Do right, Dudley

Talkin’ water Toccoy Dudley, in the white vest, leads a 2004 tour of aquifer recharge areas. In Butte County. Present are at left, county Resource Conservation District board member D.C. Jones; Environmentalist Jim Brobeck and on the right, Barbara Vlamis, Butte Environmental Council’s executive director .

Talkin’ water Toccoy Dudley, in the white vest, leads a 2004 tour of aquifer recharge areas. In Butte County. Present are at left, county Resource Conservation District board member D.C. Jones; Environmentalist Jim Brobeck and on the right, Barbara Vlamis, Butte Environmental Council’s executive director .

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

When county leaders picked Toccoy Dudley to take over the duties of retiring water commissioner Ed Craddock, they chose a man who knows Butte County’s groundwater better than anyone else in the world. As head of the state Department of Water Resources’ Northern District Office in Redding, Dudley has studied the vast Tuscan Aquifer that underlies Butte and three of its neighboring counties for the past 30 years. While Dudley has never claimed to be able to account for every drop of water in the Tuscan, his work in mapping and modeling the aquifer has attracted the attention of every water-watcher in the state.

Which is why his appointment last week to head the county’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation is causing some to applaud, some to bite their nails and others to tear their hair out.

Dudley has long been praised in local water circles for being a diligent scientist. He is personable, approachable and has an uncanny ability to explain complicated hydro-geological concepts in ways ordinary people can understand.

Even his detractors say they like him. But because of his former employer, they don’t know if they can trust him.

“That is a common perception,” Dudley acknowledged in an interview this week. “But I want you to know, and your readers to know that I work for Butte County now. My interests lie wholly and solely with Butte County from here on out.”

Dudley’s selection was made by a joint vote of the board of supervisors and the county water commission. He was chosen from an undisclosed slate of candidates in sessions that were closed to the general public. While county leaders are seemingly unanimous in their approval, some in the environmental community are crying foul.

“I am very disappointed in our elected officials,” local environmentalist Jim Brobeck said, “in that it shows they lack the vision and foresight to provide a leadership role in the management of our water in Butte County and instead have acquiesced to the DWR, Bureau of Reclamation paradigm.”

Brobeck had urged the board to select a candidate from outside the water establishment, someone who would not take it as a given that Northstate water is inevitably destined to be shipped south to fulfill the needs of a thirsty state.

"[Dudley] comes from the DWR paradigm, which is to move water from hydrated areas of the state to non-hydrated areas of the state, and they do a great job of that. But that isn’t necessarily what ought to be done.”

Dudley said he understands the argument and isn’t taking it personally.

“There are going to be those that think I’m going to be a puppet of DWR. I guarantee you nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “But if you didn’t pick somebody from DWR or somebody that dealt in water, that person would be woefully ignorant of what was needed in the water arena. I do respect [that] opinion. It’s my goal to work with these people and try to drive some sort of consensus.”

Dudley said one of his first priorities in office will be to finalize the county’s Basin Management Objectives process, in which volunteers monitor test wells around the county in order to set baselines of normal water levels in the aquifer. The process is supposed to be a way to make sure that pumping in one part of the aquifer does not affect other groundwater users.

Bob Hennigan, a farmer who uses groundwater to grow tree crops, said the BMO process would be an “acid test” for Dudley’s leadership in county groundwater issues.

“I guess we’re hopeful,” he said. “[Dudley’s] been a longtime DWR employee, so that does worry me. But I’ve always found him helpful and honest. He’s a straight shooter. It’s just that DWR’s reason for existence has been to find the water Southern California needed. That’s not what we’d like to see in Butte County. We’d like to keep some for ourselves.”

Dudley said his expertise in groundwater will help the county do just that.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed the freedom to do the research necessary to understand the resource. I always knew there were a lot of people looking at the Sacramento Valley, and I’ve always said we better understand what we’re doing here before we do any planning at all. No one’s going to be able to slip one by me.”

Another priority for Dudley, who will earn some $97,000 a year, will be to negotiate a deal with DWR over the county’s allocation of 27,500 acre-feet of water from Lake Oroville, which the county has been entitled to since Oroville Dam was built, yet hasn’t found a suitable use for. In most cases the state will charge for water whether it is used or not, but the county has been getting away with leaving the water in the dam and not paying for it. That situation is set to change soon, and if a settlement is not reached, the county will be on the hook for some $250,000 a year for water it has no current use for.

Competing plans call for a conveyance system to be built so the water can supplement the supply of Paradise or Oroville, or even to be used to artificially “charge” the underground aquifer, which would keep groundwater levels high. That plan is controversial, however, as some claim it could lead to underground pollution or a loss of water rights for some landowners.

Ed Craddock, the outgoing water commissioner, is also a former DWR employee. He was honored at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting for his work with the county, which began in 1999. After thanking the board for its direction over the years, he endorsed their choice for his successor, saying, “I know people are concerned about having a person come in from DWR. But I came from there and I haven’t been beholden to DWR. I went after a lot of their money and we got it.”

As for the environmentalists, he said, “We need to think of ways where they can win that work for us, too. I think we’re all pulling the same direction, we just don’t always know it.”