Moving water

San Diego trying to buy Butte water

As if to remind us that Southern California never takes its eyes off Northern California’s water, the San Diego County Water Authority has approached a local water district seeking to buy 30,000 acre-feet of water in 2008. The water would be enough to sustain 60,000 households.

According to a Sept. 28 article in the North County Times in Escondido, the district in question is the Gridley-based Butte Water District, which serves irrigators—mostly rice farmers—from Richvale nearly to Sutter County. Its water comes from Lake Oroville and the Feather River.

Southern California is very much in the market for water these days, thanks in no small measure to a federal court ruling in August that temporarily shut down the pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that feed water into the California Aqueduct. The effort to protect the tiny fish is expected to reduce the amount of water sent southward significantly in coming years—by up to 30 percent, in fact.

Water Authority officials told the North County Times they already had asked customers to cut back water use and that the Butte deal could help the county avoid mandatory cutbacks.

The issue in this area, if the sale is finalized, is whether the Butte Water District will seek to replace the 30,000 acre-feet of surface water. If so, its only replacement source would be groundwater from the Lower Tuscan Aquifer.

Vickie Newlin, assistant director of Butte County’s Water and Resource Conservation department, said the project could fall under Chapter 33 of the Butte County Code. The code states that Butte County’s underground aquifers cannot be pumped for water transfers without a permit.

On the other hand, if the district’s farmers agree simply not to use the water and let their lands lie fallow, Newlin said, no replacement water would be needed. Mark Orme, the district’s general manager, did not return the CN&R’s phone messages, but he told the Chico Enterprise-Record that any arrangement would involve fallowing, not groundwater pumping, and that no deal had yet been sealed.

The matter could be moot anyway. The cutbacks in Delta pumping may act as a bottleneck making additional north-to-south water transfers impossible, Newlin said.

Pumping Northern California’s aquifers to replace water used elsewhere is a touchy issue. In 1994, the Western Canal and Richvale irrigation districts sold 105,000 acre-feet of surface water to Southern California and then replaced it with water pumped from the aquifer. Because it was a drought year, wells in Durham went dry, much to the consternation of local farmers.

Water deals are nothing new. Water has been flowing from north to south to meet Southern California’s needs for a long time. Northern California has lots of water, which the south lacks and is willing to pay for. No price tag has been set on the prospective water deal. But Gordon Hess, manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, speculates the price will be higher than what was spent importing water between 2003 and 2005, $105 to $125 per acre-foot.

Butte Water District has settlement rights to Feather River water that predate Oroville Dam and the State Water Project, Newlin said. She didn’t know how much the district’s water costs, but the price presumably is less than that paid by SWP contractors, which ranges from $28 to $40 per acre-foot.