Dust Bowl, and Grandpa Keeping His Job

My Dad told me a story about my Grandpa the other night.  I had heard about him surveying from the top of his station wagon, accidentally hitting his father in the head with a sledge while driving a fence post (and running like the dickens before he woke up), and some other family stories, but not about when he started with the SCS.

Grandpa worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Nebraska as a young man a little before and during the Dust Bowl years, plus a few years in California after that.  His dad, my great-grandfather, grew corn and wheat,

Dust Bowl storm, courtesy of PBS show Legacy by Ken Burns

which grandpa had helped with before striking out on his own.

Horse_plowing_wiki bw
Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

As soil storms began to rage across the land, the SCS was looking for ways to convince farmers to work the land differently.  Farming had started with shallow plowing when horse-drawn plows were all they had.  With their new tractors, farmers were able to plow deeply and get better crop yields.  They could completely turn the dirt, getting the grass on top buried, as they made cost-efficient, straight-line rows across their fields.  As yields quickly increased, and prices dropped, the race was on to plow faster and deeper to compete with other farmers.


So Grandpa’s boss told him that the SCS could not keep everybody working, since their budget was being cut.  However, if he could convince farmers in his area to plow on the contour instead of straight lines, he could keep his job.  This was in late winter, so he still had time to try to convince some folks before plowing began

Grandpa talked to his dad and asked, “Can I plow your field on the contours this year?  If it works, I can get some of your neighbors to do it and my boss will makes sure I still have my job.”  His dad agreed, and so he did.  They planted (my Dad can’t remember if it was corn or wheat), and the afternoon they finished, it started raining.  Hard.

Grandpa stayed out with a dim flashlight watching the furrow at the top of the steepest hill, near the house.  If it overtopped, he knew it would wash down the

Discing and planting on contours, Courtesy of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL)

hill, take out the rest of the furrows, and he would be looking for work.  Just as the water got close to the top of the furrow, the rain stopped.  In the next few weeks their crop came up and the neighbors watched as the seeding Grandpa did on the contours grew 3 times as fast as what they had planted

Corn on contours
Courtesy of The Des Moines Register

in straight rows on their hills.  You can guess, he was able to convince quite a few surrounding farmers to change their practices to plow on contours, and so he kept his job.

What’s this have to do with water rights?  Not a lot directly…but efficient practices that make better use of water can pay off and be more profitable in the long run.  Not to mention, it can keep government agencies and bank loan officers from demanding changes quickly, at a time when there may not be savings to get them done.

Water Rights Review, And What Are They Worth?

This is a review of what kinds of water rights we have in California, discussed here some months back in Water Rights – Why Do They Exist?  Which Kinds Are There?  As a water right holder, you are really interested in what kind of right you have.  Knowing what other water rights are is sort of academic, interesting but not necessary for day-to-day operations and the success of your farming or ranching business.

Even so, when the water supply is scarce you need to know what your neighbors’ water rights are both upstream and downstream of you.  We’re putting aside the issue of someone stealing water, and conflicts over diversion amounts.  Deferring the possibility of arguments, do they have a higher priority or seniority, compared to your water right?  Do other diverters have riparian rights, which would be senior to an appropriative water right?  The previous post in this blog is a good way to understand various surface water rights.  It’s always helpful to read another description in someone else’s words , and here is a really good list from Sandy Denn at the Family Water Alliance:  http://familywateralliance.com/water-rights-revisited/FamWaterAlliance_HmPg

The article has a brief and very handy description of beneficial use that is easy to remember:

The California water code was adopted in 1914. Since that time, water rights have evolved through many and varied decisions of case law and State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) actions which can carry the weight of law. A water right in California is a property right. For certain purposes, the right is treated as a real property right, yet for other purposes, it is purely usufructuary (i.e., a right to use). To preserve the right to use water, a beneficial use must be shown. Article X Section 2 of the California Constitution declares that the general welfare of the state requires that its water resources be put to beneficial use. In 1928, the voters of California approved a Constitutional amendment mandating that all waters in the state be “put to beneficial use to the fullest extent to which they are capable and that waste or unreasonable use of water be prevented…”

The kind and quantity of water right you have also affects the value of your land.  Sometimes, land with a good water right can be worth more than double the price per acre of an adjacent parcel with no surface water right.  In other locations, groundwater is used by most irrigators and surface water rights have less impact on the land value.  You may be interested in selling your property or buying someone else’s, so where can you find good information on how to value your water right?  This is what appraisers do, and the Northern California Chapter of the Appraisal Institute has a very good presentation on what goes into valuation:  http://www.norcal-ai.org/amass/doc-get-pub/article/252/Water_Rights_021010.pdf


This slide show also includes a discussion of highest and best use.  Water used for irrigation usually does not have to be used for the highest possible value or income, but it can be profitable to know what value the water could have.  This information is also good to have in your pocket if you face the issue of some or all of the land being taken by eminent domain, or by a mandated change of use , such as taking by the state or federal government for environmental benefit.  Here is one very useful quote from the presentation:


Highest Highest and Best Use Analysis Analysis
If the value of the water right on the open market is worth more than its contributing value to the larger parcel under its existi ng use, then maximum value is attained by selling the water right separately.
 Example ‐ sell the appropriative water right for a beneficial use and convert the land to dry land grazing


If you have any questions or comments, please comment here or contact me at RightsToWaterEng1@gmail.com.  It’s sprinkling here right now, and I hope that 2016 is a good water year for you.

Highest And Best Use – Eye Of The Beholder, Part 1 of Many

What is the highest and best use of water?  That’s a loaded question – ask 10 of your friends and get ready for some long conversations.
pump DSC06523Highest and best use is the doctrine that water should be used for the most valuable purposes.  Most people probably agree that the highest use is human health and safety – drinking water and fighting house or apartment fires being at the top of the list.

stream IMG_8137What comes next?  The answer depends on where you are, many court cases, what your business is, and right at the root of all human valuations, your world view.  Is your view of the world that humans and businesses come first, or that animals and environmental uses are most important?  This aspect of who we are, our world plum branch IMG_5832_view, is the foundation of our beliefs and our filter for all information.  World view discussions already have 10 million or more blogs so we won’t discuss that here.

Regarding water, what else determines the ranking of best and highest uses?  If you live in North Carolina, then rainfall is relatively abundant.  Sure, water needs to be moved to where it is needed, but handling floods might be more of a concern than enough rainfall.  If you live in a part of the world where surface water is scarce, like California, then every water use competes with others in dry years.

This is a short pgrain field _DSC2817ost and it will be fleshed out in the coming months.  For now, everybody have a great week.


Do Something Wrong, Instead Of Nothing!

Do something wrong, rather than nothing at all. Have you ever heard that before? I have heard it from Army veteran friends, a boss, even an elder of a church.

What it means to you and me is, if action is necessary, do something, maybe ANYthing, rather than freezing in place or ignoring a problem. This is obvious when you see a tornado 5 miles away, for example; either drive away from it if you are in a car, or take shelter if you are on foot. If you have a plumbing leak in the house and no parts to replace broken pipe, then put a bucket under it, or turn off the valve, and call a plumber. All of us have seen a TV show (or maybe had it happen to us) where a bad guy or an enemy pointed a rifle and said, “Don’t move.”. What do we all say to the TV? “Don’t just stand there, run!”. Doing nothing is a much worse choice!

Man working in ditch CostaDisc2-129 - EditedWhat about water rights – how does doing something wrong help? Everyone knows by now that surface water diverters need measurement devices, so put in a weir box and boards and try to measure flow if the Water Board, your watermaster, or your neighbor is promising painful consequences. Even stick boards in a ditch and seal the sides with gravel – something to take positive action to reduce future pain.

There is a philosophy based in law and a lot of experience, that says don’t put any controls on yourself until the court or government makes you. Why remodel your house to accommodate the wiring or plumbing, if you aren’t selling the house and everything works okay? Who would put a lot of money into an old truck to make it pass smog, if it just might pass a smog check the next time it has to be done? What farmer would change how he irrigates or ranches if everything still operates and the bank will keep making operating loans?

Surface water and groundwater are getting 10 times the attention they were prior to 2009. If the Water Board, or California Fish and Wildlife, or any other agency comes along, do something, anything, to comply sooner, even if it’s not the ultimate solution. Two posts ago, bureaucrats were discussed – they are still human beings and most people appreciate some effort to “get with the program”.

Be proactive, take some inexpensive action, educate yourself for free with some time in the Internet. Even a small, less-than-perfect improvement in your measurement device, flow and water use record keeping, diversion practices, or acreening, can pay back a lot more when you have to deal with agencies, a court, or an angry neighbor in the future.

California Water News All In One Place – Aquifornia

How do you keep up on California’s water news?  A great place to see articles for all major and many local newspapers is Aquafornia.

I fell behind on my blog and missed the weekly deadline, so I am behind a couple of days.  Travel for my son’s college graduation on the other coast, as well as Internet issues played a part.  Now my schedule is back on track and I’ll get another post in this week to make up for the tardy post.

Newspaper articles vary in length, coverage of the subject, and context.  The quality depends on reporters’ experience and editors’ interest in water subjects.  Since the great majority of California’s population lives in urban areas, reporting on water issues can be brief and leave out detail regarding agricultural issues.  Water rights is a complicated subject and it can be difficult to figure out what a reporter is actually saying when writing about some aspects of changes that can affect diversions!

AuaiforniaThe great thing about Aquafornia is that they aggregate, or pull together, a whole bunch of articles in one place.  I have been reading news articles from their site for years to keep up on news inside my area of expertise, as well as reporting well outside my own interests.

It’s always good to know what;s coming down the pipeline that might widely impact water rights.  For example, urban and environmental water shortages or water quality issues will certainly affect agricultural water rights in the long run, possibly even in the near future.

Screenshot 2016-05-11 at 06.50.27 - EditedAquafornia
is a whole lot more than current water news.  The site, hosted by the Water Education Foundation, is an encyclopedia of Statewide water issues.  If you want to do research on any water subject, it’s a very good place to start or get pointed in the right direction.

Working with Regulators, Dealing with Bureaucrats

Whenever you divert water, you’ll inevitably have to deal with people.  There are laws and rules about the diversion, use, return, and other factors of water use…and of course laws are made by people.  These aren’t the laws of physics or chemistry, of course, but human laws.  The documents and organizations that establish, make, change, and enforce water laws and rules include the California Constitution, the Legislature and Governor, the Courts at various levels, and everyone’s favorite: federal, state, and local agencies.

Agencies, otherwise known as bureaucracies, all have one thing in common.  They are all run and staffed by people.  Some people are easy to deal with, others aren’t.  Some act like normal folks, and others hide behind the requirements of a job.

What exactly is a bureaucracy?  Here is a very good explanation:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bureaucracy

Really, corporations are the same as bureaucracies in a lot of ways.  Since we are talking about the diversion of surface water, that means bureaucracies.  And bureaucrats.

There are some money-saving, hassle-saving methods to dealing with bureaucrats.  These are time-tested and have worked for me and many others.  Hopefully these will aid you in dealing with an agency or a particularly difficult bureaucrat.

  1. Do some research.  “Google it”, as the saying goes, and learn about the agency you are dealing with.  Google for comments by people who had the same problem as you.  How did they handle it, and what was the result?  Did someone have a particularly effective way of getting a problem solved?  It might be worth an hour of your time to use the Internet to find out everything you can first.
  2. Document your problem in writing before contacting a bureaucracy, with text, photos, maps, drawings, contacts, everything you can get on paper.  Scan it if possible so everything you have can be emailed.
  3. Assuming you are calling or talking to the person, write everything down.  E-ver-y single thing.  Date all the entries.  Get each person’s name.  You might buy a cheap spiral bound notebook at a WalMart or Dollar store – or buy a few, and the ones you don’t use when dealing with bureaucrats you can use for a diary, or shopping lists, or dealing with corporations.  Let the person know that you are keeping careful notes.
  4. Always be polite during at least the first few contacts about a problem.  Do not threaten, curse, yell, or any of those things that would be classified as “impolite”.  If the person you are talking to gets unpleasant, just keep a record of it for later, and maintain your calm demeanor.
  5. Explain your problem or need in as few words as possible.  That way a helpful person can get you the help you need quickly, without strain on your vocal cords or his or her ear.
  6. Give thanks and credit to the people who help you.  Write their bosses a note about the great work they did in helping you.
  7. If a bureaucrat says “It’s not my job”, politely explain the person’s statutory/legal/moral or other obligation to help you, and the terrible consequences to you if the person does not carry out his or her agency’s mission.  Give a reasonable estimate of the economic harm involved.
  8. On the other hand, if the answer is “I have no idea how”, don’t get frustrated, get more contacts from the person.  You’ll be following a trail, sometimes clear, sometimes through thick brush.
  9. If you are talking to the right person and cannot get the help you need, or an exemption from a rule, or whatever help you are looking for, ask to talk to the bureaucrat’s boss.  Don’t insult the employee to the boss, just explain to the boss that he or she has the great power needed to help you.
  10. If the boss cannot help, ask to talk to his or her boss.  See the pattern here?  Be courageous and go up the line as high as you need to go.
  11. If needed, know the names and contact information of the people on the Board, or the Director, or the Chief, of the bureaucracy you are dealing with.  It can help to let a bureaucrat know that you know who these people are, and while you really don’t want to have to go that far, you will contact them if necessary.
  12. If you are being harassed or threatened by an agency and you are pretty sure they are going above and beyond their normal practice, there are ways to get them to back off or slow down and listen.  Sometimes mentioning that they may be in violation of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, can give them pause.  Ask them for all communications in writing – that can cut half or more bureaucratic actions off right at the knees.  Ask for them to include references to all laws, rules, regulations, codes, court cases, etc., that they are relying on.
  13. Find the agencies, boards, or people to whom you can file a complaint, if you have exhausted all normal ways of getting the help you need and you haven’t been helped.  There are some particularly effective ways of jumpstarting a stuck process, but I won’t list those here because I don’t want to make the bureaucrats I have to deal with angry.  As suggested at the start of this list, use the Internet.
  14. Although it is expensive, you may have to hire an attorney.

That’s a long list, but if you are dealing with the State Water Resources Control Board, a lot of those folks are reasonable people.  The main problem at the Board is that these folks have five times the work to do than they can get done.  You’ll probably have to call several times to get someone’s attention.  See Rules 1 and 2 above!