Bloggers discuss local water, planning ahead, Central Valley farmers, and more

JOW Blog Round Up
In this installment, bloggers explore local water issues with broad implications, efforts to plan ahead, take a deep dive into the plight of Central Valley farmers, drought pricing, and land subsidence.

Local use, broad impacts

Drought? What Drought? I’ve Got My Own Well!
On a trip to Oregon, WaterWired’s Michael Campana encountered a house with extensive landscaping and a sign proclaiming that the yard was watered from a well.  Campana believes signs like this stem from a mindset that holds that water not drawn from a municipal source does not exacerbate drought-induced shortages.  In his view, this is a selfish attitude, and one that, in the aggregate, does have a real impact on supplies.

An Open Letter to My Neighbors Regarding Drought and My Dead, Weedy Lawn
In response to the drought, Jonathan Kim decided to stop watering and let his lawn die.  In this piece for the Huffington Post, Kim defends his choice to his (somewhat disgruntled) neighbors, arguing that people need to change their attitudes about the importance of a lush green lawn.  Rather than using thousands of gallons of water on grass, Kim plans to put in drought-resistant landscaping, and urges his neighbors to do the same.

All Politics Is Local. How About Water? Not So Much
Echoing his argument from his irrigation piece, Michael Campana takes on the popular notion that municipal water supply is a “local issue.” Los Angeles and New York both source their water from far-flung watersheds, demonstrating that water can be anything but local.  Even groundwater basins may get water from other aquifers.  As a result, it’s important to pay attention to the details when discussing “local” water issues.
Planning ahead

Don’t Let Nature Take Its Course
According to Fred Lundgren, the drought has emphasized the need for another round of public works projects.  Expressing dismay at the lack of leadership from public officials, Lundgren concludes that “voters are electing too many affable dunces” who are unable or unwilling to take bold action. Bold action for Lundgren would include a huge project to bring water from the Mississippi to the western United States and investing in coastal desalination plants, as well as smaller improvements like local storm runoff reservoirs.

Contingency Planning in the Upper Colorado Basin
John Fleck writes that while Lake Powell still has enough water to generate power and meet its downstream delivery obligations in the short term, officials are beginning to develop backup plans in light of estimates from the Bureau of Reclamation that show a 20% chance of Powell hitting its minimum power pool elevation in the next 22 years.  Officials are considering tried-and-true methods like releases from reservoirs in upstream states like Wyoming and agreements for farmers to fallow land, as well as cloud seeding.  Fleck also notes that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the situation, with questions even over the exact amount Powell is obligated to provide downstream.

Central Valley Farmers

Scenes from the New American Dustbowl
In this post on, Alan Heathcock looks at the impact of the drought on the farmers of California’s Central Valley.  The farmers he spoke with blame much of their hardship on environmental laws aimed at protecting endangered salmon and smelt, and on politicians they see as more than willing to sacrifice the Central Valley for their urban constituents. While some farmers still employ wasteful practices, many have invested in efficient irrigation systems but still feel unfairly blamed for causing water shortages.  Ultimately, Heathcock paints a picture of a region and a way of life in decline, and calls on people to empathize with the farmers’ plight.

Heathcock’s piece elicited this three-part response from the blog On the Public Record:

New American Dustbowl, Mr. Heathcock (1 of 3) praises Heathcock’s efforts to tell the farmers’ story, but also notes some cases where his status as an outsider shows through.  In particular, OtPR thinks Heathcock overstates the significance of farmers leaving 400,000-800,000 acres fallow, pointing out that it is at most about 10% of the cultivated land in the Valley.

New American Dustbowl and Not Giving a Damn (2 of 3) examines the question of empathy, or the lack thereof, for the farmers.  OtPR posits two reasons for a lack of empathy.  First, the drought is hurting all kinds of groups, so it is unclear why farmers deserve special attention. Second, we have structured society around market transactions, so consumers care about getting the cheapest food, not these particular farmers’ produce.

 In New American Dustbowl and Resilience (3 of 3), OtPR observes that there seems to be an inverse relationship between wealth and drought resilience.  The richest farmers have invested in expensive permanent crops, which means they face “all-or-nothing situations” of finding water or losing their whole crop.  Row farmers, on the other hand, can be more adaptable.


 Drought pricing

Does Drought Pricing Violate State Law?
In this two-part series for CalWatchdog, Wayne Lusvardi examines the legality and efficacy of “drought pricing,” the practice of raising water rates during a drought.

 Part 1 examines drought pricing in light of Proposition 218, which, broadly speaking, requires voter approval of local tax increases, if the extra revenue exceeds the cost of providing the service.  Lusvardi further argues that even though drought pricing is often considered a market solution, it is really a political tool since it occurs within the context of an effective government monopoly.

Part 2 looks at different ways to price water.  Lusvardi points to Roseville, CA as an example of drought pricing that would not violate Prop. 218, because the water district imposed a surcharge to make up for revenue lost because of increased conservation. He also argues that market mechanisms, like auctions for agricultural water, take scarcity into account, and ultimately points to increased supply, not reduced demand, as the best solution.

Land Subsidence

Q: When is Land Subsidence Due to Groundwater Pumping Good? A: When You Say It Is
Michael Campana, writing on WaterWired, discusses one of the contradictions of land subsidence from groundwater extraction: as the ground compresses, it squeezes out an extra “slug” of water that would be otherwise unavailable. This extra water is non-rechargeable, though, because once the porous material that squeezed it out compacts, it cannot re-expand.  According to a USGS scientist, 18 million acre-feet of extracted California groundwater in the 20th century came from this compression effect.

 Written by Stratecon Staff