Farmers aren’t the problem

Aaron Citron, with the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that identifying farmers as our water problem – They use 80 percent of our water! – is wrong:

[F]armers and ranchers are the original environmentalists, water conservationists and land stewards. They have been, and continue to be, among the first to develop innovative water efficiency solutions, and they are already implementing a variety of practices to optimize their water use and adapt to drought and climate change.

On World Water Day, it’s important to remember that farmers are our best hope for solving the global water crisis.

Faced with water shortfalls, Citron argues, farmers are in the best position to drive the innovation we need:

When drought hit Brendon Rockey’s Colorado farm hard seven years ago, he planted cover crops to retain moisture in the soil, which also enhanced the effectiveness of his center pivot irrigation. Since then, Rockey’s pumping costs have decreased – his cumulative annual consumptive use cut nearly in half – while his crop quality increased. His neighbors now come to him for advice on maintaining a productive business through drought.

This is what economists would predict, and what they have identified as happening. It’s one of the things the “crisis” rhetoric about “running out of water” often misses.

a city of questionable allure

Route 66, Albuquerque, March 2015, by John Fleck

Route 66, Albuquerque, March 2015, by John Fleck

There’s a famous 1969 photo by Ernst Haas of Route 66 in Albuquerque, scrubbed by a summer rain, looking east toward the mountains. I’m not smart enough to have been imitating, so this isn’t homage. But if you click on the link (I’m not going to embed the image, respect for copyright) you can see on the right of Haas’s image, just past the traffic light, is the spot where I was standing when I took this.

Hucksters trying to pump up the value of a print a couple of years ago tried to tie the Haas picture to Breaking Bad:

Albuquerque is a city of questionable allure, a desert-washed blip in the landscape of the Land of Enchantment. The city serves as the backdrop to the massively popular TV show Breaking Bad, and in a recent interview with The New York Times, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, explains that it was Abuquerque’s “stealth charm” that attracted him to the city, elaborating that one of the city’s greatest assets is the piece of Route 66 that still runs through it, “dotted with old neon motel signs like that great Ernst Haas photo.”

Lissa and I were waiting for the bus when the T-Bird drove by. Warm day, Sunday afternoon, top down, and they looked so happy, about as un-Breaking Bad as an Albuquerque day can get. At least I think. I’ve never seen any Breaking Bad.

Haas is using a very long lens, so his scene is compressed in a way that both is part of what makes it a great picture, and that is also disconcerting when you stand there looking at the scene yourself. My picture, with an 18mm lens, is more like your eye actually sees. A reminder that good photography can distort in useful ways.

I’ve lived my whole life, with the exception of five years away at college, within a mile or two of Route 66. It’s always seemed like a story line of some sort, but I’ve never quite known what to do with it. I’d just be draping my personal story uncomfortably atop Route 66 tourist nostalgia. But I always have loved the idea of Route 66, and having some connection to it, and I guess Haas is always in the back of my mind when I have a camera in my hand on that stretch of Central.

Huron CA, on the brink of running out of water, shows why “one bucket” solutions to California’s water problems don’t fit

The little town of Huron, California (Fresno County, population 7,000) is on the brink of running out of water. Its plight to illustrates a broader point about “running out of water”.

First, its story courtesy of the Central Valley News, which reports that Huron could run out of water by July:

Huron, a rural farming community, receives its water from a direct contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Just like farmers around the state, dealing with little water for their crops, the 7,000 people of Huron are facing a similar water crisis….

Last year, Huron received 50 percent of its water allocation bringing it through November, according to Betsy Lichti, district engineer with the Fresno Division of Drinking Water of the State Water Resources Control Board.

This year, Castro said, the outlook is far worse.

In following drought and the resulting water shortfalls, it’s important to be carefully attentive to who, specifically, is at risk of running short of or out of water, and why. The city of Huron, and its comparison to other California municipal and farm water users, illustrates what I think is an important shortcoming of UC Irvine/JPL scientist Jay Famiglietti’s LA Times analysis of California’s water problems. To say California “has about one year of water stored,” (as the revised headline points out), and Jay’s suggested policy response (“immediate mandatory water rationing … across all of the state’s water sectors”) treats “California water” as one giant bucket and suggests a “one giant bucket” solution.

But the Huron story, and a look at other places that aren’t running out, suggests that we’ve really got a thousand smaller buckets in various stages of “running out” (or not). Water management happens at the scale of those thousand buckets. The new Public Policy Institute of California drought report makes this point nicely:

Thanks to substantial investments following the 1987–92 drought—and despite the addition of more than 8 million new residents since that time—most large urban areas have experienced only modest water shortages so far. Drought resilience improvements included new surface and underground storage, new interconnections that enable supply sharing with neighboring agencies, expanded use of recycled wastewater and stormwater, and water purchases. In addition, low-flow plumbing fixtures and appliances and changing behavior have reduced per-capita water use in most urban areas. In contrast, several large communities and numerous small, rural communities relying on a single source (often groundwater) experienced severe shortages. Some required emergency aid from the state.

Huron, dependent on the San Luis Project bucket to deliver its water, didn’t diversify its supply. Now the San Luis bucket is empty, and it’s screwed. Farmers who depend on the San Luis bucket have a bit more flexibility. They can fallow a field if there’s no water to irrigate it. You can’t fallow a city.

There are some water policy moves that have to happen at the scale of the state of California as a whole (the PPIC report suggests a number of good ones), but the hard work of responding to drought has to happen one bucket at a time.

Deadbeat Dams

Deadbeat Dams

Deadbeat Dams

Kindra McQuillan at High Country News interviewed Dan Beard, former head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, on his provocative new book Deadbeat Dams: Why We Should Abolish the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam:

(Dams) distract us. We’re mesmerized by the construction of new facilities, as if it’s going to solve a problem, and it’s not. The only way we’re going to meet future needs is to promote water conservation, reuse and efficiency improvement. Building a dam is a lot sexier than implementing a toilet rebate program, but the reality is, in an awful lot of communities, that toilet rebate program is going to have a bigger impact than any reservoir.

Beard, whose experience driving the Reclamation bus gives him a unique perspective on its problems, has interesting comments about the agency’s tangled incentives:

They never question the water nobility, they never look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, can’t do that.” The Bureau of Reclamation looks upon them as their clients, doing everything that the nobility says. The bureau works for the taxpayers, and it ought to be making the best decisions in the interest of all Americans, not just the narrow group of people who are receiving subsidies.

California farming in drought: a “robust corpse?”

Jeff Michael published some new data today suggesting California agricultural has been more resilient and less damaged by the current drought than I expected. “[T]here is virtually no difference in farm employment between 2014 and 2013 in the 3 counties that are thought to be most devastated by the drought,” Michael wrote. But perhaps I should not be so surprised.

For my book research, I’ve taken a dive into some research published in the 1960s and early ’70s by the late Bob Young, who started his career with a splash as a young ag economist at the University of Arizona by arguing that central Arizona did not need a huge infusion of Colorado River water. This violated an almost religious tenet in Arizona, his suggestions were ignored*, the Central Arizona Project was built, and we are now where we are. Young’s argument was that CAP would basically provide surplus supplies to an agricultural economy that did not need the water.

In a 1969 paper Young wrote with a colleague named William E. Martin (I hope this link works), he argued from pre-CAP data that, in the face of increasing water scarcity, Central Arizona ag was nevertheless growing. Why? Farmers, being self-interested actors, adapted. They made their irrigation systems more efficient, shifted their cropping patterns, and the like. “Irrigated farming,” they wrote at the time, “emerges as a rather robust corpse.”

That seems to be what is happening in California. Here’s Michael:

As I said, there is more data to sift through, but it is important to recognize that this drought is coming in the midst of a strong expansion period of Valley agriculture.  The total number of acres irrigated and harvested has been growing every year for most of the past decade, even in the face of scarce surface water.  Thus, in the absence of drought, I suspect 2014 employment would have been even higher.  The drought is causing significant fallowing of relatively low value, and non-labor intensive field crops, while new acreage is coming into production by tapping groundwater.  Thus, there are farmers laying people off, I don’t think the farmers in news reports are lying.  But clearly, there are others that were hiring.  In other words, the baseline for agriculture activity is rising, as I discussed last spring in this post.

A “robust corpse” in California as well? There are all kinds of questions about long term sustainability, but in the short term the collapse is not yet underway despite extraordinary drought.

* There’s a widely told story, repeated in Cadillac Desert, that Young was hounded out of Arizona as a result. Young ended up at Colorado State having an illustrious career as an ag and water economist, and died several years ago, so I can’t ask him, but I found a colleague whom Young told several years before his death that the hounding story was untrue – that far from being hounded out, U of A offered him a tenured position, but that CSU made him a better offer. More to come on that.

The history of odd/even day watering restrictions

Reading Alex Breitler’s story yesterday about Stockton, for the first time in history, restricting the days of the week residents can water their lawns, I was reminded of this bit of business from Las Vegas:

In 1950, the municipality began restricting lawn watering. During the next two years the city employed the alternate day method, allowing homeowners with lots facing north and east to water their grass on even-numbered days of the month and the rest on odd.

That’s from Eugene P. Moehring’s Resort City in the Sunbelt, Las Vegas, 1930-2000. I’ve been unable to figure out how to confirm whether that’s the first example of odd-even watering. If anyone knows some bright grad student who’s done “The History of Municipal Water Conservation Policy” for their thesis, let me know.

For the parched southwestern U.S., a good forecast

Today’s long lead forecast from the Climate Prediction Center is pretty sweet:

May-July forecast, courtesy CPC

May-July forecast, courtesy CPC

That’s May-July, and here’s a reminder about what the color blobs mean, because that swatch of green across New Mexico, where I live, can be a bit misleading. The CPC divides climatological history into three bins – 1/3 dry, 1/3 the middle, and 1/3 wet. An absence of color means odds are evenly spread across the three categories. – “EC” means “equal chances”. It doesn’t mean a forecast that those area’s are likely to have average precip, but rather just even chances of wet, middle or dry.

The light green across the Upper Colorado River Basin means the odds of wet increase from one in three to a 33-40 percent chance. The “A” and darker green across New Mexico and the mountains of southern Colorado means a greater than 40 percent chance of this year falling in that upper tercile, a “wet” year. So it’s a shift in the odds away from dry and toward wet, not a guarantee of wet.

Keep in mind that drought conditions here are deep, so layering a wet forecast on a dry landscape still leaves the map looking a bit droughty for the Four Corners and some of the key watersheds:

Drought outlook

Drought outlook

Also interesting is the monsoon forecast:

July-September outlook, courtesy CPC

July-September outlook, courtesy CPC


The Salton Sea: the importance of getting 21st century water policy management widgets right

Ensconced in my office in Albuquerque, I’ve been popping in and out of the webcast of today’s California State Water Resources Control Board workshop on the future of the Salton Sea, and I’ve noticed a very interesting subtext to the discussion that I think is important. It’s about the importance of Salton Sea environmental management to the broader goals of integrated water management in California and the western United States.

If we’re going to get this right elsewhere, we’ve got to get the Salton Sea question right now.

As a broad matter of policy, folks around the West are trying to figure out how to negotiate the process of ag-to-urban water transfers while managing what economists call “externalities” – the third party impacts that we’re going to have to manage as we adjust the system to changing hydrologic and societal realities.

Kevin Kelley of the Imperial Irrigation District told the board’s members this morning that more some 50,000 acres of Imperial farmland was fallowed last year as part of a program by which the metro area of coastal Southern California pays for water conserved. In the midst of a horrific California drought, that water has become critical, making up 60 percent of the municipal supplies shipped down the Colorado River Aqueduct last year, according to Bill Hasencamp of the Metropolitan Water District. That’s huge. We talk about the importance of conservation. This is agricultural water conservation on an enormous scale.

courtesy Kevin Kelley, Imperial Irrigation District

courtesy Kevin Kelley, Imperial Irrigation District

But when agricultural activity in Imperial decreases, that means less ag runoff to feed the Salton Sea, and the sea shrinks. Kelly showed the slide to the right and told the board, “This area was covered in water ten years ago.”

The problem, as the Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen documented in a report last year, is that drying up the sea comes with enormous costs, as  a result of the hazardous dust clouds left behind. Health impacts are likely to be subsantial. Importantly, as several people testified today, that risk falls disproportionately on the poor. Imperial is a very poor place.

That’s bad as a general matter of equity and justice. It’s a moral issue. But it also could be a huge water management problem. The concern, as expressed repeatedly during today’s board meeting, is that as part of the Byzantine water transfer deal that kept Met’s aqueduct full last year with transferred ag water, the state of California promised to deal with “restoration” efforts to mitigate the worst of the sort of consequences Cohen described in his report. That largely has not happened. So LA got its water, Imperial ag got the money in exchange for the transferred water, and the externality remains unaddressed.

Failure here would be a serious setback to other innovated water management efforts, Cohen and his colleagues said in written testimony to the board (pdf):

The State’s failure to provide assurance that it will meet its mitigation obligations – either through a clear, transparent funding plan or through leadership on the development of a vision for Salton Sea restoration/mitigation – will have a chilling effect on future water transfer agreements that require state involvement. In effect, the State’s inaction not only jeopardizes the current QSA, but also diminishes the likelihood that other large-scale water transfers will occur to improve the State’s overall water reliability.


Drought: the waiting

Faith Kearns has a smart look at an under-covered piece of the problem of drought – the psychology of waiting:

[W]hile waiting for uncertain news, people often focus on preparing—emotionally and logistically—for any possible outcome. People tend to shift between optimism and pessimism, and both states can help increase readiness. Optimism engenders people to take preparative, proactive actions, and pessimism helps people to prepare by protecting themselves psychologically from worst-case scenarios.

Click through for some useful ideas about how to wait well.