Book in Common panel takes a look at the Tuscan aquifer
A panel of six local water experts speaking at Chico State Tuesday evening (Feb. 19) discussed everything you ever wanted to know about local groundwater issues. Well, everything but the controversial stuff.
Chico State’s Book In Common panel discussion “The Tuscan Aquifer—How It’s Used and What We Know About Our Groundwater Resource” educated the audience on Butte County water sources and practices, but didn’t wade into more controversial matters such as shipping North State water south. That was disappointing to some in attendance because the book in common, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It, by Robert Glennon, examines the issue of piping water from relatively wet regions to drier ones.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 at Chico State’s Colusa Hall, the experts used a steady stream of graphs, pie charts and statistics in PowerPoint presentations. The Tuscan aquifer is basically the underground lake that serves as the primary source of drinking water for Butte, Tehama, Glenn, Colusa and Sutter counties.
Dr. Eric Houk, associate professor of civil engineering at Chico State, sounded a positive note in explaining that local water is being used efficiently. He said 80 percent is used for agriculture and the remaining 20 percent fills urban needs. Agricultural water use, Houk explained, fell by 15 percent between 1967 and 2007, even though farming revenues nearly doubled during the same period.
Some humor was injected into the presentation by Peter Bonacich, assistant district manager with the California Water Service Co.’s Chico district. He told the crowd he was going to talk about the dry January and February, but decided against it considering a hail storm had moved into the area just as he began to speak.
His main emphasis was on Chico’s municipal water use, the bulk of which comes from single-family residences. The vast majority of that use, 67 percent, goes to irrigation of lawns, plants and gardens. Like Houk, Bonacich said he was happy to report that Chico had reduced its per-capita water draw between 2005 and 2009. This, he said, was in part due to the aggressive conservation incentives offered by Cal Water, such as reduction rebates and encouraging use of water-saving appliances like special shower heads and faucet aerators.
The thorniest issue regarding local water—shipping it south to places like the San Joaquin Valley—surfaced during the question period that followed. Todd Greene, who was running the show and is associate professor of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, said that much more data is needed before making an accurate assessment about any potential hazards of transferring local water south.
Christina Buck, water resources scientist with the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, agreed. She said that a major, comprehensive study by her department of the factors that help feed and replenish or “recharge” the Tuscan aquifer has been three years in the making. Known as the Tuscan Aquifer Investigation, it should be completed by June, she said.
After the talk, attendee Ellen Simon, adviser for the water watchdog group AquAlliance, said she is unconvinced the study will give definitive answers.
“We need to know how long it takes to recharge the Tuscan aquifer, especially if we drain it by shipping our water down south,” she said. “Does it take one year, one thousand years, or more?”
John Scott, a local water advocate and board member of the Butte Environmental Council, said he enjoyed the talk overall but felt “it didn’t go deep enough.” He said he wanted more emphasis on the best economic uses of local water, whether that be keeping it local or transferring it south.
“In Northern California it takes one unit of water to make one unit of food,” he said. “Whereas south of the Delta, it takes eight units of water to make one unit of food.”