Going negative

Steven Maviglio, a Sacramento-based political consultant behind “Restore Delta Truth,” has been hired by someone or something to Swift Boat one of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan’s major opponents: Restore the Delta.

I need to get into this because Mr. Maviglio decided it would be clever to pull “DeltaNationalPark.org, an environmental blog” into his messaging, referencing an old post of mine that was critical of RTD supporter Alex Spanos for his conventionally suburban development off Eight Mile Road north of Stockton.

I stand by that criticism, but Mr. Maviglio is disingenuous in his tactics. He knows that I have my issues with RTD, sure, but he would (or should) also know that I stand with the RTD in opposition to the BDCP, and favor the Western Delta Conveyance alternative to the twin tunnels, as I understand many (but not all) of the RTD’s supporters do.

He would (or should) know that I believe that all Californians should accept something like the same risk when it comes to their water, and not focus most of that risk on one unique and fragile place.

He would (or should) know that I believe that the Delta’s levees (actually they are dikes, not levees, as Emily Green has recently pointed out in an excellent essay on the Delta) should be transferred to Federal and State ownership (not a very popular position to many of the RTD’s more libertarian members). It would then be fortified to meet a future of Climate Change impacts and likely worst-case seismic events, and pay for itself by developing as a hybrid of public recreational spaces and private parcels.

I am not strictly speaking much of an environmentalist, in other words, and he would (or should) know that.

Mr. Maviglio, who is - I infer, sadly - a Democrat, knows how to provide the optics of hypocrisy, but he might want to look in the mirror and examine the coalition that his clients are a part of, too. He certainly must know RTD is a complicated coalition held together with an overarching interest in “shrinking the [BDCP] to a size that can be drowned in a bathtub,” to paraphrase another master of the negative,  Grover Norquist.

No doubt opposition analysis leading to a communications strategy is a big component of the professional services Mr. Maviglio offers his clients. I just have one question for him: Is the RTD being targeted because they are getting a worrisome amount of traction and/or the BDCP is in trouble? Going negative sure seems like the act of a desperate client. Maybe they’d be better off focusing on buying out (or selling their) marginal farmland and fast tracking groundwater regulations.

Read the full entry...

Posted by John Bass on 18 Mar 2015 | Comments (1)

Spiky Weather good cops and bad

Since it can no longer be ignored, it was inevitable that the impacts of Climate Change would emerge as the issue for public (as opposed to academic or policy) debate on how to manage water in California. That’s a good thing. No longer can Climate Change be dismissed as bad science, a myth, or a future generations’ problem, at least in this context. And it will get worse.

But it’s not clear that even intelligent arguments by people like Dan Walters and Jeffrey Mount about these impacts seem will change the basic problem of finding a politically executable policy to reconcile entrenched, not to say radical, pro-water supply/pro-environment positions that have been staked out for decades.

From what I can tell, at least for a relatively short now, Climate Change has two major impacts on California water policy vis-a-vis the Delta: the first - rising sea levels - is more easy to visualize. It unfolds slowly and as it does, the sea rises. This will 1/ intensify the threat of Delta flooding via higher water levels, and 2/ if the status quo (no tunnel) remains, force Delta landowners and state/federal taxpayers to reinforce and raise Delta levees, an expensive proposition, and 3/ make saltwater incursion into the Delta that much more difficult (and water/money-consuming) to push back against.

But it is the other impact of Climate Change - the harder to visualize, quicker, spikier, wetter - and drier - and warmer rain and snow dynamic that California’s water infrastructure is not well suited to control - that I want to focus on. First of all, Spiky Weather is already here - whereas rising sea levels are not, at least not impactfully so - and people are starting to be directly effected. So other people - smart, well-informed people - including the aforementioned Sacramento Bee writer Dan Walters and the Public Policy Institute of California’s (PPIC) Jeffrey Mount, have started writing more explicitly about the implications. Their thoughts appear to respectively be glass-half-empty, glass-half-full viewpoints of the spikier weather problem. But I wonder if in fact when seen together they are really a good cop/bad cop performance, unintended, perhaps, but nevertheless, just that.

Walters argues that the increasingly frequent pulses of rain and melted snowpack reduce the effectiveness of the state’s dams and reservoirs. The state can no longer assume that every year, deep snow packs high in the Sierras will gradually accumulate and then gradually melt, the meltwater collected behind dams. Spiky Weather isn’t playing along, and Walters argues that this necessitates the creation of ways to capture that water at lower elevations than the reservoirs sit. Walters mentions new low-elevation dams and reservoirs, but it is easy to see how his reasoning could underpin the case for the peripheral tunnels. It is not clear to me how Walters’ is not a variant on the “wasted water” argument that has been around since someone said that if any water from the Colorado River makes it to the Gulf of California, then it is being wasted. Just today, Sen. Feinstein, Rep. Nunes, et al once again made this argument.

Jeffrey Mount’s position about Spiky Weather helps to clarify what I mean by this. Mount (who, and I could be wrong, is a twin tunnels proponent himself) makes the argument that Spiky Weather is not entirely a negative for the state’s water system. The big pulses of water two or three times during the Spiky Weather rainy season have the useful effect of pushing the Delta’s salty water - especially saline during the current, extreme drought - out to the Bay. This “naturally-occurring” benefit of Climate Change means that water managers do not have to release water stored behind state’s dams in order to manage ecosystem health or migrating species’ needs. Instead, water stored behind dams can be released at optimal times, when it can be most efficiently delivered to its users, by which he presumably means human users. Mount’s position is implicitly status quo with respect to environmental laws and how this affects the uses of water. His position depends on their continuing enforcement.

A caveat is in order here. It needs to be noted that it is not terribly difficult to shift Mount’s argument to Walters’ - from using Spiky Weather pulses of valuable water to purge salinity from the Delta to bypassing it altogether in order to supply big AG in the San Joaquin Valley. Only time will tell whether the laws Mount’s scenario depends upon will hold, or whether they will die of a thousand cuts by the advocates of Walters’ argument. A few cuts have already been delivered. The Obama Administration’s decision to waste water in a different way by subsidizing farming in toxic landscapes like Westlands comes to mind and does not bode well at all. (Neither does the President’s recent agreement to supply rural, super-sunlight-rich India with American nuclear technology, but I digress.) The other increasing source of cuts is found in pleas like the one of Feinstein, Nunes, et al, which call for the loosening of environmental restrictions and increase in water exported from the Delta, being made now because of this ferocious drought.

Unicorn Petting Zoo, Staten Island, 2025

Walters and Mount may be among the first to directly address the Spiky Weather problem, but have they also simply articulated new arguments for positions that are in reality quite complementary? They aren’t really opposed points of view, and it’s not hard to see how what they are saying will one day be seamlessly integrated into an updated version of PPIC’s managed retreat project. But morphing from the “wildlife-friendly agriculture,” “sandhill crane habitats,” “experimental islands” and “unicorn petting zoos” of the Delta’s managed retreat future that PPIC has illustrated in its work will be the real project. In the real project, the Delta is a landscape of tunnel access points and spoils mounds, salt water sloughs and brackish lagoons, security-guarded chain link-surrounded territories of risk-averse machines and infrastructures, Spiky Weather pulses and their gradual destruction of the fragile Delta settlement geography, enclaves for wealthy bird hunters, entire islands of riparian beauty and privilege for the 1%.

In this future, there will be little to no public access on an ever-diminishing landscape, and the Delta’s waterways will primarily serve a demographic of ecosystem scientists conducting research related to commitments that have long since been abandoned, sport fishermen chasing the new, salt-tolerant fish inhabiting the Delta, party boats, and party animals. What a shame to lose such a beautiful place. What a shame that it doesn’t have advocates in influential places arguing to make it more public, not more like an industrial waterfront.

Read the full entry...

Posted by John Bass on 12 Feb 2015 | Comments (0)

What happens then?

Today, Maven published excerpts from the findings of the Delta Independent Science Board May 2014 review of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan’s draft Environmental Impact Report / Environmental Impact Statement.

Yes, that review was produced over six months ago, but it is worth restating the concerns that were identified by the DISB. Given their extent, it is clear why Federal agencies are so cool to the BDCP, and why we will continue to see Congressional coalitions making secretive (and soon, not so secretive) efforts to circumvent environmental law.

Digression moment: It is noteworthy that DISB member Jay Lund wrote recently that a new environmentalism is needed for California water. “New environmentalism is about diverse interests working together to create more promising environmental solutions,” Lund somewhat generically writes.

But isn’t that what the BDCP was, and in his capacity as a DISB Reviewer, is Lund simply following the letter of the laws he thinks need to change? The devil’s in the details I guess. And there are a lot of details, as Lund et al articulated. In principle, I agree with him, not necessarily with the implicit belief in more science, because ultimately a hybrid of science and design will break through the logjam, as I’ve written about, and worked on in the context of the Delta for many years. Here’s a low—res overall map of the geography of my efforts:

Back to the BDCP review: Can it be read as an index of where this new environmentalism must focus if it is to develop the mechanisms for doing what Lund is asking for? The DISP acted like a panel of scientists bound up in the contradictions of their disciplinary limits. They demanded more measurability, empirical tests, details of methods, despite the impossibility of arriving at a correct answer. What they seemed to be saying was that more certainty was possible, despite the explicit embrace of scientific uncertainty by the authors of the BCCP.

They seem to be saying that it is the responsibility of the Bay-Delta Conservation Planners to demonstrate that their assessments of the project’s impacts and mitigation efforts are realistic (or properly qualified if unknowable in advance - as they should have) - and that more explicit contingencies be put in place in the inevitable occurrence of failed environmental restoration objectives.


The following points are taken from a presentation of DISB’s review, made available by Maven:

Summary of Major Concerns:
Effectiveness of conservation actions, especially habitat restoration
“Many of the impact assessments hinge on overly optimistic expectations about the feasibility, effectiveness, or timing of the proposed conservation actions, especially habitat restoration.”

Treatment of uncertainty and use of modeling
“The project is encumbered by uncertainties that are considered inconsistently and incompletely; modeling has not been used effectively….”

Effects of climate change and sea level rise on BDCP implementation and outcomes
“The potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise on the implementation and outcomes of BDCP actions are not adequately evaluated.”

Linkages between species, landscapes, and the proposed action
“Insufficient attention is given to linkages and interactions among species, landscapes, and the proposed actions themselves.”

Effects on SF Bay, effects of levee failures, effects of increased water availability
“The analysis largely neglect the influences of downstream effects on San Francisco Bay, levee failures, and environmental effects of increased water availability for agriculture and its environmental impacts in the San Joaquin Valley and downstream.”

Implementation of adaptive management
“Details of how adaptive management will be implemented are left to a future management team without explicit prior consideration of (a) situations wherer adaptive management may be inappropriate or impossible to use, (b) contingency plans in case things do not work as planned, or (c) specific thresholds for action.”

Lack of risk assessment and decision support tools
“Available tools of risk assessment and decision support have not been used to assess the individual and combined risks associated with BDCP actions.”

Presentation of the document itself
“The presentation, despite clear writing and an abundance of information and analyses, makes it difficulty to compare alternatives and evaluate critical underlying assumptions.”

“Many of the negative impacts of the project are expected to be mitigated by habitat restoration, some 150,000 acres….”

“Many of the impact assessments hinge on overly optimistic expectations about the feasibility, effectiveness, or timing of the proposed conservation actions especially habitat restoration.”

“In particular, the Panel observed that the critical uncertainties associated with presumed beneficial effects of tidal wetland restoration were not recognized in the Chapter 5 summary.”

The DISB recommended several improvements in the scientific framework of the BDCP:

Initiate pilot restorations actions as soon as possible.
“Pilot restorations actions (and other projects to address critical uncertainties) should be initiated as soon as possible, within a scientific framework that will allow BDCP and others to test, refine, and improve the effectiveness of restoration.

“Some students that are already underway can be incorporated into BDCP once (or if) it is permitted… other studies being planned could benefit by addressing needs identified in the Draft BDCP or DEIR/DEIS.

“Current and planned habitat restoration projects in the Delta should be aligned as much as possible with the priorities indentified in BDCP and the Delta Plan.

“Contingency plans….What if things do not go as planned? The history of ecological restoration shows that restoration shows that restoration projects rarely have exactly the intended consequences in the expected time frame….There will inevitably be situations….where there is a large-scale failure of restored habitat to function as anticipated. What happens then?”


Yes, what does happen then, embracers of scientific uncertainty, and demanders of more science?

Read the full entry...

Posted by John Bass on 23 Dec 2014 | Comments (0)

Two major flaws with groundwater legislation

The invaluable Maven transcribed a very informative explanation of the complexities of groundwater adjudication.

It’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the only people who will truly benefit from the fifteen or twenty years that will now be spent trying and failing to execute SB 1168, AB 1739, and SB 1319 are water lawyers.

This is a fundamentally flawed process for two reasons:

1/ Metering. Why try to adjudicate as wicked a problem as groundwater allocation without first building the measuring infrastructure that is needed to adjudicate it?

Describing the process of measuring existing or potential groundwater use, here’s what the Honorable Ronald B. Robie, whose knowledge is undeniable, had to say. From Maven:

“Finally, in order to complete an adjudication, the court has to determine the individual water rights of every pumper in the basin, he said. ‘This is the major task of the adjudication and the one that is most complicated, because everybody has an adverse interest to everybody else. Since we don’t generally require pumpers to document their use, these claims are often based on acres farmed, and then the duty of water. People want to know, did you really farm during those years or not, what were you farming, so lack of ready information is the most important reason to me why these proceedings are so lengthy - because you have to spend so much time finding out what’s going on before you can make the final difficult decisions.’”

“Since we don’t require pumpers to document their use…” I love Robie’s use of passive voice there. He might’ve gone on to say “since pumpers know that data about how much water they use would reduce their options for litigation…” To not meter groundwater use is a failure of this legislation - and of course of political leadership - but worse, it is weak and complicit, full of bad faith acts and actors.

2/ Stakeholders not at the table. How can any process of adjudication take place in this small a bubble, without the public environmental interest being considered a key stakeholder?

Asked whether there were any key issues associated but not directly implicated with groundwater law that should draw legislator’s attention, here’s Robie again, from Maven:

“‘Yes,’ says Justice Robie. [long pause ... laughter] ‘The reason I say that is this is a common law proceeding, and common law doesn’t provide for protection of ecosystems. In other words, when you have a groundwater adjudication, protection of ecosystems or environmental factors of that type are not currently covered in what you normally raise in an adjudication ...subsidence and things like that, they haven’t dealt with ...but you get to that frequently in practical matter through CEQA where mitigation is required, but an adjudication of course is not subject to CEQA, so I think you pointed to something that could be added to it. In an adjudication, you only have the right holders present. There’s no place for intervention by public interest groups or anybody else that I’m aware of.’”

A basin going dry or subsidence, sure. But not environmental impacts. Get your head around that quote. Public and private stakeholders will now spend hundreds of millions, perhaps into the billions, of dollars adjudicating water rights allocations without as fundamental a stakeholder as environmental use being considered.

Read the full entry...

Posted by John Bass on 15 Dec 2014 | Comments (1)

Agreeing to disagee

Don Peracchi, President of Westlands Water District, published this advertisement in the LAT over the weekend. Titled “A Little Straight Talk About Agriculture, Saving Water and Drainage,” it is certainly very straight talk - straight from the point of view of a very influential and impressively well-organized interest group.

Peracchi begins with a few statements about why Westlands is no less improbable or unsustainable than “growing crops in a saline estuary” or “vast farms on the desert lands of Coachella and Imperial Valleys” or “building a great city on the arid plain where Los Angeles now stands.”

Not that this establishes a particularly high bar for why Westlands - as opposed to other territories - should survive, but in principle, despite the hubris, I agree!

I’d also concede that Peracchi’s correct when he cries foul about some of the tired, old cliches Westlands’ bashers trot out - about excess water use, for example. I get tired of them, too.

Westlands gets that they are an agri-culture of water that must deal with scarcity, like every other interest and entitlement. Farming requires extremely rational thinking. And if it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond, then you’d better use that water very efficiently.

Thanks to Michael Campana (@WaterWired), I became aware of Peracchi’s get-out-in-front-of/straight-talk-about advertisement in the same Twitter perusal session that led me to this three-year-old piece by Jeffrey Mount (with a h/t to @alexbreitler):


We agree about the above, but a further parsing of Peracchi’s advertisement led to me to ask the following “fact vs. factoid” questions…

What is a corporation? Is it “corporate” farming when you have - to paraphrase Peracchi - 2,250 landowners farming an average farm size of 710 acres, all or most of whom buy into a very expensive and very effective legal and public relations apparatus? Would you, family farmer, call that “family farming?” Many corporations are family businesses, too - like the Walton family. So, my definition is that when farming aggregates to 1.6 million acres, or 2,484 square miles of land, it might not be corporate, but whatever it is, that’s a lot of power for 2,250 families.

I haven’t done the math, but how many gallons of water do these 2,250 families use to make a living? How many, compared to a tomato farmer in Spain? A single family of farmers, mind you - since that is the metric here.

What is a waste of water? Peracchi references the creation of the CVPIA, and the “new regulatory restrictions that redirected more than a third of the water that cities and farms used to receive from the federal project, dedicating it instead to serve a wide range of new environmental uses.”

Of course. The “wasting water” argument. We’ll have to agree to disagree about whether it is a waste to maintain ecosystems on life support or to send publicly subsidized water to a factory of toxic materials and almonds.

What defines “community?” In his advertisement, Peracchi also appeals to us to recognize the “communities that have grown there as a result” of the creation of Westlands. Like Punjab, India’s vicious circle of ever-increasing use and contamination of its groundwater water supply, there is perhaps no more environmentally unsustainable landscape of small communities anywhere in the U.S. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe Facebook’s advertising algorithm.


What is a waste of money? Finally, there’s Westlands’ ace in the hole: the absolutely intractable issue of who is responsible to “provide drainage services” to their salt-laced lands. I’ve already written about this Big Problem, so I won’t revisit the details of Westlands’ “we-are-the-victim-of-Government-inaction” argument.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s just say Westlands’ advocates are right, that their 2,250 family farms are the victims here. So what’s next? Shall continued hundreds of millions of dollars be spent by them and others in perpetuity on legal battles and local infrastructures to mediate and remediate what is obviously an insoluble situation?

Westlands gets water, Westlands irrigates land, Westlands produces a toxic drainage soup that cannot enter the Delta. “Don’t look at us,” Westlands claims. Not our problem. Their’s or someone else’s, it is most definitely a problem, one that has no technical solution.

It seems to me that this is pretty simple math that the owners of Westlands property, smart people, probably get.

If you look at a time scale of 50 years, which is the time scale that should be looked at here, the only rational solution is for the Feds to buy out Westlands “family farms.” Give them their money. They win - move onto the fourth inning.

Read the full entry...

Posted by John Bass on 10 Nov 2014 | Comments (7)