Vultures circling our precious water

BEC director: History shows we have reason for concern

Barbara Vlamis is executive director of the Butte Environmental Council.

This commentary follows a news story and editorial from Dec. 11 regarding legal action taken by BEC over Tuscan Aquifer test wells.

How do you explain the water threats to the Sacramento Valley in 450 words?

The two agencies that create water for agriculture and cities are the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. They operate Shasta and Oroville dams. Unfortunately, they have made commitments for water they don’t have.

There are rights, permits, and licenses that seek more than 10 times the amount of water that could be shared—in other words, too many expectations and commitments for hydrologic reality. Through the decades, like drunken sailors on a binge, speculators acquired land and over-used the water they had and then sought promises from the agencies that can’t possibly be kept.

Speculators have abused their own water supplies, and some have planted permanent crops even when their contracts clearly articulate that there will be years that water transfers may drop to zero. In a panic, speculators are crying foul this year and looking to the public trough and healthy watersheds to bail them out. (Sounds like Wall Street.)

The agencies, for decades, have been salivating over the upper Sacramento Valley groundwater basins—the last large, relatively intact watershed in California. Their multiple plans will cause the complete collapse of the hydrologic system in the heart of the Sacramento Valley, and there is no local protection to stop it.

This method was used previously in California’s Owens Valley, San Fernando Valley, and more recently with the Cosumnes River basin. The first experiment to place the big straw in the local aquifer during the 1994 drought resulted in serious harm to farmers and residents in and south of Durham.

Now, in 2009, the state and federal governments are back to their drought planning, seeking water for the speculators’ addictive behavior. This time they want to affirm the right to take enough Sacramento Valley surface water for more than 1 million homes or thousands of acres of agriculture in the arid San Joaquin Valley (600,000 acre-feet) and allow more than half of that to come from groundwater to continue rice production here.

If these water transfers are permitted, our orchards, creeks, salmon, and wells will be marooned. To paraphrase the internationally acclaimed Maude Barlow, when you move water from a healthy watershed to a desert, you only create two deserts.

Fifteen years of experience and analysis demonstrate that county government will not protect the public trust, despite their assertions to the contrary. If you want to protect local surface and groundwater for our fish, farms, and faucets, I encourage you to join or volunteer with Butte Environmental Council ( and the Butte-Sutter Area Groundwater Users Association (