BEC sees water-rights subplot in wells

Environmental group sues irrigation district over ‘research project’

Water in Northern California is like oil in the Middle East. Everyone uses it. It drives the economy. There is plenty of money to be made in controlling it. And it often breeds controversy.

The latest involves a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit by the Butte Environmental Council against the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District.

Late in 2007, BEC challenged a GCID project that would install seven deep wells—designed to test extraction capacity—into the Tuscan Aquifer, which underlies Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties. GCID declined to perform a full environmental review of the drilling project, filing instead a Notice of Exemption under CEQA, asserting that the wells are for research purposes only.

BEC has argued that the wells are just the first part of a larger plan to integrate groundwater supplies into the State Water Project by pumping water out of the fairly balanced Tuscan Aquifer so that surface flows from elsewhere can be banked there.

GCID, on the other hand, sees the project as an isolated activity necessary to determine how water moves throughout the aquifer. In addition, the district contends that in the CEQA exemption notice it’s submitted enough environmental review to conduct the tests for a proposed two-year period.

On May 21, BEC scored a procedural victory when Judge Donald Cole Byrd of Glenn County Superior Court ruled that BEC’s documents to augment the record are all admissible in the CEQA lawsuit against GCID. BEC feels the documents are necessary to fully describe the GCID project and the potential harm to the ground water basin, agriculture, residential and municipal wells, fisheries, and terrestrial habitat.

A hearing of merits is scheduled for 10 a.m. Aug. 13 at Glenn Superior Court in Willows. There, BEC hopes the judge will rule that GCID must conduct further environmental review or take it a step further and require an environmental impact report.

“Playing with groundwater can reverberate throughout the region’s ecosystem,” said Barbara Vlamis, BEC’s executive director. “We don’t know what the impact to environment or other water users would be if they install these wells.”

Thad Bettner, general manager of GCID, said monitoring the seven wells for two years to identify data on aquifer characteristics such as recharge rates, yields and flow paths is necessary to understand and evaluate the groundwater system.

“If there were effects as a result of the test, we would shut that well off,” Bettner said, noting this has been accounted for in the CEQA Notice for Exemption.

After the two-year test period, if it is determined there is a viable case for turning the test wells into production wells, such as for improving statewide water supply reliability, Bettner said, then GCID would submit a “full-blown EIR” under CEQA guidelines.

BEC is worried about just that. If the ultimate goal is to turn the test wells into production wells, then GCID—which is using public monies from both the State Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations to build the test wells—will be one step closer in a plan to sell river-water entitlements used to flood rice fields and replace this diverted surface water with groundwater pulled up by the new wells.

As such, GCID would have control of the groundwater in the Tuscan Aquifer, Vlamis said, and will have gotten it with the help of the state and federal government with little public oversight.

Bettner says the irrigation district has made everything public—and as far as groundwater is concerned, that’s not what they’re after.

“We’re not managing groundwater; there is no way GCID would control groundwater,” he said. “I can’t tell you what the ultimate use of these wells will be. A lot can happen in two years, and I don’t know what lies beyond the test.”

BEC doesn’t like that wait. Moreover, Vlamis would like to see a water element in Butte County’s updated general plan.

“Butte County is the Saudi Arabia of Water, and 87 percent of Butte County residents depend on groundwater for their drinking water,” Vlamis said. “If you sell surface water, you can’t pump groundwater to replace it, and if we can protect groundwater here, it will absolutely force the state to look for other solutions to the water problems they have created previously.”