Asking for influence

Environmental and ag groups offer input on forthcoming state water regulations

Natalie Carter of BEC helped lobby for a water advisory committee.

Natalie Carter of BEC helped lobby for a water advisory committee.

Photo by evan tuchinsky

Groundwater information:
For more about SGMA, as well as the county's Inventory and Analysis Report, visit the Water and Resource Conservation home page at (click on the “Departments” tab).

After a particularly dynamic portion of the Butte County Water Commission meeting last Wednesday (Sept. 7), Natalie Carter and Colleen Cecil left with roughly the same degree of optimism.

Good thing, because fortune has made them allies.

Carter, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, and Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, had asked the commission to allow their respective constituents a greater voice in governing local water resources.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a California law passed in 2014, requires government entities and water districts to adopt plans for managing each state-defined water basin. The final deadline is Jan. 31, 2022—but by June 30, 2017, all eligible agencies in a particular basin must agree to a governance structure reviewed by the California Department of Water Resources, which ultimately gives approval to the final groundwater management plan.

Butte County is one such agency, representing groundwater users in unincorporated areas not part of an irrigation district, where property owners may use wells to pump water. Many well users are farmers, but other “private pumpers” also reached out to the Farm Bureau seeking representation, so Cecil spoke for more than just the agricultural sector at the Water Commission meeting when she asked for a voice in the planning process.

Carter, too, spoke for others. BEC took the lead in a coalition of 15 groups and individuals seeking a water advisory committee representing environmentalists and private pumpers.

Vickie Newlin, assistant director for the Department of Water and Resource Conservation, on the spot drafted plans for a session among the parties represented by the Farm Bureau and BEC—facilitated by a professional mediator—to hash out how an advisory committee might work. Time is of the essence. The next SGMA planning meeting is Sept. 22. The mediation session was set for Wednesday (Sept. 14), after the CN&R’s deadline.

Both Carter and Cecil said they understand the sense of urgency. Even a preliminary plan—with a rough outline agreed upon now, details to come later—would represent a better alternative to both parties than water policies decided strictly by the county and water districts.

“I think we’re coming closer to having common ground on this issue and coming together as a county to defend groundwater users that aren’t represented by [an agency] and also those environmental concerns, those beneficial uses of our water in our county,” Carter said after the meeting.

Said Cecil, whose pumpers collectively encompass 50,000 acres: “If we can’t be an actual [agency] at the table, then we need to find the best way to be influential in making sure that a plan is written to allow everyone to be able to do what it is that they’re doing to grow the economy in Butte County.”

Many people think of the Sierra Nevada snowpack and reservoirs when it comes to water supply. The other piece of the hydrology puzzle is the groundwater that—as opposed to surface water—moves below the earth’s surface, through porous geology (i.e., the Tuscan Aquifer locally), and gets tapped via pumps and wells.

One wet winter did not offset four years of drought, as was evident in a presentation on the 2016 Water Inventory and Analysis Report at the Water Commission’s September meeting (see infobox).

The SGMA discussion highlighted acute concerns about groundwater management. The law requires coordination between various agencies with overlapping authority in a particular water basin; once those entities form a shared-governance system, they must craft—then implement—a state-approved Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

SGMA includes provisions for environmental protections, which is why BEC has championed a water advisory committee for eco- and user-oriented input. That proposal, along with a plan from Cecil, was set for discussion Wednesday.

“It’s definitely a need, to start engaging those groups,” Carter said. “Here we go!”