‘Leap of faith’ or pig in a poke?

The discussion of a regional water management plan at the Tuesday (May 3) meeting of the Butte County Board of Supervisors was like looking at an optical illusion: View it one way, it’s a beautiful woman; view it another way, it’s an ugly old witch.

Either way, it’s hugely important. Water always is, since it’s the lifeblood of this agricultural region—and thirsty users to the south are always ready to siphon it off.

To hear local water officials speak, the plan would protect the county’s groundwater while providing funding to monitor and study it, particularly the Lower Tuscan Aquifer.

To the Butte Environmental Council, however, the plan was a con job engineered by powerful water interests seeking to hook the county’s groundwater into the state water system to gain more control over it.

“We all know that the meal being served at this table is the future of our groundwater,” Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for BEC, told the supervisors. “Special interests in position to market water are carving up the Tuscan like a turkey, while groundwater-dependent farmers and households will be allowed to mill around the edges fighting over scraps.”

The county has been studying the plan, called the Sacramento Valley Integrated Water Management Plan, for several months. Authored by a collection of water districts and state and federal water officials called the Northern California Water Association, it purports to be a way to create a regional authority to manage North State surface and groundwater.

In return for signing onto the plan, eight North State counties will obtain Proposition 50 funding totaling $12.5 million for a number of projects to monitor, study and improve water availability, including drilling several production wells designed to study the impacts of pumping on underground water sources. Butte County will receive $2.9 million, of which $480,000 will go to ensure a reliable water supply for the Paradise ridge and $2.4 million to the Lower Tuscan Aquifer Monitoring, Recharge and Data Management project.

The idea is to pump the water and use it for irrigation as a way to determine what impacts that will have on the aquifer. The director of the county’s Department of Water and Resources Conservation, Toccoy Dudley, and its assistant director, Vickie Newlin, told the board that the agreement was specific that the water could not be transferred out of the area.

Last October the county’s Water Commission deadlocked, 4-4, on whether to support the plan, and the supervisors subsequently did likewise, voting 2-2 in November to send it back to the commission for further study. In April, the commission voted 6-0 in support.

The commission chairman, Mark Kimmelshue, told the supervisors the commission changed its mind after talking with others participating in it, including other county and water district officials. “We found all of them were very concerned about what goes on with water in the Sacramento Valley,” he said. “They want to manage the water most effectively in order to meet our needs first.”

“Yes, it’s a leap of faith,” he continued, “but the consensus was that we can speculate about losing our water, like the Owens Valley, but it’s preferable to begin working with the other groups.”

Basic to the decision, he said, were the guiding principles of the agreement, which he said were committed to the economic health of the region, to improving water reliability, flood protection and floodplain management and water quality, and protecting the health of the ecosystem.

Such rhetoric masked an overriding factor, noted by Supervisor Bill Connelly: The state has the power to take all the water it needs. A regional compact offers at least some protection, Connelly said.

Michael Jackson, an environmental attorney from Quincy representing the Sacramento Valley Environmental Water Caucus, disagreed. The plan is totally voluntary, he argued. The only real protection is the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act—but they are powerful protections.

The problem for the county is that it will be involved but will have no veto over decisions made under the terms of the agreement, Jackson said.

Susan Strachen, a water commissioner and former director of the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, said she “reluctantly” voted in favor of the plan. She urged the supervisors to seek a greater role in governance of the agreement.

Several speakers noted that the aquifers are low already this year and questioned the need for the production wells.

And Brobeck pointedly noted that Dudley’s own description of the Tuscan aquifer monitoring project says that “[a]ccess to a comprehensive database of aquifer information is invaluable for … local uses, as well as the potential for conjunctive water management programs that result in water being transferred outside of the area.”

What impact the new production wells will have on groundwater remains to be seen, of course. It could be years before the county knows whether it’s taken a good step toward protecting local water or bought a pig in a poke.

The supervisors unanimously approved the plan, but only after including a provision that the governance process be improved to allow the county more say-so.