Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Wacky World of Western Water Law


All Things Considered:
California is America's agricultural state, but its vineyards, orchards and vegetable fields don't actually get enough rainfall to grow a crop. Some of those fields — notably the "salad bowl" of the Salinas Valley — get their water from wells.
The majority, though, depend on water from , mainly from melting snow in the mountains. Dams capture it, pumps and canals distribute it, and lawyers argue over who gets to use it.
Some end up with much more water than others.
Let's start with one of the fortunate ones: Allen Peterson, who grows almonds near the city of Turlock, Calif. A concrete-lined canal full of water runs right past his orchards. "The water's coming from Lake Don Pedro, on the Tuolumne River," Peterson explains.
The started building dams on the Tuolumne more than a century ago. Now, every farm in this district gets a share of the lake's water. This year, it's less than usual but still enough to grow a crop of almonds.
That secure source of water is as much a part of Peterson's farm as the land itself. It's also a family legacy. "My grandfather, and even people before him, built this irrigation system," Peterson says. "He scraped canals, built this thing up. They sacrificed a lot to have this irrigation system. And our land prices have reflected that ever since."
His land is valuable. The water itself, though, comes cheaply. Peterson is paying the district just under $30 this year for each acre-foot of water. (That's enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot.)
Meanwhile, there are farmers not far away, on the other side of California's Central Valley, who've been paying much, much more.
"We've had water that's sold for upwards of $2,000 an acre-foot," says Sarah Woolf, a farmer and water consultant in Five Points, southwest of Fresno. "It was horrible."
Woolf and I are standing in an almond orchard that's alive thanks to that expensive water.
It's part of the , which came late to the California water party. It tapped into the statewide system of aqueducts just 50 years ago. So under California's water laws, when there's not enough water for everyone, farmers here are the first to be cut off.
They were cut off this year. The owner of this orchard turned to Woolf to help him buy enough water to keep these trees alive. Woolf located a few farmers outside the Westlands area with rights to water that they were willing to sell.
The actual transfer of water was just a matter of aquatic bookkeeping. The sellers gave up their rights to draw some water from California's aqueducts, and this farmer was able to use that amount of water instead.
But this kind of exchange doesn't happen very often. In some places, it's banned. The Turlock Irrigation District, for instance, doesn't allow farmers to sell any of their $30 water outside the district.
This is why farmers are paying such wildly different prices. The water's not allowed to move.
Sure, it's frustrating as Hell when I mow my hay and bet against the weatherman, and he ends up being right, but I feel much better about the world's most productive rain-fed agricultural region than I would farming a desert, no matter how much engineering goes into it.  However, the ins and outs of western water law are a perfect example of warped markets and bad incentives.  $30 an acre-foot is more than 10,000 gallons for a dollar.  Compare that to that bottle of water you bought at the gas station.

All You Ever Wanted To Know About Pet Coke


 photo by Luke White

Chicago's South Side Weekly examines the piles of refinery byproduct piled up on Chicago's southeast side:
Petcoke comes in two varieties, green and cooked. Green petcoke is the material that is transported from Whiting to the terminals on the Calumet River. When that material is burned to make things like processed aluminum and cement, it’s declared cooked. Many factories around the country use petcoke of either variety in small amounts.It is consumed at the highest rates by aluminum smelting plants and by factories that produce bricks. Most of the United States’ petcoke output is sent overseas, however—typically to places like Japan, India and China, where regulations on pollution are not as stringent. In the first quarter of 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, those three countries accounted for over a third of U.S. petcoke exports.
In the early part of the twentieth century, petcoke was considered a waste product from the fuel-refining process. But since the thirties, petroleum coke has been burned as a secondary fuel that can be yielded by refining crude oil in a certain manner. It is most analogous to steam coal in function, yet it can contain as much as ten times more sulfur and release over fifty percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere....
In 2011, the U.S. produced close to sixty-two million tons of petcoke, and almost forty million tons of that was exported, according to a report from Roskill. The report estimates current global production at one hundred million metric tons each year, and predicts that the world will produce 170 million metric tons in 2016.
Nearly every manufacturing process has its byproducts, but petroleum coke, or petcoke, is also a byproduct of the present moment in climate policy. As more and more oil flows south from Canada—and with the possible introduction of hundreds of thousands more barrels each day with the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline’s fourth phase—the output of petcoke from the nation’s refineries has doubled since 1999, to 180,000 tons a day, according to the same report from Oil Change International.
Canada’s bituminous sands, in Alberta, produce oil that is called dark, or sour, in the petroleum industry. Formed in the Cretaceous Period, between 140 and 60 million years ago, the sands have been estimated to hold about 169 billion retrievable barrels, which amounts to just nine percent of the total barrels of bitumen estimated to lie below the boreal forest.
 The sands are second only to the Arabian Peninsula in petroleum reserves, though the liquid they produce is a mixture of petroleum, sand, and water, and is harder and more costly to refine than oil that comes from either Saudi Arabia or Texas. According to the report from Oil Change International, processing oil that is heavily laden with bitumen yields double the amount of petcoke obtained from refining light oil.
The oil sand are just one more example of how hard we are working to quench our thirst for oil.  The pet coke piles are another example of how Koch Industries will be involved in anything to make a buck.  The fugitive emissions in Chicago are just like those in Detroit and near other refineries around the country.  Just remember, the fiction of eternal growth has been undermined by reality.

NFL Players' Size Over Time

Noah Veltman graphs it:

The timelapse is pretty cool.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Major Malfunction: Revisiting Challenger

Major Malfunction: Revisiting Challenger from The New York Times - Video on Vimeo.

World War II Veterans Disappearing

I made brief reference to this on D-Day, but the World War II generation is rapidly shrinking:
As Bruce Drake points out over at the Pew Research Center, only 1 million World War II veterans are still alive to witness the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy that precipitated the end of the war. That's a fraction of the 10.7 million who marked the anniversary in 1984. And it's a solemn reminder that their ranks will soon disappear. As The Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb notes, few veterans are expected to live to see the 75th anniversary.
"By the next decennial anniversary," Drake writes, "the VA estimates that their numbers will be down to 81,117."
That VA data gathered by the National World War II Museum suggests that America is losing 555 World War II veterans a day. By 2027, that number will be down to 35 a day. By 2034, it will be down to two per day. Below are the full projections for America's veterans:
That saddens me.  We are losing a link to our history, and to a world that those of us who didn't live in it can not understand and fully appreciate.  My grandpa is the oldest family member I have, and he was born after the bottom of the Great Depression (1934).  He was 10 years old when the D-Day landings took place. He is a valuable guide to the past, but even he doesn't have a lot of knowledge of the Great Depression and World War II.  And while he should have a number of years remaining on this mundane sphere, there is a time in the not-too-distant future when he won't be here to tell us about his life and times.

NASA Photo of the Day

I'm a little late with this due to technical issues:

June 4:

A Green Flash from the Sun 
Image Credit & Copyright: Daniel L√≥pez (El Cielo de Canarias)
Explanation: Many think it is just a myth. Others think it is true but its cause isn't known. Adventurers pride themselves on having seen it. It's a green flash from the Sun. The truth is the green flash does exist and its cause is well understood. Just as the setting Sun disappears completely from view, a last glimmer appears startlingly green. The effect is typically visible only from locations with a low, distant horizon, and lasts just a few seconds. A green flash is also visible for a rising Sun, but takes better timing to spot. A dramatic green flash, as well as an even more rare red flash, was caught in the above photograph recently observed during a sunset visible from the Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos in the Canary IslandsSpain. The Sunitself does not turn partly green or red -- the effect is caused by layers of the Earth's atmosphere acting like a prism.