Monday, January 18, 2010

PPIC Water Myths Review: Part 1

The objective of the PPIC Water Myths report is to get the facts straight, so that California water discussions can be "rebuilt on myth free foundations." That's a worthy goal, and it appears to me that the majority of the facts in the report are correct. But the PPIC continues to show a troubling tendency of downplaying their own mistakes and outright bias towards some stakeholders.

The biggest problem is serious inconsistencies with their far more influential 2008 report that endorsed the controversial peripheral canal. Although they tout the 2008 report repeatedly in Water Myths, much of their 2008 study was based on arguments and facts that they are now calling myths. Next week, I will discuss this in detail in Part 2 of the review.

The current focus is a few parts that raise questions about the seriousness of the PPIC's committment to neutrality and myth busting. At various points in Water Myths, the PPIC team 1) blames others for myths they created, 2) creates a new myth, and 3) shows bias for certain stakeholders.

Blames others for myths they created

The PPIC correctly points out that the Endangered Species Act is not the villian.

It is true that recent Endangered Species Act restrictions
have reduced water supplies available for some water users.
However, the effects are often overstated.
It is good to see this important point in the report, but it is rude for them to scold south of Delta agricultural interests for overstating the effects of reduced water supplies. After all, the statement that 40,000 (or 80,000) lost jobs has been the most pervasive myth in the water debate this year. Most overstatements of the effect are simply citing the discredited UC-Davis studies (written by authors of the PPIC Water Myth report). While they are no longer standing behind these reports, they have not formally withdrawn them and they continue to be referenced. Instead of lecturing others for citing them, perhaps they should apologize for their role in misleading the public.

In fact, it is the University of the Pacific Business Forecasting Center that is responsible for busting this myth (here and more recently here), but there is no reference to this in PPIC Water Myths. After we showed why their job loss estimates were 500% too high and pointed out that the majority of financial loss was to farmers not poor farm workers (who have indeed been hurt), UC-Davis quietly revised their estimates and revealed that their earlier reports mistakenly modeled the loss of millions in farm revenue as if it was all a direct loss to the revenue to farm labor contractors. Their explanation for this very serious error was to reveal that they actually didn't do the jobs estimates themselves, but were reporting results produced by state water agency staff (without attribution). Clearly, the relationship between this research group at UC-Davis and their funding agencies has become a little too cozy.

Creates a new myth

The "No Villians" section on subsidized agricultural water users (such as Westlands Water District) starts off with a novel argument for why these farmers aren't really subsidized in their view. Are they creating a new myth?

the claims of unfairness are unjustified, because most of today’s farmers have already paid for the subsidy through higher land prices; land eligible for subsidized water is more expensive (Huffaker and Gardner, 1986). Although the windfall for original landowners might have been unfair, current owners are receiving what the U.S. government led them to expect they would receive when they purchased this land. (page 8, emphasis added)
This is an interesting hypothesis, but they present it here as fact without providing any data or evidence. Do they have data on land sales and land ownership in the Central Valley Project area? I didn't know it had all changed hands recently. That conflicts with all the media reports about families who have been farming in this area for generations, and that the data from farmland appraisers and USDA shows the value of local farmland has appreciated tremendously over the past decade. The sole 25 year old reference they give isn't a study of land sales, but is of farmland lease rates in 1982. It's a nice paper that I enjoyed reviewing, but all it says is that water subsidies were fully capitalized in annual lease rates 28 years ago. (and some interesting implications for CVP acreage limits). There is nothing about how much land has changed hands or prices.

Shows bias among stakeholders

The most publicized section of the report described why they feel major stakeholders (southern california urban users, subsidized Central Valley Project farmers, and environmentalists) are not the villians they are sometimes portrayed. Each of these stakeholder groups has a very positive section intended to cast them in a more positive light. Although these positive descriptions are a bit of a reach in some places (see above), it is nice to see a positive tone.

In the final myth (#8), the report explains that a solution that makes all stakeholders happy is impossible, and some groups are going to have to give up some of their positions. Given the positive, one-sided descriptions of three major stakeholders in Myth #2; a fair and balanced report would now give an example of a tough compromise each of these 3 stakeholder groups might have to make.

Instead, the PPIC introduces a 4th important stakeholder group to their story for the very first time (the people of the Delta itself), when they need to give an example of throwing a stakeholder in front of the bus. The Delta doesn't get the positive treatment of the 3 other major stakeholder groups in the "No Villian" section (and they certainly would not have to strain any harder than they did for Central Valley Project farmers to do it). Instead, they fuel the villian portrayal of Delta farmers as selfish actors who only care about public subsidies for their levees and stand for the "status quo."

I don't have a problem with the tough questions the PPIC/UC-Davis team likes to ask of in-Delta farmers and residents. However, it is unbelievable to see supposedly unbiased academics give Westlands a free pass while they give the Delta an interrogation.

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