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:


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.


  • 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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What it would mean to be serious about food security.

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
    • mechanization/modernization
    • 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.


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Newsom administration can pivot to water environmentalism.

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.


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I am hearing that the Voluntary Agreements are over.

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.


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