html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Not quite coming out and saying it...

Monday, November 05, 2007

Not quite coming out and saying it...

When people ask me if California has enough water, I never know what to say. Enough water for what? Enough water for us to maintain healthy rivers and give everyone a generous health and safety allotment? Oh yeah. More than plenty. Enough water for us to have healthy rivers, live in verdant cities and supply half the nation’s fruits and vegetables? No. We do not have enough water for that. We’re about to have dramatically less water than we’ve known since the west was settled. We will not have enough water to do what we’ve done for the past sixty years. Water use is going to shift dramatically, and if demographics are destiny, agriculture is going to get the shaft.

Far as I can tell, California agriculture will soon be getting the shaft from both ends. Cities have all the people, and urban folk will insist on using water. They also seem to insist on environmental uses for water, ‘cause they’re sentimental like that. As water gets scarcer, it will be drawn away from agricultural uses and put to urban and environmental purposes. Scarcity isn’t the only problem for agriculture, though. Changing precipitation from snow to rain means huge new floods. The central floodfighting concept is changing from channelizing rivers to move water fast as we can out to the ocean to controlled water spreading. We need bypasses and sinks and places we can put large pulses of water. I tell you what, every single time this comes up the first thing everyone says is ‘we can put flood flows on ag lands!’.

I don’t see much use in arguing whether moving water out of agriculture and putting flood flows on ag lands are good or bad things. They simply are. It will happen. If we don’t make deliberate choices in advance, the default is lots of individually negotiated small water transfers between savvy districts and cities to implement the shift to urban use. The flood use will arrange itself. If we want a different picture, we will have to choose it and deliberately change course to protect the form of agriculture that we want.

I have a strong vision of what I want California agriculture to do, and it runs to the picturesque. I want prime ag land to remain farmed, and I want it to stay ag land much more than I want it to be turned into suburbs. I want California ag to be part of a stable local economy, and generate jobs that support migrants as they move their children out of a life of manual labor. I want California to grow and process stunningly delicious food. I want California agriculture to address and reverse environmental degradation; farms can deliberately sequester carbon; pastureland can deliberately harbor native grasses; farms be managed to support wildlife from insects on up. I want farm communities that develop local traditions and teach the dozens of skills that farming requires. I like farms that grow a wide variety of crops.

Farms can do all that neat stuff, but they cannot do it on the slim profit margins of our cheap food system. They probably won’t do it on their own initiative, out of the goodness of their hearts. So when we discuss the transition that climate change is forcing on them, we should define very carefully what we want our ag lands to do. When we have a clear picture of what California agriculture to look like, we can devise a strategy for getting there.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Dagon said...

So we talked about model of the individual - I'd love to hear what you think of WRT model of the collective. I think of a collection of people as an aggregate - just a set of individuals, without having a group will or any collective attributes not expressed statistically. You've made comments that indicate you think of a stronger identity for a collective. How does that work?

More specifically to this post, how do you reconcile your desire for the group to pick goals and work toward them against your belief that most people don't share your goals?

If cities have all the people, and they want water for non-ag purposes, isn't that a fairly clear supermajority opinion? Should engineers follow the will of their customers, or should they tell the customers when their goals are wrong?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

More specifically to this post, how do you reconcile your desire for the group to pick goals and work toward them against your belief that most people don't share your goals?

By knowing that I'm not going to get my way. I say my opinions anyway, 'cause that's my obligation to the community, but I don't expect them to carry the day.

Other ways to reconcile them - by trusting the process (if you do) and if it is really important, by devoting energy to persuading.

Engineers should offer people the information to make aware decisions.

Lemme think more about the collective.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

if the most genuine response is the immediate one, I'd say this before I overthink and analyze...

perhaps the best bet is to figure out how much water the dense populations will need, and then work AG back from that... since the dense pos carry the political weight to get what they want. The silver lining, is that the dense pops can be forced to make certain concessions based on zoning, covenents, and price pressure. IIRC much suburban water useage is actually to water lawns and yards. The people themselves don't consume it. A lot of suburbs have rule actually REQUIRING you to have a lawn, that must look such and such a way. If the price of having that lawn is high, people will clammor to change the rules, to allow xeriascape, and other low water use landscape, thus cutting their water use a lot. This was done in my old suburb here in highlands ranch, CO... The water district simply figured out what a generous household use for water was, and charge a progressively steeper rate for water above that use. That means if you have a large lawn, and water too much you can be paying double or triple what soemone with a xeriascape yard does... Suddenly everyone wants to change the by-law that requires your front yard to be 75% grass, and peole start paying much attention to exactly how much water their lawn needs, versus the too much they were putting on before. I believe that they have now tweaked that generous amount of water down the last years because it was too high, but it is settling down...

Rinse, lather, repeat... in some shortish amount of years the "non-essential" amount of water use trails down, and more importantly the mindset becomes different. what is accepted as a beautiful yard changes... the idea that you don't have to have a large lawn if you have kids, maybe starts to change. Or maybe not, that one is a toughy.

The amount of water available to ag can go up as high as it will go... without something heavy handed. We could do heavy handed stuff, it would just be much more difficult politically. Like putting moritoriums on changing water rights from Ag to private use. Like building houses where this is no water. Like allowing the planting of non-native grass at all.

Also? we will have to build more dams to catch the water, and everybody is gong to hate that...

just looking through the other end of the telescope, I guess...

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Ennis said...

"develop local traditions"

made me wonder if you have that same desire for quaintness in other economic areas. For example, do you want your plumbers to come from a family of plumbers who were part of a guild and who have passed on lore and learned skills sitting in their parents laps?

Or is there something different about farming than other trades or businesses that you feel differentiates it.

I'm not trying to score points (I'm not sure what point I would score). I'm just intrigued by the way your discourse shifts when you talk about farming, and you start to bring in ... almost semi-mystical concerns. I'm trying to understand some of the emotional content here.

2:47 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

Here's a simple, clear vision for californian agriculture: profitable farms thrive, unprofitable farms go away. In the latter case, the land reverts to its comparitavely most advantageous use, which may be suburbs, or wilderness, or something that is now only a glimmer in some entepreneur's mind. Here's how we get there: end farm subsidies. When can we start?

With regard to your previous "CA-AG for CA-ians" post: Just what Stalinist system do you have in mind for preventing an evil, capitalist californian farmer from selling a tomato to a non-californian who offers him more for it than a californian?

8:30 PM  

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