At long last, water transfers get analyzed

Upcoming meeting to discuss impacts of pumping from north to south

Get involved:
Attend a public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Chico Masonic Family Center, 1110 W. East Ave. The Bureau of Reclamation is seeking suggestions for areas of study for a forthcoming environmental review of its proposal to transfer water from the North State south over a 10-year period.

Next week, a new chapter in North State water history will begin with discussion of an environmental review of transferring water from the North State down south. For water advocates like Barbara Vlamis, it’s about time.

“This is what we’ve been clamoring for for more than a decade and a half,” said the executive director of the advocacy group AquAlliance. “I guess there’s an element of satisfaction, but it’s really shameful that it’s taken 15 years of public pressure and follow-through to have public agencies follow their own laws.”

What Vlamis is referring to is the transfer of surface water to regions in the south. In the early 1990s, agencies “flirted with the idea,” and often fields would remain fallow so that surface water could be sold south. But as the years wore on, despite a negative experience early on, it became common practice to pump groundwater from the Tuscan aquifer to replace the surface water that was being sold—so those fields that had previously remained fallow could instead be operational.

But until now, projects were short-term and never required an environmental review. Next Tuesday’s meeting (Jan. 11) will be the public’s first opportunity to voice concerns about the environmental impacts of transferring water out of this region. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which touts itself on its website as “the largest wholesaler of water in the country,” and the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority want to ink a 10-year plan to transfer water from Northern California south and are seeking public input on how to study the project’s environmental impacts.

For Vlamis, this is an opportunity she’s lobbied for since 1994, when she was executive director of the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), an environmental organization dedicated to education and advocacy. That year, wells actually went dry because of over-pumping of the aquifer.

In 1994, the Western Canal and Richvale water districts sold a significant amount of surface water to Southern California. To make up for the loss, they pumped groundwater. Unfortunately, 1994 turned out to be a drought year, and agricultural and residential wells in the Durham area went dry. A Durham municipal well even had to be shut down, Vlamis recalled.

“We saw what happened to the wells, but there was no monitoring of the environment,” she said. “If they want to do this for 10 years, the potential to compound the impacts is huge.”

Robin Huffman, advocacy director at BEC, agrees.

“A 10-year plan is basically institutionalizing water transfers,” she said recently by phone.

Both women emphasized that the public should be very concerned about such a project and encouraged everyone to get involved.

“The agencies need to know that the people up here care,” Vlamis said.

For her part, she hopes to learn what the impact of transfers is on local creeks, ecosystems, wells and farms. In addition, she hopes to see a system in place to monitor changes in the local environment and a policy that would stop transfers if significant negative impacts are found.

Huffman’s questions for the Bureau of Reclamation hinge around the details of the project, which are as yet unknown.

“What is the program exactly? How deep are they going to go? How much can they transfer? And shouldn’t it depend on how much rainfall we get that year?” she posed. “We need to make sure it’s sustainable. We have a relatively healthy system right now, and we want to keep it healthy.”

An e-mail and phone message left for Brad Hubbard, project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, seeking further information about the plan were not returned by press time. A meeting-notice document posted on the AquAlliance website ( says the details—such as who can sell water to whom, what the limits will be, and what the impacts will be on a variety of resources—will be included in the environmental-review document.