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PPIC Report: They are Coming for the Water Rights!

But my consistent, recurring thought as I read the PPIC report was “Oh man, ag is NOT gonna like that”

Mar 09, 2011


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PPIC Report:  They are Coming for the Water Rights!!

We wrote last week about the Public Policy Institute of California's latest report Managing California's Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation that we weren't real excited about it.  It looks like the usual suspects with the usual solutions.  Nevertheless, it's caused a little debate in the water blogosphere and it's interesting to watch.  The first article below is from the On the Public Record blog responding to an article in the Sacramento Bee by Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute.  The title of Gleick's article, Report Wrongly Excuses Farms From Helping Solve Water Woes, pretty much says it all.  We couldn't disagree more, and the response from the On the Public Record blog shows some specific examples of how Gleick is wrong.  We also reprint Peter Gleick's response to the blog, and the blog's response to Gleick's response.  Got it?

The PPIC Report and Agriculture

I was startled at Dr. Gleick’s editorial in the Sac Bee saying that the PPIC report lets ag off the hook for solving California’s water scarcity. I get that Dr. Gleick’s complaint is that the PPIC report doesn’t emphasize agricultural water conservation enough. But my consistent, recurring thought as I read the PPIC report was “Oh man, ag is NOT gonna like that.” My read was that extracting water from ag was a consistent theme throughout the report, starting in the first paragraph of the Executive Summary.

The third sentence of the Executive Summary, right after ‘things are bad’ and ‘everyone wants more’ is:
At the same time, the state’s economy no longer depends as directly on water to generate wealth: agriculture, which still consumes the lion’s share of water, represents a small fraction of overall employment and economic output, and manufacturing accounts for only a small fraction of total water use.

This is not pro-ag sentiment; it goes straight to one of ag’s favorite myths, that they’re an economic powerhouse in the state. And if ag isn’t a big part of the economy, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing if the water they’re using now goes to other things. Other parts of the report echo that.

In chapter 7 (p 317-322), the report recommends putting both the reasonable use clause and the public trust doctrine to work. Under the heading “Reallocating Water for the Environment” they talk for ages about the two doctrines, and end up saying they are necessary “for responsive adaptation to changing conditions.” The writing is still a little soft, but the truth of the world isn’t. If we “reallocate water for the environment” it will come from ag, because it surely won’t come from urban. Five pages about how legal it is to do that is not pro-ag. (The page (328) on bringing pre-1914 rights and riparian rights into alignment with the rest of our rights system is a direct challenge to one of ag’s sweeter deals.)

The PPIC report recommends a public goods charge. Right there on page 344, they write define it as “a volumetric charge on all surface and groundwater used in the state”. This is another measure that lands heavily on ag, because they use a great deal of water. Imagine a fee of $10/af-year. Urban households now use somewhat less than an acre-foot a year; that’ll go down in the next decade, but a public goods charge will cost a household $10 or less per year. Farmers use a great deal of water. If Stuart Woolf irrigates his entire 20,000 acre farm in Westlands, he’d buy 60,000 af/year, roughly. He would pay $600,000/year into the public goods fund for water. Recommending a volumetric public goods charge puts ag squarely on the hook for the water they use.

Several aspects of their governance recommendations are about extracting water from ag. Frankly, I think that’s the primary motivation behind a water market they talk about at length. They suggest directly compensating people (like farm laborers) who suffer third-party impacts from water leaving ag. I thought their recommendation to re-examine the lengths of ag water contracts from the projects (currently 40 years) was one of their most dramatic recommendations (page 372). I haven’t heard much chatter along those lines, so it is a pretty bold thought.

I understand Dr. Gleick’s complaint (more on that in the next post), but this is not a document that lets ag off the hook. The entire report is based on the premise that much less water will be used for ag. It discusses legal mechanisms to loosen the water rights of ag users. It provides governance mechanisms for arranging the flow of water out of ag. It proposes that ag pay big dollars to the public goods fund, in proportion to their big water use. The text of the report isn’t quite as direct as this post, but for all of these recommendations, all that is required to see the implications for ag is one more obvious interpretive step. I can’t imagine that ag likes the report any.

I don’t like to respond to anonymous blog posts, and I rarely do. But my complaint about the PPIC is several-fold. They get the agricultural efficiency argument TECHNICALLY wrong — they simply either misunderstand or misrepresent the potential, assuming all excess ag water is recaptured and reused, which is simply false. But read the report carefully. Secondly, you correctly note how “soft” the writing is — they avoid explicit recommendations for agriculture in what I think is a cowardly form of writing. You seem to be reading between the lines for what you WANT them to say. Perhaps I’m reading between the lines for what they DON’T want to say. Even the quote you provide from the Executive Summary?? That’s an observation and a fact, not a recommendation or even a hint of a policy.


I am pseudonymous, not anonymous. I am here, stable. I’m interacting as an individual with a on-going reputation. I can be reached at this pseudonym; I respond to queries directed at OtPR.

True, I am not blogging under my real-life name, but I have reasons for that, including the fact that I can write better that way. But there are levels of accountability while blogging, and pseudonymity is midway between named and anonymous blogging. It shouldn’t be unworthy of your attention. (Maybe anonymous blogging shouldn’t either, but right now I’m making the limited case for pseudonymity.)


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