County braces for drought

Biggest worry is that ‘worst water crisis in California history’ may lead to huge amounts of groundwater pumping

SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT YEARS<br>One of these photos of a Lake Oroville marina was taken in 2005, the other in November 2008. Guess which is which.

One of these photos of a Lake Oroville marina was taken in 2005, the other in November 2008. Guess which is which.


Don’t let this week’s rain and snow fool you.

California is still in its third year of drought. If you want proof, take a look at Lake Oroville, which is at 29 percent of capacity, the lowest since 1977. Shasta Lake is just as bad.

When the state’s two largest reservoirs are that short on water in December, water officials get nervous.

“The Department of Water Resources calls this the most significant water crisis in California history,” Vickie Newlin, assistant director of the county’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation (DWRC), said during a meeting of the county’s Drought Task Force last Thursday (Dec. 11).

As a result, there is widespread anxiety locally about the security of Northern California’s water and whether there will be sufficient quantities next year for the area’s farmers. Many of them are anticipating reduced allocations from Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake, while they watch well-water levels drop dramatically.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency for much of the Central Valley. And the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) has created a drought water bank for the first time since 1991-92, the last major drought period. It’s looking to deposit as much as 600,000 acre-feet of water in that bank.

And where will that water come from? You guessed it: Northern California.

According to a draft of the plan, three types of water could be designated for transfer to the drought bank: currently stored water, water that can be replaced with groundwater, and water freed up by shifting crops or idling them altogether.

The DWR is being nice about it, at least so far. The draft water plan states it will buy water only from willing sellers and in no cases more than the environment and local economy can handle. And local ordinances regarding water transfers will be honored—an important consideration in Butte County, which requires a permit whenever groundwater is used to replace surface water.

Needless to say, not everybody is happy about the water bank. In November, a number of Northern California environmental groups, led by the Chico-based Butte Environmental Council, wrote to the DWR, asking it to modify the plan. Of special concern was the prospect that as much as 340,000 acre-feet of groundwater could be pumped to offset surface-water transfers.

Noting that the Lower Tuscan and other aquifers “have not been systematically and impartially studied, characterized, or managed,” the letter posits that there is no way to predict the impact of such large withdrawals over a short period of time.

In addition to calling for a scientific study, the letter requests elimination of the groundwater provision altogether, as well as the provision that allows the bank to operate in years that contractors (water districts) receive less than 100 percent of their allocations.

On the other hand, it’s drought years that produce allocation cutbacks. This year is no exception. If the drought continues through winter, local contractors could receive up to a 50 percent reduction in their allocations. They will have to make up the difference by pumping groundwater.

That’s Newlin’s biggest concern. She’s not worried about the water bank, explaining that under Butte County’s Chapter 33 governing water transfers, local districts must obtain permits to pump groundwater to replace water transferred elsewhere, and the DWRC has told them there isn’t time to obtain such permits for 2009.

But they don’t need permits to pump groundwater to make up for allocation cutbacks, and that could be as much as 400,000 acre-feet. Pumping is costly, but the price of rice is high these days, so there’s no incentive for farmers to fallow their fields.

Newlin said farmers need to work cooperatively. Problems develop when they all pump at the same time. “The important thing is to work with your neighbors so you’re not always drawing down the water table,” she said.

City dwellers also have a part to play in responding to a drought. That’s why, for the first time, California Water Service Co.—which provides household water pumped from deep aquifers to Chico, Oroville, Hamilton City and Durham residents—has implemented a proactive conservation program, Chico District Manager Mike Pembroke told the Drought Task Force.

The goal for now is to reduce water use by 10 percent. To do that, the company—which serves more than 2 million customers statewide—has introduced a tiered rate program to encourage conservation. It also offers low-water-using fixtures and rebates through its Web site (

Pembroke said he has also been meeting with other local agencies—the city, the schools, the recreation district—to talk about ways to save water. And in Chico, the company is replacing flat-rate billing with meters as fast as possible. “Our goal is 100 conversions per month or 1,200 per year until the job is complete,” Pembroke said.

Northern Californians often complain that their water is going to wasteful Southern Californians so they can fill their pools. But figures show that the average water user in Los Angeles consumes just 138 gallons per day compared to the 285 gallons consumed in water-rich Chico.

Winter is far from over, and we may yet get a lot of rain and snow. But, as DWR officials like to say, “hope is not a plan.” Besides, long-term climate trends point to a gradual reduction in precipitation, so Californians need to brace themselves for ever more periods of drought in coming years.