Crossing boundaries

Groundwaterplan redrawn after deadline-pushing proposal

Paul Gosselin, county water resources director, stands on a bridge on The Esplanade over Big Chico Creek, which previously represented a groundwater boundary dividing the city.

Paul Gosselin, county water resources director, stands on a bridge on The Esplanade over Big Chico Creek, which previously represented a groundwater boundary dividing the city.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

When Jeff Carter walked into a Butte County groundwater committee meeting in mid-June—two weeks ahead of a state deadline involving a plan two years in the making—he was unprepared for what he’d hear.

A Chico attorney, Carter represents the Durham Irrigation District. He regularly attends government meetings of water boards such as the Groundwater Pumpers Advisory Committee, or GPAC. That Monday morning, June 18, at GPAC, Carter learned the county planned to redraw its map for groundwater management, with Carter’s clients most significantly involved.

Instead of being grouped with agricultural irrigation districts to the south, Durham Irrigation District would fall within the governance plan area to the north, predominantly comprising Chico. The number of these groundwater areas—called sub-basins—would shrink from four to three.

County officials received this proposal from four south-county water districts only the preceding Friday, June 15—just 15 days before the California Department of Water Resources required the county to submit sub-basins’ boundary lines, and too late to place on the GPAC agenda.

“I think it caught the county by surprise,” Carter told the CN&R. Paul Gosselin, county water resources director, confirmed this.

“It caught Durham Irrigation by surprise,” Carter continued. “My first reaction was shock. I felt that this was something that obviously had been worked on for some time; it hadn’t been done in my view very openly or transparently. Because of that, it undoubtedly was going to lead to suspicion [of] what really was afoot here.”

The four proponents—Western Canal Irrigation District, Richvale Irrigation District, Butte Water District and Biggs-West Gridley Water District—wrote in their proposal letter that the change would “reduce the complexity” of groundwater plans.

Previous boundaries put the Western Canal district into two sub-basins that together included over 20 entities, versus nine for the new sub-basin. Moreover, merging two south-county sub-basins would bring together providers who serve ag customers using surface water, such as from rivers; Durham Irrigation District pumps from three wells to serve 470 customers primarily in the residential and commercial hub.

While not necessarily fans of the timing, Gosselin said county staff saw merits in the proposal. Precedent existed: The county and other agencies had approved an adjustment that shifted a boundary line from Big Chico Creek to south of Chico to put that whole city within a single sub-basin.

GPAC, unable to deliberate on an item not on its agenda, voted to hold a special meeting a week later to publicly vet the modifications. On June 25, the committee unanimously endorsed the plan, which the Board of Supervisors and Chico City Council subsequently approved after DWR extended its deadline. The state will review the modification after a 30-day comment period, anticipated next month.

The Durham Irrigation District board signed off on the changes at its August meeting. Residents packed Durham Community Hall last Wednesday night (Aug. 15) for a community information session featuring presentations by Gosselin and Assistant Director Christina Buck, a water scientist.

“Once people got over their initial reaction … digested and looked at [the proposal], they felt it made a lot of sense,” Gosselin told the CN&R by phone the next morning.

The Durham Irrigation District particularly appreciates its new place. Carter says the district has more in common with Chico (served by Cal Water) and especially the Rock Creek Reclamation District (the sub-basin’s other water provider).

Moreover, Carter explained that the north county’s plan for joint governance among the agencies accords significant voice to concerns in Durham, where wells ran dry in the early 2000s following water transfers to Southern California.

If the community finds itself in a similar situation again, Carter said, “having the county of Butte on our left side, the city of Chico on our right side and the strength of one of three groundwater sustainability agencies in the county gives me a lot more comfort than doing it ourselves as one of many local agencies that include surface water agencies.”

Governments and water providers get their authority from the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA—the state law establishing control at the local level. SGMA requires comprehensive plans that, among other things, take into account how underground water supplies do not adhere to city and county lines.

Since 2016, Butte County plans have delineated four sub-basins, which are subsets of a larger subterranean cache called the Sacramento Valley Basin. The basin contains our local Tuscan Aquifer; situated between Red Bluff and the Sutter Buttes, bounded by the mountain walls of the Sacramento Valley, this expanse now comprises 10 sub-basins.

The locally ratified proposal merges the West Butte and East Butte sub-basins into the Butte sub-basin. Durham joins Chico and the Rock Creek Reclamation District in the Vina sub-basin. The Wyandotte Creek sub-basin covers a swath from Oroville south.

Vina and Wyandotte Creek have governing plans in place, with all the entities in each forming a joint powers authority. The water districts in Butte have not agreed to decide issues jointly. The ultimate deadline looms in 2022.

“There’s an old saying in the West: There’s nothing like a hanging to focus your thoughts,” Carter said. “[SGMA], the continued droughts, the realization that our surface water supplies need to be managed better so we aren’t degrading the environment—all these things are coming together right now, and they have focus.”