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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Bordeau’s CalMatters op-ed is wrong. 1/3

William Bordeau wrote a piece for CalMatters, saying that CA water policy is restricting food production in the San Joaquin Valley and the COVID 19 emergency is revealing the importance of producing our own food. Cora Kammeyer answered that that’s not actually true about water policy restricting food production in the SJV. I have two different problems with Bordeau’s essay.

1. Growers in the SJV do not give a shit about producing food, as such. They are there to make a profit, and if they can do that by producing food, they will. But they are not growing food to feed hungry people. That is not the point of what they are doing. We would need an entirely different, non-capitalist system of farming if we want the point to be ‘feeding hungry people’.

2. If the COVID emergency reveals that America should never be dependent foreign countries to feed our hungry families, as Bordeau says:

This pandemic has undeniably affirmed the need for policymakers to absolutely ensure America retains her self-sustaining capabilities that keep grocery store shelves bountiful; and that we are never unnecessarily forced to entrust feeding our families to foreign countries.

then it also reveals that the rest of American cannot be dependent on California, as the dominant optimized farming region. If the COVID 19 emergency has shown that any place can be fragile and downed by disaster, then the solution is redundant, dispersed, resilient systems. Every region in American should be capable of feeding itself from  non-plantation agriculture, even if all the regions aren’t as economically efficient as California.


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Growers are not growing food to feed people. (second)

Bordeau talks about the wonderful California conditions for growing food, and supplying America’s one-third veggies and two-thirds fruit. But we know from observation that growers in the SJV do not give a fuck about producing table food for Californians, or Americans. To a first approximation, they care about maximizing profits* over providing important food. We know this because in the last ten years, when growers had a choice between growing table food, like fruits and vegetables, they declined in favor of growing an irrelevant snack. They have converted from growing table staples to growing breakfast cereal filler to the tune of 1.5M acres, out of 9M acres. More than another million acres grows animal feed, some for export. They grow shit like sudan grass for Japanese beef, rather than, for examples, lentils. They ship animal feed to Saudi Arabia. Whether the plantation growers are growing “food” is a distant second to maximizing profits.

They might argue that they are not personally terrible people, but that they are instead, trapped in a terrible system. The logic of capitalism forces them to be, at least, profitable. From there it is a tiny step to prioritizing profit over everything else!  Everything else! Like living rivers! And whether people are hungry! And full aquifers! I agree! If the priority is ‘feeding hungry people’, we should not have a capitalist agricultural system.

If our agriculture weren’t capitalist, we wouldn’t be caught in the ‘low wages require cheap food and cheap food squeezes the life out of farm workers and animals” bind. We wouldn’t keep expanding beyond the limits of our rate-limiting resource. I was getting at some of this in an old post, but at the time, I couldn’t think beyond ‘our current system a little different’. Now I just want a different system, without rich growers turning our rivers into their private wealth while pretending they’re providing something valuable.


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CA food security. (Part c.)

Bordeau’s essay is an interesting departure. California ag doesn’t generally talk about food security, because if it did, someone might get interested in the question of ‘how much ag would CA need to be food secure?’ and the answer is ‘not much at all.’. So CA ag doesn’t usually bring it up. But, you know, it’s been a bit, so maybe no one told him to pipe down about that.

The truth is, if we want CA ag to be the source of Californian food security, we’d have to change just about everything from our current profit-maximizing, economically-optimized, plantation system. The system that we’ve come to accept is terribly brittle. I don’t know that it is brittle to COVID 19 in particular, but COVID 19 is reminding people that huge bad shit that is out of our control can happen. Our system doesn’t have a way to scale up and down for type of water year. Plantation ag is not diversified. If an almond plague came through, it’d wipe out 1.5M acres. We’re at the edge of collapse for groundwater and salt. The people in the system cannot imagine any other way; their ways of life are brittle.

We should actually convert to a system that grants real food security. Honestly, the water policy is the simplest part. The hard part is that we’d have to define our values. Food security for Californians? For the independent county of Pacifica? For America? What kind of food? Mediterranean diet? Meat heavy? Does everyone get it? If so, we’d have to build those food pathways. We have to decide what we want to spend on it communally so that people aren’t food insecure independently. We’d have to decide what kind of ag and where. I wish we would, but I don’t think Californians are scared enough yet to have the will and those conversations.


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Feinstein sends crappy letters.

These letters are exactly what I’d expect for something coming from Feinstein, which is to say, totally fucked up. That woman hasn’t improved a water policy in my adult memory. Cannot wait until she’s gone.

Anyway, they’re two parallel letters, one to the feds and one to the state, saying time is running out, they better find some way to cooperate on the different ways to run the pumps in the federal biological opinion and the state incidental take permit. However, the letters are asymmetrical, with more pressure on CA to conform to the federal permit and while they’re at it, to get those voluntary agreements done.

It is absolutely terrible advice to do anything permanent based on the federal biological opinion, for several reasons.

  • It, like most Trump environmental regulation, is likely to get overturned in court. This is especially true of a biological opinion that career staff said would kill fish in June, then they were replaced, and then the new biological opinion in the fall said it would be fine!
  • It is now looking extremely likely that Trump and his administration will be gone in 9 months. There is absolutely no reason to lock in to any policy or agreement based on any of Trump’s works. What would California say next February when science-based policy returns to feds and California is the only party locked into some Trump/Bernhardt bullshit?
  • If the VA’s must be based on the Trump biological opinion, what happens when a court invalidates the Bi-Op for being arbitrary and capricious? Are the VA’s then invalid? Will they be negotiated so they can be enforced for the 2015 federal and state fish protections?

Californian state administrators! Do not “coordinate” anything with the Trump administration right now. They’re lame ducks, nearly gone. Especially do not commit to anything that would bind you in the future. Why would you do that now, at the (hopefully) lowest ebb of federal water protection? Wait it out. The Trump administration is incredibly discredited; their science-blind worldview is visibly crumbled. The world could look extremely different in less than a year; doing anything permanent or binding now is a terrible plan. It is clear why Bernhardt wants to make his works permanent, here at the (likely) end of his administration. California should not go along with that.

MORE: Last time Feinstein didn’t like a Biological Opinion (when it got more protective), she had the National Academy of Science review it. This time, when it is farcically less protective, she’s all “GET YOUR VOLUNTARY AGREEMENTS DONE AND COORDINATE!!1!1!!!”


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Trump is coming; Trump is going.

Trump is coming back next week to talk about CA water. I swear, I’d pay each of you reporters TEN CASH DOLLARS if you skipped writing the explainers afterwards about why Trump didn’t make any sense. We know he isn’t going to make sense. He’s going to come here and garble something about how he engorged the water like no one has ever seen and he’s built sixty-seven new pumps, the best pumps, the most beautiful pumps and completely demolished the stupid little fish with his new Biographical Opinions(because he says the quiet parts loud). Fine. We know this. Trump is going to Trump.

What we don’t know is why the Newsom administration is pushing so hard for Voluntary Agreements that depend on Trump’s biological opinions. We’ve been seeing the hard sell these past weeks; I’ve been hearing rumors that the Newsom administration is strong-arming environmental organizations to say something nice about it. Gov. Newsom is staking a lot on doing the Voluntary Agreements. But there’s an angle to this that I wonder if they’ve thought about.

By this time next year, the Trump administration is likely to be gone. The next federal administration will immediately return to biological opinions that have scientific support. Then, Newsom’s Voluntary Agreements will have no cover whatsoever. It’ll be Newsom and his administration as the last governmental supporters of a biological opinion that the Trump administration had to replace real scientists to write. The  federal government will be on the left of them on CA water, and really? Really? This is where they want to be? This is what they’re alienating their natural allies in CA water forever for? To be dangling out there as the river-breakers when the federal administration changes?

I have a another objection to the Voluntary Agreements, which is that good deals don’t require bullying to get done. For whatever reason, the water districts have got the Newsom administration by the short hairs, and they have been yanking. Westlands is flouncing, which cracks me up because I remember Westlands flouncing out of talks with the Obama administration. Westlands is pure drama and don’t let anyone tell you different.  Water districts threatened to quit unless Newsom vetoed SB1; people who are developing a win-win deal don’t have to threaten each other. Now Crowfoot and his team are bullying environmental organizations to pretend the Voluntary Agreements have some promise, like these organizations don’t remember the years they earnestly went along with CALFED. Folks! Good deals don’t require bullying and strong-arming your negotiation partners, nor your allies. Good deals don’t delay actual environmental restoration by years. If you are shutting down the SWRCB, or plotting out how to bully them into submission, it isn’t a good deal.


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Direct from Gov. Newsom

Governor Newsom was asked about his water policy at the PPIC lunch yesterday. At minute 52, he said (slight editing for clarity):

Q: You appear to have endorsed Gov. Brown’s to water, relying on tunnels rather than reducing dependence on the Delta. Is there a better way. Let’s talk about your vision on water.

Put out portfolio plan, very prescriptive a counternarrative to that question. Beyond conveyance, in addition…

Not going to do, frustrate two-thirds of you. Not interested in reinforcing the arguments of the past. I love reading all that, hey he’s naïve, he’s being misled, you know, good. You know. Because it means we’re doing something a little different. (Roger Bannister- 4-minute mile.) He likes the beginner’s mind. Been at it 20 years, (references SF/Hetchy), You want to get into lawsuits, you want to screw this person screw that person, spend seven years getting nothing done, I’m the wrong person in this job. Care deeply about the folks in San Joaquin. It isn’t just Big Ag, there are real human beings whose lives are being torn asunder because of the scarcity of water. Its not a zero sum game. Not us versus them. You think I don’t love the environment (riffs on salmon – I want to bring that back) But you aren’t bringing that back by getting in seven years of lawsuits where nothing gets done. That’s why I’m pursuing Voluntary Agreements FORGIVE ME but I’m going to be stubborn. That’s why I think we can do more with flexibility working together.

I’m an urban guy that cares about the state of California. And I care about every part of the state of California. And when we talk about fallowing land, that is real people, real lives and I have to look them in the eyes. It may be an intellectual thing for some that are sitting on the coast, with all due respect, reading the newspaper, saying the economy’s doing fine. But what about that poor damn mother that literally cannot take care of that kid because they can’t get that work anymore. You don’t do that to someone. You don’t destroy a community that was built over hundreds of years. You’ve got to be accountable.

So why I’m a little more intense about this is I want everyone to calm down. Give us a chance. I’m going to have your back. I don’t need to be told ‘you need to be tough against the Trump administration’. Give me a break. I know that. But give us a chance. And if you’re right, you can sit there and jump up and down and say ‘I told you so’. Enjoy that. It might make you feel good. But give my team a chance. I’ve one of the best EPA directors we’ve ever had. He’s one of the great champions on the environment. I have one of the best … water… folk, Wade Crowfoot and the team he’s assembled? These are real great human beings that care deeply about the environment and they think it is right to reach out to ag and work with these guys. So it is just like energy. The world is changing, we have to change with it. Flexibility. Putting the old binaries aside. Getting off our high horse. Recognizing that we need each other. There’s no leak on your side of OUR boat. We rise and fall together.

My take-aways:

  • Duuuuuude. He is pissed about the pressure and pushback he’s getting on the Voluntary Agreements, and for not signing SB1.
  • I speculated that Newsom et al think that they are the environmentalists in the room, so they don’t need to consult environmentalists in the Voluntary Agreements. Newsom himself makes that same argument. This is not true. They need the water environmentalists for their technical and legal expertise and to push for rigorous agreements. Having the water environmentalists in the room will prevent the Newsom administration from being surprised when the VA’s don’t fulfill the requirements of the Bay-Delta Plan.
  • Newsom cites Crowfoot’s (and agency directors’) opinion that the VA’s are a good idea. This is entirely circular. Crowfoot will dedicate his whole being to whatever Newsom tells him to. If Newsom hated the VA’s tomorrow, so would Crowfoot. Nemeth and Bonham are quintessential company men. They don’t have independent opinions either.
  • Sadly, Newsom appears to have fallen for the “if ag isn’t there, the poors won’t have ag jobs” error. This is error for two three reasons.
    • First, ag varies quite a bit in how much labor it employs. If the goal is to keep the greatest number of farmworkers employed, they could selectively fallow the lands that support the fewest workers and have no local communities.
    • Second, plantation ag requires forced labor, because people don’t work in landscapes like these by choice. The force that drives people to work for plantation ag is poverty. Plantation ag will always maintain a stock of impoverished people in the valley so that they have a labor pool. When that stock of impoverished people gets too low, they import more. When Newsom throws in with ag, he is ensuring that SJV poverty will never end.
    • Indirectly helping farmworkers by making sure ag has water is an indirect and ineffective way to help farmworker communities. It would be cheaper to give farmworkers agency and choice, by offering them the equivalent amount of money as the SJV Water Blueprint would cost, for example.

Now I have to argue with one of Newsom’s statements. C’mon dude. The people giving you shit from my side of the spectrum aren’t evidence that you’re doing something a little different. My entire objection to the Voluntary Agreements is that every new administration comes in and tries to do this shit, like no one ever thought about negotiating before. The Garamendi Process. The 2000’s Water Plan. CalFED. These things eat years and don’t accomplish anything. Salmon and smelt decline every year that goes by. What would be truly new would be enforcing environmental laws and instream flow standards.

Which brings me to my second point. Newsom says litigation would take seven years. How long are you going to pursue the Voluntary Agreements before you give up? Because we could already be two years into the Bay-Delta instream flows. What parallel plan are you developing for when VA’s fail? How can you prevent operating out of sunk costs in two more years? You need to get moving on those now if you don’t want to look back on the waste of Newsom’s first term.

Lastly, HAH. I heard a rumor that Newsom totally loves Blumenfeld and berates Crowfoot for not delivering on the VA’s and the audio confirms that. Big praise for Blumenfeld, can’t recall Crowfoot’s name at first. Heh.


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Minor thoughts as I read the WRP

Draft Water Resilience Portfolio so you can read along.

I was legit impressed that the opening statement read that ‘water is central…’ and I had hopes that perhaps this will be a meaningful document that avoids tired clichés and weak thought and on the very next page, the first sentence said “lifeblood” and all my naïve dreams were crushed. Anyway, I would like to congratulate the authors on waiting one entire page before using the tiredest word in water.


What entity still accuses the State of proposing a one-size-fits-all approach? Why are we still dispelling that straw man? The State has been fetishizing regionalism for ever, despite my blogging. We’ve spent billions in bond funding on IRWM. Can’t we move on from denying that the state wants to impose impossible hegemonic uniformity throughout the regions of CA?

(I mean, I personally do want to, but the State has yet to adopt my preferences, even though I have been clear and explicit about them.)


This document really is a continuation of the Brown Administration’s policies. It has also neatly replaced the Brown Administration’s Water Plan in the “every good idea for all the good outcomes” style of planning.


Where is the legend for Figure 5? What does the change in color mean? Is the light color the “less than half available for people?” Is it the difference between 850MAF and 1.3BAF? Is the color a superfluous dimension that the designer added in for some zing? Who can say!


We are going to have to have a serious talk about the Future Water Supplies section, and we will. Soon. I promise.

(As long as we’re having some hard talks, why are you dumping important documents during the holidays?)


I don’t have much to say about the recommendations. The Resilience Portfolio doesn’t work backward from a realistic, specific vision of what resilient CA water would be, so the recommendations don’t build up to anything coherent. But, fine. Whatever. It is nice to see the agency programs get some love.

  • Kindof an awful lot of “implement the new law”. Suggests the Legislature is driving policy, not the administration. Do we have to say out loud that we will be implementing the new laws? Do we not take that for granted?
  • 18.1 “potentially”. Heh.
  • 21: I am not convinced water markets can ever happen, but if they do and are not constrained by rules to achieve a social goal, they will be a disaster.
  • 24: Seems a little weak for the Silicon Valley governor.


The second to last paragraph on page 26 is a nicely worded version of the “all the good things” vision. Why is it last?

I personally have zero hope that we can arrive at a good future by making improvements on our present; I think we will need to do radically different things that will mean trade-offs that really suck for some people. So I see this document as completely unrealistic political cover for not doing what needs to happen to adapt to climate change. But, given that, why not put the vague vision with no hard trade-offs before the list of every good thing we could do?



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