Pumping plan scrutinized

Fearing that a proposed water substitution plan being pondered by the Butte Water District would clear the way for future water exports, members of the Sacramento Valley Environmental Water Caucus asked the Butte County Water Commission Tuesday to carefully consider any requests to pump county groundwater.

“To a degree, [the county] has tried to protect water rights in Butte County,” Caucus steering committee member Barbara Vlamis told the commission. “But I think you do not have enough science, and I think you need it to make these decisions.”

Water Commissioner Ed Craddock stressed at the meeting that the conjunctive water use proposal by Butte Water District is only in the planning stages. Butte County’s groundwater pumping ordinance, referred to in water circles as Chapter 33, requires any entity that wishes to pump groundwater for the purpose of exporting it out of the county to apply for a permit before doing so. Thus far, no one has applied for such a permit, Craddock said.

The water district’s plan is to drill two deep production wells, each between 300 and 400 feet deep, in an area along the border of Butte and Sutter counties. Each well would produce about 4,000 gallons per minute that would be sent via canal to augment the district’s surface water supply. Butte Water District holds a pre-1914 right to use water from the Feather River. The district serves about 600 landowners, many of them rice farmers, who use the water to irrigate their crops.

Part of the deal would also include sending some 5,000 acre-feet per year to the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, ostensibly to keep water levels there high enough to support a viable fish population. But as local environmentalists and water-rights activists point out, sending water into the delta is tantamount to sending it to Southern California, because huge pumps in the delta send about 5.5 million acre feet of water south each year.

The water district claims it is obligated by an agreement with the state water control board referred to as “Phase 8” to send water to the delta. District consultant Nasir Bateni said the district’s water rights could be taken away by the state if the district does nothing.

“The district must protect its surface water rights,” he said. “Phase 8 was a compromise [that stipulated] local agencies would or could develop projects and in so doing would promise to send half the water to the delta.”

Quincy attorney Mike Jackson, who was at the meeting representing the water caucus, disagreed.

“I can say with 100 percent certainty that there is no water rights requirement to send water to Southern California,” he said. “There is no requirement other than a voluntary agreement to share water responsibility in the delta.”

Jackson also warned that, because the district’s plan also involves “recharging” or refilling an underground aquifer, the water rights of overlying landowners may be threatened.

“In California law, the overlying land owner owns all the underground water to the center of the earth,” he said. But because of a State Supreme Court precedent set in a case involving the city of Los Angeles, any entity that uses its own water to fill an aquifer assumes the water rights to it.

What’s more, the district’s plan calls for the project’s $1.3 million cost to be paid by a state grant. That alone makes it seem to many locals as if the state is simply buying Northstate water and sending it to the more politically powerful south.

The water caucus’ Jim Brobeck said the scheme could be a way for farmers to sell some of their surface water, substituting groundwater to irrigate their crops. Such water transfers, if they became widespread, could eventually harm the Northstate’s economy by taking cropland out of production. It could also have a detrimental effect on both the environment and neighboring well-users if the water table were drawn down too low. Such a situation occurred in Butte County during the drought of 1994-95.