27 Sep 2008

Tearing Up Contracts

Nobody considered the fish when farmers, cities and governments wrote contracts for water delivery. Now the fish are getting a seat at the table, and someone's going to get hurt:
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger heard arguments late last week over whether to require the Central Valley Project to rewrite the contracts because each was based off a flawed ruling that the water promised to both farmers and urban dwellers would not harm the endangered fish.
If CVP contracts are re-written, other water rights are likely to be affected (because farmers often buy water from different sources), and water will be reshuffled across California. OTOH, the "new" contracts will probably just recognize a status quo of "fish flows" that has prevailed over the past few years.

Westlands Water District, an "agricultural area" that did not exist before water imports, is terrified:
The farmers in the Westlands district typically pump between 150,000 and 200,000 acre feet of water out of the ground each year. This year the total will be more like a half-million acre feet.

That is not sustainable and the farmers know it. This is why when California gets a wet year and the farmers get more than the typical portion of their contract, they pump it into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

Wolff noted that Westlands farmers have already let 250,000 acres go fallow because of the drought. She said to ask them to take those acres out of production permanently is asking too much.

"We're already short on the contracts," Wolff said. "Now they're saying they're going to decrease it even more? That would have huge implications."
Yeah, like Westlands going out of business, which would close the loop on a place that probably should not have gone into business.

Bottom Line: Slowly, water rights are being reallocated from uses of lower to higher social value. Markets would make things a lot simpler, but the bureaucratic method still prevails, and Westlands should remember that "he who lives by the sword will die by the sword."



  2. Uh...okay...

    Anyway, a couple of notes on the original post.

    First, the "lives by the sword, dies by the sword" quote - presumably intended by the author to evince no sympathy for Westlands because what the federal government giveth, it can taketh away - would seem equally apply to the other post of this same day by this same author ("Silly Legislation"), where he evinces considerable discomfort with the idea that a legislative adjustment (exemption from pumps from ESA) can take place to trim an earlier legislative command (ESA applies to all government-sponsored actions). Which way are you going to have it? Does all who live by the (legislative) sword stand the risk of dying by the (legislative)sword, or just CERTAIN of those who live by the sword?

    Second, when the author says that slowly water uses are being re-allocated from uses of lower social value to higher social value, it is important to note that you need to add "in California." Beyond that, you might also add ", with third-party impacts." For, unless the alfalfa is just plain not grown anymore (doubtful, and you haven't made the case that it won't be), then somewhere on Planet Earth those little plants are consuming water.

    First law of water entropy, like physics, is that for each and every use or foregone use, there is an equal and opposite foregone use or use. [In very rough terms, I think. That's equalizing for climate, irrigation efficiency, and all kinds of other things. But the central point is the Planet Earth is a closed system, but California is not.]

    Query: is there reason to believe that an acre retired in Westlands might have something to do with an acre being cleared in the Amazonian rain forest and put into production? This is a very serious question. Maybe not a direct correlation, one for one, crop for crop, but in principle...?

  3. Cap'n:

    1) I think that the original ESA serves the PEOPLE while the newer law does not. You can disagree.

    2) No, I would not add those provisos. Moving to better social uses is BY DEF'N an outcome of politics. (I'd use more markets.)

    3) On global markets, the Amazon, etc. I'd say that's a potential result but it doesn't mean either inevitable or worth planning for, since results depend on many factors.

  4. Saffra, I agree with your third point. It's a little tough to make the direct correlation, so it might not be too smart to keep an acre of production here just because it MIGHT otherwise involving offshoring that acre of production to the Amazon. Too many other factors, as you note, plus "one battle at a time" is probably a sound response.

    Totally disagree with your first point. It's a complete value judgment. How can you say one law serves "the people" while another does not? Are they not all passed under the same system of representative democracy? Do you think "enviro" interests supporting an expansive ESA are any less of a "special interest" than the "ag" interests trying to get an exemption for the pumps? Is this not really a fundamental problem with modern environmentalism, with its paternalistic view that its values are "better" and that "the people" (whether they know it or not) are being served by its self-identified values?

    And, implicit in your second point is that the environment is a "better social value" than people. Not only does that point up another shoal upon which modern environmentalism founders - it is often misanthropic in nature - but it is something that will solidly be repudiated by the democratic process unless a peripheral canal gets built. I'll bet you a hundred bucks. 23 million Californians are not going to suffer through a future with no water because of the Delta smelt...this year was just the beginning...

    Don't get me wrong, I support the ESA. I also think that the ESA will implode, however, if we get too rigid about it. Some forward-thinking environmentalists agree. Bottom line is that the veneer of civilization gets stripped away fairly quickly, and with it "luxury" values, when lifestyles and livelihoods are on the line...and this planet is going from 6 to, what, 10 billion people...

    I guess we could have a whole 'nother debate about whether ESA represents "luxury" values. It would be nice if it did not, and we can have a whole discussion about the value of biodiversity and so forth, and about future generations, but I think your average American voter is going to very quickly abandon the ESA when faced with a major disruption in lifestyle...or even the need to pay for a pro-rata share of its costs...just human observations...

    ...oh, no. Stand by for the response...[take it easy]

  5. Cap'n,

    First, I have no idea how it happened, but it was ME that posted as "Saffra." I was not trying to sockpuppet, so sorry...

    Now -- let me clarify that I was not implying "people vs. fish" on #2. I meant that a political outcome (ESA or turning pumps on) will reflect the collective will of people. (There are non-trivial issues of corruption that I am ignoring.)

    I am sure that the ESA has and will be interpreted in a rigid (i.e., soon to break) way, and I agree that negotiation is better than legislation. If we could get a market for the environment going, I'd be the first onboard, but that appears to be difficult -- even in theory.

  6. Oh, David - sorry. Didn't know it was you. Doesn't matter, I guess.

    Anyway, how about this...publicly finance the ESA. Some would (rightly) see it as a Trojan horse to kill the ESA, because no way can we afford to completely compensate for the impacts of declaring 500 animal species and 700 plant species threatened or endangered - not to mention, even more expensively, the critical habitat which has been designated (1/3 of California's land mass, I am told). And this is certainly similar to the idea of paying for all zoning actions, because most zoning actions would not take place if the government had to pay for them - witness the fallout of Prop 37 in Oregon, for example.

    But let's just say. Let's say we do. Would that not be a good thing? It would confer immediate democratic legitimacy on the ESA. In other words, that we're ready to pay for what we want to preserve. And the scope of the law would then more directly reflect values, right?

    The problem with the ESA right now is that it's a free pass. Most people's vague preference for protecting species can piggyback on the checkbooks of an unfortunate few. We can all get away with that when it's just a handful of farmers in the Klamath, say, but what about when 23 million Californians get stuck with the bill, as in the smelt case...?

    And don't be deceived that this year proves that we can sustain major economic damage and still want the ESA...so far, it has been a handful of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Southern California has muddled through with a bit of angst and some tepid conservation and increased prices, but...the smelt is not getting any better, and Southern California is not getting any smaller...and when the smelt finally recovers or goes extinct, there will be another species to worry about, because every one of these darn oversubscribed river in the American West is, yes, habitat for fish that are having a hard time...

  7. Cap'n: I agree with you. Taxes may go up to fund it, but at least the cost would be clear.

    The only trouble would be when two groups have a claim on "public" land, e.g., enviros and miners. They now duke it out with laws, lobbying, etc. A straight auction would be cleaner.

  8. ESA is a blunt tool, anyway. It is not a species that is critical, it is a habitat. Species come and go all the time. Heck, a researcher at Stanford discovered a whole new *genus* of bacteria in someone's mouth recently, I have been told.

    The ESA's rigid focus on species is expensive and often counter-productive. The 3 decades or so since it was passed have seen a huge increase in our understanding of ecosystems; we deserve a better law, crafted by people with some basic scientific knowledge. I'm not holding my breath, however.


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