Saturday, April 4

Waiting on the course of California hydropolitics

I was startled to see the (U.K.) Guardian had jumped into the issue of well-drilling companies' drilling logs in California.  (Groundwater records should not be kept confidential in drought-stricken California; March 27).  Granted, the Guardian has an American desk and routinely reports on situations in the USA that strongly impact the United Kingdom and European Union.  But drilling down into an old story about record-keeping in one U.S. state struck me as a little excessive.

Yet this isn't any old U.S. state and this isn't any old drought. California's agribusiness has a big impact on the, er, 'global economy' not to mention Global Food Security, although frankly I'm still feeling my way to learning why almonds are critically important to the globe's food supply.

So on reflection I can see why the Guardian wanted to add their two cents to the dust-up about the logs, a story that a local California newspaper called the Sacramento Bee brought to public attention back in July 2014, which merited a one-line mention the next month in a National Geographic article cheerily titled, If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained.

The logs aren't entirely confidential; they can be accessed by local and federal government agencies on a need-to-know basis.  But one look at the U.S. Geological Survey schematic that the Sacramento Bee published, constructed from data in well logs, shows why they're so important. California landowners and the companies they hire to dig private wells now have an urgent need to know how many wells are being dug in their region and exactly where and how deep.

It's the same for policy organizations, scientists and engineers outside government, and journalists  trying to gain better understanding of various aspects of the state's water shortage crisis. Consider subsidence in the over-pumped San Joaquin Valley for example; consider toxic well water for another.

Why the secrecy with the logs?  From the Bee:
In all other Western states, such records are accessible to whomever wants to see them – from university professors to civil engineers, real estate agents to the media. But in California, well logs are barred from public inspection by a 63-year-old law written to keep data gathered by well-drilling companies from falling into the hands of competitors.
There is much more to the Bee's report, written by Tom Knudson, and it would be of interest to everyone who's trying to get a handle on why California, which is supposed to be in the vanguard of innovation, is so backward in its water management policies.   Beyond backward, many of the policies, and the politics surrounding them, can seem downright crazy to an outsider.  But as with the well logs there's generally a sane explanation, often going far back in the state's history.

It turns out that California is hydropolitics spelled backward; its giant computer, petroleum, film production, wine, dairy, fishing, tourism, and farming industries -- even the illicit marijuana industry -- all these money-making dynamos are fleas clinging to the elephant's back of water. It's just that it took an unprecedented spell of dry, hot weather tangling with hydropolitics to bring out this singular fact governing California's existence.

When I stopped to consider I realized it couldn't be any other way.  Through astounding feats of "brute-force engineering," as Circle of Blue's Jeremy Miller put it, a desert got away with pretending it was Florida.  Now, however, reality has rudely intervened and demanded payment for the glorious fantasy production.

Yet the maddening aspect of the crisis is that the weather might change its mind next year, raining down so much water on California that fast-sinking parts of San Joaquin Valley farmland would look like the famous scene in "O Brother Where Are Thou?" (Pictured above.)  Which explains in part Governor Jerry Brown's diversion of $660 million from $1 billion in drought relief  measures to flood prevention.

The other part is that California hydropolitics kicks so many cans down the road a Sacramento legislative session sounds like a convention of castanet players.

Far be it for the Guardian or even American newspapers outside California to raise the biggest issue California politicians have been ducking.  That chore was left to Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who wrote on March 22:
[...] It's time for state government to consider regulating crops based on their water needs as the drought lingers.
This is what the Brown administration isn't talking about as it tightens the spigot on landscaping: Urban use accounts for only 20% of California's developed water. Agriculture sucks up 80%.
Some calculate it a little differently: 10% urban, 40% agriculture and 50% environment — meaning every drop in the rivers and marshes. Same thing.
Yet, no one in Sacramento wants to tell farmers how to use water — what they can and cannot plant and irrigate.
After all, we think nothing of telling other landowners what they can put on their property.
We don't allow a new housing tract to sprout unless the developer can identify a source of water. We zone everything in urban areas — requiring government permission to build a house, a strip mall, a factory or a refinery.
Yet, a farmer can plant whatever he pleases, even if surface water is flowing at a trickle and the aquifer is collapsing.
To pound home the point Skelton quoted from his paper's resident water maven:
This is what Times water reporter Bettina Boxall wrote last week: "Parts of the San Joaquin Valley are deflating like a tire with a slow leak as growers pull more and more water from the ground.
"The land subsidence is cracking irrigation canals, buckling roads and permanently depleting storage space in the vast aquifer that underlies California's heartland … hastening the day, experts warn, when [farmers] will be forced to let more than a million acres of cropland turn to dust…. [But] it's easier for growers to keep pumping than rein in their use."
In one area of the San Joaquin Valley, Boxall reported, the "land has been sinking at the staggering rate of a foot a year." And the groundwater table has plunged 150 feet in the last 15 years.
There's no longer a drought buffer.
There's no longer a flood buffer, either. A deflating tire can be patched and re-inflated. Once land sinks it can't be raised. Even if over-pumping is stopped, this only halts the worst of the subsidence because it doesn't deal with natural land sinkage.


bdoran said...

Having taken the American's factories away, we'll now take away their Farms and Crops.

That's what's going on and there's a full Court Progressive Push to do exactly that across the Progressive Spectrum - so hence the Guardian's interest.

The urban dwellers don't produce anything - by design. Farms and factories, artisans produce.

This is simply a push to take away any productivity from the native Americans [White Euros at this point in History] so that they have no economy, just as happened 150-200 years ago to the previous tenants of America.

Part of a piece.

Happy Easter.

Pundita said...

Happy Easter, B

Looks like this might happen sooner than later. Top of Google News just now:

'Gov. Jerry Brown defended the agriculture industry’s heavy water use in an interview aired Sunday, but he said historic water rights are “probably going to be examined” if the drought persists.'

These being water rights of farmers