The importance of kvetching

It’s been interesting to read the responses to Jay Lund’s essay “Virtual Water vs. Real Water in California.” In it, he describes as “kvetching” criticisms that question whether water should be used to export boutique agricultural products to global markets in a time of severe drought.

Professor Lund’s great to read, in large part because he doesn’t feel the need to overly self-edit. This of course gets under the skin of people who are both more knowledgable and better writers than I am.

For example:
“‘Virtual water’ and related ‘water footprint’ calculations are cute and popular. We can have lots of fun with the idea of a virtual this and that. (Virtual manure can be imagined coming and going from California and flowing globally.)”

A while ago, Professor Lund felt that I overinterpreted his “funding the Delta like a public sewer” essay. But like when I write “Sewer analogy > Heuristic fail,” if I were to choose to title an essay of mine linking “sewer” with “Delta” I would know that I was looking to pick a fight. And I would expect Lund would, too.

So Professor Lund is either being coy or naive about how words work when they are put together, or he just wants to pick a fight with a group of people (Delta people, bloggers or opinions of bloggers he considers illegitimate, etc.), period.

In Lund’s defense (I guess) is that I honestly sometimes can’t tell which it is.

Mike Wade agrees with Professor Lund about all of the kvetching kvetchers. Feeling like he’s in a safe space, Wade incautiously but accurately pulls out the “we live in a global economy” argument. It certainly can’t hurt Mike and the CFWC when Lund and his colleagues at the PPIC seem to understate just how expensive it will be to get them the water they need to feed the global economy designer pomegranate drinks, pistachios and wine, too.

Peter Gleick doesn’t agree with Lund about the kvetching. He thinks that if it is fair for one group to argue that water supply and environmental policy should be measured via “food security” and out of the other side of that same group’s mouth chasten the naive with talk of the global economy (see Wade, Mike), then it is reasonable to ask whether it is really food security or power politics that is at stake for that group.

On a recent plane trip, I was sitting next to a logistics VP for a major media equipment outfitter. He was a very young guy, and got his new job after noticing that like 95% of the servers used in the TV and radio industry were manufactured in one place. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your ability to foresee how catastrophe becomes dollars, that place was a vast IT park sitting on a floodplain in Thailand. That was where this guy’s company sourced their servers, too - just like all of their competitors.

This concerned him, and so he watched weather reports for the region, and saw a major storm coming that would surely inundate the IT Park. Days and hours before the storm hit, he explained the emerging situation to his boss, and was instructed to buy every available server manufactured in North America ASAP. His company flourished in the supply chain chaos that ensued, and he was promoted.

This little anecdote helps to explain why Mike Wade’s argument about food security is backwards. It also explains why the inclusion of virtual water in any drought debate is relevant, and why a significantly reduced agricultural territory south of the Delta is the only practical solution to both virtual and real California water supply.

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Posted by John Bass on 14 Mar 2014 | Comments (4)

This is what independent science looks like

Not that this is a surprise anymore, but Chris Austin has once again proven herself to be among the very best reporters on California water issues. This time she has produced an excellent, detailed summary of the independent science panel’s review of the BDCP effects analysis.

I think it is safe to say that - at least for the supporters of the twin tunnels project at the heart of the BDCP - it did not help to let loose a group of evidently independent and knowledgeable scientists on the mixture of science, suasion and policy-making that permeate the BDCP effects documents.

Here are a few excerpts (though boldface captions are by me) from Chris’s reporting, but I would strongly recommend reading the entirety at her website. Here’s that link again. And supporting her invaluable work by making a donation, too!

The BDCP Playbook, Part II

Employ a favorite bait-and-switch magic trick, Adaptive Management
“The panel recognizes that the success of BDCP hinges on a commitment to effective adaptive management, he said.  ‘Although it doesn’t fall under our purview in this review, adaptive management and really linking the effects analysis with the adaptive management was lacking with virtually no mention of it within Chapter 5,’ said Dr. Parker.”

Make sure that poor indexing appears to be a manifestation of the challenges of a complex planning exercise trying to find common ground among multiple, conflicting agendas, and not a political tactic
“‘‘We just need better linking throughout—better cross-referencing and better indexing throughout because without it, we are left with this sense of “trust us.”’  Without the level of detail, we’re really hunting.’”

Do not value weight the affected in the uncertainty. Don’t come clean about what’s really at stake here, the value of an endangered fish that strictly speaking is probably as stupid as Devin Nunes says it is
“‘Unless you weight the attributes, you can’t determine the overall uncertainty,’ said John Skalski, a panel member.  ‘An attribute that has high importance, even one of them, that has high uncertainty, makes the whole program uncertain.  On the other hand, you might have a lot of attributes that are very insignificant with a lot of uncertainty but it has no effect on the overall assessment.  Uncertainties don’t average; sometimes they multiply, but it depends on your model, so unless we know the weight of the attributes and how certain you are of those individual components, we can’t put the pieces together.’”

Employ rose colored glasses science
“The panel felt that there was a lack of consideration of a variety of scenarios, including moderate or worst case scenarios, with predominantly optimistic scenarios in modeling, said Dr. Parker.”

Employ rose colored glasses science wherever possible
“Restoration of tidal wetlands is highly uncertain or a very long process, and yet restoration is assumed to be 100% perfect for meeting goals, said Dr. Parker.”

Limit the “Study Area” despite the fact that Nature doesn’t do limits
“The panel overall feels that the effects of changes to the conservation measures should include San Francisco Bay, said Dr. Parker. ‘Reality is that there is connectivity, and the BDCP will likely have impacts downstream, particularly the loss of suspended sediments, and that impact to salt marsh in the face of sea level rise. ‘At this time we feel like it should be included.’”

Embrace uncertainty, embrace arbitrary and undefined measurables
“Greg Ruggerone said that per a table from the beginning of chapter 5 that for covered fish species, only 11 or 28% of the biological objectives could be evaluated in your opinion, 38% of them were partially evaluated, but 33% were not evaluated at all. ‘This is unfortunate, because the biological objectives are where the project wants to go.  You want to be able to achieve those objectives and yet we don’t have the information in the basin to evaluate at this point in time whether or not those objectives might be achieved, so therefore this raises uncertainty in the overall effectiveness of the plan and highlights the need for monitoring and adaptive management as the project continues.’”

Downplay how much uncertainty is being embraced
“There is a mismatch of potential benefit from conservation action and how they are assessing it, said Dr. Parker, noting that this is a broad comment that addresses the communication of uncertainty.  ‘Overall the broad consensus was that the level of detail within Chapter 5, the summary sections, that level of uncertainty is often downplayed, so there is this sense that prediction is there’s going to be a net benefit but without adequately capturing the level of uncertainty around that prediction,’ he said.”

Thought he had a problem with stupid fish? Watch Devin Nunes head explode when he tries to understand why we manage turbidity
“Science panel member Nancy Monsen offered some further clarification. ‘As you are adaptively managing the north Delta operations, that turbidity is one of those things that you adaptively manage for,’ she said. ‘You recognize that there is 8 to 9% sediment that we’d like to keep in the Sacramento, if possible, and if there’s something you can do with pump operations—if you see a pulse of sediment that possibly goes down, maybe you back off the pumping for that period of time while the sediment goes down. That’s just an example of how you could adaptively manage sediment in the system.’”

Avoid this study at all costs
[Science panel member Greg Ruggerone, referring to a paper by Phil Roni et al, said that if one applied that groups’ conclusions to the Delta, then] “‘100% of the habitat would need to be restored to be 95% certain of achieving a 25% increase in smolt production for either species.’ Ultimately, they concluded that “our study demonstrates considerable restoration is needed to produce measurable changes in fish abundance on a watershed scale.” So this just raises the question that we’re asked a lot in the Columbia River Basin by policy makers ... and we ask the question here, with the BDCP, is the amount of restoration that’s being proposed, is it enough to achieve the biological objectives set forth in recovery?’”

Like climate change deniers, let’s make it some other science’s problem to prove that we are wrong
“‘I have a question on our treatment or lack of treatment in Chapter 5 of adaptive management since that permeates so many of the conclusions, especially when there’s a high degree of uncertainty,’ said David Zippin with ICF International. ‘And I would encourage the panel to provide specific suggestions on how we might do that.  In previous drafts of the document, I think we probably overdid it, and now we’ve sort of swung the other way, omitted it completely, so there has to be a happy medium somewhere in the middle. ... We opted to be conservative and rely on adaptive management very little in chapter 5, but perhaps there’s a way we could acknowledge it that’s defensible.’”

Adaptive management means do some research. It does not mean describing how to intervene in a wide range of scenarios
“‘A rigorous adaptive management plan would have a conceptual model that poses those decision points that are linked to triggers and thresholds,’ said science panel member Charles “Si” Simonstad.  ‘One thing that was a little confusing to me was in the monitoring and research component, the tables had compliance monitoring, effectiveness monitoring and research, and most of the uncertainties were allocated to research.  In fact, it should be sort of explicitly incorporated as a major element of adaptive management to try to resolve those with monitoring and incorporate those into alternative approaches if they pass those trigger points.  So in some respects, there’s a potential need for a table, a conceptual model or some other diagram that suggests for the major uncertainties, how would you approach that with a rigorous adaptive management program.  What would be the candidate triggers, what would be the candidate thresholds, what would be the candidate alternatives that you would have to move to under that condition?’”


So, there you go, David Zippen - Mr. Simonstad’s agreed to help you with your work, and his suggestion is a good one. Along with Mr Skalski’s recommendation that you give value weighting to things costs, benefits, affected, I hope we see what adaptive management looks like, what it costs, who and what suffers, etc., fleshed out across the range of possible scenarios as part of the final BDCP documents.

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Posted by John Bass on 11 Feb 2014 | Comments (0)

#cadrought Shock Doctrine history

For the optimists among you, it is probably reassuring that Governor Brown is holding some sort of line when it comes to the BDCP, CEQA and the Endangered Species Act...

Still I remain concerned that what we are seeing here, beneath all of the rhetoric about food security, is a massive and strategically ordered shift in wealth toward the AgriFracking landscape of the Monterrey Shale region—more or less the southern half of the state. And the Governor is no small player in this.

The essentials, in a diptych:

So, onto the trollish future history of California Water

At the most chaotic opportune juncture in Iraq’s civil war California’s drought, a new law push is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP AgriFracking to claim the country’s vast oil reserves usurp California’s precious water supply.

Immediately following September 11 the Zero Allocation announcement, the Bush Brown Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” “War on the Environment” to Halliburton and Blackwater San Joaquin Valley Congressmen.

After a tsunami wipes out levee breach floods the coasts of Southeast Asia a subsided island in the South Delta, the pristine beaches water resources are auctioned off to tourist resorts shifted to the junior water rights-holding AgriFracking bloc.

New Orleans’s Delta residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina besieged by bellowing right-wing Congressmen, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools watch as endangered species, waterways, levees, and agricultural economy will never be reopened irretrievably degrade.

Original Shock Doctrine text sampled from Naomi Klein’s website:

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Posted by John Bass on 05 Feb 2014 | Comments (0)

“Be frugal, be flexible and be inclusive”

“In water policy, aridity often focuses attention.” That is how Jay Lund concludes a piece on innovation and drought.

No doubt it does focus attention. And in Lund’s essay, attention leads us to innovation - as opposed to, say, conflict. He begins by describing a very specific history of California water innovation. No dynamiting of Owens Lake pipes from 1924-1976 in that history.

In this era of scarcity the interests of the haves and have-nots will intensify, the resilience of the myth of American innovation is going to be tested like never before.

What California needs is to develop a Jugaad culture of innovation: be Frugal, be Flexible, and be Inclusive. This is the way that this era will not be a zero-sum game of water supply and reliability, something that the tunnels ensure.


Innovation is about the market - the power to take, to conserve when taking is physically impossible, and to mitigate when politically unavoidable - are the innovations of the haves.

The Delta may have physical limits, but is intrinsic and not slave to an extensive geography that it exists within. Who can decisively claim that the Delta is any less sustainable than say the Tulare Basin or Malibu?

Water market transfers and Valley groundwater regulation are “difficult” issues as Lund concludes at the end of his piece, but these are not the “really difficult” issues. These are what the haves are probably willing to give away.

A really difficult issue, or decision, would be to calibrate environmental and economic policy with social justice policy.

For example, a really difficult decision would be to pay off Westlands’ landowners, taking its entire toxic territory, a major contributor to the Delta’s ecosystem problems, out of production. Wouldn’t this make water supply and environmental sense for everyone but Westlands landowners?

Big Ag constantly cites unemployment rates in the poor towns of the Central Valley as a reason to open the spigot. But why isn’t ensuring that these same towns get high quality water paid for by the agribusinesses that polluted their water supplies in the first place? Why should these agribusinesses get any assurance of water supply reliability before then?

Another idea that it would be nice to hear from those with authoritative voices is about what food security actually is. On the Public Record raised this question recently: How does the production of wine and pistachios, almonds, etc. contribute to our food security? We hear a lot about wasted water, but what about wasted food?

To which I would add another: Should suburban development continue to be supported by water transfers, or should water transfers to new development, like the growing of pistachios and wine grapes, be relegated to secondary status for water?

Development be focused on frugal models that support the densification of existing cities and towns, making them much more transportation, energy and water efficient. Why the Antelope Valley is allowed to develop makes no sense.

The reality is this: The costs for food and fuel, disaster infrastructure and relief are increasing, all signs of unwanted adjustments to the effects of scarcity and climate change. The question is will this myth of innovation be informed by the parallel and dangerous myth of abundance, or by the reality of scarcity and climate change.

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Posted by John Bass on 27 Jan 2014 | Comments (0)

Vermeer and the Netherlands


From a staunch advocate of Delta interests I received the following question in response to my last post:

John, I agree with quite a bit of your analysis and ideas. But, for those of us whose families have been farming in the Delta for over 100 years, the concept of a “National Park” poses the question: Where do the Delta farmer and his private property rights fit into the “park” picture?  I cannot conceive of a system whereby the government determines what should be farmed (for then farmers are merely serfs), so how does the ability to farm making planting decisions based upon market conditions remain possible?

Thanks for the chance to ask the question.  Rogene Reynolds, South Delta.

Rogene, in answer to your question about private property rights - a principle that cuts both ways depending on whether your concerns are about property or, say, rights to the groundwater underneath it - I have many times described the hybrid nature of ownership, property, access and development that I am proposing within the Delta National Park idea - so I won’t get into doing so again. You have more than enough information about my proposal to draw your own conclusions.

I hope you are able to recognize that my sentiments - critical though they may sometimes be - are with the Delta’s communities and its unique landscape history, and that you are able resist the conclusion that what I am proposing would make you - and Delta landowners generally - “serfs.”

Because the alternative to a more complexly programmed Delta is clear, and included in a good summary of a number of inevitabilities about California water policy entanglements that have been put together by UCD/PPIC experts Jay Lund and Ellen Hanak. In their view the Delta will become a simpler place, except for the expanded opportunities for recreation that can occur in a future Delta brackish inland sea.

In Lund’s and Hanak’s scenario, agriculture in the Delta will certainly diminish, much more than it would in a Delta National Park. For a description of the contraction scenario, refer to Point One of their thoughtful ten-point list at the above-linked UCD Water Blog.


My appeal is to think in a way that removes the Delta’s future from being a zero-sum game. This appeal does necessarily presume that the Delta will indeed change, develop, become more complex in its land uses. I believe my view to be a hybrid of all views, and not an entrenched view of any party, whether those of Restore the Delta, the California Farmworkers Coalition, the Public Policy Research Institute of California, or others.

The interests of pro-private property in the Delta regularly claim that they can manage just fine without government help, but this assertion does not reflect existing substantive government subsidies of Delta infrastructure. At the same time, in-Delta interests accurately view the tunnels as the existential threat to their way of life that it certainly is.

The UCD/PPIC experts claim that government subsidies of Delta levee infrastructure cannot prop it up forever and that this inevitably means that the Lower (westernmost) Delta levees will collapse due to a lack of any other viable form of economic support for infrastructure maintenance. This view is reductive, and doesn’t seem to be willing to consider a set of options for the Delta’s future and California’s water supply as inter-dependent. Of course, such an alternative would be profound in its impact on State governance. And on Delta mindsets.

So, two questions for in-Delta interests and risk-averse experts alike:

1/ Would Vermeer have existed in the Netherlands if it were a brackish inland sea?

2/ Is this your best proposal for how the Delta and California can benefit from using this opportunity of drought, climate change, and environmental regulation to create a conciliatory model of water policy governance?

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Posted by John Bass on 09 Jan 2014 | Comments (4)