Why do elected progressives feel safe espousing retrograde water policy?

Self-pity is a mortal sin, yet I find myself afflicted. Wwhhhyyyyy????, I whine to myself. WHY must I suffer like this? We had eight years of the Brown administration, who sacrificed every other water priority to advance the RadWaterBadBoy. Fine, I thought. Brown was an aberration. We elected Newsom, who really is doing other progressive things in other fields. Yet we get bullshit VSAs and reported inclusion of the extra bullshit SJV Water Blueprint.

Elected progressives furthering retrograde water policy is widespread. Today we see TJ Cox, delaying an investigation into Bernhardt fucking with the Biological Opinions. Melissa Hurtado’s bill SB559 is an attempt to get California taxpayers to pay to fix a federal water project so that the California growers who broke it don’t have to even though they are legally liable. Josh Harder is more moderate, but still talking about above-ground storage.

It is indisputable that electeds who campaign and are elected on progressive platforms immediately carve out water policy as a retrograde exception. I keep trying to understand why. The stupidest and most blatant reason is that they can’t defy Ag money. I hate for that to be true, because is so reductive and tawdry. There are other possible reasons, like they buy into stupid mythologies about Ag, or they are lured by the seductive manliness of Ag technical competence*. But maybe it IS just that all those progressive-except-for-water politicians will sacrifice progressive water policies so that Ag will fund their next campaign.

So maybe it isn’t interesting why progressive politicians go retrograde on water. Maybe the interesting question is ‘why do politicians feel safe to concentrate their sell-out bullshit in MY field with no consideration for MY feelings retrograde policies in water?’ I mean, TJ Cox got elected because the Los Angeles Resistance gave him money and door-knockers. Josh Harder depends on the Bay Area Resistance. Gavin Newsom clearly thinks that delivering for progressives in other arenas plus Ag money will get him the presidency. They all clearly fear Ag money more than they fear that the Resistance will demand good water policy. Maybe water stuff is just too obscure. Maybe Feinstein has shown them that the path exists, and that water environmentalists will never be able to use bad water policy as a disqualifier for an otherwise progressive candidate.

Well. I didn’t actually enjoy following that train of thought and yet here we are. I can’t believe I’m telling myself I’ll have to wait for the next CA administration to have some hope. Does progressive water have to lobby the Newsom administration the way it would a hostile administration? Is anyone still hoping for a good outcome from the Resilience Portfolio?

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We need to replace water districts with something new.

WHEREAS water districts were created to deliver water for economic growth. That mission makes them unable to do the tasks of this century, which are to wisely manage contraction and risk;

WHEREAS water districts are too close to their constituents to make difficult costly decisions that counter denial and wishful thinking that the status quo is the default;

WHEREAS California has too many small water districts that are not adequately meeting current standards of engineering, managerial and financial performance;

WHEREAS many of the large water districts consider themselves separate entities that should do battle with the State’s interests;

WHEREAS we need no longer work on the small scales that 19th century technology required. Internet connectivity, SCADA and remote sensing make it possible for water managers to work over much larger scales;

WHEREAS district boundaries mostly do not contain the geographic features that matter in water management (i.e. districts in the valleys, sources in the mountains);

WHEREAS the water districts that are generally considered successes do have boundaries that align with the entire watershed;

WHEREAS special districts mostly focus on one facet of water management (supply, wastewater, groundwater) when we know these to be interconnected, and the failure to manage them together means that we are missing potential solutions;

WHEREAS many water districts are not democratic institutions, despite the intention of democratically elected boards;

WHEREAS some water districts get away with being corrupt as fuck for a long time;

WHEREAS the water policy field is spending considerable time creating workarounds for the problems created by the existing water district structure (JPAs, MOUs, Basin Plans, IRWM, SGMA, EIFDs);

WHEREAS water districts are agents of the State whose structure and powers derive from legislation;

THEREFORE they aren’t working and we can change them through the legislature or by initiative. We could consolidate all the water-related special districts within a watershed into one river district. We could change the board structure to be half elected, half appointed. We could re-evaluate the necessary powers of a district or their relationship to counties. Water districts aren’t created by physics, nor uniformly good at what they do, nor useful for the next century. We can replace them with something better.


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Then they’d be ready when the VSAs fall apart.

Reasonable people are writing to me, saying that the VSA’s are necessary because the alternative is that the water districts will sue the State Board’s instream flow requirements and the litigation will last for decades.

We have seen attempts at collaboration with the water users fail every decade since the Bay-Delta Accords. These ones do not look promising either and they are undermining the Newsom administration’s environmental intentions. Rather than try re-run failed collaborations, the State should work within its own powers to change the constraints. The problem statement:

water districts will sue the State Board’s instream flow requirements and the litigation will last for decades

gives at least two avenues that the State could pursue without good faith agreement from water users that it will never, ever get.

  1. If the problem is that we can’t ever do instream flows because adjudications take 30 years, then fix the adjudication problem. That doesn’t require kissing some water user ass. The State can do this unilaterally. Create an adjudications court system that will last for ten years, fund and staff it generously. One court per river. The Newsom administration could work with the legislature on a bill that gives those courts jurisdiction and consolidates all cases. It isn’t a law of physics that makes adjudications take 30 years. It is neglect. Fix that neglect instead of surrendering on the environment.
  2. Why the fuck is the Newsom administration negotiating with water districts like they are some foreign government? They aren’t Tribes! Water districts are creatures of the State government. Any powers and authorities they have derive from special district legislation by the state legislature. If water districts cannot convert from a 19th century purpose to a 21st century purpose, then they are no longer useful forms of government and their enabling legislation should be re-visited. Perhaps a majority of board members should be appointed by the governor. Perhaps technology and scale have changed enough that the Valley needs only four water districts. Perhaps the SWRCB should take them into receivership. There are lots of options, because water districts are themselves extensions of State government.

These may sound like difficult options, but all they have to be is “easier than CALFED” and they’re better and faster than the VSA path. Further, they do not require that water districts buy in. Who would be more pleasant to work with to deliver change? The water users or the legislature? I bet Toni Atkins would do a trade to get SB1 passed.

It isn’t an either/or choice for the Newsom administration. They could keep working the VSAs AND appoint task forces, one for solving the adjudication problem and one to look at re-forming special districts. There is no evidence that the Newsom administration knows how to make good use of a BATNA, but it wouldn’t hurt for them to develop a couple more anyway.



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The opportunity costs of the VSAs.

Governor Newsom has said he will veto SB1, which maintains the Obama-era environmental protections, because they might cost him the VSAs. I observe that it is costing him quite a lot of political capital to veto a popular environmental bill. Let’s look for a minute at what else the VSA’s are costing him.

The VSA’s are costing him his chance to re-make DWR and CDFW. He’s keeping on the old directors because they are familiar with the VSAs. DWR and CDFW will not have the chance at revitalization that the State Board got with Felicia Marcus.

The VSA’s could well cost him his first two years of water policy, for no gain. It is now looking very likely that we will see a Democratic president, who will surely return to Obama-era protections or more stringent. If the VSA’s aren’t do-able a year from now under a Democratic federal administration, Governor Newsom will have wasted two years on them. The decline of fish species during those two years is also worth a mention.

The pre-occupation with the VSAs is costing the Newsom administration the opportunity to have an affirmative vision. Right now, the Newsom administration’s vision for water is “what we have now, please stretch another eight years, please god.” The underlying idea of a Resilience Portfolio is “please, make what we have now more resilience-y”. Thing is, “what we have now” cannot last; sustaining it is an impossibility, like Brexit. “What we have now”, in the water field as much as any other field, is the direct source of wealth inequality and environmental crash; it cannot be maintained. As long as the Newsom administration is trying to deliver an impossibility, it isn’t doing the work that might make climate change less painful.

So here’s the thing. In the water field, the Newsom administration is a straight line continuation of the Brown administration. Crowfoot, Nemeth, Bonham. The VSAs themselves. But what they aren’t remembering is that the Brown administration laser-focused approach failed. Let’s recall how prioritizing the TuNNelFIX at the expense of everything else worked for the Brown admin. For the FixEmUpTunnels, the Brown administration:

  • Put CalOES instead of DWR in charge of the drought. (CalOES hates working on drought; that isn’t their expertise. They want to show up in the aftermath of fast- onset disasters with trucks of food, not gather data on dry well depths.)
  • Squandered Grant Davis’s willingness to be director of DWR.
  • Installed PR professionals instead of water professionals throughout the appointeds, which remains a problem.
  • Sacrificed Gov. Brown’s integrity, he tells us. “
  • Suppressed all other policy directives, lest they counter some aspect of TunnelMANia.
    • The Water Action Plan* was initiated by ACWA, not the Brown administration, and was a undirected list of benign ideas.
    • The Brown administration neglected non-tunnel policy and expertise for so long that PPIC stepped into the vacuum, and now a handful of self-selected technocrats are setting water policy for the state.

And it didn’t work. I strongly doubt the VSA’s will work either. First, they’re a repeat of CALFED, which was an entire agency dedicated to the same notion. Why do you think a few people at Resources can do in a year what CALFED failed at for years? Second, the VSAs are meant to find a way to make rivers healthy and maintain current irrigated acreage. Can’t. Not even with the mysterious top-secret science of the water users.

So, Governor Newsom. How much do you want to repeat Gov. Brown’s approach? What else are you sacrificing with your focus on VSAs? Are they do-able, and will they look like a good approach when the federal administration isn’t horrific? Do you have reliable bargaining partners** or are they extorting you to betray your values, and your legislature, and your environmental credibility?

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Try a NEW futile water effort.

Seriously. Some of us have been at this for decades and this re-run business is killing us. Newsom administration, if you are going to spend everything you’ve got on a futile effort, you should do one that we haven’t seen before. Brown re-ran his exact same failed thing: the Peripheral Canal. You seem to be trying the “work with the water users for Quantifiable Objectives” and we all know how that ends. Why don’t you try a new project? I mean, the Community Water Center tried a new thing and it actually worked.

  • Run a proposition to define “reasonable use”, with priority for environmental and direct human use. Or go big. Run a proposition to revise water rights. Seriously. Pander to the 37 million urban users and farms under 300 acres and it could pass.
  • Run a bill/proposition to re-form water agencies, so they aren’t powerful agencies that fight you all the time and have larger missions than “turn rivers into money for landowners”.
  • Huge R&D and tech things. I mean, that’s not my forte, but I hear you Bay Area people like that shit and there is room for transformation.
  • Re-making ag and the Central Valley so it isn’t some feudal bullshit descended from the model of slavery. Turn the east side of the Valley into collaborative farms that grow food for Californians. Take land use planning, social justice and food security seriously.

If you’re going to make a giant effort that expends all your cred, why not do one where the sides aren’t dug in and rehearsed every ten years? Why not do one that is interesting to me?


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A bad look for the Newsom Administration

Governor Newsom says he will veto SB1, which freezes CA environmental protections at the level they were at the end of the Obama administration. The water users have told him to, or they won’t be able to make any Voluntary Settlement Agreements with the Newsom administration.

This got me to thinking. What if Clinton’s victory had been honored? What if we were three years into the Clinton administration and presumably, she had never rolled back the Obama protections with some faked-up science that won’t survive a court challenge? Would the Voluntary Settlement Agreements be possible in those conditions? If not, are the VSA’s only possible when they occupy the space that Trump created? That is yet another indication that they are a real bad idea.

I am consistently baffled at why the Newsom administration wants these so bad, especially when they have a great default: the instream flows set by the SWRCB, finally exercising their authority. I consider it very rude to attribute thoughts to other parties, trying instead to refer to quotes. But I read through this panel discussion, with Crowfoot. Kightlinger and Pierre, and thought ‘right, right, administration, urban, ag… WHERE ARE THE ENVIROS?’ And my follow-up thought was, ‘oh crap. The administration thinks they don’t need the enviros because they think they ARE the enviros.’

My new concern is that the Newsom administration staff think THEY are the progressives and enviros, therefore they can both be the governmental brokers and represent the environmental movement. But they clearly cannot. They haven’t been in the field for long enough to realize that they are replaying old mistakes and re-running fucking CALFED. They are not holding both a strong environmental ethic and negotiating VSAs, and we can tell because they are now vetoing environmental legislation.

Frankly, the Newsom administration is two strikes down (Marcus, SB1) and have lost the benefit of the doubt.  They’re going to need a heavily enviro resilience portfolio if they want to be considered a good environmental administration. They cannot trust themselves to generate that enviro perspective; they should rely on the actual water enviros for that.



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Is the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint “community organizing”?

Don left this comment below:

August 20, 2019 at :
It’s not just Friant. The Valley Blueprint is Valley wide and includes non ag participants, NGOs, disadvantaged communities and real live people who work and live here. I don’t get the push back. It’s community organizing.

So. Is the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint “community organizing”?

No. The San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint is lobbying, not community organizing. There are several tells:

  • Its single focus is a project that benefits the already powerful.
  • The lobbying effort relies on money, not social capital.
  • There are no women in the lobbying effort.
  • It has no alliances outsides the benefactors; they are not supporting reciprocal efforts.
  • The solution it proposes puts the costs/burden on less powerful entities and gives the benefits to powerful entities. (It proposes that the poorer subsidize the richer.)

Let’s go through them.

Its single focus is a project that benefits the already powerful.

The SJV Water Blueprint does one thing. It proposes to generate 2-3MAF to backfill the groundwater that the west/south Valley can no longer overdraft. It is not a project to bring water to the Valley in general, for cities towns and tribes. A project created by community organizing would serve more than one set of water users.

The water users that would benefit from the SJV Blueprint are the already wealthy. At minimum, they are landowners, which makes them wealthier than most Californians. At the maximum they are literally millionaires and billionaires.  They are already powerful; they are represented by governmental and NGO’s with budgets in the millions; here in the early months of creating the Blueprint, they speak of extended contact directly with Governor Newsom and the Natural Resources Agency.

The SJV Water Blueprint relies on money, not donated skills.

The agencies participating in the SJV Water Blueprint are being asked (and readily approving) for $15K each for the initial effort. This is paying for engineering consultants and the design firm for the brochure. The people promoting the Water Blueprint at meetings around the Valley are paid (paid well, in fact) for their attendance at these meetings. All things are possible, but I would be surprised to hear of anyone promoting the Water Blueprint on his own time, out of personal conviction.

Community organizing forms when people who cannot buy nice presentations and access to governors join together. Their work is often, unfortunately, unpaid, relying on donated skills and time. They mostly do not have access to even one fifteen-thousand-dollars, much less several, readily approved.

There are no women in the SJV Water Blueprint lobbying effort.

As I read through the meetings that discuss the Water Blueprint, all the names are male. This is because they are paid professionals, drawing on professional networks in established agencies. Real community organizers are often women, drawing on their social networks, grown through long participation in the community. Real community organizers in the San Joaquin Valley look like this. Women are in every one of those pictures. I know several dedicated male community organizers. But I don’t know of any community organizing that doesn’t have women.

It has no alliances outsides the benefactors; they are not supporting reciprocal efforts.

The SJV Water Blueprint effort is lobbying within grower organizations and water agency groups. Because this is not an effort for the general well-being of the Valley, they have nothing to offer other interest groups in the Valley. They are not cross-coordinated with faith groups; they are not supporting clean air initiatives; they are not supporting the Fresno parks initiative. They are not connected enough to see where supporting other organizing work will create good will for them.

By contrast, the most recent news I saw for community organizing in the Valley showed Dolores Huerta getting arrested for protesting for home health care workers. Her historic focus was on farm worker issues, but her connections to the community gives her commonality with home health care workers. She extends herself on someone else’s behalf, which is not something we see from the Water Blueprint effort.

The solution it proposes puts the costs/burden on less powerful entities and gives the benefits to powerful entities. (It proposes that the poorer subsidize the richer.)

The SJV Blueprint proposes that Californians as a whole pay for projects that always fail a cost-benefit analysis in order to build works that gather water away from the environment towards wealthy landowners that overexpanded their farmed acreage.

The people who will bear the costs are all Californians, who are almost all less wealthy than landowners in the San Joaquin, especially west side growers. They other entities who will bear the costs are fish, rivers and habitat. These are all voiceless, dependent on humans to volunteer to represent them. In the model of the SJV Water Blueprint, costs are forced downward, benefits accrue upward. That’s how I know it isn’t community organizing. In community organizing, people band together to extract benefits and put costs on someone wealthier.


I don’t fault the Friant Water Authority for pushing the Blueprint. There’s a window and extractors gonna extract. But community organizing is an actual thing, and calling the Blueprint effort “community organizing” is deeply wrong, adjacent to astroturfing.




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A few last thoughts on the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint (5 of 3)

The San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint is some jacked up bullshit. This is facially evident. Everything in it is either a project undergoing realistic evaluation now or projects that have been rejected time and again, usually for a cost-benefit analysis but occasionally because someone found the will to protect the environment.

I can’t fault the Friant Water Authority for throwing it out there. Trump loves him some jacked up bullshit, thinks analyses are for losers and doesn’t care about costs*. So this is a great moment on the federal side. What I don’t get is why the Newsom Administration is playing along. I mean, I’ve been to a Portfolio listening session or two, and they sound real friendly about considering everything and thinking big, and maybe the big ag guys are hearing the standard smooth talk and taking it personally. But that’s not what it sounds like in the meeting minutes I quoted from. I won’t speculate yet, because I can’t put any of the options politely. I am reassured though, by the imminent release of the Resilience Portfolio. It will be out by October, and then we’ll know what the Newsom Administration is made of.

I will likely keep adding thoughts to this post; while I generally try to keep my posts static, please be aware that this one may change by more than small edits.

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The SJV Water Blueprint is not resilient in practice (4 of 3)

The irrigated lands that the SJV Water Blueprint is designed for are the lands that would go out of production because of SGMA. These lands. The way agriculture is practiced on these lands is itself not resilient. These are plantations, monocropped to the horizon. These specific plantations are all simultaneously vulnerable to disease, Trump tariffs, saltification, lack of winter chill. They create and embody huge wealth inequalities. These irrigated lands are tremendously brittle; note that at the first shock (that they cannot overpump groundwater), a million acres are instantly at risk.

Resilient agriculture includes a wide diversity of crops, so they don’t create disease and have options to thrive under varying conditions. Resilient agriculture hosts a great variety of wildlife on farm. In resilient agriculture, soil tilth increases. Resilient agriculture distributes wealth evenly in the ag community and supports real towns. In practice, we do not see the SJV Water Blueprint supporting actually resilient ag.

The San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint, in both concept and practice, has no place in a Resilience Portfolio. Not if “Resilience” actually means anything.


I have a little more room and a few pixels left. Let us quote from the cannon. Once again, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing on capitalist ruins:

…[T]here is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment.   This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter. Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds elsewhere. … The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste.  Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic.  When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned.  The timber has been cut; the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops.  The search for assets resumes elsewhere.  Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production.

With our other lodestar, Donna Haraway:

There is a way in which the Plantationocene forces attention to the growing of food and the plantation as a system of multispecies forced labor. The plantation system speeds up generation time. The plantation disrupts the generation times of all the players. It radically simplifies the number of players and sets up situations for the vast proliferation of some and the removal of others. It’s an epidemic friendly way of rearranging species life in the world. It is a system that depends on forced human labor of some kind because if labor can escape, it will escape the plantation.

The plantation system requires either genocide or removal or some mode of captivity and replacement of a local labor force by coerced labor from outside, either through various forms of indenture, unequal contract, or out-and-out slavery. The plantation really depends on very intense forms of labor slavery, including also machine labor slavery, a building of machines for exploitation and extraction of earthlings. I think it is also important to include the forced labor of nonhumans—plants, animals, and microbes—in our thinking.

So, when I think about the question, what is a plantation, some combination of these things seems to me to be pretty much always present across a 500-year period: radical simplification; substitution of peoples, crops, microbes, and life forms; forced labor; and, crucially, the disordering of times of generation across species, including human beings.

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The SJV Water Blueprint is not resilient in concept (3 of 3)

My initial objection to the Resilience Portfolio was that it was a weasel phrase that could mean anything to anyone. It consists of a buzzword and a strategy, both flexible.  But if the word “resilience” retains any shred of meaning, it excludes the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint. The SJV Water Blueprint is anti-resilience.

The purpose of the Water Blueprint is to maintain maximal irrigated acreage in the Valley, at the expense of every conceivable peripheral water source, at any cost. “Resilience” is starting to mean as little as “sustainable”, but it does not mean bolstering one million acres of overexpansion into marginal ag lands with no regard to the economic costs to taxpayers nor environmental costs to the water sources.

Setting demand at the uppermost engineered possibility and straining every limit to fulfill that demand is not resilient. Resilient would be protecting and supporting the couple million east side acres that we can farm in any water year, with a comfortable buffer that is intermittently farmed in wet years. Resilient is working within the cheap, solid parts of our existing engineered system, spending user fees to modernize them if needed. Resilient is maintaining ecosystems through wet and drought years. Resilient is acknowledging supply constraints (like keeping some fish alive and passing a cost-benefit analysis) and using a little less than that.

Let’s play out the concept of the SJV Water Blueprint for another decade or two. Even if we waved our magic wand and put the elements of the Blueprint in place now, it wouldn’t cover the increased ET from climate change, nor the possibility of drought at the sources.  When the new 3MAF from the Blueprint isn’t sufficient, by the logic of the Blueprint, the next thing to do would be to reach out for the next available source. Their ag demand must be met, so they would then reach north for the Wild and Scenic Rivers, or east for I don’t even know which Sierra lakes. Cost is no object, by the logic of the Blueprint. This notion, that maximal irrigated acreage creates a fixed demand that must be met by reaching ever outward for MOAR WATER is inherently not resilient.

The San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint has no place in a Resilience Portfolio.


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