Better than a clamshell.

The interesting thing about Ryan Sabalow’s recent essay about his grief at the drying of the once-marshy Colorado Delta is that it flips the way that most news media gets stories wrong.  Usually, mainstream media is good on the intellectual content but ignores or undervalues the emotional content.  In Sabalow’s essay, he gets the emotional content right; the destruction of two million acres of wetlands is a tragic, wracking loss.  However, his intellectual argument for how we participate in this destruction misses the mark.  He writes:

We’re all reliant on the Colorado in some way.

Ever eat lettuce in the winter? Wear cotton underwear? Watch a Hollywood-produced blockbuster or sitcom? Party in Vegas? Catch a Cactus League baseball game?

You’re why the Colorado is dry.
So am I.

Our fault here is not that we participate in consuming products that are created out of Colorado River water.  We, people who live in California, cannot not participate in that.  We have no practical means of choosing where our tap water comes from, nor the irrigation source for our lettuces and cotton fabrics.  We have no ability to opt-out of this market and the destruction of the Colorado Delta, so we cannot be faulted for participating in it.

If we despise the destruction of our rivers and river deltas, the way we can avert that is to recognize that the value by which we currently allocate rivers is “will the end product create profit in the global market?”.  This is not the neutral and inevitable state of the world; it is the default we have arrived at.  We could choose another value system and allocate water that way.  (For example, we like having two million acres of thriving wetlands above the Gulf of Mexico.  Or, we like having salmon runs on the San Joaquin River.)

If Mr. Sabalow wants to carry with him the (appropriate, well-expressed) pain he felt that day and use it to motivate useful work, he can do better than pointing the finger at our indirect culpability.  I would rather that he start noticing where that default value (producing profit in the global market) is operating. He can look at analyses with that lens firmly in mind.  The PPIC, for example, is thoroughly wed to the use of the current standard (that profit in the global market is the right way to allocate water) and doesn’t do any analysis in any other mode.  The Wheeler Water Institute, by contrast, explicitly notes the importance of societal goals and values in their work.

When it is clearer to people that we are not choosing between ‘the inevitable way the world works’ and ‘your fetishistic hippy ideals’ but between two equally arbitrary values, we can start to decide which values we would like to use to allocate water.  As we do that, the reminder of the painful costs of our current default is relevant and important.


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Thoughts on Arax’s Kingdom from Dust

As everyone said at the time, Mark Arax’s reporting on the Resnicks‘ involvement in Kern is wonderful. I listened to interviews with Arax afterward. For this post, I am going to assume that you have the story open in a tab nearby; quoting as much as I’d otherwise need to would get long.


Arax really gives Lynda Resnick her due. In the story and consistently through his radio interviews, he mentions her business and marketing skill. When interviewers bring up Stewart and not Lynda, he corrects them. Lynda Resnick is as much a piece of the story as Stewart and it is nice to see that explicitly laid out.

Similarly, Arax gets the story he does because he interviews a few of the field workers. They point him toward the Vidovich/Resnick illegal pipeline and discuss life in Lost Hills. Treating them as professionals and not anonymous labor tipped off Arax to the pipeline and salinity incursions.


Even Arax, as much a local as anyone could be, makes the mistake of underestimating the scale of the Resnicks’ holdings. He comments on the Resnicks removing 22,000 acres of trees to show that the drought threatened their holdings. He also tells us that the Resnicks own 180,000 acres in CA, irrigating 121,000 of them. For all that removing tens of thousands of acres sounds like a lot, it is still less than 20% of their irrigated acreage and less than 10% of their holdings in CA land. I have no doubt buying water during the drought diminished their profit margins in tree nuts and that some orchards weren’t worth irrigating with expensive water. But I don’t think that even tearing out 22,000 acres of trees reflects a threat to their business. It is yet bigger than that.


A couple things surprised me. I just didn’t expect an illegal, self-installed pipeline. When I talk about how hard it is to move water, I wasn’t expecting someone with infinite money, nor completely unpermitted small-scale infrastructure. I never imagined a public agency doing that, yet Dudley Ridge WD and Lost Hills WD allowed it (more on that later).

I was also surprised to read that Wonderful doesn’t hassle with precision agriculture. I think I remember from Arax’s book, King of California, that the Boswell Farming Company paid a lot of attention to detail. At a recent irrigation conference, I was surprised at the extent of technology some farming companies use to improve their yields or their profit margins. I wonder what is being lost by their acceptance of “mediocre” yields; they might be missing the first few years of declining yields from salinity


Stewart Resnick appears to have zero understanding of climate change. His description of a five-year drought as a surprising piece of bad luck and not the aridification that the past twenty years of climate modeling has consistently predicted means that he still doesn’t appreciate it. Stewart Resnick says that he has hired good people, but if none of them have been planning for climate change (aridification and loss of chilling hours) then they are not doing their jobs.


Resnick’s conclusion after the drought was that he should farm on lands with two water sources.

From now on, they’ll grow on land that offers a double protection against drought. “State or federal water isn’t enough. We want good groundwater, too.”

Thing is, everywhere in the Valley were he can also get good groundwater will also have more governance. Those lands have districts, and towns in them that aren’t on land owned by the Resnicks. They will have new neighbors, perhaps ones that don’t turn a blind eye to illegal pipelines. The south and west Valley are places that can be wholly owned, like the managers of the Dudley Ridge and Lost Hills water districts. But places with better water already have established interests. It will be much more expensive for the Resnicks to buy their way, if it is even possible. The new boards of directors, of districts and groundwater sustainability agencies, are going to be more difficult for one or two billionaires to control. I’m not sure that what the Resnicks have is replicable or portable.


At the end of his article and in every interview he gives, Mark Arax is dismayed by the future he predicts. He believes Vidovich and large farming companies will inevitably sell water away from farming. I agree with Arax that they intend to. I am less certain it will happen, for three reasons.

  • I don’t believe everyone, especially the people in the west valley who have junior water rights, will be selling off water as they retire from farming.  A great deal of that future water will simply not fall on California in a form that is economical to catch.  The land will be retired, yes, but the water that Arax imagines being sold will not arrive in the first place.  Or, it will be kept in the ground to meet new sustainability standards.
  • It is true that many more houses will be built, but housing does not need to require the amount of water that we have been allotting to it.  New standards for indoor water use, laws like the model landscape ordinance, and an ethic of dense infill mean that the inevitable new housing does not demand large amounts of previously agricultural water.
  • We could choose.  We could decide that we want to have a thriving farming community on the east side of the valley, because it is nice and we like farming towns and we want food security for California.  We could make laws to support a couple million acres of farming preserve, like land use laws and changing water rights.  We could decide that what an open market allows is actually fairly shitty, and not a good use of our ag land nor our rivers. We can choose to avoid the fate Arax predicts, because we know there will be substantial change within a generation and we would like to shape what is left for the benefit of everyone who lives in the Valley.


There is a little bit more, but I am properly ashamed to write it.  Still, IIDSSM, I am very pleased by how well Arax’s reporting matches what I have deduced over the years from a distance.  I’ve used a good education, news stories, government reports and satellite pictures to come to conclusions and I came to much of the same understandings that Arax did.  I thought that it was bizarre that the irrigation districts on the west side have no effective oversight despite their structural similarities to districts in more populated areas, and that proved to lead to illegal diversions.  I talked about these areas as feudal societies, and Arax’s reporting confirms that.  I think creeping salinity is going to be huge, just like the bureaucrats report, and so do the fieldmen that Arax talks to.  I still doubt my notions of the future of water in the Valley, but this article was satisfying for me.


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Why I have not been writing.

I have not been writing here because my mind is colonized by Trump.  Just like they warned us, the ceaseless distraction makes it very hard to concentrate and create.

I have not been writing because of Twitter.  If I only have one thought about an article, I mention that on Twitter and have done.  I used to gather those into a news round-up, but Twitter ruins everything.

I have not been writing because I do not feel that I have stayed current on my favorite topic, agriculture in the Central Valley.  I have never disguised the fact that I am not a local and that I get my information from text.  But I long thought I understood trends and I was one of the few foolishbold enough to extrapolate from them.  Now I am not certain I know where things are going, and I don’t want to be one of the geezers loudly repeating policy recommendations that were on point two decades ago.  I also don’t want to be making arguments for things that are already too timid or mostly accomplished; it is possible that events have passed me by.

Here are some things that I don’t know:

I do not understand the current labor market in the SJV.  I don’t know whether farmworker towns will persist or disperse, whether there will be a replacement generation of farmworkers, whether farmworkers are now receiving decent wages and able to choose working conditions.

I do not understand the forms of power in the Valley.  I had thought the connected-white-man form of power was on the wane.  It may yet be.  But it held out last year and this, although it continues to cost staggering amounts of money and not achieve desired results (new dams, the drainage deal, wet water, unlimited gw pumping, privacy). I cannot tell how much strength new woman-led coalitions (like the Community Water Center) have, nor how social media connections are solidifying new power nodes.

I also don’t know how to gauge the political temperament in the Valley.  I’d be embarrassed to make recommendations about zoning for food scarcity as if that were daring only to find out that the radicals in the Valley are themselves ready for a kibbutz model.  I do not know how much younger generations in the Valley identify with ag.  I do not know whether Valley farmers are still in denial about climate change.

I am no longer sure how water use is shaped.  I used to think the drivers were the human desire to maintain whatever they are currently used to and the international market for almonds.  Now I wonder about heat (literal hot temperatures) and how fury at Trump and older generations for what they’ve cost the young will show up.  I am certain that I am at least a decade behind on technology use in ag, especially remote sensing. More broadly, throughout the state, it is becoming clear that homelessness is now an important water issue, which I did not predict nor recognize until a local water manager told me.

As I watch, I see hints of new things that make me doubt my generalizations and extrapolations.  I want to safeguard OtPR’s credibility, but am equally certain that cautious blogging is boring blogging. So I haven’t had much left to say.


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Neither bottom up nor top down.

When the floods come, we can simply reuse this op-ed in the L.A. Times, using a find and replace.  Same for droughts.

Large, high-intensity wildfires are an inevitable and natural part of life in California. The destruction of our communities is not. But many of the political leaders we elect and planning agencies we depend upon to create safe communities have failed us. They have allowed developers to build in harm’s way, and left firefighters holding the bag.

Planning agencies need to push back against pro-development forces in government, whose willingness to build in known fire corridors borders on criminal neglect. The recent devastation of the community of Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, for example, was both horrible and predictable. (The area has now burned twice in 53 years.) Local leaders need to restrict development in such areas.

California has a structural gap in policy setting that allows this situation to persist.  Local agencies simply aren’t able to make hard, expensive decisions.  They are too close to their constituents; the amounts of money that can sway a city are accessible to developers.  Local agencies can’t even incorporate life-cycle costing in their own self-interest.

But the State has completely abdicated on its authority and responsibility, because of its delusion that local control is best.  This spares the State from doing the difficult work of creating and enforcing unpopular and expensive safety standards.  The proof that local control is inadequate is self-evident, but I doubt the State will ever protect her citizens from foreseeable climate threats.  It does a decent job with earthquake building standards, which it most certainly does not leave up to local jurisdictions.  But in the realm of climate events, the fetish for local control has captured the thought of every State bigwig I’ve heard from, and neighborhoods will burn, flood and desiccate as a result.


*I know some jurisdictions can incorporate longterm self-interest for a while.  But all you have to assume is that that kind of wisdom is normally distributed to see that most jurisdictions will not have it, nor have it consistently over time.  Even intermittent poor decisions will endure and create these emergencies.


ADDED 12/12:  There is a way to address this that doesn’t require a change of philosophy about “local control”.  We could make developers/country supervisors/city council members that create and approve unwise development criminally and financially liable for damages that happen during foreseeable natural disasters.  That would change their incentives.


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We need a progressive water policy platform for the San Joaquin Valley.

A whole bunch of progressive Democrats won election today.  We have progressives running against incumbent Republicans in the San Joaquin Valley.  Thing is, for federal elected officials, there has been a very limited set of issues for water policy: more dams, restrict the ESA, undo the SJ River restoration.  The water ‘policy imagination’* has become very narrow, and that set of issues has deadlocked indefinitely.

Progressive candidates are going to need some other water policy issues to run on.  I don’t know what they are.  I am not a local; I can’t know from this distance what progressive water policies would appeal to SJV voters.  I can imagine some progressive water issue areas:

  • Drinking water quality, of course.  O&M funding.  District consolidations.
  • River access.  Promoting river access, urban and rural, for all residents.  Parks, trails, urban river fronts?
  • SGMA participation.  Supporting participation in SGMA planning for all voices.
  • Climate Change adaptation and mitigation. Urban tree coverage.
  • Connection to the mountains and protection for source waters.
  • Planning for large scale land retirement.
  • Clean governance and anti-corruption, given the financial improprieties we’ve seen so often recently.
  •  Land subsidence. (Added 11/9; thank you J.K.)

I believe we could assist the progressive candidates in the Valley by helping to develop a menu of specific, place-based, progressive water policy items that candidates can choose among.  I propose that those of us who aren’t local offer support for a gathering to elicit progressive ideas for water management in the San Joaquin Valley.  We could offer funds, facilitation, and serve as technical or legal resources in support of a gathering of people who do live in the Valley and know their own dreams for water.  If this is to be useful, sooner would be better.  Early next year, perhaps?

If you are interested, please email me: .  I’ll collect a list of names, and start to convene an organizing group.  A quick note about what you have to offer would also be helpful.  I hope you join us.

11/9:  I’ve gotten a wonderful response so far.  I believe we can pull this off.  I’ll collect names through this long weekend.  Next week, there’ll be an organizing email to get us started.  Thank you, to those who want to participate.  I think of this as a small, useful thing we can do for the Resistance. Have a great weekend.

Continue reading


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Food security concerns do not justify irrigating 9M acres of CA farmland.

Terra Nova Ranch

Cameron is a first-generation grower with roots in Redding, Calif. who fished as a kid in the Sacramento River. Today, he manages about 25 crops grown across 7,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno County. …

For Cameron, the necessity of preserving aquifers should be considered in concert with the state’s abilities to produce food and fiber. For instance, he once looked at food produced on his farm and discovered that it could sustain the caloric needs of 200,000 people.

200,000peoplefed/7,000acres = 39,000,000hungryCalifornians/x acres

California needs 1.365M acres of farmland to meet its own caloric needs, by whatever means Mr. Cameron used to make his calculation.  I don’t know whether that includes meat and dairy.  Right now, we have 9M irrigated acres.  Of those, about 1.5M are in tree nuts.  Nearly 1M are in grapes for wine and the table.  Almost 1M are in alfalfa for animal feed.

California can make whatever decisions it does about converting our rivers into additional money for billionaires, or into towns along Highway 99.  But none of those decisions are based on food security for Californians.  Every time CA ag makes the argument that it uses water to grow food, it is completely valid to point out that it uses Californian rivers to grow 6.5 times more food than Californians need, a third of it completely fucking frivolous.

When you hear that SGMA may cause farmers to idle 30% of their land, dropping irrigated acreage to 6M acres, you may rest easy.  They will then be growing 4.5 times more food than Californians need.

“Food security” arguments are arguments against using as much water as we do to grow as much food as we do.  A reasonable food security argument would designate 2M acres of land with good water reliability, designate the food it grows for Californians, and create supports and protections for that agricultural sector.  Two to three million acres should be retired to restore groundwater balances. The agricultural State Water Project lands should be retired, so a small tunnel solution to the Delta is workable.  And the remaining couple million acres should be farmed in normal to wet years.




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Piecemeal land retirement will not be the stable final state.

JFleck tells me that Palo Verde Irrigation district is suing Metropolitan Water District; to thank him for that helpful post, I’ve stolen his picture of PVID’s complaint about one externality:


I’ve written that piecemeal, widely dispersed land retirement will add expensive costs to the land that remains in production. I continue to wonder how that will be handled.  To my deep surprise, at this year’s California Irrigation Institute conference, the growers on the panel about decreased irrigation acreage all expected the same outcome in the San Joaquin Valley. (Jan 30, Session Two)  They thought 30-40% of currently farmed acreage would go out of production, and that every farm would hold their current acreage, but only farm 60-70% every year.  I was shocked.  That’s expensive!  Unfarmed land still has maintenance requirements, but doesn’t bring in any money.  I couldn’t tell whether they thought that was their best option, or whether they simply cannot say out loud that irrigated lands should be consolidated, with some farms going entirely out of business.

I’ve been wondering at that for a while, until Lois Henry raised a new possibility: that John Vidovich would hold all the newly not-irrigable land and that he calculates that water sales will cover the expenses from that land.  It is also possible that he doesn’t intend to pay full costs for the unfarmed lands that he will hold and that they will become nuisance properties.

At this point, I honestly don’t know how the land will be retired.  It is a shame that government involvement is completely taboo.  Government involvement could mean designating a state park, letting current farmers remain on their unfarmed lands for a life tenure, paying current farmworkers to restore habitat.  Government involvement could coordinate land swaps to consolidate farming communities.  But I understand that that might be Stalinism, or maybe Maoism, certainly doomed to failure like everything governments have ever done, and certainly worse than every individual farm in the south San Joaquin Valley carrying 40% of their acreage unfarmed every year.  Seems a pity that a coordinated, planned gentle landing isn’t an option.


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