Feds’ ‘fast-tracking’ of water transfers south has environmentalists boiling mad
As a sliver of water trickled down Little Chico Creek beneath a bridge over Stilson Canyon Road, local environmentalists explained the latest in what they believe is the Bush administration’s campaign to undermine North Valley water rights.
The public was given just a few short weeks to comment about the environmental effects of long-term water contracts that could send thousands of acre-feet of water in the Central Valley Water Project south.
Water districts in the Sacramento Valley, which have long been allowed to sell their water allocations at a profit, will be able to lock in the new deal for decades. A 60-day comment period on the contracts started July 2, and the public was given 30 days to comment on the draft revised environmental assessment starting July 30.
It’s ironic, the environmentalists say: The public can’t meaningfully weigh in for or against the contracts because not all of the environmental-review documents they’re supposed to comment on are out yet. Federal wildlife and fisheries agencies are still in the process of writing biological opinions on how water transfers could affect species here.
“There may be impacts both to surface [water] and to groundwater,” in addition to effects on fisheries and the economy, said John Merz, who leads the Sacramento River Preservation Trust. “The water belongs to all of us. It’s our resource.”
Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said the Bush administration, in the form of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, is trying to rush the contracts through at the last minute. She called for a slowdown. “There’s no urgency,” Vlamis insisted. “The spigot would not be shut off if [the contracts] weren’t decided by November.”
A Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson said there’s been plenty of time to weigh in.
“We have been negotiating these contracts for almost 12 years now,” said Jeffrey McCracken of the bureau’s Sacramento office. He said the timeline has nothing to do with election politics, and the final decision won’t be made until early next year.
In 1992, Congress passed a law preventing water contracts from being renewed until environmental documents were completed. The documents were made public in 1999, McCracken said, and, “We have been holding public meetings since then. This has been a very public process.”
But Vlamis countered that, while the renewals have indeed been dragging on, the latest environmental-review information is a critical component and something the public should also be allowed to comment on.
The Sacramento River Division of the Central Valley Water Project covers water as far north as Shasta County and includes the Tehama-Colusa Canal Unit, the Corning Canal Unit and the Black Butte Unit. The farmers negotiated the contracts after Shasta Dam was built in the 1940s, and the new agreements would cover 322,000 acre-feet of water for 25 or 40 years.
“We don’t have control over it; it’s not our water,” McCracken said of the bureau, other than to make sure the privately controlled water ultimately goes toward only agricultural, municipal or industrial uses.
(There are also other contract renewals being considered separately, “settlement contracts” that date as far back as the 19th century and deal with historic water rights—"base water” versus the project’s “developed” water.)
But McCracken said that to imply that the contract-holders were selling out the Northstate or getting rich off of water transfers would be “disingenuous.”
It’s true, Vlamis said, that the same amount of water will be off the public’s table regardless of whether farmers keep it for themselves or sell it south. But the problems come when, as in the early 1990s, districts choose to sell their surface water rights and then fill their needs by pumping groundwater. “What will it do to groundwater?” Vlamis asked. During the drought in 1994, she remembered, farmers in local districts got “huge checks” only to see two municipal wells in Durham run dry due to groundwater pumping.
BEC and the river trust aren’t alone in fuming about the turn of events. The Sacramento Environmental Water Caucus and Defenders of Wildlife help form the coalition dubbed the “Save-the-Water Campaign.”
Jim Brobeck, of the Lassen Forest Preservation District, said he’s concerned that water transfers could also affect the upper watershed, endangering trees and water quality.
The coalition also supports calling on California Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to do something about what the environmentalists see as a rush job.
“The senators in particular should have a fit that this was rushed through,” Vlamis said.
She said that, if there’s truly a water surplus in the Central Valley, as the conservative administration contends, an ethical case could be made for the idea of just leaving the water where it is, enhancing fish populations and potentially boosting the economy. But with water from the Colorado River being tightened up and SoCal as thirsty as ever, that’s unlikely.