25 May 2012

Can we end hydraulic mining?

I wrote this op/ed for the LA Times. It was rejected because "the column is too broad and some parts not explained enough for a mainstream readership... you don't have to 'dumb it down' but next time, it might work better to pick a narrow issue in the news and focus just on that." I disagree, since ALL the narrow issues in California (and elsewhere) are distorted by these factors. What do you think?
I grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s, spending time in each city as I shuttled between divorced parents. In San Francisco, I used the garden hose for hydraulic mining in my back yard -- blasting away soil as I searched for treasure. In Los Angeles, I played in the lawn sprinkler on hot days -- shooting water into the air for hours at a time.

I remember the 1980 vote over the Peripheral Canal, which was NOT a good thing. Years later, I created the ``Peripheral Canal" entry in Wikipedia. Many people had forgotten the North-South acrimony over the division of water. Not me.

In fact, it seems like we are seeing more conflict than ever. And why it that?


Imperial Irrigation District doesn't want to pay to restore the Salton Sea its farmers have polluted. Farmers don't want to pay the Bureau of Reclamation the costs of building the Central Valley Project. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is trying to minimize its spending on stabilizing the dusty remains of Owens Lake. Environmentalists don't want to pay for their dream of restoring Hetch Hetchy. Citizens of Sacramento and Fresno don't want to pay for the water they use. The list goes on, but every example shares a common trait: a desire to pay costs with other people's money and get water from other people's supply.

Californians have a long tradition of getting something for nothing where water is concerned. Hydraulic miners in the Gold Rush could claim as much water as they could shoot from streams onto hill sides. Suburbanites got cheaper water because urban neighbors had already paid for infrastructure. Farmers shifted dam costs to taxpayers who paid for "public interest" flood control and recreation.

Those cheap water tricks worked pretty well while water was abundant, but growing demand eventually overwhelmed natural supplies. Scarcity has become the new normal: we now get less water for more money, time, lawsuits, and other forms of full employment for politicians, engineers, lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and economists. (Remember CalFed? It cost $5 billion and didn't fix the Delta.)

It's time to recognize that times have changed. Santa Claus is not going to remove half the State's population, restore dry rivers, fill irrigation canals, or replenish groundwater. We have to set up a system that allocates our scarce water with minimum friction and maximum social benefits. I suggest the following:

First, every water diverter/extractor should pay an extraction fee in proportion to local water stress. That means a high fee in arid and heavily-populated Southern California and a low fee in sparsely-populated, wet Northern California. The fee will encourage users to find ways to use less water. Such fees have driven Israeli farmers to radically improve their water efficiency.

Second, use fee revenue to pay for monitoring and management of surface- and groundwater supplies. Many states and countries have transparent and uncontroversial systems for maintaining their water sustainability.

Third, reorganize water rights to protect minimum environmental flows, retire paper rights, and facilitate water exchanges within local watersheds or -- with appropriate protections -- across watersheds. Australia has been largely successful in making these changes over the past ten years. Such trade will ensure that adequate water flows to urban taps, California's best farmers stay in business, important environments can thrive, and businesses get the reliability they need.

Finally, either require that state and federal infrastructure users pay their remaining debts or bankrupt and shut down those systems. Debt overhang encourages managers to continue to run their inefficient systems under the mistaken hope that users will eventually pay. That's a forlorn hope -- under current rules -- for the Central Valley Project. The State Water Project is in better fiscal condition but subsidies from Southern California cities to Central Valley farmers encourage wasteful use of scarce water supplies.

Bottom Line: These actions will restore reality to California's water system by restraining demand to sustainable supplies, ensuring that users pay for the water and infrastructure they use, and facilitating the transfer of water from historical users whose claims depend on decisions made by their great-great-granddaddies to contemporary users who can put California's water to its highest and best use.


  1. Let me add that a shift to rational and sustainable use of water will not be painless. Some good uses will have to be curtailed and cost will increase.

  2. Excellent piece. Someone needs to get this in front of Jerry Brown.

  3. Bravo... love to find a way to articulate how the mining mentality extends to water quality as well as quantity... and how market forces should decide when those competing desires conflict, ie, 20% conservation = 25% rise in salinity (simple mass balance math)….which takes anywhere from $3-$100/household/month to mitigate* beautiful rent seeking by those who covet the “saved” water... if instead those who covet the water would pay directly to do the salinity mitigation to free up water (many ways this could happen*) then they would bear the cost of their increased demand directly (if it was still worth it to them)

    * mitigations from source control, desal, stormwater capture, available high quality water blending (why did I conserve again if I just have to buy it back??... our advice to clients is you can’t let it go, you need to retain the saved water to mitigate the effect of conservation), water banking, farm field fallowing, all rational scientific choices...

  4. "Narrow your focus" That's pretty funny. The only way that piece could be more focused, which I believe is the actual gist of their response, is by narrowing the targets of your slings and arrows. You gored too many oxes in one well-aimed blast. Well done.

  5. Well, I don't think anyone would doubt that both the US and NL are more developed than Mexico.

    However, two of the basis you're using for comparison between these countries are not very strong.

    For one thing, I think the murder rate is more meaningful if you look at the "country subdivisions" listing on the same wikipedia page. It is even more relevant in this case because of the small size of NL. In this listings, you'll see that the murder rate in Mexico City (Federal District and parts of Mexico state that account for 20% of the entire population) is about 9, a number that is almost a third of that in DC, and less than twice the murder rate in California.

    As for the debate woman, man, something important is that everyone noticed it and was like, wtf? so, the good thing is that it didn't happen like if it was normal and the official institute in charge of the elections had to change producers for the second debate.

    In any case, I'm pretty sure that the disparity between the "well-being" of living in the US compared to Mexico has increased in the last 10 years or so, especially the last 5 with the narco war getting nasty and the fear that reigns in some states.

    In other things, students are protesting in huge number these days about the bias in the coverage of political events and the support of the biggest media corp in Mexico towards the PRI's candidate, and that's great!

  6. "Finally, either require that state and federal infrastructure users pay their remaining debts or bankrupt and shut down those systems."

    Is anyone actually trying to pay off the CVP's old bonds? Even on paper? I presume that debt is tallied somewhere -- what's the number?

    In any case, I don't see how bankrupting the CVP would or should lead to its shutdown. In the typical bankruptcy where the loans that paid for a major capital investment cannot be paid back, the lender takes back his collateral or the assets are sold off to bottom-feeding investors who might be able to make it pencil if the price is low enough.

    Besides, even leaving aside its effect on water supplies, flood control, recreation, etc., at this point shutting down the CVP -- dismantling Shasta and Trinity and Whiskeytown and a few other dams I can't name off the top of my head -- would cost far more than any possible debt that needs paying off.

    That aside, lots of good stuff in this piece. I know a small water-obsessed NorCal paper that'd be keen to publish it.

  7. Michael McCullough26 May, 2012 19:05

    Excellent article. This is a revealing example of the myopia that has infected journalism in the U.S. Any discussion of a narrow issue can be neatly filed away in one of two bins, either pro or con, and while such arguments are easy for journalists and readers to wrap their arms around, they rarely propose anything that resembles a real solution.

    I assume that the water stress fee will be charged per unit of water extracted?

  8. Those 4 recommendations have strong merits. Two nitpicks and one addition:

    If you wish to be literal about your max social benefits goal, then it should be recognized that "local water stress" is related to nonlocal water stress in highly plumbed CA. Hence, some southern stress values are math-related (with conveyance losses/costs thrown in) to northern stress values, and they move in concert. As written, I get an equity/normative undertone from the recommendation when a clear efficiency motive is sufficient and easily justified.

    Second nit: Regarding your second program part, I'm not so sure about the "many" assertion, and I don't know what you might mean by "sustainability."

    Additionally, program part 1 should be augmented by proper growth incentives, i.e. new connection fees or something equivalent that has new water users paying their own way.

  9. Well, what is written for Californians equally applies to farmers and consumers of India. Farmers get canal water virtually free, while Groundwater farmers at least pay for the irrigation well, which forms almost 80% of the cost of water, the remaining for electricity to pump including repair charges. However, with zero variable costs of electricity, pumping groundwater is uncontrollable. A couple of days ago, the Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister who is quoted as decontrolling sugar, was hailed as a great benefit to sugarcane farmers. However, none of the sugarcane farmers or farmer leaders including political leaders aired their worry concerning water shortage and how to use the scarce water efficiently, including drip irrigation for cultivating sugarcane which can save upto 50% of water. Farmers and water users think that getting water is automatic by hyrological cycle and have no role in conservation and management. Governments too have failed in bringing water literacy in the minds of urban water users, let apart farmers. With every millimeter of land in urban areas becoming expensive due to commercial interests, no conscious efforts are made to conserve roof top water and to recharge groundwater, since all the earth is covered by concrete. With poor governance, everything is left to 'almighty god' to take care of water users and farmers in India! The only solution is to wait for Lord Krishna who has said "
    yada yada hi dharmasya
    glanir bhavati bharata
    abhyutthanam adharmasya
    tadatmanam srjamy aham " meaning as and when discrepancies in the discharge of natural laws of God, arise, God himself incarnates / sends his bona fide / powerful representative to rectify the injustice. So Indians now wait for Lord Krishna !


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