How an obscure startup could help solve California's water crisis.
Josh HarkinsonJul. 8, 2015 6:00 AM
Could the sharing economy help solve California's water woes? Don't laugh. A new tech startup has come up with a way to let farmers lease their extra water, much in the same way Airbnb enables homeowners to rent out their spare bedrooms. It's being tested statewide this month in a joint venture with Western Growers, a trade group whose farmer-members produce half the nation's fruits and vegetables.
"It is scarily similar to the sharing economy we've seen in other areas," says Kevin France, CEO of Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management (SWIIM), the startup behind it all. "You are in essence quoting the availability of water and providing it to someone who needs it."
By allowing farmers to sell their water more easily, SWIIM may have found a way to fix one of the most vexing problems with the California water crisis: Even as urbanites and some farmers have been forced to severely cut back, many other farmers, typically those who hold the most senior water rights, flood their fields with little regard for efficiency. SWIIM estimates that farmers in California and Colorado on average waste 25 percent of their water, enough to supply all of the city-dwellers, and then some.
You may have read about the situation at Reddit, the online community that devolved into mutinous turmoil after the firing of a popular employee last week. Well, I was pretty close to the center of the storm, and I can tell you that there's more to the story.
The fired employee, Victoria Taylor, coordinated the "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) forum, where celebrities and regular people ranging from Bill Murray and President Obama to some random vacuum-cleaner repairman answer Redditors' questions in real time. In response to Taylor's dismissal, the site's army of volunteer moderators shut down hundreds of the discussion forums known as "subreddits," and while many of them have been revived, Redditors are now calling for the head of CEO Ellen Pao.
Because Taylor was fired a day after overseeing a problematic AMA with Jesse Jackson, many Redditors speculated that the two events were connected. Reddit's leaders and Jackson's people both say otherwise. In any case, I should weigh in, because I was on the phone with Taylor and Jackson during that AMA. Here's what I know:
One of the criticisms of the Jackson AMA was that, in some cases, his responses seemed out of sync with the questions. But this wasn't the standard AMA format, wherein an interviewee reads questions off the screen and types in answers directly. As often happens with other celebrity AMAs, Taylor selected Redditors' questions and asked them to Jackson live. She then transcribed his verbal responses and posted them on his behalf. Yet Jackson's AMA was even more complicated than usual because it was also one of the first in a forthcoming series of video AMAs to be released this fall. In this setup, he answered the questions in front of a camera in a ballroom in Los Angeles' Hyatt Century Plaza while Taylor communicated with him remotely from New York.
The most upvoted question began: "You are an immoral, hate-filled race baiter…" and went downhill from there.
The interview was meant to be an opportunity for Jackson to further discuss his diversity initiatives in Silicon Valley, which I'd covered in this recent Mother Jones feature. We suggested the AMA to him as a way to bring more attention to the issue—and to our piece. I was there in the Reddit feed during the AMA, identified as "Mother Jones," and also listening in on the call, where I helped Taylor identify questions relating to Jackson's work in the tech world. I could hear Jackson's verbal responses.
From the beginning, Jackson attracted a lot of hostile questions. This happens all the time on Reddit, but it soon became clear that his critics on the thread outnumbered supporters. People on Reddit pages can "vote" comments up or down, with the most popular ones rising to the top. The most upvoted question began: "You are an immoral, hate-filled race baiter…" and went downhill from there. Another Redditor pointed out that at least one person posting to the AMA had also posted in a notoriously racistsubreddit.
Taylor asked Jackson the upvoted question despite its confrontational nature. It was hard to blame her, since Reddit does call it "Ask Me Anything." Jackson's response was criticized as rambling and nonsensical, and to an extent it was, but the critics may not have realized that he didn't hear the full question. Out of politeness, perhaps, Taylor had paraphrased it to omit the most incendiary language. It's also worth noting that Taylor's transcriptions, while generally accurate, were not verbatim.
Some media accounts called the Jackson AMA a "shitshow," but by Reddit standards, it wasn't all that unusual. If you look past the awkwardness, there were some illuminating and thoughtfulresponses that were eventually elevated by other Reddit users. This is exactly what Taylor had predicted would happen. She is widely known and loved on the site as someone who just "got" Reddit and worked hard to listen to the community.
That kind of trolling "is very typical for Rev. Jackson being online," said a Jackson spokesman. "We get that same Fox News/Hannity/Colmes/O'Reilly stuff almost every time."
So was the Jackson AMA reason enough to fire Taylor? Probably not. Taylor didn't return my call, but Reddit Chairman Alexis Ohanian told a colleague of mine on Thursday that Taylor's firing "has nothing to do with the Reverend's AMA." He later said on Reddit: "We're phasing out our role being in-between interesting people and the reddit audience so that we can focus on helping remarkable people become redditors, not just stop by on a press tour."
A Jackson representative who helped coordinate the AMA told me last week that he wasn't even aware of Taylor's firing and had never complained to Reddit about how it went. That kind of trolling "is very typical for Rev. Jackson being online," he added. "We get that same Fox News/Hannity/Colmes/O'Reilly stuff almost every time."
The Jackson rumor, however, is convenient for critics of CEO Pao, who now faces a Change.org petition signed by nearly 200,000 people calling for her removal. Pao is perhaps best known as the former Kleiner Perkins employee who unsuccessfully sued the venture capital firm for sex discrimination—a suit that in some ways dovetails with Jackson's efforts to diversify Silicon Valley. Pao has also made tolerance a priority at Reddit. She recently banned five subreddits dedicated to various forms of harassment, including one focused on racism. Reddit's trolls responded by flooding the site with content that harasses Pao.
Pao admits she made a mistake in firing Taylor in the way that she did. The moderators "should have been told earlier about the transition and we should have provided more detail on the transition plan," she told NPR. It also might have helped to consider the proximity of the firing with the Jackson AMA—though had Pao done so, Reddit being Reddit, another conspiracy theory would undoubtedly have risen to take its place.
We already knew that Google, Facebook, and Twitter employed relatively few African Americans, but new details show that the gap is truly striking. All three companies have disclosed their full EEO1 reports, detailed accounts of their employees' race and gender demographics that the law requires them to submit to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The reports show that out of a combined 41,000 Twitter, Facebook, and Google employees, only 758, or 1.8 percent, are black. To put this in perspective, all of those workers could fit onto a single Airbus A380. Have a look:
African Americans comprise 13 percent of the overall workforce, which means they are underrepresented at Google, Facebook, and Twitter by a factor of 7. Here's a visual comparison of the black employees…
It should be easier to shift workplace demographics at smaller companies. Twitter, with fewer than 3,000 employees in 2014, has a huge black user base that is sometimes referred to as "Black Twitter." Jackson wants the company to do more to move the needle. "I am very disappointed," he told the Guardian. "We are becoming intolerant with these numbers. There's a big gap between their talk and their implementation."
Forget the drug war—the main battle now in the Emerald Triangle may be drought.
Josh HarkinsonJun. 30, 2015 6:00 AM
There were helicopters, SWAT teams, and nearly 100,000 marijuana plants yanked out of the ground, but last week's massive raid in Northern California's rugged Emerald Triangle was not your father's pot bust. Carried out by county law enforcement with no help from the DEA, it targeted private landowners—and not just because they were growing pot, police say, but because they were illegally sucking some 500,000 gallons of water a day from a section of the nearby Eel river that is now stagnant and moss-ridden.
In short, the cops say this was as much a water raid as a pot raid. One certainly could imagine, in this era of evolving attitudes toward marijuana, a shift in enforcement focus toward environmentally problematic grows on steep wooded hillsides or above sensitive salmon streams in an increasingly dry climate. These are not isolated issues: Among the growers targeted in last week's raid, according to the Lost Coast Outpost, were members of California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, a group working to bring growers into compliance with state and federal environmental laws.
A leading advocate for Northern California pot growers scoffs at the notion that the raid was environmentally motivated. "This isn't about the environment; this is about business as usual," says Hezekiah Allen, director of the Emerald Growers Association. Allen challenges the authorities' water use estimates, pointing out that the extensive reservoirs discovered at the grow sites could be eco-friendly ways of storing winter runoff for use during the summer growing season. He also questions the value of criminal raids at a time when the California Water Board is drafting a system of water-use permits and civil fines for pot farmers.
The raid suggests that even the most eco-conscious growers could face a reckoning once California legalizes cannabis and starts inspecting cannabis farms.
"There are 2,200 un-permitted water diversions for wine grapes in the Central Valley," he points out, citing a state report, "so I am curious when we are going to see the sheriff show up and chop down un-permitted vines. If we are agnostic about what the crop is, the same crime should lead to the same activity. That is all we are asking, just to be treated like any other crop."
Yet if state and local officials are to be believed (they did not respond to requests for comment), the raid suggests that even the most eco-conscious Emerald Triangle growers could face a reckoning once California (probably inevitably) legalizes cannabis and starts subjecting pot farms to agricultural inspections. Even with the the best land-use practices, many Emerald Triangle farms likely draw too much water from sensitive mountain streams and headwaters. Growers may find that it's cheaper and more eco-friendly to relocate to the Central Valley.
Or why stop there? Cannabis, indigenous to moist river valleys in Central and South Asia, uses about six gallons per day per plant. That's more than many other thirsty crops, such as cotton, which uses 10 gallons per plantfor the entire growing season. Which suggests that cannabis should be grown somewhere wet—somewhere other than California.
Allen doesn't see that happening. He argues that cannabis farming in the Emerald Triangle can be sustainable when farmers cultivate drought-tolerant Kush varieties from Afghanistan, and irrigate entirely with rainwater stored in tanks onsite. After all, no crop offers a greater financial yield per gallon of water. "If we step back and take a look at this industry and the jobs that it creates, California cannot afford not to grow cannabis in the 21st century," he says. "It's one of the most adaptable, resource-efficient ways of generating revenue on small farms."
In May 2014, the Reverend Jesse Jackson traveled from his home in Chicago to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, to address the search giant's annual shareholder meeting. Technology isn't what you would call a core area for the 73-year-old civil rights leader, who carries an old-school flip phone and oversees a website, Rainbowpush.org, that looks like a relic from the GeoCities era. But Jackson had a bone to pick. Despite Google's mission to make the world's data "universally accessible and useful," it had been fighting for years to stop the release of federal data on diversity in its workforce. "There should be nothing to hide, and much to be proud of and promote," Jackson told the company's executives after politely requesting its diversity stats. "I ask you, in the name of all you represent, to pursue this mission."
Ask him anything! On Wednesday, July 1, Jesse Jackson will be on Reddit, answering your questions on this and other topics from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. ET (8:30-9:45 a.m. PT). Photo by John H. White, via Wikipedia Commons.
David Drummond, the company's only black high-level executive, sized up Jackson, who stood out amid the mostly white crowd. "Many of the companies in the Valley have been reluctant to divulge that data, including Google," he responded. "And quite frankly, I think we've come to the conclusion that we're wrong about that."
The exchange was the public culmination of some behind-the-scenes arm wrestling that was vintage Jesse Jackson. Drummond, 52, was an old friend of the reverend who had volunteered for his 1988 presidential campaign and helped launch Jackson's first tech initiative, the Silicon Valley Project, 11 years later. The two men had met quietly a month or so earlier at Google HQ, and again around the time of the shareholder meeting. Drummond knew Jackson would ask for the stats, and Jackson knew Drummond would agree to release them. Two weeks later, Google's senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, did just that. "Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity," he said, upon revealing that the company's overall workforce was only 30 percent female, 3 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black.