Drop in the bucket?

Feds say transfers have no significant impact despite watchdog warnings

Chico water activist Tony St. Amant called for a moratorium on water transfers until summer 2014, citing lack of information on cumulative water losses and a cohesive management plan.

Chico water activist Tony St. Amant called for a moratorium on water transfers until summer 2014, citing lack of information on cumulative water losses and a cohesive management plan.

Photo By ken smith

Though reports recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) conclude that proposed 2013 water sales will not affect the hydrological and environmental health of the Sacramento Valley north of the Delta, North State water advocates disagree.

The USBR released a final environmental assessment and a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI), regarding eight sales totaling 37,505 acre-feet worth of water from eight Central Valley Project contractors in the North State to numerous buyers in the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority south of the Sacramento Delta, on June 22 (go to www.tinyurl.com/cvpsouth to read the documents).

A draft report was released by the USBR on May 6, with public comment on the report accepted through May 21. The final documents acknowledge comments received from concerned government agencies (California Department of Fish and Wildlife; the city of Chico’s Mayor, Mary Goloff; and Butte County Water and Resource Conservation), water watchdogs (AquAlliance, Valley Water Protection Association, Sacramento River Preservation Trust), and two private citizens, Tony St. Amant and Jill Brunak.

Included are the USBR’s counter-arguments, which in some instances specifically address several complaints by Chico-based AquAlliance. Among those complaints are allegations that the USBR did not properly analyze cumulative environmental effects, encourages “double-dipping” to replace the sold surface water with groundwater, doesn’t account for scientific uncertainties about how water sources are replenished, and relies on inadequate monitoring and mitigation practices.

Critics, including AquAlliance, also said the report doesn’t account for North State water sales overseen by state agencies and private sellers outside of the USBR’s jurisdiction.

“This is the game that gets played between federal and state agencies,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, who noted the USBR’s own document acknowledges there will be an unknown amount of further water sales—she estimates more than 160—from other sources. “The state agency doesn’t do cumulative-impact analysis.”

If past years are a good indicator—and they likely will be with this year’s climate conditions—the 37,505 acre-feet are just a drop in the bucket of the total through-Delta transfers. Last year, more than 260,000 acre-feet of water were moved, according to the State Water Resources Control Board; transfers in the last decade peaked in 2010, with 303,000 acre-feet sold from north of the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley.

While the USBR’s FONSI document addresses some of the commentary in depth, it dismisses other criticisms outright. For example, AquAlliance’s assertion that the action doesn’t comply with requirements established by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is rebutted with the statement that “Reclamation actions are not subject to CEQA, and Reclamation is not addressing these concerns.” The USBR also declines an offer by California Fish and Wildlife to analyze each of the proposed sales individually.

The environmental assessment alone doesn’t guarantee that the sales definitely will take place, however, as each must now be approved individually to make sure it meets state laws and other requirements.

The proposed water transfers would tap Glenn and Colusa counties the hardest, with 13,275 acre-feet sold by the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Eastside Mutual Water Company, and Reclamation District 1004. Other sellers hail from Sutter, Yolo and Shasta counties.

In addition to the organizations and individuals who commented on the USBR’s draft environmental review, there is more local opposition to water transfers. In May, the aforementioned St. Amant, an activist who became interested in water issues while working for Butte County 20 years ago, submitted a proposal urging a moratorium on all water transfers until July 1, 2014, to the Board of the Northern Sacramento Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (NSV IRWMP). The Butte Environmental Council and Chico-based Citizens Water Watch supported his effort.

The NSV IRWMP is a collaborative effort between agencies and stakeholders with water interests from six North State counties, formed in 2011 to complete a comprehensive regional water plan. It is overseen by a board consisting of three representatives from each of the six counties involved. Chico City Councilwoman Ann Schwab is the chair of the board; Butte County’s other representatives are Supervisor Bill Connelly and Greg Johnson of the Western Canal Water District.

The NSV IRWMP declined St. Amant’s moratorium proposal, as well as his suggestion to expedite guidelines for future water transfers. St. Amant said he thinks the group’s lack of action indicates they’re more concerned with protecting the interests of agencies that sell water.

“There are many platitudes throughout their plan that would lead you to believe they want to protect North State water, but I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said. “They’ve taken a vow of chastity from leadership.”

As for the USBR report, St. Amant echoed Vlamis’ concerns that it falls short in measuring cumulative effects, and offered an analogy: “If you throw a toad in hot water he’ll jump right out, but if you heat it up slowly enough he’ll just sit in there and cook. That’s what’s happening here.”