Water Resilience Portfolio Review

After all that, all the listening sessions and all the public input, what the Newsom administration came up with was a program-by-program list of Budget Change Proposal justifications.  This is what the departments do every year internally and then submit to Finance, but apparently this year, they got put together into a glossy report and called the Resilience Portfolio. I mean this literally; I recognize the language of the BCPs we submit every year. In some ways, this is good. It means that when it comes time to report on how we are achieving the Resilience Portfolio, we will be able to report lots of progress. I suppose it is also interesting that after all the input, the Newsom administration went with “what our own agencies are currently doing plus new laws”.

I like trying to imagine the thinking of the administration. Here’s how I picture it:

Early 2019: Lets come up with something new! New, for climate change! Yeah! We’ll ask EVERYONE and survey the entire landscape and new ideas will come out and we’ll do them!

[Release Executive Order]

Mid 2019: We’re holding listening sessions. Christ there’s a lot. And all of it is the same language from the last time they lobbied us on these issues, only now they add the word Resilience everywhere. The Resilience Temperance Flats Resilience Dam!

[Input closes]

Fall 2019: OMG there’s so much. Some of it might be neat, but we’re not set up to do that. And if we put in that, we have to balance it with something from the other side. I’m not sure we can do any of this.

Late Fall 2019: You know what is kinda organized and we might be able to do? This stuff from the agencies. They are going to have to do new stuff anyway, because of new laws. Did you know we do all this? It’s not bad.

Jan 3, 2020: Resilience Portfolio!, from the State Resilience Water Resilience Resources Resilience Control Resilience Board, the Resilience Department of Resilience Water Resilience Resources, with a tiny bone thrown to DFW because their shit was never really going in there anyway.

I suppose it is delightful that the new administration got to take a deep dive into what their agencies do and came away endorsing it. But three things. First, if they had known what the agencies do and respected the agencies, they wouldn’t have had to spend a year to get to “what the agencies do now”. Second, they have no future vision, only “please keep what we’re doing now together until we’re out of office”. Third is the worst. In addition to initially not respecting the agencies’ work, they had no respect for the stakeholders’ time. People spent thousands of hours putting together their input. Far as I can see, that was all wasted.


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Frozen II: a water engineering and policy analysis.

It has been two weeks and we can no longer put off our analysis of water engineering and policy in Frozen II. If SPOILERS would destroy your pristine viewing of Frozen II, now is the time to stop reading. The dam removal theme was unmistakable and much appreciated. Still, we can delve deeper.

This readership must have immediately noticed that the “gift” of the dam was suspect; it served no observable purpose. The recipients of the “gift” are herders who don’t visibly practice agriculture. The donors of the gift live in a far northern temperate climate and would likely practice rainfed agriculture, with no need to carry water over a dry season. I don’t see a powerhouse for hydropower, indeed, these are a pre-electrified societies.

The only possible use for the dam is flood control. In that case, it is clearly not a “gift” for the recipients, who live above the dam. It isn’t clear from the movie that it is needed for Arendelle. It is true that floodwaters after dambreak do threaten to inundate Arendelle, but that was a wall of water caused by the sudden release of several years of stored water. We cannot know without a look at their hydrology, but knowing that there is an undamaged upper watershed and that they receive quite a bit of precip as snow, I have to doubt that the river that got dammed was very flashy. On an annual basis, unimpaired flow probably never did flood enough to raise the bay that Arendelle sits on. So this alleged “gift” offers no benefit to the recipients and likely, no benefit to the donors. (We may further reflect that had the magically-connected Northuldran’s wanted a dam, perhaps they could have asked the earth spirits to raise one or even become a dam.)

What I find less plausible is that Queen Elsa didn’t recognize this immediately. It is canon that Queen Elsa has considerable water engineering expertise.  In Anna and Elsa #1, All Hail the Queen, Queen Elsa is designing the city’s municipal water delivery system (at 1:25). In Anna and Elsa #9, Anna Takes Charge, it appears that Queen Elsa has gotten the system built and remains in charge of O&M (at 10:00). I have to believe that at some level, Queen Elsa must have wondered that her grandfather had built an entirely superfluous dam. She cannot have been entirely surprised by the later revelations, that he did it to destroy the balance and weaken the magic of the north.

In conclusion, I can only assume that the writers of Frozen II have read this article on the Elwa as many times as I have. People of the Klamath, hopefully your day is next.





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“We need some big boy help.”

A CSD near Redding is, like most of our infrastructure (physical and governmental), highly climate brittle. They are asking for help, as they don’t have the financial, technical and managerial capacity to solve the problem. Having hundreds of tiny districts already is not working; we should be consolidating into a few major watershed-scale districts.

ADDED 11/26: In response to the very good comments, I want to make clear that I am advocating for large-scale consolidation on a regional scale. There are thousands of these tiny CSD’s. I think they are mostly about to be unable to perform their mission. Instead of combining them by voluntary onesies and twosies, we should be examining what scale and governance we’ll need next, anticipating wholesale consolidation into new county-size (or larger) agencies.


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I am made of hairy and audacious.

I dunno, man. I read this and I kinda felt like some of it was directed at me. I hope not, because they have better things to think about. But I’d like to use that op-ed to make a point related to something that Mr. Sabalow mentioned yesterday. Mr. Sabalow said that nothing ever happens in water. This op-ed by Secretaries Crowfoot and Blumenfeld nicely illustrates that when you have no destination, you go nowhere.

The headline of the op-ed is:

Rejecting federal proposal, California lays out its vision for protecting endangered species and meeting state water needs.

I am a grown adult, so I never hold authors responsible for the headline. I know headlines are written separately. But we can agree that this headline offers hope that the 660 words that follow it will contain a vision.

Let us look at where our two most important environmental executives hope to take us in the next two or six years. They write that they intend to:

  • find… ways to protect our environment and build water security for communities and agriculture
  • embrace decisions that benefit our entire state
  • become much more innovative, collaborative and adaptive
  • turn the page on old binaries
  • develop a broad, inclusive water agenda
  • take a big step in this direction
  • improve water systems across our diverse state
  • find creative solutions that balance all water needs
  • [potentially make] tough decisions
  • [pay immediate attention to t]he protection of endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
  • tak[e] a careful, science-based approach to operating the State Water Project
  • strengthen safeguards for fish and improve real-time management of the project that delivers water to … Californians
  • protect California’s interests and values
  • find… common solutions with the federal government and all those interested in ending the patterns of the past
  • work… together to develop a set of voluntary agreements
  • provide additional water, habitat and science to improve environmental conditions in the two river systems and the Delta while providing water for other beneficial uses such as agriculture
  • have… a strong commitment to move forward
  • adapt to the present, but prepare for the future

Yes. Right. That’s all great. But WHAT THE FUCK DO THEY INTEND TO DO?! Six hundred and sixty words about how they intend to work, including some vagueness about doing every good thing. I absolutely understand that they will do it with the most pragmatic-sciencey-synergistic-collaborative-feasabilitiness that this state has ever seen*, but what will they do? All of everything, with good will and none of that ugly fighting that smallminded bloggers go on about? That op-ed is two pages of optimism with no content. One op-ed isn’t everything, but it sure parallels what I expect of the Resilience Portfolio, which can apparently be all things to every water interest.

All the possibilities suck. One is that they have an interior vision with, you know, places and specifics in it, but won’t tell us because that might alienate someone. Or maybe they have no interior vision for the entire goddamned field of CA water because they don’t actually care about it and are only doing these jobs as stepping stones for national positions. The worst possibility is that they think that ‘all of the good things, synergistically rising above conflict’ is an actual vision. That will not get them anywhere. In the language of our California culture, you manifest what you vision and ‘a super-duper process to do everything good’ won’t manifest anything.

The thing that kills me is that Gov. Newsom talks about “big, hairy, audacious goals” and his top environmental executives literally will not speak goals aloud. They are utterly disciplined and professional about avoiding speaking clear goals. There is no goal in that op-ed, much less audacious goals. Not ‘achieve 15M irrigated acres of almonds’. Not ‘the salmon return thunders so loud that it keeps people awake at night’. Not the classics, like “fishable, swimmable”. There is only process, no goals. Not even tiny, clean-shaven, timid goals, like ‘mis-use my authority to make my favorite camping creek real nice’. That would at least be a distinguishable goal. No. Instead we get endless assurances that whatever their vague-ass goals turn out to be, they will be accomplished in the new collaborative future-facing paradigm.

This, Mr. Sabalow, is a big part of why CA water goes nowhere. The people in charge of it cannot imagine anywhere to take it**.




*Whomever wrote that last paragraph should be deeply ashamed.

**Why, you ask, can they not imagine what CA water should look like after four to eight years of their efforts? Because there’s no solution space within their constraints. They’ve set “pleasing everybody and especially ag” as a constraint and that excludes most things (maybe not FloodMAR), and then they (especially the State Board) have to meet their duty to protect fish and wildlife. There is not much left. Which is why you’re hearing a lot about FloodMar and unspecified “multi-benefits” these days.


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Water districts are incapable of anti-growth decisions.

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;

I am always bewildered by the rightwing trope that government is ineffective. Water districts were a form of government created to turn rivers into cities and farms and holy crap did they do that.  They’re still, relentlessly, doing that. Water districts are good at going along with human denial, and human insistence that the do-nothing option will continue to provide the status quo. I argue that 1. they are not capable of doing anything that counters human denial as described, and that 2. the work we face for the next many decades is not delivering economic growth, but making painful, expensive decisions to minimize loss.

I see two reasons that water districts will not be able to do the work of contraction. The first is that contraction isn’t their self-identity and they don’t want to. I mean, just look at the SJV Water Blueprint. Faced with the end of a 3-4MAF annual overdraft, rather than live within their means, the water district solution is to raise a million dollars to advocate for a ludicrously expensive plan to backfill the loss.

The second reason that water districts cannot run counter to human denial is that the directors will get recalled. Mark Arax writes about how the Paradise was never able to do effective planning.

Paradise wanted to steer its own fate, the Qualified Five were nervous about the prospect that the town’s first General Plan would bring new bureaucrats, new regulations, new taxes, and maybe even a sewer system to the ridge. Years of ugly recall elections, recalls all the way down to the Irrigation District Board, followed. Those who wanted no government feuded with those who wanted some and those who wanted more.

Most people want their district to tell them that they can keep what they have, at about the same cost. They will not pay to fix problems that they cannot see, nor to prevent predicted problems because it is human nature to believe that doing nothing will lead to more of the status quo. Board members who try to work against this denial get recalled and the effort fails. Small districts are especially vulnerable because the thresholds for recall are low.

This has more-or-less worked for the last several decades because our former climate was stable and districts only ever made one of two decisions (‘do our rates cover O&M?’ and ‘is it time for an expansion?’). Frankly, the extent of deferred maintenance says that they didn’t even make the first decision correctly. But those are the questions that districts will be facing now. Water districts in their current structure are not capable of making the decisions that we now face.



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Water districts are not democratic institutions.

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;

You might think that I’m going to go for some of the obvious forms of non-democracy, perhaps the famous ‘water districts on the west side allocate votes by acreage, not by population’. Please. We are not amateurs here.

One of my personal favorite ways that a water district can be non-democratic is when there simply isn’t a population in the district, or the only town is entirely made up of farmworkers who can’t vote, or can’t vote against their boss’s interests. Arax described the Lost Hills Water District that way:

I call the manager of the Lost Hills Water District. He used to work for the Resnicks before Stewart put him in charge of the district. He’s a decent guy making $216,000 a year who doesn’t pretend that he isn’t beholden to Wonderful.

In my younger, sweeter days, I thought that Dudley Ridge was unusual for being wholly unaccountable to a voting public, but now I realize most of the west side districts have no independent voting public. They cannot be re-directed by democracy, unless it is at the State level.

The next way that water districts are undemocratic is when the Board doesn’t change for thirty years. Special district policy is often arcane, requires local media translation, and the default is to ignore it. It can languish or answer to only a few interests for decades. It is undemocratic if the actual remedy is for people to expend unrealistic effort to overcome a default to get a board to implement the majority preference. (The counter-argument is that there is a demanding ‘tightrope of right action‘ that could overcome this problem, but frankly, systems that demand that much work to represent majority will are bad systems.)

Now I’m going to do a crossfade from ‘undemocratic’ to ‘corrupt AF’ by pointing you to The Valley Citizen’s amazing blogging on Oakdale Irrigation District. It gets hard to make a distinction. When three of the five board members literally lock the two reformer board members out of meetings (by locking them outside and declaring quorum), is that undemocratic or corrupt? If they go on to make illegal water deals, I think we can call that part corrupt, which finishes the fade to water districts that do corrupt shit with no real oversight.

The wonderful Betty Yee caught Panoche Water District for corruption and the SEC caught Westlands WD doing “a little Enron accounting”. Tom Birmingham was never disbarred for his perjury, so the consequences for corruption clearly aren’t strong enough. That is if there is effective oversight at all, which, for example, Fresno County isn’t doing to catch illegal out-of-county water exports. And of course, there’s the old fashioned method of district employees plain out stealing their constituents’ money for decades.

I welcome your stories about undemocratic (for any reason) and corrupt water districts (let’s stay within California, because that’s what this blog does) in the comments.

UPDATE 11/14: Rural water district holds first election since 1970s  There doesn’t appear to be wrongdoing here, but this is also not a vibrant expression of the people’s will as expressed through their representatives.

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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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