Supes don’t support water grab

The Butte County Board of Supervisors pulled their support Tuesday from what environmentalists are describing as a water grab by an irrigation district.

Jim Brobeck, who works with several local boards and organizations on environmental and water-related issues, said he was proud of the board’s decision to stop the county from generating a letter in support of a project that would pull an unknown amount of water from the aquifer underlying Butte County.

The plan, being pursued by the Glenn-Colusa Canal Water District, in partnership with a consulting firm called the Natural Heritage Institute, would pump groundwater and send it down a series of irrigation canals, where it would allow those with surface water rights to sell their surface water, using groundwater in its place.

“They want to use public funds to drill a giant well, doing conjunctive use, selling surface water and replacing it with groundwater,” Brobeck said. “The whole scientific value of it, the whole investigative part is, ‘We’ll just see what happens.'”

Selling water could be a boon to the farmers and landholders who have access to it, but it could also negatively affect the Northstate’s economy by causing the unemployment of farm workers and those who sell farm equipment. Using groundwater to grow crops and then selling so-called “surplus” surface water could also have a potentially devastating effect on the environment, as creeks and streams could be depleted, leading to the loss of riparian species and habitat.

One of the problems county leaders have had in deciding how to manage groundwater is that there is little verified data describing the way individual aquifers work. Knowing this, they have been quick to pursue projects that purport to be studying the vast Tuscan aquifer that underlies Butte and its surrounding counties.

The last time the Glenn-Colusa district announced it was planning to study the relationship between surface and groundwater, the board seemed ready to jump on board. But the district was for some reason unable to provide the board with the plan’s specifics when it came up for review last month.

On Tuesday, the board was again asked to help the district obtain a grant from the federal Bureau of Reclamation by drafting a letter of support for the district’s “Lower Tuscan Groundwater Investigation” plan.

But when the board actually saw the plan, members balked. Oroville Supervisor Bill Connelly, who voted along with Chico Supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx to withdraw the county’s support, said the plan might benefit Glenn County, where the water was to be drawn from, but it might negatively affect Butte County, where water seeps into the aquifer.

“We sit on the recharge; they sit on the discharge,” Connelly said. “I am all in support of the science being done, but I’m not in support of the immediate sale of water.”

Today’s vote does not affect whether or not the project will go forward, but it may affect its funding. The authors of the plan’s summary may have to make some revisions, however, as it already states that “Butte County … [has] indicated strong interest in this proposal…”