Scientific research or dangerous plan?

Distrust is rampant toward studies of Lower Tuscan Aquifer

Thad Bettner has a trust problem.

Bettner is the general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, and some people think the district has something up its sleeve. That distrust was evident Monday evening (Dec. 8), during a public meeting attended by about 200 people at the Durham Memorial Hall.

It was the latest in a series of meetings the GCID has held regarding a two-year state- and federally funded program to study the Lower Tuscan Aquifer, the groundwater basin underlying much of the Sacramento Valley. The study is part of a larger effort to develop a plan for managing surface water in conjunction with groundwater so as to maximize the amount of available water.

The GCID’s project includes drilling seven big wells to test what happens to nearby streams and the aquifer itself when large amounts of water are pumped out.

Both farmers in the Durham area and environmentalists are distrustful of the program. The farmers vividly recall how their wells “sucked air” in 1994 when a local water district—not GCID—pumped huge amounts of groundwater to replace water it had sold south. And the environmentalists—led by the Butte Environmental Council—are convinced that GCID’s study, as well as one being done by Butte County, is part of a larger plan to transfer local water to points south.

BEC has sued both GCID and Butte County to compel them to do full environmental reviews of their projects. On Aug. 13, a Glenn County Superior Court judge upheld GCID’s claim that its project was strictly for research and dismissed the case against the district; the Butte County suit, filed Oct. 27, has yet to be heard.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Barbara Vlamis, BEC’s executive director, said a careful reading of the Sacramento Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, which the county signed onto earlier this year, shows clearly “how Butte County is woven into the fabric of this plan. … Its major goal is to ship water out of here, and Butte County is integral to this.”

BEC’s litigation, she said in a subsequent e-mail message, asserts the county “failed to disclose, as required by law, the entire scope of the project, all its dependent parts, as well as the cumulative impacts from this and the combined projects that are moving forward. Adequate analysis should not be feared, but endorsed by a government that seeks to protect its citizens.”

The aquifer study, in other words, cannot be considered separate from the larger plan of which it is a part.

Interviewed after the Durham meeting, Paul Gosselin, director of the county’s Water and Resource Conservation department, said adamantly that “the idea that the county wants to move water out of the area is ludicrous. … This county has made every effort to protect its water and to avoid a repeat of what happened in 1994.”

He said he was “dumbfounded and dismayed” by BEC’s suit, adding that, instead of protecting the area’s water, it was putting it at risk. “People outside the region are pleased that we’re being stymied in our efforts” to study the aquifer, he said.

Bettner, also interviewed separately, said GCID had absolutely no intention of profiting off the test wells. The goal is simply to understand the aquifer in order to manage the area’s water better—and protect it—in response to challenges.

Those challenges are several. One is Delta Vision, the state’s new plan to protect the endangered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It foresees needing more water for the Delta, and that water will come mainly from Northern California.

Other challenges include urban growth, with its increased use of groundwater, and changes in farming practices. Grant Davis, an engineering consultant to the GCID, used PowerPoint charts to show how water demand was going up, the result of increasing irrigated acreage and a turn to more water-intensive (and permanent) orchard crops, most of which are served by groundwater.

Without data about the aquifer, we can’t know what impact such changes will have, Davis said.

The part of the presentation that generated the most concern, however, was the “Conjunctive Operations Strategy,” a model for increasing use of surface water to create a more reliable supply, relying on groundwater as “backup.”

Currently, releases from Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are limited in order to keep enough water in the reservoirs to offset a possible dry next year. But if groundwater could be used as backup during those occasional dry years, Davis said, more water could be released all the other years, providing a more reliable supply and, potentially, meeting Delta demands.

The problem, as farmers in the audience quickly noted, is that as much as 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater could be needed to replace surface water during a single dry year. What will happen to their wells when so much water is sucked up elsewhere in the aquifer?

Nobody really knows, Davis replied. That’s why they’re doing the study.

Audience members, including Vlamis, suggested a better step would be to shut down the “toxic farming” in the massive Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley that relies on Northern California water. Bettner didn’t disagree, but he replied that there was nothing the GCID—and by implication anyone else in Northern California—could do about that.

One thing is for sure, Bettner said: The Delta needs more water. “If the Legislature comes and says, ‘We want your water,’ what are we going to do? Changes are coming, and we have to be proactive about it.”