‘The elephant in the room’

County not seeing big picture on groundwater, BEC attorney charges

Important info:
Deadline for commenting on the draft initial study/mitigated negative declaration on the Tuscan Aquifer project is Friday, June 11. All relevant documents can be found on the Butte County website (www.buttecounty.net) on the Department of Water and Resource Conservation pages. Click on “Tuscan Aquifer Project.”

There’s “an elephant in the room,” Richard Harriman, an attorney for the Butte Environmental Council, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday (June 8). And for that reason, the county’s draft initial study of a plan to learn more about the county’s groundwater is flawed, he said.

That elephant, Harriman said, is the state of California’s determination to move more Northern California water south. “It is very clear, from the evidence on record … that this study will be used in the future to transfer water out of the county,” he insisted.

Its approval by the board, he continued, “will create an irreversible momentum for the use of water in a statewide effort to transfer water.”

This is the argument BEC has been making since October 2008, when it filed suit against the county, charging that its approval of the state-funded project was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. That suit is still alive, and the parties will be back in court June 25, Harriman said.

The current study is slightly changed from the original—partly because the project has been on hiatus for a year because of a stop-work order from the state—and is set for final approval by the board on June 22.

On the surface, the county’s plan—called the Lower Tuscan Aquifer Monitoring, Recharge and Data Management Project—is simple enough. As Paul Gosselin, head of the county’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation, told the board, the idea is to use existing and new monitoring wells to assess the impacts of existing irrigation wells on streamflows and measure aquifer recharge rates.

The goal is not to determine how much groundwater can safely be removed from the aquifer or how much water it can store, Gosselin said. Rather, it’s a limited scientific study designed to improve upon existing data, he said.

It “is not part of a larger project or sequence of projects involving the export of groundwater or the substitution of groundwater for surface waters that may be exported outside the northern Sacramento Valley,” according to the draft initial study.

That study concludes that, with certain mitigations, the project will not have significant environmental impacts. Those mitigations involve keeping dust down at well construction sites and having a biological-resource specialist and an archeologist on hand during construction to ensure that no special-status species or cultural artifacts are disturbed.

That’s not good enough, Harriman said. The biological- and cultural-resources studies should be done ahead of time, so the public can comment on them, he insisted.

More important, the study needs to look at the cumulative impacts of groundwater use in the several counties that draw upon the aquifer. “We need an analysis of the whole scope of this project,” he said.

“Do you want this project to go forward, or not?” Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi asked Harriman. The attorney said he hadn’t polled BEC’s members, but his task was to make sure the environmental study “was done right.”

Gosselin, reached later by telephone, said that, “Although this project is large, it’s not of the scope to include the entire [groundwater] basin.” Its value is in what it adds to the network of monitoring already being done throughout the basin. “This is a local, regional project that we should be working together on,” he said.