Treading water

Chico-based environmental group concerned about domestic wells as farmers propose new groundwater district

Ed McLaughlin, left, and Rich McGowan, members of the Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County, are pursuing the creation of a water district in the Vina sub-basin.

Ed McLaughlin, left, and Rich McGowan, members of the Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County, are pursuing the creation of a water district in the Vina sub-basin.

Photo by Andre Byik

County water officials went to the Butte County Farm Bureau about four years ago with a message: The 2014 passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)—a sweeping regulatory program intended to curb overuse of the state’s aquifers—will prove crucial to farmers dependent on groundwater, and it was time to get organized.

Rich McGowan, who sits on the farm bureau’s board of directors, told the CN&R that the county’s agricultural groundwater users—primarily growers of almonds, walnuts, pistachios and other tree crops—had been unorganized at the time, working individually or in splintered groups in contrast to the county’s more organized surface water users.

“It became apparent,” McGowan said, “that it was critically important that somehow we formed some sort of vehicle in order to represent ourselves.”

Since that meeting, the Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County (AGUBC)—a nonprofit organization of which McGowan is president—has been formed, and its membership has been pursuing plans to create a new water district in the county’s unincorporated northwest region, where growers depend on wells and agriculture production totaled nearly $300 million in 2017.

But since the introduction of the proposed Tuscan Water District at a public meeting in Durham in late September and then a county Water Commission meeting earlier this month, the proposal has been met with a flow of concerns. Some have criticized the speed at which AGUBC is pursuing the plan, raising questions regarding the organization’s motives and whether the public has had enough opportunity to provide input. Others have questioned possible long-term environmental effects of the proposed water district.

“Some groundwater-dependent farmers—in conversations with the county—believe that it is in their best interest to form a district so that they feel they could have a voice in the management of the groundwater basin, all being driven by [SGMA],” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, a Chico-based water advocacy group. Her nonprofit’s concern, she added, is that the workings of a water district may “inadvertently” undermine the health of the basin that AGUBC says it wants to protect.

Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for AquAlliance, said AGUBC may not have the public’s best interests in mind. The priority of farmers, Brobeck said, is to make sure they have water in their wells, not to protect the shallowest portion of an aquifer. Water purveyors, he said, like to “exercise” aquifers and may well do so to the point where the public suffers.

“I think they need more comprehensive advice, legal advice and historical advice, [about] how these things play out over the decades,” Brobeck said. “This is why we want this to be surfaced. We want to have public opinions on this so that we fully reveal the full ramifications of how this could play out.”

The proposed Tuscan Water District, which would comprise about 97,000 acres from the Tehama County line south to the northern border of the Western Canal Water District in the Durham area, would establish a local body that represents the interests of landowners—both agriculture and domestic—in the district’s borders, McGowan said. It also would be a water purveyor, bringing surface water to an area where it’s currently unavailable, and work with the county to sustain the basin.

The district would be a landowner-voting body with taxing powers. Its formation requires review by the Butte Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). An application to begin the process has not yet been submitted.

Paul Gosselin, the county’s director of water and resource conservation, explained groundwater levels declined slightly in the county over the last two decades, including in the Vina “sub-basin,” which is part of the larger Sacramento Valley groundwater basin and where the Tuscan Water District is proposed.

Following the passage of SGMA, which requires local groundwater sustainability agencies to develop and implement management plans to stop groundwater overdraft and reach basin “sustainability” by the early 2040s, growers took notice. Local management plans are due to the state by January 2022.

“The growers got kind of aware that they’re 88 percent of the groundwater demand in the Vina sub-basin, and they knew balancing the basin—either you do two things,” Gosselin said. “You either reduce pumping or you improve recharge, [meaning] putting more water in the basin. So what they continually wanted to do was have a lot more control about how to achieve sustainability.”

An option long talked about has been better management of surface water locally. Gosselin said an entity such as the proposed Tuscan Water District could enter purchase agreements with other local districts that may have a surplus of surface water during wet years. The district could then supply that surface water to its customers, avoiding overpumping and allowing the basin to recharge and recover.

Gosselin said the proposed water district would not have water rights, and it would not transfer water out of the area. County ordinance prohibits use of locally-extracted groundwater outside the county without a permit, and the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency on Thursday (Oct. 10) directed its committee to develop enforceable rules limiting out-of-basin water transfers.

The county has not taken a position on the district, and the Water Commission will hear more information about the proposal at its meeting Nov. 6. But Gosselin said such an entity could address an identified need.

“The need generally to find ways to have available surface water be used in groundwater-dependent areas to reduce the demand on the basin is a good thing,” he said, adding, “It’s a matter of getting the right agency to actually be able to take surface water from others during wet years and distribute it to landowners and have it integrated into their irrigation systems.”

McGowan addressed the concern regarding domestic wells going dry, saying local standards will be set under SGMA to prevent agricultural overpumping of groundwater. That will benefit domestic users, he said.

Further, the AGUBC has been exploring establishing a water district for the last two years, attending SGMA, groundwater sustainability agency and other local water meetings. McGowan noted the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution in October 2017 recognizing the group’s interest in creating a water district while resolving to work with the group along the way. That’s been happening, he said.

“We’ve been very open, and one of the points I want to make is that the thrust of this has come from the county and the state,” he said. “They want local representation, and we didn’t have any.”