Moving down stream

Little-known state plan to send up to 600,000 acre feet of water south per year moves ahead.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, a defender of North State water resources, has been fighting state water transfers for 20 years.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, a defender of North State water resources, has been fighting state water transfers for 20 years.

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

While state water issues, or more precisely lack-of-water issues, dominate the news these days, there is another water story that has not received much press. At least, not in the eyes of Barbara Vlamis, executive director of North State water advocacy group AquAlliance.

The issue is a proposed project that would allow for north-to-south water transfers over the next 10 years.

“No one even knows about this 10-year water transfer. Nobody. It’s off the radar,” Vlamis said during a recent interview.

On March 20, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority—a state water district that represents agricultural water districts in the south—released a 260-page final environmental impact report on the proposed water transfers that would run from 2015 to 2024. A press release says the “project is aimed at providing water users with immediately implementable and flexible water supplies to help alleviate shortages due to drought.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, which is the largest wholesale water supplier in the country, is not expected to make a final decision on the project until April 20 at the earliest.

The project first came to light locally in January 2011 during a long-awaited meeting hosted by the bureau and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

Prior to that meeting, Vlamis told the CN&R: “This is what we’ve been clamoring for for more than a decade and a half.”

She was referring to 1994, when she was executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. That year the Richvale and Western Canal water districts sold a significant amount of surface water to Southern California and pumped groundwater to replace it. It turned out to be a drought year and, as a result, a number of agricultural and residential wells in the Durham area went dry.

But now Vlamis and other local water defenders are critical of the 10-year project and how it’s been presented, even though they helped get it launched. In 2013, AquAlliance sued the Bureau of Reclamation over one-year water transfers it had made for more than a decade.

“Part of the resolution of that lawsuit was that they would do a comprehensive study on long-term transfers since the one-year transfers have been happening in something like 12 out of the past 14 years anyway,” said Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for AquAlliance.

The EIR did just that. The transfers, it explains, would include groundwater substitution, cropland idling, reservoir releases or conservation. The project would connect “willing sellers” north of the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta with “willing buyers” to the south and the Bay Area, meaning it’s at each party’s discretion—it’s not a 10-year, set-in-stone plan.

The EIR, which found “no significant, unavoidable impacts on environmental resources,” also says that “sellers not specifically listed in this document may be able to sell water to the buyers as long as: the water that is made available occurs in the same watershed or groundwater basin analyzed in this [EIR], and the total quantity of water proposed for sale does not exceed the maximum listed for each region or type of transfer in any given transfer year …”

Included among the local willing sellers listed in the EIR are the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which could sell up to 91,000 acre-feet of water per year; the Butte Water District, which could sell 17,000 acre-feet a year; and the South Sutter County Water District, which could sell 15,000 acre-feet per year.

To put those numbers in perspective, the city of Chico uses about 30,000 acre-feet of water annually, according to the Butte County Water and Resource Conservation Department.

Last November, the Butte County Board of Supervisors weighed in on the matter via a letter commenting on the draft EIR written by county staff and signed by board Chair Doug Teeter.

“Butte County and its surrounding region have a vested interest in assuring that the Long Term Water Transfers Program has the least impact upon the community, agricultural economy and environment,” the letter begins.

“Much of our local water supply comes from the various groundwater basins throughout the region that are recharged through these creeks and rivers,” it continues.

But the letter then laments the short period of time—60 days—the county was given to comment. It notes that, based on a preliminary review, the impact report “is seriously flawed and will need to be revised and recirculated.”

Brobeck applauds the county’s response.

“That is a very open document that shows the locally elected government is against the long-term transfer,” he said.

There likely will be at least a year’s delay in local transfers if the Bureau of Reclamation adopts the plan. Vickie Newlin, with the county’s Water and Resource Conservation Department, said that Butte County water districts, those potential “willing sellers,” have agreed to not take part in water transfers this year if the Department of Water Resources cuts local allotments. Those allotments, she added, could drop to 50 percent of a normal year and are expected to be announced later this month.