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.

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


Great! Technology, if it brings advantages then it also brings disadvantages with it. We have to deal with all +ve’s and -ve’s of a technology.

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