Wicked problems, or wicked bad actors?

As a primer to what follows, you might want to read Bettina Boxall’s piece in today’s LAT about Westlands. Nothing really new in it - just a well-crafted refresher.

Boxall’s piece clarifies the point I want to make about the dilemma California has created on how to manage its groundwater. I’d been thinking about a comment offered by the always thoughtful John Fleck, in response to my last post. Here’s John’s comment:

Wicked problems are always more difficult than tame ones, even when the tame ones (putting a man on the moon) are really really hard. In a tame problem, we can all agree on the objective, and a measure of success or failure. Did we get the people to the moon? Did we get them back safely? Groundwater management is classically wicked. What, exactly, is it that we’re trying to accomplish? How will we measure success?

My reply (yes, I was being rhetorical):

John Fleck, I do entirely agree with you about the difficulty of this problem and its difference from putting men on moon or building a dam, etc. Nevertheless, I still want leaders/lawyers/courts to deal with this particular wicked problem with greater urgency since the current practice (and its extensions 26 years into the future) is both obviously unsustainable and will increasingly hurt the poor and be paid for by the larger public. In your reporting you have noted what’s happened to Porterville’s water supply, for example.

Anyway, what should be accomplished? At minimum, is it to much to ask that the new regulatory framework include two things: to have completed a statewide program to “install meters” and to “read meters” in one year on everyone - Delta landowners included?

—————————————- so

Why can’t the metering element of this particular wicked problem be tackled, head on, right now? If Governor Brown can put his weight behind a 25-50 billion tunnel scheme, why can’t he do the same for $1B in metering/monitoring infrastructure? Think jobs, Governor. And if he can’t and they can’t, then isn’t it reasonable to conclude that this so-called wicked problem is simply the result of the skillful work of intelligent, well-connected and -paid but ultimately wicked bad actors?

I am unwilling to accept the idea that a problem like groundwater management is anything more than a microcosm of a wicked problem. Common sense says that to install and read/monitor water meters on every water user in the state is too simple a task to rise to that level. It is a matter of political will.

Posted by John Bass on 21 Oct 2014 | Comments (3)


First, let’s remember (or learn) that not all groundwater in California is located in groundwater basins wherein the water level to subterranean water is fairly constant, and can be both measured and modeled to produce something resembling “sustained yield”. The fact is much of California overlays groundwater in fractured rock formations in which the groundwater is located in relatively small cracks in bedrock formations. This is the case in most of the mountainous and foothill areas of the state. In those areas, yield is uncertain and unpredictable as is water depth. Second, many homeowners in California in non-groundwater basin locations must put in their own wells, maintain them and pay fairly steep electrical rates to supply their homes with water. The State does not make any allowance for an increased baseline for energy use to supply water for human consumption.

All responsibility for those individual well owners rests with them, as do the risks and costs. The state has no role and provides no service. Local governments require a fee to drill a well, set basic standards for sanitation and that is all.

The idea that putting meters on those home’s wells in a fractured bedrock formation where depth to water and water quality on a well will provide any sort of helpful information is ridiculous. There is no functional model to predict the location of water, depth to water or recharge rate in those fractured bedrock formations. Adding more costs, for information of no real value, is not a solution to anything, but rather a well meaning but completely ineffective idea for fractured rock non-groundwater basin areas of California.

I’m right there with you John (Bass) on metering.
I think that metering coupled with making Well Completion Reports a part of the Public record would get us on the right path.

As for John’s (commenter) reply :
Where and how would you draw the line between those required to meter and those who would not ?
If an agricultural well owner is NOT in what you describe as a groundwater basin would they be exempted ?
My guess is that you are a well owner in a “fractured rock non-groundwater basin area” chafing at the very idea that the “guvmnt” could interfere with your god given right to do as you damn well please without interference.
Guess what “John”, either you are part of the problem or part of the solution.
Take your pick.

Every user of groundwater in the entire state, without exception, should be required to participate in developing the database that will ultimately be utilized to bring ground water use and recharge in to balance.
No exceptions, no exemptions, no favoritism.

Hi John, I didn’t know what a “fractured rock non-groundwater basin” is, so thanks for the education. It sounds like they have water in them that humans pump out to use for things.

I trust you are correct when you write that there is “no functional model to predict the location of water, depth to water or recharge rate in those fractured bedrock formations,” but you miss my point. All I’m asking for is to put a meter on the end of the tubes that suck whatever water is in them out. Pretty simple.

You say that measuring it is of no real value, but I would argue that measuring it is already a value. Californians could collectively know how much water humans take out of FRNGBs, just like they would directly from rivers, streams, the Delta, and also from proper groundwater basins.

If California is to get a handle on its water supply, and possibly reinvent water rights, it is going to need a comprehensive, all-in collection of data.

Chris might be right about your politics, I don’t know. But your arguments make no sense in response to mine.

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