Drought and those yummy California almonds

Via Brett Walton:

Continuing a decades-long trend, California farmers will increase their almond acreage next year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

An estimated 48,000 acres of new almond orchards will be planted next year, an estimate based on a first-ever survey of nursery sales. The increase is roughly 40 percent higher than the 10-year average.

Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, which commissioned the survey, told Circle of Blue that the numbers reflect commitments made at least two years ago, when growers would have submitted orders to the nurseries.

“The report reflects decisions not made in the context of the current drought and current water availability,” Waycott said.

Stuff I wrote elsewhere: Is our hero (El Niño) abandoning us?

There was a great bit of humorous business that my offspring Reed helped me cook up over the weekend for this column, which ended up on the self-editing floor. The column was in part about how we all put too much stock in El Niño as our savior from drought, and Reed reminded me of that great scene in Life of Brian where a frustrated Brian is trying to explain to the throng assembled outside his Mum’s apartment that he is not the Messiah:

BRIAN: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!

BRIAN: You’re all different!

FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!

DENNIS: I’m not.

ARTHUR: Shhhh.

FOLLOWERS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.

BRIAN: You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!

FOLLOWERS: Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves!

BRIAN: Exactly!

FOLLOWERS: Tell us more!

BRIAN: No! That’s the point! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!

So many layers there –  El Niño, named after the Christ child, but as the column explains, it’s really not our savior. But it was a bridge too far for a newspaper column.

California’s drought – is this what climate adaptation looks like?

Bloomberg’s Alan Bjerga last week gave us a nice tour through the details of how California’s agricultural businesses are responding to drought conditions. He notes especially a shift, was water gets more expensive, into higher valued crops. Stuff that can be grown in places where water is cheap and plentiful, like what, into high-dollar crops like almonds:

In the long term, California will probably move away from commodity crops produced in bulk elsewhere to high-value products that make more money for the water used, said Richard Howitt, a farm economist at the University of California at Davis. The state still has advantages in almonds, pistachios and wine grapes, and its location means it will always be well-situated to export what can be profitably grown….

That may mean less farmland in production as growers abandon corn and cotton because of the high cost of water. Corn acreage in California has dropped 34 percent from last year, and wheat is down 53 percent, according to the USDA.

Cotton planting, Fred Starrh’s one-time mainstay, has fallen 60 percent over the decade, while almonds are up by more than half.

This is the necessary step beyond the “OMG, 99.8 percent of California is in severe drought” to look at the specifics of what people do in response to changing climatic conditions and water availability, whether on an annual basis or when stationarity is knocked out from under them. In California, one of the things they’re apparently doing is growing a lot less cotton and wheat.

How we use water in the desert: Hatch green chiles

Hatch green chile, still in the field, ripening. August 2014

Hatch green chile, still in the field, ripening. August 2014

On a bit of a water nerd’s lark today, I ended up knee deep in a chile field outside Salem, New Mexico, in the area technically known as the Rincon Valley but more commonly called the Hatch Valley.

It’s a ribbon of green (to borrow John Van Dyke’s memorable phrase) gripping the Rio Grande as it flows out of the dammed narrows of Elephant Butte and into one of New Mexico’s most productive farming regions.

It’s all relative. The Rio Grande is no Colorado River, and Doña Ana County is no Imperial Valley. But for my desert state, what we call “the Lower Rio Grande” is as big as big ag gets. You can drive for miles through gorgeous pecan orchards, but there is no more iconic crop than the New Mexico chile. And there is no more iconic chile than the Hatch green chile.

Chiles aren’t a huge part of New Mexico’s economy – $65 million in 2012, just 1.6 percent of some $4 billion in farm receipts, according to the USDA. But it’s an identity thing for us.

It’s a desert, averaging less than 10 inches (25 cm) of rain a year, concentrated in the summer months. So the chile depends on irrigation water – from the historic U.S. Reclamation Service’s Rio Grande Project, which stores water at Elephant Butte Reservoir, or from groundwater pumps. These days, Elephant Butte is near empty, so the farmers depend on an increasingly tenuous groundwater supply. But today, in the field, there was chile. And at lunch at the Pepper Pot in Hatch, I had the sweetest, most delicious chile relleno that it has ever been my good fortune to eat.

Bonus water likely for Lake Mead in 2015, but it’ll just keep dropping anyway

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s key August forecast, out today (pdf),projects that there will be enough water in the Colorado River system next year to release a bonus pulse of 770,000 acre feet of water from Lake Powell down to lake Mead above and beyond the legal requirements of the Colorado River Compact. But even with that extra water, Lake Mead is projected to fall another five feet during 2015, flirting with levels that could trigger the Lower Colorado River Basin’s first formal shortage declaration in 2016.

How could this be? The Lower Basin is getting extra water above and beyond its minimum legal entitlement, yet Lake Mead keeps dropping?

It’s simple, really. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Arizona v. California decision effectively allocates more paper water than there is wet water in the system, (click here for the wonky explanation of the mistake, and the fact that folks kinda knew at the time it was a mistake but ignored it) and as long as each of the Lower Basin states keeps using its full entitlement, Mead will keep dropping unless a giant climatic wet spell delivers magic extra water.

See also “hookers and blow on the lower Colorado“.

USBR: Gila diversion costs exceed benefits

On the scale of Colorado River water diversions yet unbuilt, the possibility of taking water out of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico is small stuff – 14,000 acre feet per year, or maybe less if the water’s simply not there. But the current debate in New Mexico illustrates a common refrain as western water’s dam-building era winds down – the cheap stuff has already been built:

As New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission heads into the final stretch of a decision a decade in the making – whether to partially dam the Gila River – the federal agency best known for building dams says the costs far outweigh the benefits.

That’s my colleague Lauren Villagran (story behind Google survey wall) in one of a couple of good stories this weekend in the New Mexico press about the Gila project, for which decisions loom. In the Santa Fe Reporter, Laura Paskus takes a deep dive:

As water supplies dry up and demand increases across the western United States, it seems natural that New Mexico would jump at the chance to nail down new water supplies. Already, officials have spent millions of federal dollars on studies, staffers and meetings. But with the clock ticking toward an irreversible decision, important questions remain. Neither project proponents nor the state know how much the three proposed diversion projects will actually cost or how they’ll be funded.

Uncertainty in the climate, as well as within the engineering plans, has people scratching their heads over how much water the Gila could even yield. And no one is promising they’ll actually buy the water once it’s for sale.

The decision-making meetings before the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission begin Aug. 26, though both Laura and Lauren suggest the action could drag on into fall.

The problem with “drought”

I’m increasingly at a loss about how to do useful journalism because of the gap between the technical world I try to understand (risks associated with water contamination, for example, or the problem of drought) and the public reaction to my efforts to provide a nuanced but accurate explanation of the thing at hand.

Mark Lubell at U.C. Davis gave nice voice to my queasiness in a piece this week on, among other things, the public reaction to water contamination in Toledo. He maps nicely maps the issue onto the difficulty of communicating about drought:

Take the current California drought. Yes, it really is bad. But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there have been bad droughts before. Droughts activate what Kahneman and Tversky call the “availability heuristic”, where dramatic events increase our estimation of the actual probability of the events. For example, news about a grizzly bear attack causes most people to over estimate the risk–you’re much more likely to die in a car accident on the way to work than be attacked by grizzly in Glacier National Park.

Hence, drought is a source of “panic politics”, with knee-jerk policy recommendations often overwhelming more reasoned analysis. For example, one of the first recommendations is “build more surface storage” but in reality even building out all of the potential surface storage sites in CA will only be a band-aid solution. A much more integrated portfolio of drought management strategies is required, including both demand and supply side tools. Groundwater management is one obvious issue that deserves attention.

An oft-heard phrase among water policy stakeholders is “don’t let a good crisis go to waste”, and perhaps there is some wisdom in this saying (although its overuse annoys me). The “water planner” in me wants to respond “but let’s do rational planning BEFORE the drought”. But that goes directly against human psychology, so maybe we should figure out ways to maximize the policy change that is possible from agenda-setting events like a drought. On the flip side, the availability heuristic also explains why rain literally dampens the water policy agenda–the risk doesn’t seem as obvious. But in all of these cases, the underlying probabilities are driven by climatic variables, while the risk perception is driven by psychology.

This resonates. I try to explain drought, and people freak out. It’s been raining for a month in New Mexico, and now people are ready for the freakout to be over. Neither is entirely appropriate, and Lubell’s model nicely explains why, but also why the results I’m seeing are probably inevitable.