It’s becoming liquid gold

As you’re tubing or canoeing down the Sacramento River on a hot summer day, it’s easy to forget that the water in “the Nile of the West” has many users, from farmers to fish, and sometimes there’s not enough to go around. In addition, water conditions are changing as global warming increases and annual snow packs decline in size.

That’s why many Northstate groups with interests in the river, from family farmers to environmentalists, are concerned about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal not only to renew long-term, taxpayer-subsidized water contracts with 140 Sacramento Valley water districts and companies—known collectively as the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors—for a full 40 years, but also to increase their allotments to more than 2.2 million acre-feet total.

Chico’s Butte Environmental Council (BEC) says 40 years is too long for the water contracts. The unknown impacts of global climate change and future changes to local water needs must be considered. Further, a Public Citizen report Water for all says that water banking can lead to unintended privatization of public water resources.

A major stumbling block is that the renewed contracts won’t limit the ability of the contractors to sell and export the water to thirsty San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water districts. Lacking prohibitions or limitations on the amount of water they can pump from the ground, the districts could make a killing “ranching water” and then use well water to make up the difference.

Exporting water, the BEC reports, has the potential to threaten the Sacramento River basin and the aquifer under Butte County. As the aquifer is depleted, problems such as lands subsidence, increased pumping costs, desertification and a host of other ills begin to develop.

“As proposed, these contracts will encourage water exports, which in turn will lead to fewer working farms, lower reservoirs, less boating and fishing recreation and dry wells,” said Michael Jackson, of the Sacramento Valley Environmental Water Caucus.

Butte County farmers and environmentalists are ultimately interested in having local control of the water resources, Jackson said. In order to keep the environment and farms healthy, he said, farmers are in the farming business. “We don’t want farmers in the water ranching business.”

Calls to Buford Holt, the Bureau of Reclamation official in charge of the re-contracting process, were not returned. Efforts to view the draft environmental-impact statement for the contracts were also unsuccessful, as the pages given on the USBR Web site came up blank.