Fighting to be heard
Environmental interests say they don’t have enough input on groundwater committee
At the Butte County Board of Supervisors’ last meeting, Susan Strachan surprised no one who knows her when she declared that the interests of domestic well users and the environment need ample representation in groundwater governance.
She surprised everyone, friends and strangers alike, when she suddenly announced her resignation from the Groundwater Pumpers Advisory Committee—a board created expressly to accord citizen input to policymakers.
The supervisors’ meeting May 22 came a day after the GPAC convened at Chico State’s University Farm. To her consternation, Strachan’s colleagues had declined to consider a resolution put forth by the Butte Environmental Council for the county to recognize BEC as a representative of groundwater interests. Supervisors previously passed a comparable resolution for an agricultural group.
The resolution was just the latest issue in which Strachan found herself a lone voice. Her frustration compounded when a committee member made a comment she took as discounting the importance of environmental protection.
Strachan, project manager for the Chico State Geographical Information Center, served on the county water commission from 2007 to 2010. At the GPAC meeting, she recounted to the CN&R, “I said I didn’t see what my role on the committee was. I had not decided at that point [to quit], but I don’t see it being useful to be 8-to-1, 7-to-1 or 6-to-1 on everything.”
Paul Gosselin, county director of water resources, says her contributions have been valuable. As water commissioner, she helped author the water resource element of the county general plan, “which became one of the best water elements of any general plan in the state,” he said. “She has an outstanding, creative policy mind.”
GPAC member Les Heringer expressed a similar sentiment. He’d made the comment that provoked Strachan: “I don’t know how much the environment needs protecting in Butte County.” Heringer told the CN&R he “did probably misspeak” and explained he inferred that protection measures for the environment in state law apply, by definition, locally.
The state law encompassing all this—governance, planning, GPAC—is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. This legislation grants local authority over underground water supplies, divided by “sub-basins” (geological caches). Local agencies have until 2022 to form plans to, as the law title says, manage groundwater sustainably.
At the GPAC meeting, Heringer said, he meant to express that in “implementing SGMA, I felt through the original 2014 legislation that the environment and domestic well users are fully protected.
“For the life of me, I don’t know why it would appear we are pitting one user against another, because it’s not that way with this legislation—everyone is protected—and if [a plan proves] not sustainable, ag is going to have to make some changes, not necessarily domestic well users, or the environment.”
Butte County overlaps four groundwater sub-basins: Vina (Chico area), Wyandotte (Oroville area), West Butte (southwest county) and East Butte (southeast county). Each will have a separate governance structure under SGMA, decided upon by agencies involved: the county, cities and water districts.
The working proposals for Vina and Wyandotte both delineate a five-member governing board with an advisory committee to ensure various groups’ inclusion. Each governing board would comprise five representatives: the county, the respective city, special district, an ag user and a domestic user.
East Butte and West Butte face complicated agreements because, instead of three entities apiece, those sub-basins encompass 13 and eight, respectively. County supervisors at the last meeting voted to recommend representation of two ag users and one domestic user. That balance—or imbalance—spurred Strachan to address the board.
“The agricultural wells tend to be much deeper, so the domestic well owners are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Strachan told the CN&R—not only for drops in groundwater levels, but also danger to flora and fauna. Moreover, “some of the neighborhoods that are served by domestic wells are very low-income, and they don’t have resources to deepen their wells should there be issues.”
Natalie Carter, BEC’s executive director, echoed Strachan’s perspective on equal representation.
“Farmers say, ‘We represent domestic users—we have domestic wells,’ and they do, and they absolutely have a shared perspective in that,” Carter said. “They don’t want their domestic wells to go dry.
“That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a voice for someone who is only a domestic well user and doesn’t have ties to the agricultural interests in this community, which are so valuable, but shouldn’t be the only voice at the table.”
In seeking recognition from the county, BEC wants to become a—not the— representative for users of groundwater from shallow depths. That’s the connection BEC sees between advocacy for groundwater-dependent ecosystems and homeowners who depend on wells—and why Carter says it’s important for the county to recognize multiple constituencies.
“[SGMA conveys] a 50-year horizon to sustainability,” she added. “The whole design is local control, and our local voices include a wide variety.”