Water politics

Can’t we all just get along?

HOW MUCH H2O?<br>There’s a lot of water in the Tuscan Aquifer, but that’s about all we know.

There’s a lot of water in the Tuscan Aquifer, but that’s about all we know.

When it comes to water, California is headed for a perfect storm. We can blame it on global warming, too many people, too few storage facilities or politicians’ ineptitude, but it’s on its way.

Winter weather patterns are shifting northward. The Sierra snowpack is expected to decrease significantly. The state’s population is increasing by more than a half-billion people a year. And the Delta, through which all Northern California water shipped south must pass, is nearing environmental collapse. Already transfers to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California have been significantly reduced.

Is it any wonder, then, that water suppliers all over the state are interested in the Lower Tuscan Aquifer, that big barrel of water that underlies much of the Sacramento Valley floor? Their hope is that, once a solution is found for the Delta’s woes, Northern California farmers can tap into it for water and free up surface water for use down south.

But just how much water is in the aquifer? And how fast does the aquifer recharge? Nobody really knows. And why should Northern Californians trust the folks down south? After all, look what they did to the Owens Valley.

This was the backdrop for a League of Women Voters forum held last Thursday (Nov. 8) at the Masonic Family Center in Chico. Its ostensible purpose was to look at local groundwater in the context of Butte County’s new general plan, but it soon took on a life of its own.

Credit a Texan named Carol Patterson for that. Currently the secretary of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, in south central Texas, she is the survivor of 25 years of contentious water politics, and she brought some battle-tested ideas to Butte County residents interested in how to go forward in an uncertain water future.

“What I can tell you is this,” said Patterson to more than 100 people. “Share information with your enemies. Water is the common ground; everyone wants it. But it’s a lot more fun to solve problems than it is to fight.”

There are some striking similarities between the Texas aquifer and the Tuscan, she pointed out. Like the Tuscan, the Edwards Aquifer covers several irrigation districts involving eight counties. Average rainfall is around 28 inches per year, same as here. There’s one good-sized city, San Antonio.

The often-competing water needs historically included farming, metropolitan uses, recreation and environmental protections. Before people learned to work together, the area had lived through more than 30 years of legal maneuverings, county and irrigation district defections and federal government intrusions.

To avoid this, Patterson said, “first you must identify all the stakeholders. Then get them all in one room, even those down-streamers” who want your water.

“You have to meet with your enemies,” Patterson continued. “Share concerns, but above all agree on what comes next: good, sound data. Get good science, but get it outside of politics.”

In Texas, EAA officials hired scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and a Northern California firm to study their aquifer. “It made all the difference,” Patterson claimed. “Texas funny money was out.”

The EAA spent more than $170 million in nearly 10 years to come with answers to simple questions:

How is the aquifer recharged?

How long does recharge take?

What happens if we draw it down too quickly?

What environmental concerns are there for recharge zones?

Do we take out more than what gets put in?

“Only on sound science can the dialogue move forward,” Patterson said. “Conversations have to be based on numbers that everyone can trust. Then everyone begins to see more clearly and is not fogged over by the politics of self-interest.”

Accountability was also an issue: “You need to make the board accountable. Where there is transparency, there is trust.”

Yet it took the U.S. Justice Department to get the EAA to see it that way. “When we formed the EAA in 1993,” detailed Patterson, “it was an appointed board. We thought we were done, years of fighting behind us. But the DOJ objected on the basis of voters’ rights. The federal government threatened to seize the aquifer system via lawsuit. We were in a panic.”

In 1996, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring that 15 of the 17 board members be elected. The two appointees were downstreamers who advised the EAA on their needs and rights.

“In hindsight, it was the right thing to do. We should have done that in the first place. It eases the people’s minds, places trust in the EAA. It’s so hard to work when there is an atmosphere of suspicion.”

The Lower Tuscan covers the same number of counties as the Edwards Aquifer does. The counties have joined the Northern California Water Association, and plans are under way to drill test wells to monitor the aquifer’s quantity and recharge capability. But nothing like the Edwards Aquifer Authority exists.

The response to the Butte County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote a year ago to sign up with the NCWA suggests the level of antipathy to having any dealings with outside water interests.

“I still remember the hate mail,” Supervisor Jane Dolan said. “People thought we sold out, gave away the water farm to the folks in Sacramento. It’s just not true. Our relationship with NCWA is purely informational. We share data.”

Patterson’s advice on transparency merits attention. NCWA is not an elected body, and none of the agencies that report to county supervisors about groundwater management is answerable to voters, either.

It is this lack of accountability that has conspiracy theorists working overtime. An environmentalist present at the LWV gathering, who wished to remain anonymous, charged that one of the reporting agencies, the county’s Department of Water Resource Conservation, purposely downplays or underreports environmental effects caused by an overdraft on the aquifer. “It’s all about their precious supply. Report after report about supply, nothing about saltwater intrusion or other adverse affects if we suck out too much water.”