water | food | environment — The Blog of David Guy

Conserving, protecting and loving our natural and human resources.

November 9, 2016
by David Guy

Crossing the Rural-Urban Divide in California

With the election now behind us, there will be political analysis for many months to come. What is most striking to me from the election is the divide between urban and rural areas, which is true for both the United States and California. Although this divide manifests in a vivid way through the election map, it is really a deeper divide that shows different cultures, values and perceptions. By splitting my time between California’s cities and the rural areas, I see this divide through both my personal and professional lens.


To help bridge this divide, let me propose state leaders develop a rural-urban connection strategy for the State of California that borrows from the good work that has been done in the Sacramento metropolitan area.

In 2007, the political leaders in the Sacramento metropolitan region came together through the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) and the non-profit Valley Vision to develop a new platform for leaders to think about the region in a more holistic fashion. The innovative platform is known as RUCS, or the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy.  In the discussions that led to RUCS there was an increasing awareness in the urban metropolitan area about the importance and value of the rural lands in the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada, and vice-versa. Urban leaders in this process increasingly came to appreciate the many rural values, including farms and ranches, as the economic engine for the region, the pastoral setting that urban people are increasingly appreciating as they live in a more dense and crowded setting, the birds, fish and other wildlife that grace these rural landscapes. Rural leaders learned to appreciate important urban values and markets that grace our marvelous cities. In all cases, there was an intuitive recognition that the region is unique, singular and linked together in many ways the region’s leaders are still discovering.

California has nearly 39 million people—projected to be 50 million by 2050. These people are all drawn to California by a powerful allure: an amazingly diverse landscape drenched with plentiful sun and the California dream. It is this broadest context—an increasing recognition of the amazing and diverse landscape—that underlies the significance of the RUCS process and the strong desire for the leaders in the region to more effectively connect the various dots between the urban and rural areas. It is also interesting that, as our society has become increasingly urban and disconnected from everyday rural life, that there is a desire among people and leaders in both cities and rural areas to build a greater connection—a rural-urban connection–that will be vital to California’s future as one state.

October 2, 2015
by David Guy

What can we learn from Laudato Si’?

With the papal visit to the United States last week, it is timely to think about Pope Francis’s offering in his encyclical letter: Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home.

I recently visited the Vatican and spent some time reading about the church and its past and current policies. As part of this effort to understand the role of the Pope and his efforts to influence world policy and encourage actions, I read the 99-page encyclical letter. I am not catholic and do not pretend to understand the church orthodoxy or culture. I nonetheless read the letter with interest and found that, regardless of your religious beliefs, you will find Laudato Si’ powerful—as both an inspiring and very thoughtful and intellectual collection of ideas and themes that probe the special relationship between people and our planet.

Papal audience

Most of the media attention around the encyclical has focused on the politics surrounding climate change or the economic divide between the northern and southern hemisphere. To me, the more salient and pervasive thoughts offered by the encyclical emerged around our common home and how society interacts with the places we live. Here, the church demonstrates a deep respect for the places we live and urges us to think differently—an integral ecology– about our vital relationship with the earth and our surrounding landscape.

Several vignettes from the encyclical include:

“When we speak of the environment, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶139)

He adds that “authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.” (¶5)

When proselytizing on ecosystems, it discusses how we need to take “these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.” (¶140)

For water, he emphasizes that “fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensible for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry.” (¶28)

He also explores the ecology of daily life in a fascinating way, starting with recognition that “we were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.” (¶44) “Authentic development includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life, and this entails considering the setting in which people live their lives. These settings influence the way we think, feel and act…We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy.” (¶147) This suggests the importance of making connections between people in our increasingly urbanizing world and the rural working landscapes and nature.

At a broader philosophical level, it is interesting to me that at certain points in the journey through the encyclical, it seems as if the church is flirting with Pantheism and is weaving this into the fundamental principles of Christianity.

Laudato Si’ can be found at: w2.vatican.va

buttes.Brian baer

Photo by Brian Baer


August 11, 2015
by David Guy

A shout out to California’s farmers and ranchers!

As we progress through another dry summer, let me offer my appreciation for California’s farmers and ranchers and the vital role that they serve in our state and throughout the world. Nestled between California’s untamed natural areas (the wilderness areas, National Parks, and conservation areas) and the thriving urban areas are California’s working landscapes, including California’s farms and ranches. The dry period in California has made me appreciate these farms even more. To most of us, the drought is something we hear about in the news, but it does not affect our daily lives. To farmers and ranchers, the drought is not esoteric—it affects their daily lives and their families and challenges them in ways that non-farmers cannot truly understand. The drought is imbedded in their lives.

In this light, let me urge readers to take a moment to take stock and reflect on the role of California agriculture and the farmers and ranchers who serve our state. Here are my ruminations on the role of agriculture:

  • Food is such an important part of our lives and culture. We love to eat and we enjoy socializing and spend time with family and friends around diverse and special foods. In California we are fortunate we can take for granted the wide variety of interesting and high quality food that is available all year, usually from somewhere nearby. It seems that other than coffee, pineapples and bananas, nearly every other food product is grown somewhere in California. We like the idea of community and backyard gardens, which are great and serve many valuable purposes, but they will not and cannot produce the magnitude and quality of products we want to eat, as well as those we wear and use for our urban landscapes.

Photo by Steve Beckley


Photo by Jim Morris

  • In a largely service economy, it is important to think about what California produces that is cherished throughout the world. The two products that come to my mind are movies and agricultural products. No matter where you go in the world people enjoy the fruits of our Hollywood back lots and California’s agricultural bounty. The movies are perhaps more visible, but the agricultural products provide both subsistence and enjoyment in every part of the world. California’s combination of soil, water and sun is singular and should be celebrated as such.
  •  The farmlands are truly an important part of our working landscapes. The farms provide important pastoral values in an increasingly urbanizing society that is generally frenetic; they serve as important habitat for many species; and they are the feeding grounds for birds along the Pacific Flyway, the environmental success story of our generation through the creation of surrogate wetlands habitat. The farmers I know care deeply about our rivers, they truly understand how the rivers function and they have made significant investments in efforts to preserve and recover salmon runs.
Photo by Brian Baer.

Photo by Brian Baer

  • California agriculture has been the most resilient and consistent industry in California, as it has evolved significantly from California’s early days through today. Many other industries have come and gone—agriculture has been a mainstay through all these times.
cucumber.steve beckley

Photo by Steve Beckley

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Photo by Brian Baer

  • Farmers and ranchers are productive and active parts of communities throughout the state. Although farmers are generally independent-minded, they come together around communities. Many of these communities were built around farming and they are still dependent upon and tied to farming for their existence. There is a certain nostalgia associated with farming; but, as you look around California’s rural areas, it is quickly obvious that California agriculture is very progressive, continually evolving, and is not relying upon nostalgia. Agriculture is pointing forward…not backward.
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Photo by Steve Beckley


Photo by Jim Morris

  •  We take affordable food in this country for granted. I have had the good fortune to travel in various parts of the world to recognize and see first-hand the political and economic instability that is directly linked to food and its availability—both now and historically. It is worth taking a moment to think about how fortunate we are in the United States and particularly California to have access to our bounty, in large part due to the efforts of the farmers and ranchers who work daily to create various products for our benefit.

My family lives in the city and we love spending time in California’s wonderful cities—both north and south. We also spend considerable time enjoying our National Parks, wilderness and recreational lands, which are unmatched anywhere in the world that we have travelled. We feel equally blessed that we are able to enjoy each other and our friends around interesting and diverse food, much of which comes from the productive rural areas in different parts of California.

Take a moment to thank a California farmer!

February 11, 2015
by David Guy

How do we manage water in dry years for multiple beneficial purposes?

With 2015 emerging as another dry year in California, there are several important lessons from the past several years that help inform water management this year and how we can make every drop count by serving multiple beneficial purposes that benefit both the economy and the environment during these challenging years.

The first is the importance and value of water storage. California has 38 million people and a highly managed system where all beneficial purposes depend in some fashion on water in storage. What we have learned is that in dry years we need as much water in storage as early in the year as possible so the water will be available later in the year for all these beneficial purposes. In other words, in a managed water system, downstream uses depend upon the timing of water availability and thus benefit from capturing as much water in storage as early as possible. The timing is particularly important for salmon, where the earlier water is captured in storage, the deeper the water in the reservoir, which allows for colder water releases later in the year for critical salmon rearing.


The second is for creative water resources managers to work together to develop operation plans for this stored water that will provide water for multiple beneficial purposes. In California’s Sacramento Valley, the water resources managers last year partnered with state and federal agencies (both water management and fishery agencies) to develop operational scenarios to maximize water use for fish, farms and birds. Importantly, in years like 2014 with limited water availability, the fish, farms and birds all suffered—the fish and birds did not have ideal habitat conditions and many acres of farmland were left fallow or yields were reduced due to a compressed irrigation season. What did emerge, however, was a creative partnership that worked to optimize the conditions for all these purposes, recognizing the lack of water in the Sacramento Valley. For perspective, without these creative efforts in a year like 2014, there would have been little (if any) water for any of these purposes and they all would have suffered even more.

To show how this worked on the Sacramento River, the diagram below shows water released from Shasta Lake and how it will serve triple duty in the Sacramento Valley.

1) Below Keswick Dam, water was initially released for temperature control for the winter-run salmon rearing in the upper mainstem of the Sacramento River. This reflects the priority that the fishery agencies are placing on salmon. Once water serves this first purpose, it continues to flow downstream, then;

2) Less than half of the released water was diverted for use by farms and habitat in the Sacramento Valley. These districts and agencies had their supplies reduced by 25 percent, plus they rescheduled their deliveries so water could be retained for fish and they worked with their neighbors to help provide water supplies in areas that had no water supplies. Along with these diversions;

3) Water was diverted for the Pacific Flyway and other bird habitat. Ricelands that has water within the water districts was farmed to provide food sources for the Pacific Flyway and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) also delivered water to the three National Wildlife Refuges: Delevan, Sacramento and Colusa. The water thus served millions of birds along the Pacific Flyway.

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Water is the lifeblood of the Sacramento Valley—this example shows how creative water resources managers have made every drop count in supporting our economy and the environment—the fish, farms and birds.



Photo by Brian Baer




September 28, 2014
by David Guy

Thinking about the Future of Farming……

Watching the “Farm to Fork” festivities in Sacramento this weekend gives me renewed encouragement that our urban population is seeking and finding new ways to think about the special attributes of agriculture and its important role in our society. Much like the evolution that occurs with food and wine as people develop more sophisticated palettes, the food movement appears to be poised for a growth spurt, where people are searching for a more sophisticated understanding about the agriculture that feeds and clothes people, as well as enriches the landscapes we all live.

In thinking about these issues, I call upon two different articulations that help project some of the new energy underway in the discourse around the future role of farming. Both views show the important evolution from idyllic views of pastoral farming to a more practical view about what it takes for successful farming into the future.

The first article is a homespun opinion piece in the New York Times that caught my attention. “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers” offers an important local call from the ground. The opinionator, Bren Smith, an eastern farmer, shares the contradictions he sees from his farm. On the one hand, the local food movement has helped with general awareness about food production, it connects urban people to the rural landscape and it creates powerful convivial opportunities for people to enjoy each other. On the other hand, he adds that “the dirty secret of the foodie movement is that the much celebrated small scale farmer isn’t making a living” at this craft. “The food movement…is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.”

The second article is a well-produced National Geographic video-graphic by Jonathan Foley that explores the challenges to feeding the world. National Geographic has attempted to simplify the issues and encourage people to realize that by 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet?

“Unfortunately, the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. The arguments can be fierce, and like our politics, we seem to be getting more divided rather than finding common ground. Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right. Meanwhile proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty—and help themselves out of poverty—by adopting techniques that improve fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right too.”

“But it needn’t be an either-or proposition. Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there. We would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms, and blend the best of both.” The National Geographic video-graphic can be seen at: Where Will We Find Enough Food For 9 Billion?

On the heels of a successful Farm to Fork weekend in Sacramento, we have another opportunity to think about the future of farming. In the Sacramento Valley, the farmers are not only producing a commodity in the traditional economic sense, they are also the leading conservationists in the region, developing innovative 21st century projects and programs that will benefit salmon, migratory waterfowl and other birds, flood protection, as well as provide the pastoral settings that urbanites are craving in our increasingly frantic and busy environment we live. Please join in this conversation.

July 22, 2014
by David Guy

Attend the Parsons Lodge Series in Tuolumne Meadows

Every year my family looks forward to visiting Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park—where you not only experience the beautiful alpine meadow, but you can also take in one of the wonderful presentations at the Parsons Memorial Lodge. This year, as always, the breadth of speakers provides amazing insights into Yosemite and California that we would not normally notice or think about.

Parsons Lodge

On nearly every Saturday and Sunday in July and August, the series features speakers ranging from artists and philosophers to research scientists, naturalists and historians. The full schedule of presentations is available at: Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series.

The Parsons Lodge is a wonderful setting that was previously a central meeting spot and reading room for the Sierra Club. It is also one of the earliest rustic stone buildings in a National Park, and it has become a trademark of National Park Service architecture. The picture shows the Parsons Lodge with the founder of the Summer Series, Margaret Eissler. She has done an amazing job assembling this series, which began in 1992. Her history with Parsons Lodge goes back to her youth, when she lived in the nearby McCauley Cabin during several summers when her parents were caretakers. See an interview with her at: Yosemite Conservancy – Q&A with a Yosemite Insider.

See you in Yosemite this summer!

June 26, 2014
by David Guy
1 Comment

Lessons Learned from the California Drought

It is not surprising that most drought discussions in the policy arena and the media inevitably focus on areas where water is not available. What is surprising, however, is that we do not pay more attention to the areas that do have reliable water supplies and better understand why these areas have reliable water supplies in the third year of the California drought.

A quick flyover of California’s economic and political centers provides a good illustration:

  • In Southern California, Metropolitan Water District and its member agencies have developed an amazing portfolio of water resources. This includes Diamond Valley reservoir (70% full); Lake Skinner (84% full) and Lake Mathews (45% full), as well as access to surface supplies in Lake Mead on the Colorado River and State Water Project facilities south of the Delta.
  • Contra Costa Water District has access to water in Los Vaqueros (82% full).
  • San Francisco has up-country and local storage totaling more than 900,000 acre-feet.
  • East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) has access to storage in Lake Pardee (88% full) and it is now using its dry year water for the first time from the Sacramento River.
  • Santa Clara Valley Water District has an aggressive groundwater banking program that captures its water supplies from both the Central Valley and State Water Projects.
Diamond Valley 2

Diamond Valley Reservoir

Looking at these areas reveals several important themes that should help our policy-makers better plan and prepare for the next drought.

First, these urban water purveyors should all be commended for their leadership in developing water portfolios that serve them and their customers well during these dry periods. This did not happen by accident—these agencies have all made significant strategic investments in their portfolios and particularly their storage reservoirs that they are all calling upon this year. These agencies are all challenged in their own ways to manage and prepare their supplies for this dry period, but it is clear that the investments made by their ratepayers are paying off this year.

Second, the urban water agencies all have aggressive conservation programs that have helped them stretch their available supplies as populations increase; yet when looking at dry periods like this year, it is their access to real, tangible surface water supplies–integrated with their groundwater resources–that is the key to their drought programs and the ability to serve customers this year. The value of water storage, both surface and groundwater, to these urban areas cannot be overlooked this year and is instructive to other areas that do not have water supplies.

Finally, as policy makers consider actions to help California prepare for drought, an analysis of areas that have reliable water supplies is important. To be sure, rural areas in California do not have the same financial and political capital as urban California; yet if we care about our state’s diverse geography and are serious about a dynamic rural California that includes vibrant farms, wildlife refuges, fisheries, recreation, open space and rural communities—all of which urban people rely upon every day for their sustenance and pleasure–we must come together as a state to encourage private and public partnerships to help provide for and assure water for all these beneficial purposes during the next drought. The lessons learned in urban areas this year are instructive and a good starting point for helping the people in California understand how we can best prepare for the next drought.

Diamond Valley Reservoir

Diamond Valley Reservoir

May 22, 2014
by David Guy

Sacrament: a California Treasure

In a brilliant new display on the intersection between the natural and human landscape, Butte County photographer Geoff Fricker explores the essence of the Sacramento Valley and reveals why the region is a California treasure that is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

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In Sacrament: Homage to a River, Geoff pursues visual artistry to capture the vital interface between the natural and human landscape in the Sacramento Valley—a real place where we live and spend our daily lives. Through the imagery, Geoff moves gracefully from the past to proffer a vibrant future for the Sacramento Valley that works in concert with its rivers and streams. This includes images of diversion dams that have since been removed, as well as fish screens and ladders that have been recently added—all to provide better habitat for migrating salmon while supporting the local farms and wildlife refuges. “A thriving agricultural community and environment are dependent on the health of rivers and streams.”

In his preface to the photographs, Geoff reveals that his “connection to rivers, creeks, and water, as well as photography, runs deep and long.” Growing up along the American River near Sacramento provided the motivation and inspiration for this collection of black and white photographs: He recalls his youth fishing, swimming and catching crawdads along the river. “Naturally I developed a fascination with the history of the human presence on the banks of the river as well.” To provide visual context for the photographs, Geoff uses a specially designed 8×10 camera poised at an elevated position on a hydraulic lift on his truck.

For a slideshow of Geoff’s work, visit his website at: geoffricker.com. Sacrament: Homage to a River is available from Berkeley publisher Heyday Books at: Heyday Books. His work will also be on display at the California Museum beginning on June 10. For more information see: California Museum.

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March 16, 2014
by David Guy
1 Comment

Sagacity: A different, innovative and possibly better way to think about water management during these challenging times

History is replete with ideas that were ahead of their time. Sagacity in the context of agricultural water management is one such idea. As California wrestles with this dry period, the relationships between surface water use and both groundwater and surrounding environmental values becomes more acute. I propose that California would be well served by revisiting the concept of sagacity as a tool that better reflects these important relationships.

Sagacity emerged in 1997 when professors from California Polytechnical State University in San Luis Obispo wrote a paper: “Irrigation Sagacity: A Performance Parameter for Reasonable and Beneficial Use.” Although the paper received considerable attention at the time, the concepts in the paper seemed to disappear over the ensuing years.

For the past several decades, there has been a zeal for pure mathematical and engineering efficiency in water resources management that disregarded the context in which water is used; the larger dynamic surrounding water management for various beneficial purposes; and the relevant tradeoffs that water resources managers face every day. During this time, our societal values in water have evolved and policy leaders are increasingly recognizing the tradeoffs water resources managers face. Inherently, the zeal for precision in efficiency has led to unintended consequences in many areas, where, for example, the environment and groundwater resources have suffered as a result of pure mathematical efficiency.

To help avoid these unintended consequences, I propose that policy makers interested in good water management revisit irrigation sagacity and how it can help in today’s water policy debate. In its broadest context, sagacity is from the root sage, meaning wise, prudent or shrewd. The concept in the paper is that under the California Constitution, Article X, section 2, water must be used in a reasonable and beneficial manner. Sagacity is a performance parameter that embodies this two-part standard and helps provide a technical context to these terms. If adopted as a meaningful metric, sagacity would provide guidance and presumably encouragement to water resources managers to manage water in a more holistic way that reflects values that are not captured in pure efficiency equations. Conversely, non-sagacious uses are those uses that have no economic, practical or other justification; and, thus should not be the basis for water use, particularly during critical years.

Almond Trees - TM

Sagacity is a concept that deserves further attention, particularly during these challenging times. I encourage you to read the paper in more detail at: Irrigation sagacity: a measure of prudent water use.


January 22, 2014
by David Guy
1 Comment

More Challenging than 1977?

With all the discussions surrounding the dry year, there are many comparisons to 1976-77, one of the sharpest dry periods in recent history. Yet, as we look at and plan for 2014, it is becoming increasingly obvious that managing our precious water resources in 2014 will be much more challenging than

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it was in the 1970s. First, the inflow numbers in 2014 are less than 1977, as shown in the CDEC graphs below.


For up to date info see: Department of Water Resources – California Data Exchange Center

Second, the context in which water resources managers throughout the state are operating today is dramatically different and more constrained than 38 years ago. Policy makers should all understand the major differences, which include:

To be sure, water resources managers in all parts of the state have done an amazing job evolving and stretching water supplies to meet all these various beneficial purposes during these four decades. Yet there is more work ahead…..

For the State of California, the first order of business is to get through the immediate dry period. At the same time, it is imperative that we seriously look at longer-term solutions, learn from this current dry period, water needs when we have a drought four decades from now.