John Bass made a great point in a recent comment thread at Delta National Park that highlights one of my frustrations about California water discussions:
[I]f basic facts are contentious, then the problem isn’t facts.
The comment was triggered by a point the California Farm Water Coalition’s Mike Wade made regarding an editorial that ran in the Oakland Tribune. To solve California’s water problems, the Tribune wrote, “sacrifices by water users will have to be made, particularly by agriculture, which uses more than 80 percent of California’s water.” To which Wade replied (in the comments):
The Department of Water Resources identifies water use in California during a normal year as environmental, 48%, agriculture, 41% and urban, 11%.
It may not be that Ag uses 80% of the state’s water, and Mr Wade’s number of 41% may be close to a reasonably accurate percentage of Delta water use by Ag, but only if calculated as the theoretical/ideological total amount of water available to export.
The fact that these discussions get tangled up in numbers, different versions of which serve to frame the issue in very different ways, is unsurprising. That’s the way this game is played. See Sarewitz 2004 for some great case studies of how arguing over numbers is used as a proxy for the real arguments at hand:
[S]cientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.
That it is common doesn’t make it any less unhelpful.