Water prices

We need a market price for water. Then people could decide the relative value of products and projects. Maybe almonds would be a good deal; maybe not, but we would not need lots of debate among people who did not have particular expertise to know.

Prices are wonderful things for all the information they contain. I spent years in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism and learned a few things about what finally killed the benighted system. Communism collapsed for lot of reasons, but a big one – not often noticed – was their lack of price information. Planners just could not figure out relative values, so they wasted resources, creating shortages of things that could have been plentiful. We distribute water much like the Soviets distributed bread, and we get similar problems with misapplication and shortage.

Reference – http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/04/california-almond-orchard-defy-critics-continue-expanding

Wolves: healthy and in decline

The wolf packs on Isle Royale used to be the paradigm for a successful natural system. I studied them when I was in college. But that was forty years ago. Sic transit gloria mundi. That applies to wolves as well as humans. Today the pack is inbred and declining. It is still a great study of a natural system. A healthy wolf population is just not naturally sustainable. Maybe more correctly, it is episodic. Wolves move in and then die off.

Isle Royale is an island w/o sufficient size or diversity to support a healthy population forever. The current wolf population arrived years ago when Lake Superior froze hard enough that they could cross. (Interestingly, this year it was cold enough for the first time in a long time so scientists could see the real conditions.)

Isolated populations tend to become weak and die out. I posted an article below about wholly mammoth die out, where some of the same inbreeding was happening. We have human cases.

I recall reading about Finders Island, near Tasmania. It was colonized by humans in the deep past and then they became isolated. Gradually, aspects of their technical culture were not passed along and they regressed to a primitive, inbred society that just died out about 4500 years ago.

A better documented case, although for different causes, was the Norse colonization of Greenland. The Norse colonized the place when it was warmer, about the year 1000. It was uninhabited by people at the time (Inuit had not yet arrived) and there was grass and resources to support two colonies. As the climate became much cooler over the next centuries, connections were lost, until the last people just died out.

Anyway, it is likely that human management, i.e. bringing in more genetic diversity, can sustain the wolf packs. Park officials take the hands-off approach. I suppose there is a “prime directive” type problem of humans managing nature. That means watch the packs die out and wait for them to others to arrive by random chance. It works in the long run, if you have thousands of years to wait. When new wolves arrive in their new world, it is like heaven for them, with lots of moose and other animals to eat. The populations grow rapidly, but not sustainability.

Reference article from Science Magazine – http://www.sciencemagazinedigital.org/sciencemagazine/24_april_2015?sub_id=CfjvGuIE7FnHW&folio=383#pg15

Carbon Taxes

Please refer to the link for reference – Pricing energy right is crucial and maybe a carbon tax can reduce taxes on things we think are good, such as labor and capital. If we want to reduce CO2, we can do that through regulation or through a carbon tax.
Regulation is a type of tax, it just is not very efficient. It appeals to people who just like to tell others what to do, but it is always more complex and does not – unlike a carbon tax – raise revenue. A carbon tax is relatively easy to administer, harder to cheat and it permits individuals and firms to plan. By making carbon a clear cost, firms can target reductions. – Vítor Gaspar, International Monetary Fund.
This elegant tax also have the advantage of focusing intelligence on reducing CO2. If you regulate, the best minds try to figure out ways to avoid regulation. If you make carbon a cost, those same smart guys figure out ways to reduce the cost.
Next up was John Delaney, US House of Representatives (D-MD). He talked about his new bill to tax pollution not profits. He proposes a carbon tax with proceeds to lower corporate taxes (American corporate taxes are highest in the world) and target some to help displaced coal workers and the poor. He said that these are not all optimal places to put the money, but in politics you need to compromise.
Even if you think climate change is a low probability event, the potential costs are high enough to take action now. This action is the most effective. He quoted Wayne Gretzky, the hockey great who explained that you have to go where the puck is going, not where it has been. Regulation tends to be backward looking.
Finally we had Bob Inglis, Energy and Enterprise Initiative. He spent most of his time praising Delaney, who had to leave for a vote. He thought the carbon tax would come, it would go from impossible to inevitable w/o pausing at probable. Both sides need to give. Conservatives need to give on the idea of the tax. Liberals need to make it sweeter by agreeing to reduce corporate taxes. It depends how important they really think climate change is.
These are good events. One of the great things about Washington is that you can continue your education in these ways. And you often get a free lunch.

When not to recycle

The bottom line is energy consumption. If something consumes more energy to recycle, it is better not to do it. We can add the permutation of toxic materials. We should recycle things that may cause damage.
However, recycling sometimes makes no sense. For example, recycling of office paper is worse than a waste of time. It takes more energy to recycle than to make fresh paper, and since most paper is made from pulp thinned from sustainably grown trees, paper production HELPS forest health.
Glass is inert, like sand. It causes no trouble to the environment. If it takes more energy to recycle glass than it does to dump it, we should dump it.
Recycling as become a kind of act of religious faith. It is past time we figured out when it is a plus for the environment and when it is a liability.
BTW – the biggest sin in recycling is when municipal sewage waste is put into landfill instead of being recycled into fields and forests. Strangely, this elicits almost no protests. In fact, many fight the deposition of biosolids. This is ignorant.
Reference – http://www.wsj.com/articles/high-costs-put-cracks-in-glass-recycling-programs-1429695003

Priceless water

The problem with water is that it is priceless. We had the same problem with energy. We tried to distribute it “fairly” and ended up with shortages. When people have no incentive to figure out better ways to use something, they just don’t bother.
reference – http://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-water-woes-are-priceless-1429051903?mod=hp_opinion

April 2015 forestry visit

Alex and I went down to the farms to look around and see what might need be done. We were a couple of weeks too early. The trees have mostly leafed out, but the pine trees have not started growing yet. Still, everything looks green and healthy. There has been a lot of rain this year, so the streams are full and there is mud on the roads.

We are looking to harvest around 45 acres of loblolly on the new farm. Alex is going to get three bids on the logging. I would like to have it done by end of summer so that we can get new trees in the ground in November-December. I want to try some of those new hybrid trees. They are expensive, so I figure that we can plant them much farther apart and let the natural regeneration fill in between them. We can spray to suppress the brush and let the pines survive. They are supposed to grow 25 feet in five years. If they really grow so much faster, it will be evident in a few years. If not, the natural regeneration will be okay. That is my plan anyway. I think it will be a good experiment.

We will doing some kind of harvest each year for the next years. We will harvest 45 acres of the new place this year and probably get the next 45 in 2016. In 2017, we will do the second thinning on the Freeman property and then the first thinning on CP in 2018. I would like to burn under the trees in Freeman in 2019. Then we get a little rest.

The Freeman property is looking good. The hunt club built their headquarters on six-acres that I sold them for that purpose. It is very attractive building, suitable for parties and meetings.

My longleaf pines are looking good. I did a little bit of work with my scythe knocking down brambles near them and – sadly – taking out a few volunteer loblolly. There are only five acres of these, so my slashing makes a difference. You can see my picture with one of the longleaf pines.  I will get a picture again for comparison each year. The big ones are about six feet high; others are still in the grass stage. They are odd trees. They spend a couple years looking like grass and then they shoot up.

The longleaf were planted in 2012.  You can read about the site preparation here.

Big curiosity

I was a better diplomat in Portuguese than in English because I had to listen harder and was a little more reluctant to talk. This is hard for a compulsive talker like me. And I did my very best work when I was really interested in learning about what others had to tell me and let them tell me.

That is why this book made so much sense to me. It imparts simple advice – a version of trying first to understand before trying to communicate – and like most simple advice it is easy to think you do it already, but when you think harder you see you don’t. I would especially recommend this book to two groups: junior officers just starting their careers and old guys like me on the way out. Both are in phase transitions and in special need of broad wisdom from others.

We never can know for sure what will come from any of these “curiosity encounters.” It is an exploration. I am making changes already next week. When I came to Smithsonian last year, I immediately & proactively started to meet people and try to learn as much as I could about … everything. When I looked at my more recent calendars, I noticed that there is much less. Fatigue? Actually, I just got lazy. It is easy to make the excuse that you know enough or meeting any particular person will not add much. You can probably argue that any missing any particular encounter is not big deal. But it is a big deal in total. Next week I am back to a more active meeting schedule.

I read an inspiring quote from William Mulholland, in a book I read last week and also talked about on Facebook. He said about the Los Angeles aqueduct project that it was …”a big one. But it is a simple one. The man who has made one brick can make two bricks. That is the bigness of this engineering project. It is big, but it is simply big.” This applies to many things besides engineering projects.

Reference – http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Mind-Secret-Bigger-Life/dp/147673075X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428843443&sr=1-1&keywords=the+curious+mind

Water: the big thirst in California

I watched Governor Jerry Brown on “This Week” this morning. He said some sensible things about water in California. One of the questions he answered referred to water to farmers. It was the usual comparison saying that agriculture uses too much water in comparison to it contribution to GDP. This misses a fundamental point about water. Actually, several fundamental points but let me address one.

Water is essentially a raw material for agriculture in a way it is not for other industries. Making a comparison in use is like complaining that the local McDonald’s uses beef than the gas station next door and then demanding both cut their beef consumption.
None of this is meant to imply that agriculture should waste less water. Since so much is being used in general, even small % of savings will make a big difference. But as governor Brown pointed out, irrigating a farm field is not the same as watering your lawn.

I read a really good book on water called “The Big Thirst.” I have reference it below. It is good for us laymen to understand the issue better. http://www.thebigthirst.com/the-book/

Do I contradict myself?

I recently wrote a post that included criticism of how AP classes study American history. I have been thinking about that since and noticed the persistent negativity. America became great by Americans doing great things. Every great thing, however, no matter the magnitude of benefit, will also create problems. The greater the total affected, the greater will be the total of negative effects, like a larger circle of light touches a larger area of darkness. We should certainly consider the negatives, but need to balance.
I was especially thinking about this as I am about halfway through “Water to the Angels,” a biography of William Mulholland and his bringing water to Los Angeles. I knew there was a lot of controversy about this water project, so I did a little general background research. Among the things I found was a PBS series and a lesson plan. The segment concerning this was called. “Water Use: Tragedy in the Owens River Valley.” That is kind of a loaded title, don’t you think? And it is a good example of the negativity I am talking about.
Most of the landowners in the Owen Valley lost water rights. This loss, BTW, was more potential than real. It could be called a tragedy, I suppose. But in compensation, the Los Angeles and the valleys around it got water they needed to grow. The Owens Valley was, and still is, remote. When the water project was built, there were only around 4000 people living there. It would not have supported many more. Most were able to sell the land or water rights for more than the market value. Although this was less than they would have/could have demanded had they known the magnitude of what was about to happen, but it is hardly a tragedy. In fact, IMO, it would have been a little unfair for them make all the money on the work others were contemplating.
Some people love to hate Southern California, but everyone has to admit that it is a miracle of engineering. The possibilities created by William Mulholland were truly remarkable. There were costs. There remains an alkaline dust problem in the Owens Valley. But if you compare that to all the innovation, industry and wealth created in Southern California over the past century, it is like holding a candle to the sun. If the water had not been “stolen,” growth in Los Angeles region would have essentially stopped. Of course, we could have irrigated land in the Owens Valley and produced more alfalfa.
Were I writing the lesson plan, I would title it something like, “The Miracle of Southern California” and put it in context of other projects, such as the one in New York about the same time that was supplying water to NYC, or later big projects such as Hoover Dam or Grand Coulee. W/o the energy and materials produced as a result of these projects, our country may not have prevailed in World War II. That would have been a tragedy of worldwide proportions.
Challenges overcome and costs paid say a lot about great people doing great things. We should taste both the sweet and the bitter but can choose which to emphasize. Lots of things are true at the same time.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”
― Walt Whitman
Reference http://www.amazon.com/Water-Angels-Mulholland-Monumental-Aqueduct/dp/0062251422

Moynihan’s Mistake and the Left’s Shame

Interesting book review. Yesterday I posted a “Freakonomics” podcast talking about using data and experimentation to understands social problems. The empirical data often contradicts easy assumptions and may make it possible to make actual improvements. Too often in today’s debates about social issues opponents demonize and attach morality to what should be differences about what to do. For example, I have never met anybody who hates the poor or wants to maintain people in poverty. But there are legitimate differences in what to do. Sometimes, in a complex environment, things do wrong because of and not in spite of our best efforts.

Reference – http://www.city-journal.org/2015/bc0403fs.html