Officials talk water, fire

Butte County ho-hum on water conservation while wildfires rage

No wasting water here.

No wasting water here.

PHOTO by Thinkstock

Yet again, comments from higher-ups about the current drought are simultaneously alarming and ho-hum. “We’re entering new territory in terms of low groundwater levels, leaving more people without water in their wells than ever before, but because we’ve done such a great job at conservation, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens,” they seem to say.

“People need to look within themselves and create their own comparisons—am I doing the best I can?” said Paul Gosselin, director of Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation, at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

His comments took place as the Web Fire raged to the east outside of Forest Ranch and after he informed the board that “probably over a fifth of our wells have hit historic lows. It does raise an alarm because we are … in new territory.”

The drought report came on the heels of a State Water Resources Control Board decision to give water service organizations and law enforcement the power to fine people up to $500 a day for wasting water, restricting activities like washing cars with hoses that have no shut-off valve, over-watering lawns and washing sidewalks.

Cal Water acting District Manager Pete Bonacich already told the CN&R that his company is not planning to implement fines in our area. Gosselin said the county’s Drought Task Force will meet on Monday (Aug. 4) to discuss the matter, but hinted that they would recommend the same.

“Most agencies are looking at education to get the word out,” Gosselin said. “We’re trying to ramp up our education through outreach to get the word out about using water judiciously. Just to get people to say, ‘Look, the drought is serious, and we may have this continue.’”

Previous forecasts of a super El Niño this winter—and the heavy rains it promised—have since been retracted, according to The Weather Network.

Butte County, while having reached the state goal of reducing usage by 20 percent, is still suffering from depleted groundwater. Well levels are a good indication of that.

“Looking at changes from spring to July, it doesn’t seem like it’s hugely different from last year’s,” said Christina Buck, water resources scientist with the county Water and Resources Conservation Department. “But the fact that we started 5 to 10 feet lower this spring, we’re now again at new historical lows.”

Buck said the county had received numerous calls about receding well levels, most prominently in the Durham-Dayton area as well as the valley south of Chico. In the foothills, the water table is unpredictable because of the fractured-rock landscape. Buck said there had been complaints of water theft—people pumping from the creeks or lakes—in the foothills. She urged anyone who came across such activity to notify the State Water Resources Control Board.

The drought has had an impact on more than just water supplies. The longer stretches of dry weather have extended the fire season and made conditions ripe for wildfires. According to Cal Fire, for the period between Jan. 1-July 26, the average number of fires statewide is 2,495. This year, that number has increased to 3,616. Last year was also high, at 3,035. In the past week alone, there were 216 new fires.

To put it into perspective: “We usually hire our seasonal firefighters at the end of May, beginning of June. This year, we started hiring in January,” said Scott McLean, public information officer for Cal Fire’s northern region. “In the 17 years I’ve been with Cal Fire, I’ve never seen us do that before.”

The reason, he said, is that last year the fire season reached into November. And as early as January 2014, there were significant fires that had no problem burning because of the dry conditions.

“Our fuels—grass, brush and trees—are so dry they’re very easy to ignite,” he said.