Supes all wet

If there is one thing Butte County possesses that is the envy of the rest of the state, it is the water held in Oroville Dam and in the potentially vast but somewhat mysterious Tuscan aquifer.

That fact was evident at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, when three separate items dealing with groundwater dominated the agenda. Each item dealt in its own way with the need for more information about the Tuscan, as well as a perceived need for the county to find a stronger voice in dealing with those who want to drain the county’s groundwater and sell it to ever-thirsty Southern California.

“If water is the oil of the 21st century, Butte County is Saudi Arabia,” water attorney and environmentalist Michael B. Jackson told the board in responding to Butte County Water Commissioner Ed Craddock’s report on commission activities.

“A lot of people are talking about the Tuscan, and they don’t know exactly what it is. They know there’s 40 million acre-feet of water down there, but they don’t know who owns it, they don’t know who’s going to manage it or what’s going to be done with it. They just know it’s awfully big and awfully wet.”

Before being praised for his efforts, Craddock told the board his department was working slowly on several fronts to shore up the county’s water supply, make conveyance more efficient and educate locals on the growing importance of the water. Another priority, he said, is finding aquifer “recharge zones,” the places where water percolates into the ground. One of Craddock’s main functions is to get grant money for such projects, and he announced that the department had just received $240,000 to create a Web-based groundwater information center.

A more contentious item was the proposal by the Northern California Water Association (NCWA), an umbrella group composed of regional counties and water districts, to create a water plan for the entire Sacramento Valley. The group’s spokesman, David Guy, told the supervisors it was seeking only a letter of support for its plan and reassured them that it was not trying to usurp county authority over water. The plan, Guy said, was to incorporate all the different counties’ water plans into one document, which would supposedly unite the various water suppliers of Northern California, giving them more leverage with the more powerful political interests of the south.

But the handful of environmentalists in the audience were skeptical of the proposal, which Jackson called a “water export plan.” Others complained that drafting a document that pretends to speak for the people of the North Valley should be done by an entity that is open and accountable to citizens, not a trade organization like NCWA.

Richvale Supervisor Curt Josiassen said he understood that concern but was more worried that “if we [counties and water districts] as a group don’t have a focal point, we’re going to get conquered and divided.”

The resolution passed, with Chico Supervisor Jan Dolan casting the lone “no” vote. The main reason for all this water action at the supes’ Tuesday meeting had to do with looming deadlines for state grant applications, which is how the county and water groups plan to fund their various projects.