven’s Notebook recently pointed me to Don Wright’s water blog, and I could not love it more. He travels to water meetings in the San Joaquin Valley, writing each up. This is the window I’ve always needed. I regret that I have not been reading every post from the very beginning. Mr. Wright, I love your work and hope that it goes smoothly for you always.

I don’t know whether it needs to be said that Mr. Wright and I substantially disagree, from our base assumptions through to our conclusions. I see myself in his every characterization of an ignorant environmentalist and supporter of a strong role for CA government. That is OK. We don’t have to agree. I can nevertheless look for insight in his reports on San Joaquin Valley water meetings.

But before I try for insight, I will warm up with some simple schadenfreude. From Westland Water District’s May 21st meeting:

Birmingham said the Twin Tunnel plan was withdrawn from the State Board and a one tunnel plan is being looked at. He said Westlands is looking into whether or not it will be able to recover some of the money it put into the twin tunnel program. Shelly Ostrowski reported from Sacramento DWR is looking into this.

A HAH HAH HAH HAHAHAHA HA HaHaHA HA HAHAHHA hah hah aha ha ha ha!  HAH HAH HAH HA Ha hahahahaha hah hah ha hah ha ha.  Oh man. HAH HAH HAH HA Hhahahahaha.  I bet they want some money back. They poured money into that black hole, and got some big ass reports to show for it. Supported some city enviro consultants for years. Unlike the money they pour into buying elected officers and astroturf bullshit, they may get nothing for those millions. Poof! Gone in one announcement.

***

From Fresno ID’s July 16th meeting:

On a side note local television news recently aired a story about the homeless on FID canals and the danger they pose. Claes said the Fresno City Council members offices often call the district to report encampments. I read in Brown & Caldwell a bill was passed to make it a crime to camp out on a levee and a raised canal bank is a levee.

My guess is that bill was passed on the heels of this footage, which made every engineer who saw it gasp in horror. At a public meeting a couple years back, a county supervisor said that they are finding that their rivers can only be as whole as their community, and as our society lets people fall out, the rivers are reflecting it too.  That was when I realized homelessness is a water issue.

***

I was intrigued by the mention in a couple different meetings in the southern Valley that their GSP’s are coming up with sustainable yields of 0.1-0.2. Of course they are. That was desert scrub before it was converted to orchards. Planting a permanent crop there was always self-evident folly.

***

I am real interested in the discussions of SB1 and the voluntary settlement agreements, but those will have to wait until next time. Remind me, if I don’t get back to it.

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“Hero insurance companies save thousands from fiery death-trap.”

If we were a culture that took climate change seriously, the tenor of this article would be completely reversed. As written, the article suggests that it is a problem that the high cost of insurance is preventing people from moving to high fire risk areas. Thus:

The refusal of insurance companies to cover homes in fire-prone areas is prompting home buyers to cancel purchases and look elsewhere.

That’s depriving struggling rural areas of one of their most reliable sources of economic oxygen — the steady influx of well-off retirees and other transplants from Sacramento, the Bay Area and other prosperous areas.

“It’s another … hardship that’s hit because of the wildfire issue,” said economist Jeff Michael of the University of the Pacific. “We tend to see lower incomes in those areas. People are attracted to them by the housing affordability and rising insurance costs put a real dent in that.”

Pounded by two straight years of catastrophic wildfires, insurers are raising rates, abandoning long-standing customers and refusing to write new policies. Many homeowners are forced to purchase from unregulated “surplus” carriers or the California FAIR Plan, a bare-bones policy that acts as the state’s insurer of last resort. The resulting coverage can cost up to triple what a traditional carrier would charge. Some desperate homeowners are getting quotes of up to $10,000 a year.

Realtors said this translates into lost business. Home buyers give up on purchases, or their lenders scuttle the deal because the borrowers no longer qualify for their loan.

Every single person who does not move into a high fire risk area is a success story. (Also true for floodplains, also true for water short areas.) It is a shame that the State does not have vigorous policies to keep people from moving into fire’s way, but if the same goal is being achieved by insurance companies accurately passing the cost of increasing risk onto those households, well, at least that’s a start.

In a culture that were genuinely afraid of the climate crisis, the same article would have my headline, a quote from a local fire chief who is pleased that he won’t have to defend some rural cabins, and quote from someone who lost their house to wildfire last year and wishes they hadn’t bought. There would be more from insurance executives, explaining how they priced the risk and how it is unfair to compel Californians as a whole to subsidize that risk pool.

The phenomenon that this article describes, that people are becoming aware of the magnitude of the risk (translated through money in an insurance bill) and hence, not moving themselves to the risk is a good thing. After a few more fire seasons, it’ll be reported that way.

So long as I’m talking to reporters, I’ll add that people who lived through foreseeable natural disasters shouldn’t be labeled “survivors” any more.  It glorifies them and sets the stage for rebuilding in place. After all, that label makes them, by nature, someone who survives stuff.  A better term for them would be “escapers.” “Escapers, this time”, would be even better.

***

This, from the same article:

Meanwhile, the inventory of unsold housing is piling up in the foothills. Janice Wechsler, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the rugged Foresthill area of Placer County, said the problem is worsening as homeowners, irate over rising insurance premiums, seek to get out. She’s hearing of longtime residents of the area looking at moving to Nevada, Oregon and Idaho.

“They’re being canceled, they’re watching their rates tripling or quadrupling,” Wechsler said. “It becomes the proverbial straw. They say, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”

is fucking nuts. There is no appreciable difference in fire risk between where they live and their destination. They’ll just be underinsured when the fire comes.

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“The plans are so vague as to be worthless.”

The  Chico Enterprise-Record isn’t much impressed with the Water Plan Update 2018. My impression is that the Water Plan played it so safe that it became a meaningless list of every good thing, and my fear is that the Resilience Portfolio is headed down the same path. Fortunately, we will know as soon as the Resilience Portfolio is released, by locating it on the spectrum from safe to controversial.

Safe:

  • Information clearinghouse
  • Internal agency re-organization
  • State agency “alignment”
  • Decision support/decision “framework”
  • Creating an index/setting performance measures
  • Doing science
  • Giving out State money

All of those are essentially the State government masturbating. Not wrong, but none of them affect anything in the outside world. That’s why they’re safe.

Medium:

  • Finding “win-win” solutions
  • Doing something useful while ignoring EJ needs
  • Supporting local control
    • IRWM/GSA
  • Voluntary Settlement Agreements
  • Requiring plans (UWMP, AWMP, GSPs)
  • Enforcing existing laws
  • Recommending legislation (esp legislation that would cost anything)

Controversial:

  • Enforcing plans (UWMP, AWMP, GSPS) and holding districts accountable for not meeting plan goals
  • Doing something useful and acknowledging/meeting EJ needs
  • Correcting our godawful water rights situation
  • Using State authority over local government
  • Using State authority over local government without being obsequious about local control
  • any concept that challenges capitalism (instream flows, rights for rivers)
  • managed retreat before the calamity
  • anything that isn’t based on “economic growth”

If the Resilience Portfolio only makes it halfway through the mediums, it’ll deserve the same reception that the Chico ER gave Water Plan Update 2018.

(I am happy to add more items to the spectrum, if you leave them in the comments.)

 

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Brief thought: Can It Happen Here?

Very much enjoyed Plastrik and Cleveland’s paper Can It Happen Here? Improving the Prospect for Managed Retreat by U.S. Cities. Recommend. Here is an online summary. My brief thoughts follow.

Before this paper, I had considered that the alternative to managed retreat was post-disaster unmanaged retreat. Plastrik and Cleveland point out a different, pre-disaster retreat, in which people leave as they can afford it, leaving behind a patchwork too thin to support itself economically.  I had recognized this as a consequence of ag water markets, but not seen the application to urban systems.

***

Plastrik and Cleveland discuss the legal implications of retreat on page 36*:

Cities worry about whether certain retreat policies would trigger a ”taking” of property and its economic value and require compensation for the owners. For instance, in Del Mar, California, owners of oceanfront properties worth millions of dollars contended that the city’s consideration of managed retreat was devaluing their property.

I would like to see vigorous pushback against this error. The risk itself is devaluing the property. If the ocean were not going to move into the house, a city’s consideration of response options would not devalue the property.

I have further seen people object to planning for managed retreat because the planning effort might destroy the illusion that the house has future value. If that is the rationale for protesting the planning effort, then the clear solution is to destroy the illusion that the house has future value right away, and then plan for managed retreat. For example, by putting up a series of billboards in every coastal town, illustrating the reach of sea level rise. We cannot all pretend that a terrible thing is not coming because some homeowners want us to so that someone ignorant might buy their liability of a house.

***

At the bottom of page 24, Plastrik and Cleveland quote:

“People and communities who emerge from a storm often identify as ‘survivors,’” noted a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy report. “This sentiment makes them more likely to oppose retreat.”

Reporters could combat this tendency by referring to people who have survived natural disaster as “escapers” instead of “survivors.”

The Appendix (pages 40 – 41) list tool that cities could use to herd people away from disaster-prone areas. They range from zoning to buyouts, all to positively incentivize people away from the coast or floodplain. Honestly, I’d like to see more in the way of negative incentives –making it very expensive for people to stay.  Reflecting the true costs of insurance is the only one that I know of in current practice, and there is political pressure to buffer that. But charging people who won’t leave the shoreline for the lost beach and recreation, making them pay into funds for the clean-up of their homes when they collapse, that type of thing. The whole discussion is oriented around a positive financial pull for getting people out of risky areas, and (especially for the rich ones), I’d like to see more negative financial push.

 

 

*See, Professor Bendell? See how easy that was?

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Climate Change in CA: we’re all gonna die.

Honestly, California just fell behind. Once they were behind, they never did manage to catch up. The signs were there early, but instead of being taken as warnings, people took the fastest shortcut. When PG&E started cutting power to areas to avoid fires, instead of implementing a huge push of distributed power and solar facilities, it was cheaper to do nothing and let people buy generators. After paying for decades of mismanagement at PG&E, the ratepayers had no stomach for the costs of constructing a grid that could withstand a hotter climate. So we did patchwork fixes. That type of thing.

The Legislature had learned the lesson of the gas tax recall too well. Rather than go all in on a massive scale carbon tax, they tried tinkering with nudges and opportunity districts and cap-and-trade grants. They were never willing to risk their seats with massive wealth transfers from millionaires to the poor, so many climate change reforms were reasonably called elitism that would hurt a poor constituency.  Without the buffer of redistributed wealth, people couldn’t do anything but they cheapest, short-term solutions. To this day, I don’t know how the Governor can live with himself; he had small children! But his administration fucked around with buzzwords instead of facing the issues. If you remember, his early themes of Multi-Benefit Magic!, Portfolio Power! and Resilience Reward! were never adequate to the threat.

Years 1-3

It felt like we were doing the work. Each year, there were good proposals, to accelerate housing or to tackle public health problems. It wasn’t a massive carbon tax, but they were also important issues. Each year, they got pushed back, but we knew they would pass soon. Each year, the fires got worse, but people got used to that. Proposed new building codes never did quite pass and no one wanted to infringe on people’s freedom to live wherever they wanted. In every aspect of life, everything just cost more. It cost more to put in water recycling in urban areas. It cost more to meet new wastewater treatment standards. The costs of meat were going up after the Midwest crop failures. Even people who could afford it got tired of paying and paying and paying. The counties couldn’t ever really cover the costs of blue-green algae blooms and new Valley Fever outbreaks and disposing of thousands of dead cows after heat waves. Without much discussion, they quietly stopped doing much.

Still, people were trying, with their Teslas. It was just that their own neighborhood wasn’t a good fit for a big multi-family “skyscraper”. No one wanted to see homelessness get even worse, but it just wasn’t right to get rid of local authority. After all, what could a Sacramento bureaucrat know about what made a neighborhood special? So even if we wanted to take some of the climate refugees from Central America, there really wasn’t any place to put them. Climate grief spread. People wished they could do something, but it was never really clear what could help. We couldn’t get rid of cars, could we?

Years 4-6

We were completely unprepared for The Bad Year. Having the flood knock out two major cities and interrupt water deliveries to the southland meant that there simply weren’t enough personnel to fight fires in the fall. The floods left debris, molds and polluted waters everywhere. Maybe that was where the virus came from. The kids’ lungs were already weakened from the yearly smoke. It raged through the State.

After the sickness, we never got back on track. The Governor established Freedom Zones. In a Freedom Zone, there were no annoying regulations and no hope of government help after a disaster either. If you wanted to build your home in the path of fire, no one would stop you. No one would help you when the fire came, either.  The Resnicks kinda started the Wonderful! Zones by themselves.  They promised water, food and housing to people who signed twenty-year indentures to process their crops. Whole towns signed on, re-named Wonderful!Towns. The California government was relieved to have those regions taken off their hands. It began negotiations with Facebook and Apple to form their own Zones. People got very upset about that on Twitter.

Years 7-10

Even as California struggled, it was still in better shape than lots of places.   In many of the Zones, life was pretty stable. Golden State Power said they’d restore five days of power to the Mountain Freedom Zone within two years.  In Wonderful!Zone, nut exports were holding steady, as the Resnicks consolidated their water districts. They began selling water to Los Angeles and south, who were happy for the steady supply. Cleanup of the flooded areas wasn’t quite finished, but the people who moved back to the Flood Freedom Zone knew that there could never be a flood like that again. The Bay Area corporation zones had begun to build a water project to tap the rivers in the north state. “Unfinished business to develop security”, they called it. California and the feds sold them the northern portions of the water project

The new governor came in promising green bonds,  major market reforms and tax relief. She also talked about requiring the corporate zones to take their fair share of refugees, but never quite explained how she could do that while honoring Local Authority. The fires were still bad but everyone agreed that anyone in a freedom zone shouldn’t build any housing they weren’t willing to lose every few years.

There wasn’t much talk anymore about fighting climate change. A few hippies were still talking about all the wildlife that had gone extinct. But it was all people could do to keep up with normal life.  They were exhausted from grief, from the epidemics, from being helpless while things went wrong. There wasn’t anything left for making major longterm projects.  We did our best, but it was setback after setback from then on out, with each new normal worse than the last.

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Climate Change in CA: successful adaptive transformation

Maybe it was the holiday strikes of 2019, when the kids walked out, telling their parents and the world that they had nothing to be thankful for and what they wanted for Christmas was a planet they could live on.  Or maybe it was the unbearable hot, smoky August and September and October and the pictures of that fire raging through that school. Maybe the politicians finally listened to the polls saying that Californians were desperate to address climate change. But there were no real protests when Governor Newsom declared a statewide emergency and unveiled his shocking climate plan. People were prepared by the analogy to the WWII homefront, and were ready to do their part the way their grandparents did. It would take the rest of the decade to ramp up, but by the last few years, the benefits were already paying off.

Starting instantly

The State stopped making it worse. Oil and gas extraction ended on Day 1. (When the oil companies sued for takings, the State seized their properties and CARB instituted a retroactive carbon absorption fee for California’s atmosphere.)  Permitting for development in floodplains, wildfire areas and on the coast was immediately halted and cities that weren’t creating new dense housing lost their land use authority. The State imposed shocking gas taxes, and returned the proceeds to the poorest half of Californians. The ag districts in the SWP were immediately shut down, as were any dairies with more than a couple hundred cows.

Major research programs were begun.  Google and Facebook began a program to create carbon budgets for every person, measured and traded by phone. The weapons industry was told to do something useful for a change, and develop carbonless aviation and shipping.

Years 0-3

California immediately designated five new future UC campuses, in Visalia, Redding, Camp Roberts, Ventura and Fresno. It began building out residences for 40,000 people at each new campus. For the first decade, however, the future campuses would house refugees who wanted to earn California citizenship by doing four years of paid climate labor.

The potential work was endless. Fighting fires. Installing solar panels. Planting urban trees. Building housing. Installing cooling centers and pools. Clearing dead trees in the Sierras.  Building up sheep and goat grazing stocks to clear fire fuels. Moving levees back from rivers; restoring riparian habitats. Restoring tule marsh in the Delta, island by island. Building high speed rail. California was lucky to absorb tens of thousands of refugees and their families each year, willing to work for pay, education and state citizenship.

These early years felt hard. The hits kept coming: the heat waves, the fires, the drought. The disruption of construction on every block. People scrambled as long commutes became too expensive, but new housing close to work wasn’t built yet. The Olds hated the changes, talked about how everything used to be cheaper. The Youngs, though, just felt relieved that maybe they had a chance.

Years 4-7

By years 4 and 5, the building spree was beginning to pay off. Dorms and family housing at the five new campuses were nearly complete; the academic buildings were starting to go up. Throughout the state, the ex-urban fringes were emptying out, moving into town. People talked about their old commutes like a horror movie. Electricity from renewables, at least, was cheap and plentiful. People were adjusting to their personal carbon budgets, clamoring for the app to recognize the carbon sequestration in their backyard compost. The first group of refugees finished their four years of service.  Many stayed on, working the jobs they knew, in the places they had built. Others moved throughout the state, glad that they had had a stable transition. There were always more coming behind, hoping to fill their spaces.

The habitat work continued, led by Tribes, building on itself.  California set up a food security regime, creating an agricultural zone on three million acres of its best soils and most robust water sources, growing food for direct human consumption. CA would ensure this land would get water in the driest years. Other previous ag land was transitioned to sequestering carbon or solar power.

It was about year 6 that people started to notice that things had stopped getting worse every year. They had heatwaves, but everyone could get to cold water to cool off and mostly everyone had air conditioning powered by solar. In year 6, instead of losing an additional town to fire every year, CA lost no towns to fire. The fuels management, grazing and intentional burns, and the new building codes were starting to catch up. By good luck (and good choices when the project was selected) when the flood came, it was held within the new setback levees, where it sat, recharging groundwater for six months into the summer.  (The mosquitos were horrendous, but it was better than being washed away.)

Years 8-10

The carbon sequestration/habitat restoration projects were really starting to settle in and complexify.  People began to accept that they were the work of many lifetimes, and each of the new UCs had departments dedicated to the study of local restoration. Even these newly restored habitats were doing their jobs; seagrasses were reversing beach erosion and softening waves. Soils were re-gaining their organic content and holding more water; rivers were finding their old meanders and re-connecting to groundwater. The State proudly displayed their ticker of Total Carbon Sequestered on all of their websites.

The unceasing urban building boom in the most robust areas was finally catching up to demand. Housing was affordable, if smaller than before, and there were vacancies for incoming climate refugees.  All urban power had been renewable for a couple years.  The newly dense cities were also growing niche enterprises and becoming intricate. The trees planted ten years ago were starting to give useful shade. Micro-sequestration was the gardening fad. The State kept its promise and turned all five campuses into U.C.’s; tuition was free to all who had helped build them.

The upfront costs had been staggering, but by the end of the decade, they looked like a good investment. The news was no longer a weekly bludgeon of natural disasters. In fact, there was a steady stream of stories about species saved from the brink of extinction. Californians didn’t cough through smoke for two months in the Fall; the costs of fire management had leveled off. The Big Flood hadn’t incurred any response expenses; it had become an asset. The states who hadn’t prepared were now desperately asking for federal emergency money, but that had been long overwhelmed.

Mostly, people were used to it. The Olds resented how expensive meat and wine had gotten and missed their cars. But some found the low-carbon lifestyle familiar. It reminded them of a time with less stuff but better neighborhood life. The Youngs were used to living in dense cities; happy they could own their own place.  Their kids ran free in carless streets. A huge portion of their cohort had been part of the restoration projects and were forever attached to the trees, grasses and sea marshes they had planted. The worldwide need was still desperate, but California had shown people what could be done with a population willing to fight the emergency on every front.

UPDATE: This is bad form for a blog, but I am still tinkering with the post. If you think you notice small changes, you are likely right.

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Deep Adaptation: Framing After Denial

This section is as good as the rest of the paper and you should totally read it. But it is too sad for me to write about here.  I can hope that Dr. Bendell has noticed something universal when he writes (on this other page):

…I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead … I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.

That would be nice.

Will continue with Agenda, Research Futures and Conclusions in good time.  I’d like to finish this paper, because now that you’re all back, I have new blog themes (within CA water, of course) for us to contemplate.

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