Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yelling into the Hurricane (yes, my 1st blog post in a long time is about California water)

© 2014 Joshua Stark

There is no such thing as California water.

There is water in California, to be sure, from many varied places and of varying degrees of quality.  Los Angeles, for example, sits immediately next to the single largest body of water on the entire Earth -- and reminds me of a line from Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

If you read any op-ed piece or news article, or listen or watch any reports on our drought, you may be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as California water.  Alas, it is not so.  Let me explain.
California is blessed with more climates than all other states combined; we have literally dozens of micro-climates, as well, and, it goes without saying (almost) that we have hundreds of watersheds.  This is because our topography and our range of latitude are both extreme.  We have the second longest coastline of any state in the Nation, the highest peak in the Lower 48, the lowest and driest places in the country, and the hottest place on Earth.  California's seasonal precipitation varies from 2.5 inches to to ten and one-half feet (see this great map).

California is also very, very large.  For example:  The drive from Sacramento (considered by many in Los Angeles to be "Northern California") to Crescent City is the same distance as the drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles (if you don't know where Crescent City is, by the way, you legally have to move to Nevada and petition to get back into the State).

Now, consider the same water conversation on the Eastern seaboard:  Do we talk about "East Coast" water as if it is one thing?  Rarely do we consider the environmental, economic and social impacts of any policies in Portland, Maine, on Richmond, Virginia; more to the point, we would never consider pumping water from Portland to Richmond.

In fact, we don't even have language that would begin to encapsulate a conversation around water and watershed impacts between those two completely separated regions of our country.  Nor should we -- it would be absurd.

Of course, our political boundaries make all things possible (or impossible)...

The reality is that this year, each region of California is experiencing a drought.  The ecological impacts of one year of drought are tough, but California's weather is so diverse, and we haven't invested in the research to understand the extraordinarily complex implications of drought on each region.

Instead, we let our political boundaries frame our perception of reality, and when we try to shoehorn that perception into the physical reality of our gigantic State, we are left dumbfounded.  This occurs when we try to understand our impacts on water -- like when we unnaturally store and pump water the length of New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina.

But, instead of putting more resources into understanding the implications of our ecosystem-shifting actions (like pumping water, but also like mandating that people stop using outdoor water), we make a boatload of sweeping assumptions:

We assume that we have California water.

We assume that all water has the same value everywhere.

We assume that water's value is only in its commercial or civic use.

We assume that water is "used" like a product -- consumed and poof! it's gone.

We assume that residential water use is always consumptive and bad, and that radically diminishing its use will have only good impacts.

We assume that we dramatically diminish our consumption of water, overall, when we cut back on residential use.

We assume that California (corporate) Agriculture is a foundation of our economy.

We assume that the Central Valley and Southern California would not survive without "Northern" California water.

All of these are terribly inaccurate assumptions, but the worst of all (in my opinion) is our assumption that all human water users everywhere are exactly the same.

But, just as we live in radically different ecosystems throughout our state, our use of water and the impacts of that use on the landscape radically differ.

I can provide myself as an example.  I live 200 yards from the Sacramento River, on the edge of the California Delta and squarely within a riparian (or wetlands) corridor. 

My ecosystem has evolved with certain features, a relative abundance of water being one of them.  With our fluctuating temperatures (over 100 degrees F in the Summer, down to the high 30's in the Winter) and our wildly divergent seasons (all of our measurable precipitation occurs between October and April), this abundance of water has local impacts such as relative humidity, and its ease of access means that animals haven't adapted to go very far or for very long without taking a drink. 

I have a tiny pond in my back yard.  That pond -- plus a dog who doesn't care -- means a safe place for a drink for many local birds.  I have identified five separate species using the pond to bathe, four of them native.  Additionally, the safety of the space from the local feral cat population, plus my gigantic trees, has proven useful for nesting, and I know of four species of birds who are nesting in my back yard, alone (and I'm confident that there are many more).  One species, yellow-billed magpies (endemic to California), is threatened with extinction from west nile virus, and so my pond management (using my pond to water my garden and trees every three days) may even be providing some help, as I have kept my mosquito population pretty low. 

I don't use any fertilizer on my lawn, nor do I spray any pesticides on anything, so our runoff to the local river isn't any more polluted than when it came in.  I'd like to say it's because I'm environmentally friendly, but I've never cared what my lawn looks like.

In fact, my habitat is very thirsty and my soil is porous, and very little of our water actually runs off into our curb (where it would evaporate and pour down a sinkhole, because our street doesn't have a drain). 

When we shower, run the sink or flush the toilet, our water heads to a water treatment plant, where it comes out cleaner than the water that came downriver. 

One variable I don't understand (but I expect is quite large): I do not know how much water is leaked out of bad city pipes and infrastructure on its way to and from my 1/8th acre lot. 

Much of the water that we paid for and "used" then continues downstream, where some of it is collected, pumped 200 miles South, and sold by somebody who claims to own it.  For some reason, my payment for the use of the water never resulted in transfer of ownership of that water to me to sell to this downstream entity. 

Chances are great that this water is then sprayed into a field of alfalfa or an almond orchard, where it collects very large amounts of artificial nitrogen, along with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and locally occurring heavy metals.  It then either evaporates, sinks into the local groundwater, or runs into the local river.  Such water is not cleaned, and so its costs are borne downstream, in the air, and in groundwater aquifers.  Through this landscape where "my" water flowed, cleaner because of me, it passed thousands of Californians whose groundwater is now so contaminated that they cannot drink it.

If I lived in a desert or a rain shadow, my use of water in such a way may be considered wasteful.  But where I live now, with water such an important part of my ecosystem, dramatically curbing my water use may be the wrong thing to do.

I could write a book dispelling the other assumptions made above (eg., agriculture is 3% of our economy and is a huge burden on many Central Valley communities; if we cut all of our outdoor residential water use completely, we'd save about one-third as much water as we use on alfalfa in the State).

But for now, I only hope that this opens up a conversation about water's use and real impacts throughout our gigantic and diverse, and wonderful State.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Trying again: Let's start with frankenfish and consumers' right to know

© 2012 Joshua Stark

According to some producers, wild salmon just don't grow fast enough.  Oh sure, a Chinook salmon can reach 40+ pounds in two years, feeding for free and adding to the health of our lands and waters as it does, but this kind of willy-nilly public resource just doesn't cut it for those who wish to have complete control over their market.  So in the name of profit, these folks have genetically engineered a species of salmon that grows over twice as fast as wild fish.  Meant to be farmed in closed systems, these GE salmon will be fed by fishing for baitfish, presumably, and will not be allowed to enter our oceans, for fear that they will out-compete and destroy wild salmon.  First, however, the producers of this fish must get past the FDA, which doesn't look like too big a hurdle.

While the FDA wrestles with the question of legalizing GE salmon for consumers, California is considering whether or not to require labels identifying such meat as GE in the marketplace.  And while I might address the basic question of even allowing GE salmon at some future point, right now I want to address consumer knowledge in the marketplace.

This, of course, is a no-brainer outside of the halls of governance:  Libertarians to Socialists agree that consumers have the right to know where and how their food comes to be.  Even the opponents of the labeling bill (AB 88) couch their opposition in a manner that acknowledges some leeway in labeling requirements, arguing not that they shouldn't be labeled, per se, but that such requirements are the responsibility of the federal government, not the State.

In reality, the bill's opponents are concerned that if consumers know what they are buying, they will probably choose not to buy it (about 50% say they wouldn't).  Really, consumer choice is the issue here, and California has every right to require labeling.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is the California Delta to you?

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Dan Bacher has an update on Delta issues - noting that federal representatives of the Delta and North Coast recently met with the new Delta Czar, Jerry Meral.  Their reason:  To let him know that they have "grave concerns" (Mr. Bacher's language) about the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.  Add their voice to the many groups who've been involved for years fighting to make the Delta whole and healthy.

According to Mr. Bacher, the Reps.' concerns are over a peripheral canal.  However, if you read the quotations, it sounds like those representatives are not as adamant about opposing a canal as is Mr. Bacher.  This is too bad, and we constituents need to let them know that we want solid, explicit language opposing any conveyance around the Delta.

Make no mistake:  Any peripheral canal would be an ecological compromise, at best; at worst, it would be an ecological and economic disaster for a fertile, diverse, unique region. 

Everybody rips on the Delta, but the Delta is California's crown jewel, the source of our very life: from its water, the foods that come from its amazing soil (with no need to go against gravity), and its unique habitats.  From the way it is talked about in the news and in so many watercooler conversations, you would think that it is a festering sore on the face of the Earth, a cesspool of pollution, devastation and death just waiting for a catastrophe to rip it wide open and spread famine everywhere.  But, we have made ugly in concept something that is beautiful in fact - even now - and we do it because we do not understand our physical connection to it. 

You, who drink water in Los Angeles, water that is pumped hundreds of miles and over an entire mountain range, you are connected to the Delta: It infuses your cells, hydrates your body, helps fire your synapses. 

You, who spray water to ever-saltier flats on the West Central Valley, you are connected to the Delta: It lines your pockets, pays your kids' tuitions, keeps your workers happy.

And we, throughout the world, who buy California produce, we are all connected to the Delta:  It grows the largest agricultural industry on Earth, it builds our muscles and bones, forms our staffs of life, grows our children's eyes and brains.  We sanctify it, pray over it, cook it up, add it to our very selves.  We are made of the Delta.

And this is good.

But if we are to continue to benefit from it, then we must treat it right.  Many billions of other lives depend on the Delta, too, and the Delta, as any ecosystem, depends upon those lives for its own health.  There is no separation of a wetlands habitat from its water without loss and significant change, and we, as Americans, have taken on the responsibility of caring for those creatures we have harmed. 

Mr. Bacher notes a sad new record set this year:  more Sacramento splittail minnows were killed at the pumps this year than any other.  Nine million little lives lost for the pumps, while more water was pumped than ever before.

All of this that is the Delta - the devastation as well as the vitality, goes into those things we put in our bodies to keep ourselves whole.

So next time you start to think about the Delta as a horrible place, just remember:  The Delta is You.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Professor Mankiw's frustrating comment - with no chance to comment!

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Sorry for the non-environmental post, but the Harvard Econ. Professor Greg Mankiw has me a tad frustrated this morning.

I'm no economist, and so, if he cared to, I'm sure Mr. Mankiw could come in and take apart my comments here, (frankly, I'd love that, because I want an accurate representation of economics out in the public, and where I'm mistaken, I want to be corrected).  My real problem is that the Professor posts to a blog, but doesn't allow comments.

First, I would hope Mr. Mankiw would understand that the interactive nature of the internet makes it a world-changing phenomenon, and participate wholeheartedly in this interaction.  Second, I think by opening comments, Mr. Mankiw would watch his own posting a bit more carefully.  Case in point:

I'm poking through the cadre of economic minds on-line (starting at Env-Econ, of course) this morning, and I come across a little post by Prof. Mankiw.  He ends this three-sentence post with:

"If you can remember only one fact, make it this one: The middle class (middle quintile) pays 14.1 percent of its income in federal taxes, while the rich (top tenth of one percent of the population) pay 30.4 percent."

Of course, I'm frustrated by this comment, because it misses a basic economic concept, "diminishing marginal utility".  But, when I scroll to the bottom of the page to respond, I find no way to comment!

So, I'm taking time to point out a couple of mistakes that Mr. Mankiw makes in his inference (as I understand it, he is inferring here that our federal tax system is sufficiently progressive).

First of all, as he points out, the richest 1/10th pay about double in "federal taxes" (we'll get to that definition in a minute) what the middle quintile pays.  My immediate question:  What is 14% to a person making the middle quintile vs. 30% to one of the richest 1/10th?  So, I follow the link he posted, and I find that the middle quintile is defined as people making between ~ $34k and $62k, while the richest 1/10th are defined as making over about $2,468,000.

Then I ask:  What is the marginal utility of this money - the relative impact of 14% on $34k ($4760) vs. 30% on $2,468,000 ($740,400)?  Am I the only one to see that the five grand is way more valuable to the person making $34k than the $750K is to the person making the nearly $2.5 million?  If you don't see that, then realize that I just swallowed the poorer persons yearly after-tax salary in the rounding error for the richer person.

Now, consider that these were just the examples of the poorest in the group.  For the richest of the 1/10th, we are talking billions upon billions of dollars earned per year. 

Upon closer examination, then, it becomes obvious that 14% is a far heavier tax burden on the middle quintile than 30% is on the richest 1/10th.

And there is one other problem.  The "effective federal tax rate" Mr. Mankiw uses doesn't even include federal excise taxes - like the 18.4 cents-per-gallon on gasoline.  For poorer people, these taxes are heavy burdens (one study showed that the folks in the middle quintile pay about a quarter of their income on transportation), but for rich folks, that regressive tax is almost nil.

Professor Mankiw, please consider teaching folks in the ether about real tax burdens and economic concepts (like diminishing marginal utility), and please oh please start participating in the earth-changing world of the interwebs.

I'd be tickled pink if you'd start here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sec. Salazar continues the time-honored tradition of promising California hydrological miracles

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Mike Tougher has a good article in the San Jose Mercury News about Interior Secretary Salazar's comments on pumping Delta water to Central and Southern California.

Last year, when I pointed out that Meg Whitman (remember when she ran for Governor?) promised more water, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to the pressures of a live debate (I'm sure I'd look like a complete moron in a live debate, so I'm always judging those events nicely).  Secretary Salazar, when taking questions before the Commonwealth Club, might also get the benefit of the doubt.  It was a live, well-respected audience.

But the comments Mr. Tougher reports show a man flirting with serious conflicts with physics.  And believe me, physics always wins.

From Mr. Tougher's report:  "Salazar said building a new aqueduct around the Delta might increase the flexibility of water operations in such a way that it could lead to more water deliveries."

The Delta needs x amount of fresh water each year.  We aren't sure what x is, yet, but we know that in a typical year it is more than it now gets.  If freshwater is diverted from the Delta, it will suffer an ecological decline.

Mr. Salazar later visited the new fish screens put up to protect fish from the South Delta pumps.  Unfortunately, what Mr. Tougher failed to note is that the sucking up of fish into the pumps is only one of the ways they impact endangered and threatened species.  Their overall impacts on the flow of water through the Delta also kills fish by confusing them and sucking them into predator pits. 

But never forget that removing actual habitat (i.e., through a peripheral canal) is not the cure for pump impacts on tides and flows.  The single greatest ecological and economic benefits for both the Delta and the rest of the Central Valley would come from farming the Westlands for solar power.  

Physics can be our friend.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's rural? Wild? Urban? Nobody really knows

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Matt Weiser has an interesting article about Sacramento's recent, apparent uptick in violent human/wild animal encounters the past two weeks.  In particular, a couple of animals have been found with rabies (sad and scary, as anybody whose seen Old Yeller can tell you).

Coming from the country, I love how these stories are often told with surprise and awe about how these animals can live in such seemingly unnatural environs; namely, our cities.

First, I don't know how even humans live in these seemingly unnatural environs, but let's look past that, and consider the reality of our habitats and communities:  Nothing in nature respects political boundaries because they don't really exist.

There is no such thing as a "city" in nature.  Roads, rivers, bike trails, ditches, empty lots, power and sewer lines... the list of entryways into cities is long, and animals that have a high tolerance for humans and similar tastes find cities very inviting, indeed.  Cities offer wonderful shelters from weather and feasts for omnivores, and there is little we can do about it.  Conversely, traffic, agriculture, flood and fire control are a few examples of how the "urban" infiltrates and impacts those places we consider rural and wild, altering them completely.

Certain animals thrive under conditions that humans create.  As Bill Tweed, former Chief of Interpretation at Sequoia National Park, once pointed out, scavenging omnivores love food-storing omnivores; and, what are we, if not the consummate food-storing omnivore?  It would be very unnatural if other animals did not take advantage of our largesse.

For its part, Sacramento's wildlife may be wilder than most cities, which can, ironically, help bring down animal encounters.  We are blessed with a Wild & Scenic river corridor running right through the city, providing habitat for pipevine swallowtail butterflies to mule deer.  These wilder habitats offer more appropriate shelter and foods for those raccoons, skunks, opossums, and others who may be tempted to hit up houses and parking lots.

(If you are interested, you can read more of my posts on the illusions of rural, wild and urban here, here, and here).

Friday, September 2, 2011

President Obama concedes the wrong point in pollution regulation

© 2011 Joshua Stark

President Obama has pulled back from his earlier proposal to put stricter limits on ground-level ozone, a major pollutant and cause of asthma attacks and deaths, reports the Associated Press.

By this act, the President has conceded to opponents the very idea that pollution regulations are job killers, and opened the door to a flood of rollbacks, and the subsequent pollution increases that will come with them.

Hard choices have to be made, and the President has ducked a big one right here.  Sadly, he has done it by buying into the notion that pollution control is a net loss to our economy, thus legitimizing the idea, even though, under our current circumstances, it almost never has merit. 

In our dirtiest places, Americans live like 3rd World countries.  California's Central Valley has thousands of Americans who can't even drink their own tap water, and one-fifth of their children have asthma (for a thorough look at the impacts of asthma and ozone on the Valley, click here).

The regulation that the President has backed off would have direct impacts on asthma rates in places like the Central Valley, improving the quality of life for millions of Americans, particularly the poor.  But, what would be the economic impact?

Well, in 1997 the EPA estimated that asthma cost the U.S. between $9 and $11 billion (today, that would be $12.5 to %15 billion).  And these rates don't calculate lost productivity due to parents' worries over a hospitalized child, stress from losing a child, young people's inability to perform work throughout their life due to their impaired physiques and oxygen loss during growth.

Additionally, these calculations don't take into account the value of individual dollars - a gaping intellectual hole when calculating economic impacts.  Simply put, one dollar is worth more in a poor person's hands than it is in a rich person's hands, especially now.  A poor person, when getting a dollar, will spend that dollar, because it is more valuable turned into food than it is sitting in a bank.  A rich person may spend that dollar, or they may save it, because its value as a saved dollar may be bigger than its value as one more hamburger.

Right now, our economic problem is in large part due to our low total demand for goods and services because we can't afford them, because there isn't enough circulating money.  Money isn't circulating because we have too many people out of work, unable to afford things.

We are in the beginning stages of a vicious cycle, economically-speaking, and this cycle has nothing to do with our pollution.  But, regulating our pollution can go a long way toward ending this cycle and getting us out of our current slump.  Robust pollution regulation can lead to direct job growth in the testing and regulating industries (often public-private partnerships), and it will lead to increased productivity among those who would see improved health.  The additional demand from this growth of more valuable dollars would lead to increased supply to meet that demand, pushing up employment.

Make no mistake, companies who fight these regulations want to pollute.  If they didn't want to pollute, they would not care about the regulation.  They do not care about total demand, they do not care about social health improvements.  The individuals who work in these companies might care, but officially and professionally, they don't make their decisions based on what is good for the nation; they cannot, because the pressures of their fiduciary duties and their pressures to see quarterly profits are too great.

Economic reasons aren't the only reasons for robust pollution controls, and they shouldn't even be the first reasons.  But, there are real economic benefits to robust pollution control, and the President, by ignoring these, has lost sight of the good of the nation and has given over to ideas that will further stunt our growth, economically and otherwise.