There is water underground

But how much? And, more important, who gets to use it?

They took most of the gold out of them thar hills more than a century ago. There are still a few trees left to cut, but not as many as there once were. There’s scarcely a fur-bearing animal left in the diminishing woods, and even the once-ubiquitous fish are struggling to survive in rivers and streams that have been rip-rapped, dammed and diverted. But there is one resource in Butte County that has yet to be completely carted off.

Chances are, if you are anywhere in the Sacramento Valley between Red Bluff and Maxwell, that resource is directly underneath you. Most of us would call it water, but there are those who refer to it as “liquid gold,” and what’s more, there’s a truly staggering amount of it. In just one part of the huge basin underlying this part of California’s Central Valley, there are more than 30 million acre-feet of fresh, clean water, 10 times the amount that can be stored in Lake Oroville and almost as much as can be stored at once in every reservoir in California.

To visualize that much water, try to imagine 30 skyscraper-sized aquariums, with bases the size of football fields, each towering to an impossible height of almost 200 miles.

“That [much water] tends to make people uneasy,” noted state geologist Toccoy Dudley, who, because he is in charge of studying the aquifer, is an important actor in Butte County groundwater. Working out of his office in Red Bluff, Dudley and his staff have been studying the size, quality and flow of a particular underground formation called the Lower Tuscan for more than five years now. Dudley clearly enjoys his work testing wells across the county and plugging the data into computer models. While he treats the study as something of an academic exercise, he also knows that his state-financed work is making plenty of people suspicious that somehow the water under Butte County is about to be sold to the highest bidder.

“I mean, let’s face it, California is continuing to grow, and nobody seems to want to build any more dams,” Dudley said. “It’s very difficult environmentally now to build dams. If you were to look at it purely from a technical point of view, you could say that the Lower Tuscan is an underground reservoir. You can put water in it; you can take water out. If you could do that without hurting anybody, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with it. But unless you do something quite a bit different than we’re doing right now, you could hurt a whole lot of people.”

While Dudley tries to remain neutral on the politics involved, he is well aware that the data he is collecting will be used to determine how this vast resource is put to use. The ways of managing groundwater are as numerous as they are controversial, and the entities involved are some of the most powerful in the state.

Dudley is the senior engineer for the northern division of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which manages the largest and most complicated water conveyance system in the entire world. The department’s job is to find, study and help regulate California’s water, which historically has been a study in moving it hundreds of miles from where most of it originates—north of Sacramento—to where most of the state’s people live—south of Sacramento.

It’s an ongoing scheme that has made millionaires of some and paupers of others. Water development has allowed southern cities like Los Angeles to blossom and thrive in what is essentially a desert and has put northern counties like Butte in the position of watching their water—and to some extent, their fortunes—drift away.

The fact that there is water under Butte County is nothing new. Farmers have been irrigating their crops with it since the late 1800s. California Water Service Co. pumps about 9.3 billion gallons of it every year to satisfy Chico’s needs. But what is new is the idea of using the aquifer as a refillable underground reservoir that, if properly managed, could help quench the thirst of our rapidly growing state, which is projected to hit a population of 50 million by the year 2020.

To some, that idea is an inevitable product of economic growth. To others, them’s fightin’ words.

PUT A LID ON IT State geologist Toccoy Dudley caps an artesian well near Richvale.

Photo By Tom Angel

“The whole topic of groundwater is very, very sensitive, and it should be. There is a history here in California and around the world where people and industries have not respected the resource, have overtaxed it and lost it forever,” said Butte County Water Commissioner Michael Pierce.

Pierce, who was appointed to the commission by outgoing county Supervisor Bob Beeler, denied that there is any kind of plan afoot to sell Butte County groundwater. But he agreed that there has been a scramble at the county level in the last five years to at least find out what kind of resource the Lower Tuscan actually is. The point, he said, is not to figure out the best way to exploit it, but to manage and protect it against “outsiders.”

In a sense, the county is in a race against time to find out how the aquifer works: Where are the aquifer’s “recharge zones” (where water percolates down into it)? What is its geology? What are its boundaries? How does pumping in one place affect another? All the while, the state’s population continues to grow by almost 750,000 a year, making the water underneath us more valuable every day. The state predicts that, without either a massive conservation effort or development of new sources, California could experience water shortages of 2.4 million acre-feet per year by 2020.

While that happens, the various agencies that have rights, access, oversight or interest in the water seem to be sizing each other up. When it comes to water, there is not a lot of trust among its various users. The farmers and the city dwellers; the north and the south; environmentalists and business people—all of them have different ideas about how the state’s water should be used. But they all share a common fear, or at last a cautious respect, for two entities: The state’s DWR and Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District.

“I would say that we’d be naïve to think that [outsiders] are not eyeing the aquifer,” Pierce said. “We know that the Department of Water Resources is linked hip-to-hip with the state water contractors. Sometimes when DWR is not able to make a decision, a state water contractor will come along with an idea, and all the sudden it’s, ‘Oh, we’ve made our decision.’

“Whether they say it or not … Metropolitan Water and the Southern California water contractors dominate the state water contractors, and that has a huge impact on policy decisions at DWR. The Northstate has historically been totally disempowered. Up until just recently, we’ve had more resource than demand. We no longer have that luxury.”

Probably the most contested issue regarding the aquifer, besides who owns the water (see sidebar), is how to “recharge” or refill it with water. That process could involve doing essentially nothing—letting the water naturally percolate through the ground—or it could mean something as drastic as constructing a system of “reverse” wells to inject water directly into the Tuscan. Some plans already floating around involve constructing a series of canals that would allow farmers in recharge zones to use surface water in lieu of groundwater (referred to as in-lieu recharge), creating new reservoirs in various places, digging out a series of shallow “recharge basins” that would be stocked with water from Lake Oroville, or rezoning certain recharge areas to preclude development on them.

But all this scheming makes people nervous, and rightly so. Whichever plan is embarked upon to recharge the Tuscan, some folks are likely to be left out, while others are just as likely to get rich. If the plan involves a major construction contract, a lot of builders will be happy but environmentalists won’t. If the plan calls for creating expensive infrastructure, the taxpayers will likely get soaked, while the water contractors will end up swimming in it. As one local water watcher put it, as soon as a plan is announced, “that’s when the lawsuits start flying.”

One recharge option, as detailed in an early draft of the county’s Integrated Watershed and Resource Conservation Plan, calls for the creation of a Groundwater Replenishment District, which conceivably could become one of the county’s most powerful entities. Option 23, as detailed in the draft report (an updated version of which is due by May) would give the district power to: “buy, sell and exchange water"; “distribute water to persons in exchange for ceasing or reducing ground water extractions"; “spread, sink and inject water into the underground"; “acquire water rights within or outside the district"; “exercise the right of eminent domain to take any property necessary to supply the district with replenishment water"; and “levy a tax if the revenues from water charges were insufficient to pay for operating expenses.”

Another option would allow the Martin Marietta mining company to dig a five-acre, 140-foot-deep basalt mine into Table Mountain, which it would then abandon and fill with water to send downhill to irrigate local orchards. Still another option would set up a grant program that would pay landowners to dig deeper wells in order to access different parts of the aquifer.

With such eye-popping and far-ranging plans appearing in official county reports, it’s no wonder people are paranoid about groundwater.

DOWN THERE SOMEWHERE The shaded section on this map represents the approximate area of the Lower Tuscan aquifer. There is some recent speculation that the aquifer is even larger than this map suggests.

Officials at the county caution that such plans are only ideas that have been thrown out by various entities, and no action is being taken on any of them. According to Commissioner Pierce, the only thing definite is that “there is a plan to make a plan.” County officials at every level echoed Pierce, saying that a county recharge plan is months, probably even years away.

But there are also plenty of skeptics around who insist the county already has a groundwater plan that it’s keeping to itself, and they want to know what that plan is. Barbara Vlamis, head of the Butte Environmental Council, is one of those skeptics.

“It has been kept very secret, which is objectionable,” Vlamis said. “I serve on the steering committee for water issues, and we’ve been talking in rather broad terms about water policy, but no one has had the courtesy to make a presentation to us about this particular concept, even though everyone knows it’s lurking in the background.

"[We’ve been] hearing that landowners are considering using their property for injection purposes or for some kind of a [water] holding area, hearing that there have been experts looking at the geology of the area. Those kinds of things are circulating.”

Vlamis and the BEC oppose the idea of artificially recharging the aquifer on the grounds that, if pollution were inadvertently added to the aquifer, there would be no conceivable way to get it out.

“Right now it’s recharging itself fine, but because some people want to make millions of dollars selling water, they’re looking at other alternatives.”

The BEC would support a plan to recharge the aquifer naturally or to protect the recharge zones that already exist. But Vlamis said the issue is so cloaked in secrecy there is no way of knowing which position the BEC will ultimately take.

“It’s been somewhat of a grind to get information,” agreed Bruce Smith, who follows water issues for the League of Women Voters. Smith makes his living remodeling houses but has gone back to school to study geology and hydrology partly, he said, “so I could understand what they’re talking about at these meetings.”

One of the things that worries both Vlamis and Smith is that taxpayers will be called upon to pay for a project that will end up putting money in the pockets of a few already-wealthy landowners while providing little benefit for the average Butte County citizen. Beyond that, they worry that a plan adopted without enough scientific data or public discussion could end up harming the very resource it aims to protect.

“One of my No. 1 interests right now is … who’s paying for this and who benefits?” Smith asked. “The other thing is, are those recharge areas accurate? It would be a shame to spend millions and millions of dollars and find out you were wrong.”

Almost everyone agrees that the aquifer will have to be recharged somehow, and it has little to do with paranoid visions of L.A. stealing our water. The reason is simple—farming. Since agriculture dominates the Butte County economy, the interests of farmers are, to some extent, the interests of everyone else. If the aquifer is not recharged, Butte County farmers may someday end up paying a lot more, not for water, but for the electricity it takes to draw that water out of the ground.

WHERE THE COLD, DARK WATER FLOWS This cross-section shows the various layers of the vast aquifer system beneath the Sacramento Valley.

“Even though there’s that much water there, you could only use a tiny fraction of it, just mainly because if you pull water levels down too far it becomes uneconomical to farm,” explained DWR’s Dudley. “The name of the game is to keep this thing as full as possible so farming can go on. That’s where the recharge comes in. People up here like to make sure the aquifer stays full because it costs them a lot of money to pump groundwater. The less they have to lift it, the cheaper it is.”

But then, those paranoid visions might not necessarily be that far off either. Metropolitan Water is well aware that we in the Northstate have water, and it has made no secret of coveting it. In its latest report on water supplies and reliability, Metropolitan envisions making water transfers over the Internet, similar to the way electricity is now traded, and states that the district is already lobbying for a streamlined water transfer approval process. It never mentions Butte or any other particular county but states: “About 185,000 acre-feet of water annually is expected to be produced by the conjunctive use projects in the Sacramento Valley and would be available for use under a settlement. Metropolitan’s allotment of this new yield is projected to be 45,000 acre-feet per year.”

Dudley said the idea of sending Butte County water south was specious, mostly because the water would have to flow through the Bay Delta, which means that only a tiny fraction of whatever water was bought up here would ever make it down there.

“The North State’s water is pretty safe, until they come up with a new peripheral canal or some other way to circumvent the delta,” he said. The idea of building a canal around the delta has been coming up for years, and each time it rears its head, it’s been flattened at the polls.

In 2002, Sacramento Valley farmers sold Metropolitan $12 million worth of water, fallowing a reported 25,000 acres of land in the process. With rice prices in constant flux, it seems like a boon to many farmers to get paid for letting water flow past their properties. But if too many farmers decided to fallow, the ripple effect on trucking, farm supply sales and other support industries could cripple the Northstate’s economy.

It would be much simpler if the aquifer were confined to Butte County, but of course it isn’t. There are seven or eight counties that share rights to this resource, and only two, Butte and Glenn, have ordinances addressing groundwater pumping. Butte County’s recently adopted Measure G forces those who would “transfer” (an industry euphemism for “sell") groundwater out of the county to apply for a permit before doing so. No one so far has applied for a permit, but then it has been a better-than-average couple of years for rainfall in the state.

There are also ways of getting around the ordinance, especially for farmers who have access to surface water. These farmers can, under certain circumstances, sell part of their surface water allotment by either fallowing lands or substituting groundwater for surface water. But too much pumping in one part of the aquifer might have dire consequences on another, as some parts of it are able to hold more water than others.

This may have happened in 1994, when the state decided to allow Northern California farmers to sell their groundwater to the drought-stricken south. As the pumping went on, a group of farmers in the Cherokee Strip area of Butte County noticed that their wells were drying up and threatened to sue the state, claiming that over-pumping on the other side of the aquifer was damaging their livelihoods.

That claim is still being debated, but the conflict has led to the adoption of what Butte County calls its Basin Management Objectives (BMO) ordinance. That ordinance sets up a forum of representatives from 16 county sub-areas concerned with how the water is being used. It includes representatives from farmers, scientists and environmentalists, who ideally will all work together to hammer out agreements on water usage. The next step, according to Pierce, is to get the surrounding counties together in a similar way.

“Nobody’s going to come and take our water if we have unity in the family,” Pierce said. “The idea first is to get the counties in the region to work cooperatively and get involved. I believe once we have a cooperative, collaborative, regional entity in place that has science in mind, it will be a concept that can spread and we’ll get this water issue under control.”

Ultimately, Pierce said, California and the rest of the world need to take an approach to water that favors people over profits and, to the greatest extent possible, one that moves populations toward water instead of the opposite approach the state has historically taken. Until then, he said, the best strategy for counties like Butte is to work with their neighbors to try to safeguard the resources they still have.

“There is a race against time," he said. "We’ve taken several good steps in the right direction, [but] we need to husband our resources better. If we don’t take a more realistic approach, understand the limits of our resources, put the priority on protecting the environment and resources and not the bottom line, we’re doomed. Anybody that has [the opposite] opinion, they’re the ones dooming us."