Water and power
Supervisors approve groundwater plan; enviros suspicious
The Butte County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday that sets guidelines for managing perhaps the most important public resource in the Northstate—the vast underground aquifer that supplies all of Chico’s water and helps irrigate thousands of acres of farmland.
The Butte County Groundwater Management Plan (known to water watchers as an “AB 3030 plan” after the state bill that encouraged counties to create them) was produced by the county’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation with the stated goal of studying the area’s groundwater in order to protect it and regulate how it’s used. Having the plan in place also makes the county eligible for huge grants to pay for more groundwater studies.
“We’re not required to do this by law but … if you do not have an AB 3030 plan, you lose points in any grant program related to groundwater,” Ed Craddock, head of the water department, said. “We already lost one $250,000 grant because we didn’t have [a] plan.”
But some environmentalists are skeptical, saying the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the aquifer from being raided by the politically powerful and ever-thirsty water districts of Southern California.
“This plan has, embedded within it, plans to manage groundwater with an eye toward exporting it,” said Jim Brobeck, who is following the issue for the Butte Environmental Council. While Brobeck praised the county for its work in studying groundwater, he said it has failed to adequately warn the public that powerful interests covet our water.
“This is all language that indicates to me that the [plan] is working toward what they consider to be inevitable water transfers, and I think that’s the wrong place to start,” he said.
County water department spokesman Eric Miller said the county is merely taking a realistic, pragmatic approach to managing groundwater, one that seeks to more fully understand groundwater resources in order to protect them.
“The people in the water business are always going to be in the hunt for more water,” he said. “We just need to make sure we’re in a better position than they are, and armed with more knowledge.”
Miller said the plan basically takes existing county ordinances governing groundwater and puts them into one accessible document. He said the county went out of its way to inform people of the plan, holding at least eight public meetings in locations across the county and posting the plan on the department’s Web site (www.buttecounty.net/waterandresource) for months before it went before the board.
“We wanted to get as many comments as we could,” he said.
In fact, one of the points both sides agree on is that the public is woefully ignorant about the whole issue. Part of the reason is its complexity—there is almost no way to easily explain how the water cycle works, how water rights are apportioned or which agencies control how water is distributed across the state.
“The public of Northern California is 99 percent unaware that this threat to our environment and our economy and our culture … is barreling along at breakneck speed,” Brobeck said. “They can’t get their minds around it.”
One of the major issues is over how the huge aquifer beneath Butte and the surrounding four or five counties is now and will in the future be “recharged” with water.
There has been a flurry of scientific study in the past few years that suggests there are natural “recharge zones,” where rainwater and runoff percolate down into the system. Environmentalists tend to favor protecting those areas from development in order to keep them pure and functioning naturally.
But there are also ways to artificially recharge the aquifer, leading some to argue that it could potentially be used as an underground reservoir for storing water, which could be sent to other, drier parts of the state.
With fresh water being one of the most sought-after commodities in the world, there are plenty of folks who stand to make or lose fortunes depending on how the Northstate decides to use its water.
“If it’s an ag district, they’ll want a reliable water supply for drought. If it’s an urban area, they’ll want a reliable water supply for economic growth." Miller said. "We just want to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, we can’t afford to let this [water] go away.' We know the reality is that it has a finite capacity. Contrarily, if, after many years of study, there’s a determination that we would not be harmed if [some] water went away, then that’s a whole different set of issues."