A few thoughts about recent California water news

A few recent events sum up many of key dilemmas California faces as it considers its next generation of water security questions. Let’s look at the key links, in order of significance:

1/ Questions about whether the Cal Water FIx will effectively manage inevitable sea level rise. KCET reports that a now-projected 1.5-2 meter sea level rise by 2100 would bring salt water to the proposed twin tunnel intakes, raising serious questions about the premise of the project. The visitation to the pumps by salt water would only be aggravated by the loss of the pulse of Sacramento River downstream flows to Carquinez Strait induced by rerouting that water south to the San Joaquin Valley.

In fact, by outlining a scenario for extreme climate change-induced saltwater intrusion into the Delta, this study points to the Achilles’ heel of the Cal Water Fix premise. In no way have its advocates or technical experts conclusively described the science behind how diverting potentially a third to a half of the Sacramento River’s volume will aid in the restoration of the Delta’s ecosystem.

2/ A la the Panama Papers, will Westlands’ fiduciary agents will be punished for their possibly criminal practices? Enabled by an Obama Administration payout, Westlands’ corruption is implicitly given the okay to continue, and as it does, it continues laying waste to communities, children, and the environment. Reported by the Sacramento Bee’s Michael Doyle, Rep. Jared Huffman is looking into that deal, while Westlands officials say they’d be happy to “educate the public.” Maybe they could also educate the public about their Securities and Exchange violations, and what their strategy is for avoiding prison.

I like to dream of a day when the smug faces of Westlands’ influence peddlers will one day find themselves facing a courtroom full of the testifying mothers of sick kids whose drinking water was turned into a toxic soup of chemicals and selenium. The Obama Administration, entangled in this mess, would be wise to end them, now. Throwing good money after bad, and all, is never a good idea. End them. Give them their money.

3/ Westlands brings into focus the need for Californians to make choices about values. An aside, not in Maven’s digest, is more Westlands, this time a report from Fresno’s ABC30, by way of On the Public Record.

Yes, I long for the day when those mothers organize a political movement that is ready to apply some basic principles of environmental justice to uproot entitled bullies like “Buddy” from political office (see 0:30-1:10 of the video). Locally, it will take political power to keep Westlands’ selenium in the ground, so get organized, Ms. Jagannath. I’d be happy to help, if I can.

4/ Finally, the libertarians of the Delta, overreacting to news that is entirely unsurprising. Also unsurprising were their lawsuits, once confirmation came that the Metropolitan Water District had bought out the 25-year-old Delta Wetlands Project, a capitalist dream of turning the Delta into a reservoir and habitat mitigation bank transformed into a public utilities’ dream.

By anti-tunnel groups, there are the same tired invocations of Reiser and Chinatown water grabs, and Owens Valley, sure…but this really is not new news. I see the Met’s action here in a fiduciary way; much more as a short-term risk management investment by the most responsible actor in all of the state’s recent water intricacies. The Met may have had its power plays early in the 20th century, but to continuously invoke nearly hundred year-old events is absurd, especially when applied to a conservation-first, demonstrably responsible public agency.

5/ It’s been awhile since I last wrote something here, and I wish to make one last appeal. Please, Obama Administration, please talk to your working poor constituents in places like Cantua Creek (and not just the wealthy, government subsidized, well-funded and -represented)** before making your decisions about where to burnish your legacy in these last days of what has been a remarkably achievement-filled two terms.

**link to EWG Farm Subsidy Database via On the Public Record

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Posted by John Bass on 20 Apr 2016 | Comments (1)

Watermark: Along the California Aqueduct

Something I wrote to accompany the photographs that landscape architect Katherine Jenkins took of water infrastructure in California, recently published piece in Places Journal, a journal of public scholarship that needs everyone’s support.



The argument:

Modern California is an extraordinary achievement. To make a semi-arid region habitable and prosperous has required massive geo-engineering - reservoirs, dams, aqueducts, canals, pumping stations, and treatment plants, all dedicated to harvesting, storing, supplying, and transporting water. But now this achievement has produced a wicked tangle of problems.

I’d like to publicly thank John Fleck for his generosity in all of the exchanges the two of us have had over the years.

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Posted by John Bass on 26 Aug 2015 | Comments (2)

Optimism and the hazards of technology

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
- Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water

I can’t help but wonder if articles like this one by technophile Charles Fishman in the NYT, applauded for being “optimistic,” or Wallace Stegner’s barely expressed anxiety about rugged individualism, help kick the more difficult cans down the road. Fishman apparently thinks the solution is to build an even bigger water redistribution infrastructure:


Wouldn’t do much to alleviate pressure on California (or west of the Rockies) water issues, but whatever. Those who have a less cheery and I would argue more complete view of the hazards of big infrastructure technophilia (even at the scale that it currently exists at) might look at this piece about this widening financial and technical means to exploit California’s regulatory blind spot, and ask how can this be?

Today, Peter Gleick’s oped piece in the Sacramento Bee, written in a Stegnerian style, describes that cities have proven to be run by adults when it comes to long-term water conservation measures. Gleick’s essay makes this point nicely. But what lies underneath his piece is that same half-expressed anxiety about rugged individuals and their political advocates. What are they up to while cities are behaving like adults?

About 80% of the state’s “developed” surface water is used for agriculture. But what is “undeveloped” water? In general, it’s water that flows to the sea for environmental uses, which for rugged individuals and their political advocates is political hay. For them, undeveloped water is about 50% of the state’s total surface water supply going to waste. They want more of it, and it can pretty much only come from one place.

Farmers are compensating for lack of surface water by intensively pumping groundwater. Groundwater pumping that, unlike any other state in the West, is not even measured, let alone regulated. It seems that the affront such regulation would be to the state’s property rights and development interests makes it politically fraught to accelerate. So, optimists laud the state for passing some bills about groundwater. These may lead to actual groundwater monitoring and management policies in perhaps 20 years, when instead of pumping 1000 year-old water out of the ground, as farmers are doing now, they will be pumping out 10,000 year-old water. Assuming, as I’ve written before, there is any more water to pump, that is. Keep in mind that all of this water is not going to get recharged, at this point, for a thousand years.

Who ultimately pays for this irresponsible practice? Until the regulatory system is in place, there is no way to geographically fix the locations of and amount of pumping going on. The implications of this intense pumping - like destruction of public property that is measured right now in at least millions of dollars - cannot be precisely attached to those doing the pumping.

The extent of groundwater pumping going on now and continuing into the foreseeable future is not sustainable, and farmers know it. So where is the next supply of water going to come from? From poor communities relying on wells for their water. From ecosystems, its fish, wetlands, and estuaries.

The newest threat is by aggressive hedge fund “farming” that is pumping groundwater out of the foothills (and from reaching the Valley bottom) to keep their almond orchard investments alive. These faceless global systems of return on investment don’t give a shit about the health of California’s environment. But they do care about taking from it, and will assert their influence to gut state and federal environmental laws in order to do so.

When Peter Gleick’s editor at the Bee decides to headline his piece “GOP presidential wannabees have no clue about the drought,” good for the editor. As I’m sure the editor knows, the GOP is coming for the state’s environment next.

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Posted by John Bass on 20 Aug 2015 | Comments (1)

Real and transparent saltwater markets

Salt, both surface and groundwater sources, was a subject in two recent pieces of reporting in California water news. Would anyone suggest that it will be less of a subject in coming years?


The problem isn’t the lack of a real and transparent water market, as Lester Snow recently argued at Water Deeply. The problem is that the demand for water is bigger than the supply, especially the demands of those who offer salt in trade.

NPR published an article on July 24th about how salt is slowly crippling California’s almond industry.  Where surface sources are scarce, more salt is moved from groundwater pumping to the surface by desperate farmers trying to keep their unsustainable orchards on the west side salt mine alive. Pumping increasingly salty water out of the ground means putting more of it in surface sources and ultimately, in the Delta. This makes the problem of salty water worse for everyone.

It would be nice to be able to monitor/regulate/tax the saltiness of pumped groundwater. Maybe in a couple of decades it will be possible to do that, if by then there’s any decent quality water left in the ground.

The Orange County Register reported on July 25th increasing salinity levels in Delta waterways. The article describes how the lack of water flowing into the Delta reduces its ability to keep salty water from the Bay from entering into it. Keeping the x2 line where it’s supposed to be isn’t easy right now, but I surmise that at least for those who hate wasting water on “three inch bait fish” this is an understandable rationale for why that tenuous and elastic line exists.

Without a long period of huge snowpacks and the simultaneous perfect timing of purging flows that are unlikely in the new climate reality, salt in the Delta - and in the aqueducts - only accumulates, year to year. This will happen without the tunnels, and of course with them the pace of Delta salinity increase would vastly accelerate.

I do not understand why the Delta is targeted as the first geography to be sacrificed. Why aren’t the salt-producing geographies first on the cutting block? The amount of water saved would be huge, and the cost to buy these geographies out no greater than the cost of building the tunnel project.

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Posted by John Bass on 26 Jul 2015 | Comments (1)

Almond health benefit winners and losers

I am focused on places other than California water these days, but from a greater distance than I have been for most of the last six or seven years, it is increasingly either deeply farcical or truly tragic to watch a state unable to make the basic, if difficult, decision to immediately suspend any new development requiring groundwater pumping under the Sierra foothills.

At the very least!

So, with California experiencing its worst three-year drought in a 120-year history of record-keeping, here is my highly curated timeline of what’s been happening for the past six months of California’s water world:

1/ Late 2014. Governor Brown signs “groundbreaking” groundwater legislation that will not take effect until 2035 - if by then there is any water left to regulate, that is - when he will be 97, and possibly no longer Governor.

2/ April 2015. Gov. Brown more or less abandons the basic principle of co-equal goals as he mulls options now that the BDCP’s theory of “embracing scientific uncertainty” has proven to be untenable in practice. “California Department of Fish and Game Director Chuck Bonham told The Associated Press Wednesday that the project now calls for restoring 30,000 acres for wetland and wildlife habitat - down from 100,000 acres. Bonham said the amount of land targeted for environmental improvements was revised because there was ‘too much complexity’ in the original 50-year plan, given the need to get permits from federal wildlife agencies against a backdrop of uncertain future climate change impacts.” In another scenario that doesn’t start with the neoliberal definition of “complexity,” one could imagine that cuts would be in water supply-derived profit, and not in further damaging an increasingly besieged and dying habitat.

3/ Yesterday. On the bright side, some baby steps… ”[T]he state Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation Thursday (May 28th) that would make data on water wells available to the public like is done in all other Western states.” Of course, the “California Chamber of Commerce and various farm groups oppose the measure. Opponents contend ‘no beneficial purpose’ will be served for making the information public and that the measure ‘is intended to assist those trolling for lawsuits.’” Just trying to understand this opposition: do they oppose because the CoC and farm groups don’t sue people, and therefore this law’s not fair? What bullshit. Even Texas law requires this.

The geopolitical Almond:

4/ 2015. “With crops averaging over 1.5 billion pounds, double what they were in 2000, California almond growers produce over 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, while barely keeping up with rising world demand. California growers export 70 percent of what they produce to over 95 countries.” Courtesy of the Blue Diamond website

Such a beautiful plant:

5/ Future. The almond’s undeniable health benefits echo across the globe and the airwaves while they wreak havoc locally.  The almond, among the most profitable products of California agriculture, originated in the Middle East as far east as Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. Perhaps it should be grown there at the global scales needed for the Chinese and India markets, instead of in California. This would be super good for the economic and political stability of that part of the world - and California has other and higher uses for the water anyway - not to mention reduce the carbon footprint of getting snacks to market and the buckling of roads and canals in the Central Valley.

More later, but why isn’t anyone making a remake of Von Stroheim’s Greed?

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Posted by John Bass on 29 May 2015 | Comments (2)