Marching on

Nonprofit notches another win in long battle to protect North State water

AquAlliance’s Barbara Vlamis has worried about the North State drying up since the 1990s.

AquAlliance’s Barbara Vlamis has worried about the North State drying up since the 1990s.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Eight years ago, Barbara Vlamis launched AquAlliance, a Chico-based nonprofit that, according to its website, “formed to challenge threats to the hydrologic health of the northern Sacramento River watershed.”

Vlamis, who’d spent the previous 17 years as executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, opened the doors Jan. 5, 2010. She closed them on Jan. 6.

No, AquAlliance didn’t fold in 24 hours. Quite the opposite: She found herself with more work than she could handle.

In those first 24 hours, Vlamis learned that the federal Bureau of Reclamation had just released an environmental review for a two-year water transfer—the process by which rights-holders to surface water (such as Sacramento River flow) can sell that water, with the option to meet their own needs via groundwater (underground flow, pumped through wells). She had just 10 days to submit comments.

“We blasted them,” Vlamis told the CN&R this week. “We found an attorney who would take this case on, pro bono, and we sued them. And, in this case, this is where the bureau finally acknowledged they have to do more robust environmental review.”

Apparently not “robust” enough: AquAlliance has sued the Bureau of Reclamation again over environmental-impact reporting, this time for a 10-year water transfer. That suit also names the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority— designated as the state’s lead agency for the proceedings. (Vlamis said her team challenged that designation in court, and lost.)

AquAlliance rallied the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Delta water districts as lawsuit partners. They filed in May 2015; their case went to District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno.

Last month, O’Neill released a 133-page ruling mostly in favor of AquAlliance, essentially ordering the bureau and water agency to beef up their review. Deeming the environmental reports “at least in some part unlawful,” the judge set a March 16 deadline for response.

Erin Curtis, the bureau’s Mid-Pacific Region spokeswoman, told the CN&R that “we are planning to come back to the judge with our plan of how we will address the issues identified with the [environmental review].” Jon Rubin, interim executive director of the water authority, did not respond to a request for comment.

Vlamis’ concern about water transfers traces to 1994. Districts in the North State had been selling surface water and substituting ground water—“pretty much off the radar of everybody,” she said. That year, the volume reached over 100,000 acre-feet from southern Butte County districts and rice farmers.

Whether from drought or the additional tapping, if not both, groundwater levels dropped. North Valley orchards felt the impact first, then homes with shallower wells.

Vlamis refers to those water transfers as “the big experiment that didn’t work” because of the collateral impacts. People adversely affected approached her, while with BEC. Farmers remain staunch supporters, now backing her work with AquAlliance.

The original two-year transfer she fought never took place. The plan drew local outcry, with 200 people packing the Chico Masonic Lodge for a public meeting (see “Water worries,” Newslines, Jan. 13, 2011). Looking back, Vlamis called the turnout “a dynamic expression of this region’s upset.”

The 10-year transfer plan spurred action because she and AquAlliance partners felt the environmental review fell short in disclosure, analysis and mitigation. In other words, the bureau and water agency did not offer enough specific information on impacts and how to offset impacts, primarily in three regards: climate change, groundwater and the giant garter snake.

Should the agencies appeal O’Neill’s ruling, Vlamis said she and her lawsuit allies already have half the funds needed; they’ll raise the other half.

“What does this [litigation] mean and do for people of the North State? It slows this nefarious process down,” she said, “and it will force the agencies to face what we’ve literally been trying to tell them since 1994; that you can’t extract massive amounts of water from some place and not hurt other people and the environment.”