Follow the water

Agency’s plan to pump groundwater amid drought criticized by farmers, environmentalists

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District’s pump station in Hamilton City diverts water from the Sacramento River into a 65-mile canal.

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District’s pump station in Hamilton City diverts water from the Sacramento River into a 65-mile canal.


View the plan:
Go to to read GCID's draft environmental impact report.

Wells are drying up across the northern Sacramento Valley, from Artois to Durham and Orland to Chico, but Paul Behr, owner of North State Water Testing, says that local farmers and ranchers drill deep to keep water flowing during California’s epic drought.

“A lot of these ranchers … they keep track of their water levels and they lower their wells before they run out of water,” he said. “They can’t afford to have those pumps quit.”

Livelihoods are at stake, and so the region’s agricultural community is understandably alarmed by the dropping water table beneath the valley floor—Behr says many wells have dropped five to 20 feet just this year.

If the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District’s (GCID) public meeting on July 22 at Ord Bend Community Hall is any indication, many farmers are vehemently opposed to the district’s proposal to draw vast volumes of groundwater from the aquifer, ostensibly to augment surface water supplies and meet the needs of growers. High-profile critics of the proposal, including Butte Environmental Council (BEC) and local water-watchdog group AquAlliance, say the district’s true motive is profit.

The meeting itself was opaque and covered only the most basic information contained in GCID’s draft environmental impact report. Just prior to opening the floor for public comment, the meeting’s facilitator, Heather Waldrop—lead planner with the engineering consulting firm CH2M Hill, which compiled the report—announced that “this is a public meeting to get your comments. CH2M Hill and GCID are not prepared to answer your questions tonight.”

At that, a local farmer stood from his seat and shouted, “You’re kidding—we’re all here, and you’re not going to answer any questions? Really? We want answers!”

Here’s the plan as outlined in the project’s report: As an emergency measure in dry years like this one, GCID would operate a total of 10 wells along along a five-mile section of its 65-mile canal, which diverts water from the Sacramento River. GCID estimates conditions will require it to operate the wells during 16 of the next 40 years.

Five of the wells already exist, while the other five have yet to be drilled. They would pump 24 hours a day over 8 1/2 months, from Feb. 15 to March 15 and then April 1 through Nov. 15, drawing an annual maximum of 28,500 acre-feet of groundwater. (That’s a relative drop in the bucket compared with the 618,000 acre-feet GCID has rights to divert off the Sacramento River this year.) The report says all the groundwater drawn from the wells will remain in the district.

But there’s a broader context in which water has been transferred outside of the district. According to minutes from GCID’s board of directors’ meeting on May 7, the district, in the face of diminished surface water allocations from the state Water Resources Control Board, fallowed 18,123 acres of farmland this year, allowing the agency to sell a total of 59,050 acre-feet of surface water—13,775 acre-feet to Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority for $5.51 million and 45,275 acre-feet to San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority for $30.19 million.

That’s a major point of contention for BEC, said Executive Director Robyn DiFalco during a recent phone interview.

“How can you claim an emergency when you’re transferring water elsewhere? They fallowed land and created surplus surface water,” she said by phone. “Now they come back and say they don’t have enough water to meet district needs?”

Thad Bettner, general manager of GCID, told the CN&R that 80 percent of the money paid to GCID for the water transfers went to farmers who fallowed their land, while the district retained the remainder. Bettner said that funding was used to pay for future water allocations from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, reservoir studies and winter-run fishery restoration projects.

As for selling off surface water while simultaneously claiming a water shortage, “we only had a surplus on paper,” Bettner said. The Water Resources Control Board withheld water from his district to reserve enough for salmon in the Sacramento River.

One way to reserve that water is through transfers, Bettner explained.

“Instead of diverting water in the spring and summer for rice production, for example, we’ve fallowed that ground, didn’t farm it, and the water that would have been used on that property would be left behind Shasta Dam and used later in the year to support fall-run salmon,” he said.

“We were basically told by the state board that, ‘You need to maximize the amount of transfers you can do this year, and either you can participate in these transfers or lose that water and be uncompensated.’ From a financial and growers’ standpoint, transferring the water and getting some revenue for that water was better than having it taken away.”

The window for public input on the proposal closes today (July 30).

—Howard Hardee