31 December 2009

Looking back at 2009

Although, I have written over 1,000 posts in this past year, on many topics, the "flavor" of the year that stands out in my eyes is the brutal way in which "the right thing" has been discarded in favor of "the expedient thing."

On climate change (and other areas concerning the environment), we have seen many attempts at improvement struck down through the efforts of those who favor, and benefit from, the status quo -- mining our resources, living above our income, borrowing from the future to consume today. Even worse, that status quo behavior has averse environmental impacts.

On water issues (in California, but also in many other places), we have seen the same "win" for inertia -- and the same destruction of our environment and future for current consumption.

In both cases, and much to my disgust, we see many reasons for change, but no change has happened. Even worse, the costs of change -- even under the worst case scenarios -- are trivial in comparison to the benefits. What's more, those few who have avoided costs would have incurred trivial losses in their amassed wealth; those many who would have benefited would have gained much more, as individuals and in total, with respect to their current -- and future wealth. Alas, they are just as poor now and will be poorer in the future.

Bottom Line: 2009 was a terrible disappointment for those hoping that environmental policies would improve our world.

30 December 2009

Speed blogging

  • After 10 years of negotiating, California has some protected marine habitats. That's good for fish -- and fishermen... and the Straight Dope on farmed fish and the move to "uglier" fish as "cute" fishstocks are wiped out.

  • The less you know, the more you make -- a proof.

  • Men in developing countries don't know what aid they need; women do -- clean water.

  • Kern Country Water Bank steals from its neighbors.

  • Cities with the best and worst tap water. Arlington, TX at best; Pensacola, FL at worst. In CA, Riverside and San Diego are in ten worst.

  • Interested in aquaponics? Buy this book. (I've not read it.)

  • Illegal marijuana farms have bad impacts on land and water use -- esp. on public lands. More police will not fix that problem -- legalization will.
Hattip to JWT

The Salton Sea is NOT natural

On page 104 of Water and the California Dream, we get this:
The 1905 event recreated a natural phenomenon that had occurred at least four times between the years 700 and 1580, when the Colorado River would temporarily change course and flood the sink. Each time, freshwater from the river gradually became salty after the river turned back toward the ocean and each lake evaporated. The twentieth-century version, named the Salton Sea, has remained full because of agricultural drainage from surrounding farmlands.
Note that the Salton sink was flooded four times in 800 years. After each time, it dried out. That's natural. Today's Salton "Sea" is NOT natural. It's replenished by irrigation runoff, of dubious quality. As water evaporates, it leaves behind higher concentrations of salts and other nasty stuff. Time to dry out the Salton Toilet, clean up the mess (yes, users pay) and restore real wetlands where they naturally occurred -- in Mexico, at the Colorado River Delta. Read more here.

Oh, and I don't care about Sacramento agreements on who pays and what's to be done; those are political BS that reflect horsetrading, neither reality nor what's right for Californians.

Bottom Line The Salton Toilet may be the single greatest special interest boondoggle in California. Stop the waste and dry it out.

29 December 2009

Water in the Middle East

My review (previously posted here) is now online at h-net.

Lower demand with restrictions, prices or both?

(via LF) In this 2000 article [pdf], Renwick and Green use statistics to look for the joint and several effects of eight California water agencies' programs to reduce consumption between 1989 and 1996. Besides the Aurora article, this is one of the only papers I've read that tries to separate these effects -- using sophisticated statistical techniques. (The article on Santa Barbara's conservation in the early 1990s does not separate the effects)

The agencies are big and important (San Francisco, Los Angeles, East Bay MUD, City of San Diego), and the authors find stuff that we'd expect:
  • Mandatory restrictions reduce use more than voluntary ones.
  • Higher prices reduce demand.
  • The demand response is stronger in summer months.
There are some interesting nuances, however. Price elasticity -- in the presence of other programs -- is -0.16, which is very low. (A 10 percent increase in price lowers demand by 1.6 percent.)

Income elasticity is 0.25, which implies that a 10 percent increase in income increases water demand by 2.5 percent. That's an increase in demand for what I call "lifestyle" water.

Lot size elasticity is 0.27, meaning that a 10 percent increase in lot size translates into a 2.7 percent increase in demand.

Interestingly, the authors did not find any effect of rebates (e.g., for low flow toilets) on demand. Since 7 of 8 agencies use rebates, this result is "interesting." It may reflect bad data, zero actual effect, or a rebound effect ("I'm saving water on flushing, so I'll take a longer shower.") that offsets toilet water consumption. OTOH, it seems that rebates have been helpful in lowering per capita demand, but that's just theory. (It may have fallen due to less outdoor irrigation...)

My final observation is on Table II, which shows agencies' prices and price structures over time. Three agencies (San Francisco, Contra Costa, and San Bernadino) has uniform block rates throughout the study; two agencies (Los Angeles and EBMUD) went from uniform block to increasing block back to uniform rates; three (Santa Barbara, Marin MWD and San Diego) had or went to increasing rates and stayed there. I know that water manager prefer the simplicity of uniform rates, and it seems like they return to them as soon as the "crisis" is over. That's a bad sign as far as long-term conservation signals.

Oh, and they ask for a better understanding of residential demographics. I wonder if ANY of these agencies has -- since then -- got an idea of how many people live at each meter?

Bottom Line: There are many ways to promote (or ignore) conservation, but some are more effective than others.

The Delta Conveyance

Note to self: blog on the issues.

Here they are:
  1. There's no lack of money for a conveyance (canal or tunnel). The water it would carry is far more valuable than the cost of construction. There's a lack of political and legal agreement on if it should be built and whether it's possible get get approval to build it.
  2. Any conveyance (esp. one with a 15,000 cfs capacity -- 10 times the 1.5 maf capacity of the Colorado River Aqueduct) is going to affect water flows. It may make things better -- reducing the need to pump water and the volume of water that has to be send through the Delta -- or it could make things worse -- diverting the Sacramento River to Southern California. Management will matter.
  3. DWR should not be put in charge of a conveyance because it's a captive regulator -- it claims to serve the people of California, but it actually serves water exporters who purchase water from DWR's State Water Project. It would be better to either split DWR in two (SWP operator and water regulator) or have a regulated utility run the conveyance. Exporters could run it, assuming that they maintained environmental benchmarks. 
  4. Delta communities and farmers are going to go. They cannot be protected from an earthquake/levee collapse/big gulp. If they are gone, the conveyance may allow the Delta to get as close to "natural" as possible -- assuming that xx maf of water exports do not do crazy harm. OTOH, a conveyance will NOT end "shortages" in SoCal, since water is still too cheap and not traded there...
  5. A few things I forgot?
Bottom Line: Many people are paying attention to the wrong issues with Delta conveyance. That means that they might "solve" the wrong ones and ignore the important ones.

28 December 2009

Speed blogging

Hattips to KA, LC and DL

Monday Morning Smile




Water Markets and Ecosystem Services

I mentioned this paper 9 months ago, but I was told to take a second look, and I am glad that I did:

Abstract: ...This paper develops a conceptual framework to examine factors enabling and constraining successful policy reform and implementation in market-based environmental water allocation... Two case studies were selected in water stressed basins – the Columbia (U.S.A) and Murray-Darling (Australia) Basins – where transactional approaches to environmental water allocation first emerged... A common set of policy and regulatory reforms has occurred in both cases – albeit in different forms and via distinct paths – to develop three enabling conditions: (1) establishment of rights to and limits on freshwater extraction and alteration; (2) recognition of the environment as a legitimate water use; and (3) authority to transfer existing water rights to an environmental purpose. However, these elements of policy reform are necessary but not sufficient for effective implementation; a second set of driving forces, barriers, and adaptations explains the ability to achieve larger scale ecological outcomes. These conditions include the physical, social and economic factors driving demand for environmental water allocation; administrative procedures, organizational development and institutional capacity to effect transfers; and adaptive mechanisms to overcome legal, cultural, economic, and environmental barriers....

Bottom Line If you are interested in using markets to save the environment, read this paper [pdf]

27 December 2009

Flashback: 20 -- 26 Dec

These posts are still important, so please comment!

Environmental Prop/Agit, and one of my favorite images...

Dear Sant' Obama -- my list that I wanted to see from the new Prez. So far, he's gone half way on two of ten. Pretty disappointing, but Washington isn't an easy place to change...

BEST: Bureaucratic "Achievement" happens (wrt the MDG for clean water) when they reach the goals that they define, no matter what original goals they were given. Speaking of bureaucrats, Dirty Water gets into their infighting over water quality. We end up suffering.

Journalistic Failure -- The SF Bay Guardian went just a little overboard on its anti-capitalism wrt bottled water sellers.

BEST: Growing Alfalfa in the Desert -- yes, they do. In a drought. (I later learned that farmers do b/c that's the most profitable, but you gotta wonder about these "water shortage" complaints...)

BEST: The Economics of Shopping Bags -- love this one.

PE of Carbon Permits -- why politicians prefer to use them, instead of taxes.

25 December 2009

Rebirth on the Solstice

Many religions celebrate the end of the solar year during the time when the days are shortest, and we face long hours of darkness and cold. But the Solstice can also be a useful time for reflection on what was and what should be. This, I think, is where birth and renewal come in, where we cast away our old selves and take on a new face, new ideas and new directions for the coming year.

This is a useful process because it allows us to "kill our status quo," to change the norm of what we do, to question and challenge habits, to reconsider the costs and benefits of our actions.*

Interestingly, many people carry out rituals -- unchanging traditions -- around this time of year, but fewer people look at it as a time of rebirth.** (Or if they do, they take a superficial swipe at it; witness the surge in health club enrollments and "new year's resolutions.")

As many of you know, I am using this time as an opportunity to change directions on a few things, and it seems just so much easier when it's cold and dark outside; when few people are out there, watching what you do; when I face hours of darkness and contemplation. And so, I am also engaging in a little rebirth -- currently writing to you from Jakarta on the beginning of the longest trip I've taken for many years :)

Bottom Line: In many cases, the barrier between your status quo life and the life you want to lead is merely the decision to stop one thing and start another. Make some decisions right now, and experience rebirth.
* Since 2000, I have maintained "Kill Your Status Quo" as my personal website.
** Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, which implies a linear progression from that event, not a cycle of renewal...

24 December 2009

WWCD?

Would Che really drink Cabernet?



Cheers! (Happy holidays, merry solstice, etc..)

Poll Results -- We so smart! Er?

Hey! There's a new poll (climate adoption) to the right ---->
Are you smarter than the average person answering this question?

Yes
 61%
44
No
 39%
28
72 votes total


This poll (of the Lake Wobegon effect) can be interpreted in two ways:
  1. Respondents suffer from "Illusory superiority, a that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others." The question and results (>50% cannot be smarter!) are obviously incompatible with reality, which is why it's called illusory!
  2. Respondents failed to coordinate their answers (yes/no) to arrive at a 50/50 balance. Although many people may feel that they are smart, most of them are unwilling to say that they are smartER when they are in a group of peers. Respondents who were thinking that way would be interested in voting 50/50, but they had to choose yes or no. The fact that results are not 50/50 indicates that respondents were NOT all pursuing it (e.g, 16 people thought they were smarter), or that they failed to coordinate -- an easy problem to solve if you could look at the results before voting.
Bottom Line: It's important to remember that none of is is smarter than all of us, and that we are probably dumber than average on MANY things (learning opportunity!). Further, we should keep in mind that information and coordination problems make it hard to turn even the best intentions into good results (read Hayek!)

23 December 2009

Yound minds will learn -- unless they are stopped

Maria Montessori wrote this in 1949:
If the spirit of an undergraduate reacts to social injustice, or to political questions concerning deeply felt truths, the order of authority goes out that young people must avoid politics and concentrate on their studies. What happens then is that young people leave the university with their minds so shackled and sacrificed that they have lost all power of individuation and can no longer judge the problems of the age in which they live. (p. 11)
Who trusts the design of a factory to a young engineer, or engages a lawyer only just allowed to practice? And how do we explain this lack of confidence? The reason is that these young men have spent years in listening to words, and listening does not make a man. Only practical work and experience lead the young to maturity. (p. 22)
from The Absorbent Mind (1958 English translation of 1949 Italian edition; Dell Publishing, New York)

Something for everyone means nothing for anyone

Many of you have read the analysis, propaganda and celebration around the water bills that passed in California last month.

My last thought (for the moment) is that these bills represent the worst type of sausage making. The original idea was that each group would get its favorite idea adopted (a peripheral canal, fixing the Delta, monitoring groundwater, etc.) in exchange for allowing ideas that it disliked pass as well.

But instead of that "package deal" of strong reforms, we got a slew of watered-down "reforms" that do nothing at all. That's because negotiators accidentally (or purposefully) negotiated from a "what do we need to drop to get you to support this?" perspective instead of a "what do you want as a price for passing this?" perspective. As we all saw, the bastardized results are hardly worth the paper they are written on. (The optimists say "something happened!" Yeah. Great.)

Bottom Line: The water bills that passed need to be updated and replaced IMMEDIATELY. If they are all we have going into the bond ballot, then the bond will go down in flames, as a waste of money. (That's my view, and I promise to campaign against the bond.)

Addendum: Read Jerry Cadagan's brilliant op/ed [pdf] on the water bills.

22 December 2009

GOOD does good videos on water

Here's the 2008 version:

...and here's the 2009 version:

DWR has always been into the environment

SH gave me a copy of the California Water Plan for 1970 (Bulletin 160-70). On pages 163-164, the Department of Water Resources says:
The regulation of streamflow extremes is another significant environmental benefit inherent in the operation of the Central Valley Project conservation facilities

[snip]

Since 1944 water released through operation of Shasta Reservoir has prevented serious intrusion of saline water into interior Delta channels. Had no releases been made, salt water would have advanced well into the interior of the Delta in 7 of the 10 years from 1955 through 1964. The State Water Project will share responsibility for, and maintenance of, water quality in the Delta.*

[snip]

Consideration of fish and wildlife ecological requirements had much to do with the choice of the Peripheral Canal** as the Delta facility of the State Water Project. The canal was proposed... as the best means of conveying water to the pumps... while at the same time providing for controlled releases into the Delta channels for salinity repulsion, maintenance of a balanced ecology necessary for preservation and improvement of sports and commercial fisheries, and improvement of the general Delta environment as it relates to agriculture and recreational use.
I am not sure that DWR's interpretation of "environmentalism" was (or is) shared by others.

Bottom Line: DWR works for humans, not fish. If the humans don't care about fish, neither does DWR.
* Shasta Dam is part of the federal CVP. In 1970, DWR was still bringing the SWP online; this claim refers to an expected improvement on those results, via DWR's contribution.
** Remember, this is 1970!

21 December 2009

Speed Blogging

  • Coke is introducing bio-plastic bottles (yay!) for bottled water (boo!)
  • Brisbane writes a case study on saving water (from 87 gallons/capita/day down to 34 gcd). Mostly conservation measures and some harsh pricing.
  • As Sewers Fill, Waste Poisons Waterways. Agencies complain that they cannot afford fines. Fine 'em and rebate the money back to ALL wastewater treatment facilities (per capita, naturally); then you will see the end of spills.
  • Chile's water market [pdf] has brought both equity (more households covered, with subsidized rates for low use) and efficiency (in agricultural and urban water use).
  • The privatization at Cochabamba can also be blamed on local corruption and vested interests [pdf]
  • Factoid: In 2009, 12 percent of the world's population had private water or serage service. The shares are 45% in W Europe, 22% in N. America and only 1% in S/C Asia. China had 8% of the private sector's clients in 1989. It's now 38%.
Hattip to DW

Monday Morning Smile

via JWT:

Cows
Is it just me, or does anyone else find it amazing that during the mad cow epidemic our government could track a single cow, born in Canada almost three years ago, right to the stall where she slept in the state of Washington? And, they tracked her calves to their stalls. But they are unable to locate 11 million illegal aliens wandering around our country. Maybe we should give each of them a cow.

The Constitution
They keep talking about drafting a Constitution for Iraq .... Why don't we just give them ours? It was written by a lot of really smart guys, it has worked for over 200 years, and we're not using it anymore.

The 10 Commandments
The real reason that we can't have the Ten Commandments posted in a courthouse is this: You cannot post 'Thou Shalt Not Steal,' 'Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,' and 'Thou Shall Not Lie' in a building full of lawyers, judges and politicians...It creates a hostile work environment.

...and speaking of the Prius-BMW comparison...



Conditional giving

At this time of the year, many people are thinking of giving, and it's appropriate to think about the different types of giving. This article mentions eight ways from the tradition of the Torah, ranging from "Level Eight: Giving grudgingly, with a sour countenance" to "Level One: Helping someone become self-sufficient."

It's obvious that the value of the gift is increasing in the giver's generosity.

What's interesting to me is when someone calls a gift a "gift" and then attaches conditions to that "gift." That's not really a gift, is it? It's more like an exchange, a trade of money for something of value.

That's what makes this threatening letter from David Wood (President of the Harris Ranch Beef Company) to Warren Baker (President of CalPoly, SLO) so interesting. Wood basically says "you invited Michael Pollan to talk on campus, and we don't like him. Further, we don't like others who like him. Unless you stop that stuff, I will take my financial support of CalPoly elsewhere."

That's my paraphrase, but you can decide for yourself.

Seems that Mr. Wood needs to call his "financial support" something else, like "payment for indoctrination."

Bottom Line Universities are places where ideas are debated, and donations to universities should not be contingent on echoing the "giver's" opinion.

20 December 2009

Flashback: 12 -- 19 Dec 2008

These posts are still relevant, so please comment!

BEST: Bailout Banditos -- an early post on stupid bailout(s), A Different Liquidity Crunch compares the credit shortages to water shortages (hint: both results of mismanagement).

Loving Themselves is all about the "rights to water crowd" -- talk is cheap when you don't have to live with your policies.

Cow Taxes as in taxes for methane emissions. Still needs to be done.

BEST: In Public or Academic Intellectual? I debate the decision that I've recently made, to spend more time communicating with the public.

[There were many other posts, but who wants to read more crap on the Delta or Peripheral Canal?]


18 December 2009

Las Vegas' (old) search for water

I came across this story recently:
Now Las Vegas is looking north to secure its future by harvesting water underneath vast, sparsely populated rural Nevada...The move by Las Vegas exemplifies the growing problem of the West, where cities are beginning to confront limits to growth, limits set by the shortage of water, a commodity as scarce in the West as sun, land and optimism are plentiful.

[snip]
By achieving 20 percent conservation and returning treated effluent to Lake Mead, Ms. Mulroy of the water district said the region could get to the year 2006 -- but no further -- if present projections for population growth hold true.
Full article here. I am posting this article not because it is new, but because it is from a 1991 NY Times article. Vegas' quest for more northern groundwater is much older than the current pipeline proposal, something I was ignorant of.

Also interesting is that Pat Mulroy claims that the region cannot proceed past 2006 without new imported water. Of course, she offers the caveat that she will be correct only if present projections hold true, but why do we bother to listen to these projections? They are frequently wrong (I like to check old water demand predictions), and so it is amazing how much attention they receive. Water demand is not a fixed amount per person - it changes based on price, weather, activities, household characteristics, etc. As scarcity increases, the situation changes, and people react.

Bottom Line:
My research has taught me more and more to learn the history before proceeding.

It's what you say, not who you are

Over the past few months, I have had several reminders of an unfortunate problem: People confusing criticism of their work as criticism of them.

For example:
  • Students worrying that their bad grades are a sign of stupidity (or the converse, that they are smart, so they should get good grades).
  • Authors of books I review getting upset at my reviews and deciding that further contact and conversation is not worthwhile from such an "unfriendly" guy.
  • Pundits, readers and bloggers who take my criticism of their ideas as ad hominem attacks on them.
On reflection, it occurs to me that my sharp words reflect my own background. I attended a Montessori school to the end of 6th grade. By the time I got my first "F" (in 7th grade, for an essay on Rome that consisted of "Julius Caesar"), I was already aware that I was not good or bad, according to my grades. Although I still cried at my failure and had very strong emotions over the years (I ran and hid when I let someone score off me in soccer), I regained perspective when I was working for a start-up, one that ultimately failed. In that process, I learned to say "I am not my job," and that has stuck with me. (It made grad school so much easier :)

It seems to me -- trying to understand how people react -- that many other people have not gone through this process. They've been trained to feel good with an "A", a gold star, a promotion or a bigger salary, and bad with their opposites. Unfortunately, this system creates personal (and interpersonal) tension at the same time as it drives effort, and it's difficult to keep the two apart, to not take failure personally.

And so it seems to be this dynamic that upsets people when I criticize their work. Although we may be able to agree that my critique is not of them, such a superficial understanding or comment may not be able to overcome years (or decades) of feeling good about yourself when someone praises what you do.

[My mother's] Bottom Line: We are all doing the best we can. Although we may be punished or rewarded for bad or good work, we should not forget that we are all equally good humans.

PPIC's pro-peripheral propaganda

The Public Policy Institute of California is supposedly a non-partisan non-profit, but they are engaging in some VERY partisan activities.

PPIC published a report favoring the Peripheral Canal.

PPIC's Ellen Hanak speaks in favor of this option all the time.

Now, PPIC has issued results from a survey it commissioned that shows that people are willing to pay for such a Canal.*

PPIC asked (p 17):
“The governor and legislature recently passed a water package that includes water conservation requirements and plans for new water storage systems, water clean-up and recycling, and a council to oversee restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This package includes a proposal for an $11.1 billion bond measure to pay for water projects. How important is it that voters pass the bond measure?”
79 percent of adults and 74 percent of likely voters answered that this is important or very important, but I wonder how they would have answered if the question asked: "Are you likely to pay or VERY likely to pay your share of this $11 billion" or [getting harsh, but realistic, here] "These water projects might fix the problems, but probably won't. In either case, we will ask you for more money and keep trying to make good policies. Still wanna pay?"

Really, I wonder why PPIC is pushing this so hard? Oh, yes, here's their vision: "Providing essential information and framing policy debates to shape a better future for California."

Framing, as any psychologist will tell you, is about changing the phrasing to change the message. I see.

Bottom Line: Tell me how you want them to answer, and I can write a poll that delivers that result.

* Even if the $11 billion bond and accompanying water bills do not authorize or specify a canal, and the bond will only cover a few $billion of its $10 billion -- on paper -- cost

17 December 2009

Abuse of power

Emily Green writes a compelling portrait of power and corruption:
Once again the Resnicks are using influence to bend the rules to their purposes. This time, instead of bullying a newspaper using a flagrant fabrication about a journalist, they are bullying a politician to have the opinions of scientists overturned for the betterment of their Central Valley and water banking interests.

Particpiate in re-drawing CA's political boundaries

via DW
For Californians willing to invest big hours for a shot at making history and creating a more competitive Legislature, today marks your chance.

Cost to apply? Nothing.

Expected to be watched closely nationwide, California will begin implementing a power-to-the-people initiative, Proposition 11, passed by voters last year.

State Auditor Elaine Howle will begin accepting applications today for a 14-member citizens commission that will draw state legislative and Board of Equalization districts, but not those of Congress, in 2011.
This is indeed a very important opportunity, and I am going to sign up!

Until Prop 11 passed, politicians drew their own boundaries, creating gerrymandered districts that created safe seats, making it difficult to beat the incumbent in an election. The result, as always when there is less competition, was worse service -- to voters.

The other result was a polarization in the Assembly, as safe republicans and safe democrats felt no need to compromise on issues, leading to deadlocks and toothless policies (e.g., the water bills).

Note that Congressional districts are NOT being re-drawn. According to one story I heard, it was because Nancy Pelosi told them they'd better not dare. And that item was struck from the agenda. Unfortunately, that means that our Congressional representatives are going to stay safe, polarized (and perhaps incompetent). That's the situation I am considering if I run in 2012.

Bottom Line Citizens need good representatives if they are to be served, and the best representatives will be elected when their voters come from the center of the political spectrum, not the edges that hate each other.

Addendum: "Your application has been received. Your responses to the questions on the application indicate that you either do not satisfy the eligibility requirements for serving as a member of the Citizens Redistricting Commission or you have a disqualifying conflict of interest that prohibits you from serving on the commission. As a result, you will not be included in the pool of applicants from which the commission will be selected. Specifically, you have been excluded from the applicant pool because: Your party registration has not remained the same since November 20, 2005." So much for the independents!

Report on California water laws

Addendum: Changed the title to reflect the content!

BP sent this report on The New Delta & California Water Legislation: How will it affect the Bay Area?

Here is an article that reviews the event.

Speaker: Ellen Hanak, PPIC
Ellen spoke about the PPIC reports Envisioning/Comparing Futures for the Delta (also see this op/ed). She described the future detla with sea level rise as large bodies of open water inland and loss of ~ 15 delta islands. With this future coming, which islands/levees are strategic and should be bolstered?
Four water supply "options"
  1. status quo
  2. peripheral canal or tunnel
  3. dual conveyance
  4. no exports.
PPIC conclusion is that best option to balance to economy and environment is #2. She mentioned that support of this option assumes that there would be substantial investment into delta ecosystem, habitat investments, and governance safeguards for environmental flows. The new legislation lays the ground work, important work to be done on who should pay: Export water users should pay (both upstream and downstream of delta), diverters should contribute funds for ecosystem (including bay area agencies).

Speaker: Karla Nemeth (CA Resources Agency)
Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP)...designed to address multiple species. Will look at habitat restoration, water operations and other stressors. Dual conveyance would be designed to restore east-west flows to the Delta, allow fish to move through the delta without being physically handled. Potential habitat restoration of 20 miles channel restoration, 10k acres of flood plain, 65k acres of tidal marsh restoration, 5k acres riparian. More info to be found here.

Speaker: Peter Gleick (Pacific Institute)
Peter said "water is a human right". He spoke about the "Taboos" of CA water:
  1. We don't measure and monitor all water use in CA 
  2. We don't measure/monitor ground water in CA  
  3. We don't have a good sense of who pays and how much and for what, in terms of water in the state (prices, subsidies, productivity)  
  4. Water rights in general-- more needed to be done esp regarding illegal diversions.
  • On the water legislation: if it is a first step then good. If it is all that we do, then bad.
  • The legislation : weak (urban conservation 20x2020), weaker (monitoring & enforcement provisions), weakest (no specific targets for AG).
  • On the future of the Delta: unavoidable long term change : climate change, levy failure due to earthquake and/or storm floods. We won't prepare for either adequately and we'll spend more to fix after rather than prep upfront.
  • On Carlsbad Desal Plant: the water generated won't specifically be used to reduce withdraws from the Delta. this could have been a provision of the deal but isn't.
Speaker: Alf Brandt (Council for the Assembly Committee on Parks and Wildlife (works for Jared Huffman) He gave a summary of all the legislation. He emphasized that a key policy of the legislation is reduced reliance on the delta for water supply (although it isn't immediately clear on how that is accomplished). He emphasized that the legislation does not  authorize a peripheral canal. There would be many steps required before such a project is approved (permits, etc.) and that he thinks users should pay for such infrastructure. Flow criteria still being developed (to be determined by ~august 2010) and will go into BDCP. He said Huffman is now neutral on the bond measure itself.

Bay Area response to legislation:
  • Andrew Michael (Bay Area Council): Council generally supportive of bond and legislation. 
  • Erza Rapport (ABAG): we need to develop better language to communicate to the public the importance of the water bond (implying that the bond could fail otherwise)
  • Kate Poole (NRDC): NRDC supported the legislative package as a step in the right direction but does not support the bond. She said that the legislation represents a fundamental shift in thinking about a reduced reliance/diversions from the Delta.
  • Randele Kanouse (EBMUD): (See this PDF) A new conveyance will likely result in up to 6 MAF out of the delta. Making up that water is NOT an obligation of EBMUD.  On the bond: we should consider alternate mechanisms such as a statewide user fee.
  • Jennifer Cleary (Clean Water Action):  CWA opposed the legislation and the bond. The new Stewardship Council lacks real power and lacks funding authority. The water conservation legislation is weak, bay area already doing more than what the legislation would require.

Water and the California Dream -- The Review

DW sent me David Carle's Water and the California Dream: Choices for the New Millennium (Sierra Club Books 2003),* and I found it to be familiar, if depressing reading.

Carle basically outlines and documents the way that water has been used to spur growth, where supply creates demand instead of -- as is often claimed -- meets "inevitable" demand.**

Anyone who has watched Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other sprawling "communities" in dry places will be familiar with Carle's thesis: Real estate developers motivated politicians who hired engineers to "get the job done," i.e., build the infrastructure that would take water from where it was to where the developers owned cheap land. Add water, and voila! Instant fortunes!

Carle's Parts II and III document how Mulholland (the engineer) was instrumental in bringing water from the Eastern Sierra (Owens Valley and Mono Lake) via the Los Angeles Aqueduct (LAA). Although Mulholland did not live to see it go into operation, he was also instrumental in getting a Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA, built by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, MWD) to bring even more water.

If you don't have time for the book, watch Chinatown, since the facts in history are well presented in that movie.

I wish that I had read Carle's book before I finished my dissertation (on MWD), since he filled in some facts on LA that I hadn't known. For example, I had thought that the "we're running out of water, quick go get more" rhetoric began with the CRA, but Mulholland had lied about current water supplies and shortages with the LAA as well. That lie is still happening today, with the propaganda for the desalination plant in San Diego, Mulroy's pipes into rural Utah, and the Peripheral Canal in the Delta. None of these infrastructures are needed -- they are just about further real estate development.

(Although these projects cause environmental damage, what galls me is that they are paid for by current customers,*** for the benefit of "new residents," and -- in particular -- for real estate developers. Who sits on your water district board, making decisions "for the good of the community?")

Oh, and California's Department of Water Resources also plays a role -- projecting future "needs" from population and then building infrastructure to supply the "need." Surprise surprise, when the cheap water is there, projected demand shows up!

Part I of the book, btw, describes a California of the past, where Nature was abundant and lush, when grizzly bears roamed in Los Angeles. The grizzly bear that appears on our state flag is now extinct (the irony!), and that's Carle's main point -- we have lost a lot in "our" quest for growth.

Perhaps the most appealing narrative technique that Carle uses is an "alternative universe" view of what could have been if the major water projects had not brought more water -- and sprawl and people -- to dry places. The Los Angeles he describes is indeed appealing -- with more green spaces, less concrete, cleaner air and more "community." Today, we have a city ready-made for Bladerunner. We could have had this [1904]:
Los Angeles is one of the prettiest cities I have seen... every house is surrounded by large grounds that are planted with various trees... The city is a bustling business town, over 100,000 people, fine blocks, elegant hotels, and real estate agents thick enough to walk on.
And those agents did their job too well, selling everything to anyone, and when they ran out of good land to sell, bringing water from elsewhere to make bad lands into subdivisions.****

Part IV describes how Northern California has been adversely impacted by water exports and how the Central Valley was turned from "useless" wetlands swamps into agricultural land. Part V concludes with some visions of the future, but this quotation, in response to Governor Edmund G. Brown's 1962 celebration of "California First" (taking first place as most populous state), tells us what that should be:
...instead of dancing in the streets, we should... call the people of California to the schools, churches, city halls and other places of public assemblage, there to pray for the vision and the guidance to make California the finest state in the Union as well as the largest.

--- Former Governor (and US Chief Justice) Earl Warren
Sounds like a good idea, one that we should have tried to carry out in the past 50 years.

Bottom Line I give this book FIVE STARS for, despite occasional over-the-top tree hugging, its clear thesis and exposition on the perils of relentless growth. California is a wonderful place, but we've done more harm than good in our mismanagement of its resources. Let's get back to quality, not quantity; sustainability, not endless growth.

* Hardcover published as "Drowning the Dream..." in 2000.
** I discuss how this "iron triangle" of real estate-politicians-water managers built and destroyed a Southern California oasis here.
*** Because water is sold at "postage stamp prices" people pay the same for it, no matter where they are in the system. Thus, the cost of serving new customers is spread among all customers.
**** I sold real estate in Orange Country for one summer; my dad still works down there. There are few oranges in Orange County these days.

16 December 2009

San Francisco's Gucci Taps

San Francisco has announced (via DW) "bottled water refill stations" with lots corporate partners and so on...

Now you can get tap water out of a good-plated tap.

Nobel Peace Prize time?

Samuelson as the King of Autistic Economics

Said so well:
Samuelson fashioned his models, which set the standard, after 19th century physics. Functions were assumed to be smooth and continuous. Economics was reduced to various types of the same calculus problem: finding a constrained extremum. The economist’s job was to state the objective function and the constraints, then grind out the solutions. This required considerable mathematical ability and stomach for tedium but little imagination and no familiarity with economic reality.

By the 1960s, if not earlier, academic economists who quarreled with this way of doing the job were, as Roy Weintraub put it, “regarded by mainstream neoclassical economists as defenders of lost causes or as kooks, misguided critics, and anti-scientific oddballs.” By aping 19th-century physicists, neoclassical economists convinced themselves and others that they were doing science, but the effort was basically misguided, not so much scientific as, in F.A. Hayek’s term, “scientistic.” Human beings, purposeful and creative, are not like atoms; nor is a market analogous to a physical or chemical system. In the view of Hayek and his teacher Ludwig von Mises, neoclassical economics is, in critical respects, pseudo-science.
So true, and yet 90+ percent of economists still try to put our social interactions into physics equations. And they fail to understand, explain or predict.

Poll Results -- Obama Likes Danishes?

Hey! There's a NEW POLL (how smart are you?) to the right ---->
Obama's participation at the Copenhagen summit on climate change

Is useful
 52%
32
Is a waste of time
 23%
14
Doesn't matter
 11%
7
Wait! Don't they have a lot of blondes there?
 15%
9
62 votes total


No useful comments on these results. They match my (composite) view of what's going on...

Bottom Line It's nice to "summit" with folks, but better to get your own house in order.

Living on the edge

Addendum: I wrote this before I even thought of the post on groundwater yesterday, but it's totally appropriate!

Humans are good at exploiting their situations, pushing up to the limits of constraints on their way to maximizing their consumption of benefits.

Thus, we see how people may spend as much money as they have, store as much as their garage holds, drive as far as the tank allows, write to the end of the page, etc.

It is the same with water resources. If we have a lot of water, we use it lavishly; if we have very little, we conserve it -- to the last drop.

The trouble comes when our habits of consuming to the margin run into a change of circumstances, when the margin actually recedes and leaves us hanging, like Wile E. Coyote. At that point, what was once fine, ok, acceptable -- even sustainable -- no longer works. The relevant question is not whether we can go back to the good old days or wish that things will change; the question is "what are we going to do about it?"

The obvious answer is cliche: we need to... change our tune, go back to square one, reset, look somewhere else for the cheese. Of course that's difficult, but difficult is easier than impossible, and it's impossible to make a desert into an oasis, bring rain in a drought, or remove the extra millions of people that are competing with you for that resource that's suddenly so scarce.

So we need to face the facts, consider our options, and make unpleasant, but necessary, changes. Although change may be costly or uncomfortable, it's preferable to certain doom.

Does this idea apply to water users worldwide? To Somalis in drought as well as Canadians afloat? Yes, indeed. That's because everyone, everywhere pushes their activities to the limit, to the margin of available constraints.

So, what's to be done?

If you are past the limits -- of water use, money abuse or thinking obtuse -- you need to pull back, until you stand on solid ground, where things can continue indefinitely, sustainably.

If you are at or before limits, then you have the luxury of time -- time to consider and implement a plan for a good or bad tomorrow. If you plan and the bad tomorrow arrives, you can adjust -- with less pain, cost and delay -- to the change in circumstances. The cost of that planning will be more than repaid in the benefits from a quick and clever response.

Bottom Line: It's never too early to pack your parachute, but it can easily be too late. Ask Wile E. Coyote.

15 December 2009

Liquid Assets -- The Review

This was supposed to be published at H-Net, but it is caught in some sort of twlight zone of copy-edit hell. So you all get to read it first :)

Liquid Assets (RFF 2005) is an important and useful book. It is important because it addresses a very important topic: the use and allocation of water in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It is useful because Franklin Fisher, Annette Huber-Lee, and their nine co-authors not only do a very good job of describing their technical approach but also because they directly and clearly address the political dimensions of water in the region. This book should not only be read by those interested in the political economy of natural resources in the region; it should be read by anyone who wants to understand how to make a thorough analysis of optimal water allocation in any part of the world. (Hear that Californians?)

Here are their main conclusions:
  1. Israeli-Palestinian cooperation over water (not exchange in water rights) can create benefits of about $100 million per year
  2. Most Israeli desalination is not “worth it,” except in drought years.
  3. Without cooperation, desalination is necessary in Gaza.
  4. Recycling plants in Gaza and the West Bank are a good idea.
Note this important implication of their conclusions: Despite the political rhetoric (water rights, water security, human rights, thirsty children, etc.), the authors estimate “that the value of the water in dispute between Israelis and Palestinians is considerably less than $100 million per year. Such amounts ought not to be a bar to agreement between nations” (p. 62). In other words, the “problem of water” is not that big--about ten dollars per person per year, which ensures that economic constraints will not block negotiation. This quantification is useful as a counterbalance to the “life or death” significance that partisans attach to their positions (but see more below).

As many would guess, the story behind the book is fascinating. In the preface, the authors describe how scholars from Israel, Jordan, Palestine, the US, and the Netherlands worked together on the Middle East Water Project. After an early stage of establishing the project (1993–1996), they worked on it until 1999, when the Al Aqsa Intifada (the “Second Intifada”) stopped their work. This book summarizes what they accomplished.

The authors' main goal is to describe the supply and demand for water in the region. They use data and (reasonable) parameters to recreate the physical and economic space under which water is -- and can be -- allocated within and among countries in the region. They then use GAMS (General Algebraic Modeling System) to calibrate and estimate “optimal” water allocations. These allocations are then compared to actual patterns of water use to estimate system inefficiency. The GAMS model also allows them to find bottlenecks in the system--places where high “shadow values” indicate that additional water or infrastructure would be valuable.

GAMS models are tricky to work with, calibrate, and explain, but they are sometimes the only way to see how a complex system works. Although the authors do an excellent job--their writing on water economics and simulations is some of the clearest I've ever read--the complexity of the topic and method of analysis is not for the Freakonomics crowd (I spent 30 minutes trying to understand Table 5.2.2!). Overall, I think that they have used the best tool for the job and done an outstanding job explaining their method, assumptions, and results.

The book is divided into two parts. In part I (chapters 1–4), the authors discuss general methodology, their Water Allocation System Model, an agricultural submodel, and international conflicts and cooperation. In part II (chapters 5–8), they report on water use and efficiency within Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, as well as the value of bi- and multilateral cooperation among these countries. The institutional details of part II are very interesting, but--sadly--they confirm the destabilizing impact of subsidies to agricultural water use. Agricultural water users in Gaza pay only 2–4 cents per cubic meter (m3) of water and consume two-thirds of Gaza’s available water supply. I really wonder what Gaza's leaders are thinking when their policies lead to this outcome. The authors do not necessarily say this; as in many places in this book, they state many facts and then leave the drawing of conclusions to the reader. (The clearest example of this "diplomacy" is when they evaluate water supplies in East Jerusalem, giving that area to Israel in chapter 5 and to Palestine in chapter 6. They also point out that this exercise is mostly political, as the value of water under dispute in East Jerusalem is trivial.) That same situation (subsidized/cheaper agricultural water) is repeated to a lesser degree in Israel (relatively well-managed) and Jordan, a country that has only 191 m3 of water per capita — far below UNEP's 500 m3 threshold of “absolute scarcity.” It is more sad than surprising to me that Jordanian farmers use 70 percent of that country's water, perhaps because they only pay 1.4 cents per m3. (Recall that desalinated water costs $0.60–1.00/m3.) In chapter 8, the authors calculate and estimate the costs and benefits of various infrastructure and cooperation options. Although desalination has been touted as the be-all-end-all for the future, it is merely the solution to a worst case scenario that would be necessary if — as we've seen for too long — politicians continue to fight among themselves and against the best interests of their people.

I hope that more people read this book. Then I hope that they take their copy into the legislatures, newspapers, courtrooms, and palaces and use the analysis to shift the debate away from "unbearable costs" and towards feasible solutions. It's just so obvious that the barrier to an economic, social, and environmental allocation of water is mere will, neither money nor technology. And when they do decide to “fix things,” the first people they should call are the authors of this book.

Bottom Line I give this book FOUR STARS only because they could have improved the display of technical information, making it more accessible.

What's your attitude towards organic?

If you care, fill in an academic's survey on consumer attitudes and purchase behavior towards organic food.

Bleg: Who sells water in California?

SJ asks:
I need to get a reasonably comprehensive list of public (not regulated by CPUC) water agencies in CA and the rest of states if possible. I got a comprehensive list of CPUC regulated water agencies, but I'm unable to find a list of city-operated agencies. I found this, but this includes both wholesalers and retailers. Moreover, this list is missing agencies.

Do you know where I can find a comprehensive list of retailers.
I'm guessing that SWRCB or EPA has a list of agencies that comply with water quality regs. Does anyone have a comprehensive list of agencies?

SJ put up a google spreadsheet with agencies (investor-owned and municipal). Please go look and/or update/add information.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Everyone knows that California farmers are overdrafting the groundwater in the Central Valley, in a desperate routine attempt to replace supplies lost to drought, growth and regulation.

We also know that regulation to end this unsustainable, environmentally-harmful, economically-suicidal practice was gutted by irrigators in the Legislature.(We even know how it should have looked.)

Perhaps they preferred to overdraft and prevent regulation that would measure (and maybe, someday, regulate) their self-destructive practices, hoping that a Peripheral Canal Thingie would bring more water (in 2020?) or that Congressman Nunes would "get the pumps turned on" with arguments based on deceptive propaganda,* or perhaps they thought that some of their billionaire buddies would be able to circumvent the Engangered Species Act with some help from DiFi.

Well, now we know (via Josh and several others) just how fucked they are (we are?) down in the Valley. According to NASA:
California's Sacramento and San Joaquin drainage basins have shed more than 30 cubic kilometers of water since late 2003.... A cubic kilometer is about 264.2 billion gallons, enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-size pools [or 810,000 af]. The bulk of the loss occurred in California's agricultural Central Valley. The Central Valley receives its irrigation from a combination of groundwater pumped from wells and surface water diverted from elsewhere.

[snip]

Initial results suggest the Sacramento River basin is losing about 2 cubic kilometers of water a year... The San Joaquin Basin is losing 3.5 cubic kilometers [2.8 maf] a year. Of this, more than 75 percent is the result of groundwater pumping in the southern Central Valley, primarily to irrigate crops
Now, I wonder what people are going to say about this. People who may be affected by the total destruction of the local water supply. Oh that's nice! Nope. Whatever! Nope. How about "What are our leaders doing about this?!?" and here's what your "leaders" are doing:
We encourage landowners in critically overdrafted areas to continue to devise and implement, under local control, groundwater management plans. We believe that local control over groundwater management is best accomplished through existing water entities or new water entities formed by local landowners for the purpose of  groundwater management.
-- Policy 79, California Farm Bureau (2008)
Brilliant. Leave it with the local guys. They know what to do!

I have two conclusions to draw from this additional piece of evidence:
  1. Groundwater has to be regulated by outsiders, by adults. The kids don't seem to realize they are breaking nice things.
  2. I will now be much more vehement in my opposition to the Peripheral Thingie -- it's clear to me that these guys are not only incompetent at managing their current water supplies, but that the PT will do nothing to rein them in -- they will merely take the additional water and mismanage it. It's happened before (many times!) and will happen again.
My solution (as usual) is monitoring and regulation of groundwater, at the basin level, by outside parties with the power to tax withdrawals and shut down pumps. It's too late to hope for indigenous sustainable practices to "evolve."

[Seems a good time for me to take a break from this dysfunctional mess. California is unique in its groundwater incompetence, and I'd like to be somewhere else -- probably with different problems :)]

Bottom Line: Things that can't go on, don't. The longer this goes on, the dearer the price we all pay.

* Supported, I am sad to say, by the passive acceptance of Richard Howitt (my adviser at UC Davis) who's done nothing that I can see to prevent Nunes from grandstanding on Howitt's disowned research.

14 December 2009

World Policy Journal -- Water Edition

"In the winter issue of World Policy Journal [FREE], Martin Chulov reports from Baghdad on drought: the next plague that Iraqis must contend with as American forces complete their pull-out. Peter Bosshard examines the way Chinese hydropower firms are rapidly damming the world's great rivers. In a Q&A with the editors, one of the Arab world's great public intellectuals, Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, answers some hard questions about the potential for violence if the needs of water-starved people and nations are ignored. Alun Anderson examines the new Arctic after the "great melt"--which heralds the mass extinction of species, unbridled Russian oil exploration, and the potential opening of the Northwest Passage that eluded explorers for centuries."

These articles and more.

Monday Morning Smile

Humans are never satisfied!


...and yes, I am a lolcat addict...

The Master Plan

Note: Lots of personal thoughts and vagaries here. Mostly because I want you guys to know where I am coming from (and going!)

A week from today, I will be on an airplane for Jakarta, Indonesia. (I am giving my students their final tomorrow.)

There, I will meet up with Anne, my girlfriend, and we will travel from Java to Bali, probably via Sulawesi. We plan to have a holiday and perhaps visit a Balinese water temple. I plan to start writing The End of Abundance, a book I have under contract at the UC Press and which is due Sep 2010.

On Jan 18, we fly to Darwin in Australia. (We know this b/c the Indonesian government, in its infinite wisdom, has a 30 day visa limit AND requires an outbound ticket on arrival.)

I was planning to go to a conference in Adelaide to present my ongoing research into all-in-auctions (lab experiments finished last week), but an old-timer told me that they were accepting all papers to get the registration fees. Since those fees were $700 (not including dinners!), I had to see his point. Unfortunately, my "participation" with cutting edge academics has been curtailed by the lack of a spare $grand. Oh well, more time for the Great Barrier Reef (before it dissolves)?

I do intend to visit a lot of Aussie water people (farmers, engineers, politicians and academics), so stay tuned for chats.

After Oz, we're going to New Zealand to... see hobbits? No, to do many things, I hope.

If you are in one of these countries and want to meet -- or know someone I should meet -- then email me!

We will come back to Berkeley in April for a few months. I am not sure what will happen after that. My book should be written; my postdoc runs out in July; we may go to S America, Africa or Europe. Maybe the book will make me famous -- enough to affect water policy -- or maybe it will just sit on my CV.

(You know, I think that I may have had some impact on the water debates, but it's terribly difficult to know if I am; it's not like I am baking bread and can measure the number of loaves or happy eaters. Water policy is a mental construct of multiple dimensions, the colors and shapes of which nobody sees the same way. It's like nailing Jello-o on the wall; you make a mess and it looks gross -- even if you manage to make it stick.)

I am sure (at the moment) that I will keep up this blog. My focus is going to shift, obviously, as I travel, and I hope to share the things I find on the way. (Don't even ask why I work so hard on this blog -- there's no obvious money or career impact, so I MUST love it...)

Oh, and I have NO idea how I will make money after July. I'll probably look for a job(s), part-time, in some field where water policy expertise is useful. If those two places are not hiring :), I may work at a cafe.

Seriously, I have no idea.

OTOH, it's all fun and games for me. I don't know if I will continue in an academic sphere (odds are bad), I do want to teach, but it's a grind if I try to make a living at it.

Frankly, I am getting a little tired of the dysfunctional politics at the state and national level. I am considering two options:
  1. Drop out and go live in the wild, drinking strong coffee, reading books and writing long letters; or
  2. Run for Congress, as the most honest, in your face, representative ever.
We'll see. (Oh, but it's lovely to know that Anne loves me and I love her. Sometimes the simple things are SO meaningful.)

Bottom Line It's good to have a master plan, but don't get all attached to it.

13 December 2009

Flashback: 5 -- 11 Dec 2008

These year-old posts are still relevant, so please read -- and comment!

BEST: Engineers Do It with Objects -- the American Water Works Association will sell you a CD that will help you project water demand -- using methods familiar to astrologers everywhere, and just as accurate.

Water and Sanitation in Developing Countries -- a big post with lots of good references.

Filter Propaganda -- my take on filters and bottled water. Still no cheap, accurate water quality test out there? :(  Speaking of that, Farmer Propaganda tells you how well farmers manage water.

Poll Results -- Carbon Revenue -- readers voted to direct revenue from carbon permit auctions to green projects. That's better than no auctions at all, but not as good (IMO) as per capita rebates. Speaking of carbon, there's Carbon-offset Fraud Incompetence -- as in one of the largest certification agencies making stuff up. No surprise, they are back in business.

BEST: Are the "Poor" Really Better Off? One person thinks that the poor will not suffer in this recession. Not only are they suffering more (foreclosures, jobs, budget cuts), but the billionaires bailout has given greater benefits to the rich. Oh, great. Along similar lines, I discuss sustainability and equity in Commodification and Community.

Criminal Water Managers at Truckee Carson Irrigation District lied to the Bureau of Reclamation to get more water. Oh, great. OTOH, Sunshine on Public Water Utilities makes them perform better. Yes, please!

BEST: Department of Destruction -- how the government subsidizes destruction of the environment. The Onion, OTOH, tells us how the USDA is ending Destructive Tuber Policies!

12 December 2009

Warren Buffett's financial crisis

The article that appears first in this google search is interesting : "In Year of Investing Dangerously, Buffett Looked 'Into the Abyss' " (I use the google link to the story because accessing it through their news service is free, thru WSJ not...)

Primarily, I found it interesting because of Buffett's involvement with the bailout and his inability to separate what is good for his business vs. what is good for the economy.
As the government swung into action, Mr. Buffett recalls, he gained confidence that the crisis would be resolved. A government guarantee of assets in money-market funds, which came days after the Reserve fund's troubles emerged, was a big step forward, he says.
A big step forward for whom? Why do we ask an investor what is good for the economy? Was his answer unexpected? If I and many of my friends were going to lose money if money market funds crashed, wouldn't I also think it's a great idea to have the government 'fix' them?

This reminds me of a survey about health care on UC Berkeley's campus. A few years ago, some tried to institute a campus-wide health fee to expand student health care access (longer hours, etc.). Surveys allegedly showed that many were in favor of the fee. However, many of those in favor were graduate students like me, and a lot of us have all of our fees paid by our departments. Of course we were in favor. Who doesn't want free money?

Bottom Line:
A) Short-term stock market health is not indicative of long-term economic health. B) Understand the underlying incentives of the person you are talking to.

11 December 2009

Sustainable Silicon Valley

I spoke at this mini-conference on Monday with two others, Dennis O'Connor (CA State Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water) and Kathleen Van Velsor (Environmental Planner and ex-member of ABAG). The session ("How We View and Value Water") was moderated by Ed Quevedo (Paladin Law Group), and Ed was free with his comments (you will hear him too).

Here's an MP3 [52 min 18MB] of our three talks.

Here are Dennis's slides [PDF].

Here is Kathleen's powerpoint [PPS].

Here are my slides [PDF].

Before we spoke, Bob Wilkinson gave a great keynote [29 min 10MB MP3], and Will Durst did a funny (really!) monologue [13 min 5MB MP3] about water, politics, etc.

Bottom Line: Price. Everyone was talking water prices, and Silicon Valley will be sustainable when prices are.

Climategate: A PR Disaster

Fred Pearce discusses and concludes with:
I have been speaking to a PR operator for one of the world’s leading environmental organizations. Most unusually, he didn’t want to be quoted. But his message is clear. The facts of the e-mails barely matter any more. It has always been hard to persuade the public that invisible gases could somehow warm the planet, and that they had to make sacrifices to prevent that from happening. It seemed, on the verge of Copenhagen, as if that might be about to be achieved.

But he says all that ended on Nov. 20. “The e-mails represented a seminal moment in the climate debate of the last five years, and it was a moment that broke decisively against us. I think the CRU leak is nothing less than catastrophic.”
Please continue your Climategate discussion here :)

The global water crisis is a self-inflicted wound

A concise analysis:
As governments across the world, and especially the developing world, worry about a looming water crisis, Biswas dismisses it as a self-inflicted wound. The problem we have, he says, is not scarcity but mismanagement. The solution to shortages is simple: "Water must have a price. Anything that is free won't be used prudently."
Any questions?

Blowing smoke up our tunnel?

California's Department of Water Resources has estimated that a "Peripheral Tunnel" that's 43 miles long, 150 feet underground and has a 15,000 cfs capacity will cost $10.6 billion to build.* That's only $1 billion more than the cost of a (surface) Canal.

I asked Steve Kasower, my comrade-in-bomb-throwing and author of a study that estimated this tunnel would cost $54 billion, what he thought of this estimate, i.e., "Steve, does this mean you were wrong or they are lying?"

Steve told me this:
I am not sure that it is a lie per se. I suspect that it is politically motivated since Lester Snow had already said it was about $10 billion in response to my paper and shortly thereafter. Upon what basis has the estimate been based? My inflation of the Chunnel was from their actual $21 Billion in 1994 cost. I inflated at 3% annually (very conservative through the time period from 1994). So if DWR could build the nearly identical tunnel for $10 billion in 2009 it suggests that the Brits and the French radically overpaid for their tunnel. DWR in today’s dollars is over half the cost of the Chunnel in 1994 dollars and less than 1/3 the cost in today’s dollars. How is it that DWR can be so economical? Let’s ask some basic questions:
  • Is there some radically different strata that will be encountered under the Delta compared to Chunnel that would account for such cost savings? Show us the studies.
  • Has the technology advanced so radically in tunnel boring that we can enjoy such a major savings? Show us the data.
  • Is the difference between the size of the Delta tunnel and the Chunnel contributing to such a major difference? Show us the incremental basis for this determination.
  • That is about all I can think of for radical cost differential. Certainly steel, concrete, labor, and energy all cost more today than in 1994 so what gives?
Steve's Bottom Line: It is a lie!**
DZ's Bottom Line: Steve was wrong -- see comments :)
* The Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA) has a 1,500 cfs capacity, which allows it to carry 1.3 maf of water/year from the river to SoCal.
** Section 3.3.1 of my dissertation:
MET [Metropolitan Water District of SoCal] based its demand calculation on the "habitable (not inhabited) area of the South Coastal Basin" and made no provision for the effect of prices. Milliman claims that MET engineers started with a CRA capacity of 1,500 cfs and projected a demand that would require that much water. After building the CRA, MET set prices to cover the cost of building and operating the CRA but ignored the possibility that demand would not exist at those prices. Given the average cost of Colorado River water, even on the basis of full capacity operation, is roughly three to five times the cost of existing water supplies and a reduction in demand due to high rainfall, actual sales missed projected sales by an order of magnitude.
This quotation explains how engineers gave a wrong, but political, answer to a question. The result (too much, and subsidized, water) drove SoCal's post WWII-sprawl.

10 December 2009

Judge invalidates QSA

Fleck reports. Seems that the judge is saying taxpayers should NOT pay for restoring the Salton Sea.

Anyone got a better interpretation?

Prius vs. BMW

I bought a 1998 BMW 323is about nine months ago for $7,000. Although I never considered buying a Prius (ugly! non-performance!), I've always thought that I never WOULD have, given the cost-benefit of price versus improved mileage.

Let's actually work out the numbers.

Since I bought the BMW (which actually has a 2.5 liter engine), I've got about 28mpg. According to the Feds, a 2007 Prius gets about 46mpg; according to AutoTrader, it will cost about $20,000. (This lets us ignore the impact of "demand for new cars" on the environment.)

So, with gas at $4/gallon, $13,000 of price difference, 18mpg of economy difference, and about 6,000 miles/year (I've driven 4,000 miles in 8 months), it would take me about 39 years to recover my initial higher investment (if I bought the Prius) in terms of saved fuel economy. If I drove 24,000 miles/year, breakeven would arrive in just under ten years.

Oh, and that's ignoring all the benefits of living with an "ultimate driving machine" :)

Bottom Line Some people buy a Prius to save money; some people must have other reasons.

A water chat with Lloyd Carter

After I spoke to Tom Birmingham, I had a two hour chat [42MB MP3] with Lloyd Carter,* who spent 17 years as a reporter before turning his hand to law and protecting rivers.

I was intrigued to hear Lloyd describe his "Road to Damascus" moment -- encountering the massive environmental damages (and coverup thereof) from selenium-tainted water at Kesterson Wildlife Deadlife Refuge.

We also talked about migrant workers, Westlands, groundwater, the Delta, and so on...

Lloyd left me with this:
Civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind, independent of the prevalent one among the crowds, and in opposition to it -- a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. Only an ethical movement can rescue us from barbarism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals. -- Albert Schweitzer
Bottom Line Nothing inspires like outrage, and we-the-outraged find it easy to jump out of bed in the morning!

* We were occasionally joined (interrupted?) by Walt Shubin, an outspoken raisin farmer. Someday, I'll have to give Walt an hour (or three) for his own chat :)

Comment on corporate water?

"The Pacific Institute has been soliciting public comments on the public draft of the Corporate Water Accounting report and will be through December 11, 2009" (tomorrow!).

Although I thought this report a silly idea before, I am persuaded that it can be useful as a means of putting pressure on countries/areas with poor water policies. Here's the comment I just sent:
Although corporations need to account for their water use (an obvious internal control that can also be released to the public), they are also subject to rules and regulations that affect their use (e.g., cheap water will be used more). Thus, it's important that ALL of these reports be put in the context of the regime under which they were generated. Even more important is the fact that corporations can AFFECT these rules (for better or worse).

Thus, I recommend that:
  1. PacInst gather information on de jure and de facto regulations affecting water use (prices, rights, markets, quality, etc.) in all these areas. (This is a public good, so no corporation has an incentive to gather and distribute the information.
  2. PacInst ask/require that corporations report their efforts to affect rules and regs (for better or worse)

Speed Blogging

These are good, really good:
  • Sheila Kuehl (former Assemblywoman) writes clearly on how California's water bills are useless and expensive (and other things, but she's brutally honest!). Read all her essays!

  • Water hogs: "Farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas use, on average, 323.6 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol from corn, with all but 3 of those gallons used for irrigation. The GAO said that's 20 to 30 times the amount of water used in... corn producing regions where rainfall is more plentiful.

  • Lake Peigneur drains down a 14 inch hole (wow!)



  • "The world would be better if we praised folks more for what they did than who they are." Hear hear!

  • The Global Corruption Report 2008 - Corruption in the Water Sector. Damn, I have to read this. So many chapters on interesting cases and countries. Wow.

  • No surprise: "Uranium from polluted mine in Nevada wells," but Surprise! "An administrative judge ruled last year that the BLM illegally fired Dixon in 2004 in retaliation for speaking out about the health and safety dangers at the mine." What? Fire BLM for a cover up!

  • USAID is actually helping farmers in developing countries get improved access to markets (but has still not stopped dumping food and destroying market incentives).

  • Food security is rising (good) but so is food self-sufficiency (bad). Trade grows even more important as a means of insuring against the volatility of climate change. [Sign the petition against green protectionism.]

  • A health care parable -- the price is higher if you decide what to do and someone else pays
hattips to DL, JM and DW

09 December 2009

Tom Birmingham of Westlands Water District

Last Sunday, I spent five hours talking to Tom Birmingham, General Manager and Chief Council of Westlands Water District, "the biggest irrigation district in the world."

Among other things, we discussed crop choices, water efficiency, governance, Feinstein, his work for LADWP on Mono Lake, the water bills, the Peripheral Canal, family farms, water markets, exports and other malign influences on the Delta (and Smelt), unemployment in the area, and so on...

In particular, Tom was anxious to clear up two conflusions:
  1. Westlands does not have "junior water rights." As a contractor to BurRec, it has service contracts for delivery. Its contracts are "junior" in the sense that they get cut back the earliest, and most, compared to municipal, environmental and exchange contracts.
  2. Westlands does not have poor soil. It has excellent soil, but that soil suffers two problems: It contains selenium, which can accumulate in irrigation water (and harm the environment). Poor drainage can lead to water logged and salted roots, which destroys production.
Tom identified water delivery reliability as Westlands' short term problem and drainage as their long term problem.

I was very pleased that Tom took the time to meet with me, and I found him to be knowledgeable, patient and realistic. Enjoy the tapes.

Birmingham 1 [57 min/20MB]
Birmingham 2 [70 min/25MB]
Birmingham 3 [70 min/25MB]
Birmingham 4 [28 min/10MB]
Birmingham 5 [60 min/21MB]