Using water wisely

It takes a lot to get people worked up about water. Sure, it’s the foundation of life on Earth, but unless there’s a drought, or a flood, or (in some circles) a wet-T-shirt contest, nobody seems to give it much thought.

But that all changed last Thursday when the Chico Masonic hall hosted the Sacramento Valley Water Awareness Workshop. Sponsored by the county, the University of California, and a host of local water districts and users’ groups, the workshop was set up as a way to get the public up to speed on the state’s upcoming water plan update.

To illustrate the need for better water regulation, Sandra Dunn, an attorney who spoke at the event, used a local project—the M&T Ranch pumping station—as an example of how water planning affects businesses and the environment. When the M&T Ranch moved its pumping station from Big Chico Creek to the Sacramento River, it was supposed to make things more convenient for the ranch and allow for an easier journey for spawning Chinook and steelhead salmon. The project received public funds and was heralded as a “prime example of how private entities, non-profits and the government can work together,” Dunn said.

But a few years later, the gravel bed that the pump had been built on expanded, mucking up the new fish screen. Thus began a regulatory nightmare for M&T, which found itself having to spend thousands of dollars on gravel excavation and soliciting renovation permits from no fewer than 12 different agencies.

“It’s amazing how many hoops you have to go through,” Dunn said. “If we’re not willing to protect infrastructure like fish screens, then we really can’t justify spending money on those projects.”

Water issues in California have always been a touchy subject. Seen as pitting property owners against the government, farmers against fish, and north against south, the struggle to find and distribute enough water to quench the golden state’s incredible thirst is one that has long simmered on the state’s political backburner. Fortunes have been made and lost trying to bring water from wet regions to dry ones. Political careers have been founded and undone in the pursuit of enough water to keep the state’s vast array of industries, populations and wilderness areas from drying up.

In order to manage this vital resource, the state maintains a water use plan that is updated every five years. The plan is based on water inventories, climate forecasts and a slew of other factors too complex and numerous to name. Likewise, the plan is enforced by a number of different agencies that sometimes work together and sometimes don’t. It’s a very complicated task.

This year, the state wants more input from local governments as to how to piece together the state’s water resources. Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, who attended the conference along with Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, said the county is in a much better position this time around to help the state with that request, now that it has been studying the issue for a couple of years.