Friday, September 25, 2009

UC tackles water crisis ... and misinforms the public

I just perused the latest report from UC President Mark Yudof, "YOUR University of California." Most of the issue highlights the expertise the UC system brings to the state's water debate. With such an impressive set of scholars across institutions, it is unfortunate that a small group of UC-Davis faculty are dominating the public discussion. This newsletter had some interesting sound bites from the UC-Davis crew.

Under the bold headline, Economic Devastation, is the following.

Water shortages in the Central Valley could mean up to $960 million in lost income and a loss of 16,150 to 23,000 jobs, according to UC Davis' latest provisional estimates.

I am happy to see these "provisional estimates" are getting closer to reality, and if they cut another 10,000 from their job loss estimates they will finally have it about right. However, this is nothing for the UC President to brag about, as UC-Davis has done a very poor job of informing the public on this issue. Their earlier, incorrect estimates of 35,000 to 90,000 jobs continue to be cited repeatedly and have done much to fuel hysteria, pollute and politicize the public discussion. It is our report from the University of the Pacific that pointed out the errors, provided more realistic estimates of 6,000 lost jobs, informed and calmed the rhetoric of some of the water export interests, and sent the UC-Davis team back to the drawing board.

Later in the magazine, we hear from Peter Moyle, a renowned fisheries biologist, straying away from natural science and into political science.

The best thing for fish and the environment would be to stop pumping and water diversions, according to a 2008 research report. "We figure that's not going to happen," said Moyle, co-author of the Public Policy Institute of California report that calls for the construction of a peripheral canal and for allowing some Delta islands to flood permanently.
The influential PPIC/UC-Davis report is a political document in scientific clothes. Its authors love to throw around the word "scientific" thinking when they discuss it, even though they did not practice it in their research. In this review of the report, I pointed out a few of the ways they distorted the economics to favor the peripheral canal, choosing values for key water cost and demand drivers that contradict their own previous work on the subject. However, even those efforts were not enough to prove the peripheral canal is the best option, so they just state an opinion that the canal is the best choice because helping the environment is too expensive. They are clearly endorsing the canal on the grounds of political feasibility (note the comment in the quote above that they figure reduced water exports are not going to happen). Unfortunately, the authors are scientists (many of whom have received considerable research $$ from those who would benefit from a canal), and their canal endorsement is seen as a independent, impartial, and scientific. [To be fair to Dr. Moyle, he didn't do the economic analysis in the report, and surely trusted that it was being done correctly. I only call him out because he is the one quoted in this UC newsletter. However, I am baffled that that he signed off on the canal recommendation since the PPIC could only justify it by assuming that fish aren't worth very much.]

I hope we hear more from other UC experts in the future. For example, David Sunding of UC-Berkeley is making good sense in this excerpt from the magazine.

Historically, California has dealt with increased water demand by creating more supply through canals, dams and reservoirs, said David Sunding, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center.
"We're really reaching the limit of that," he said. "What's happening in the Delta is a measure of that. The ecosystem is really collapsing."
...Sunding, whose expertise is water supply, pricing and efficiency, said setting up a marketplace to sell water rights could alleviate supply problems.

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