Water problems abound

Butte County water commissioner Ed Craddock told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that his department is getting closer to submitting a $20 million grant proposal that he hopes will fund some major water projects in the region and help shore up the county’s control over its water before it can be siphoned off by other, more powerful, regions.

The most important project, a series of 20 “deep wells” across the county, will also be the toughest sell, Craddock said, owing mostly to its nearly $8 million price tag. The so-called Rock Creek/Keefer Slough Flood Control and Recharge Project was named the county’s top priority, as it will supposedly help the county understand the vast underground aquifer known as the Tuscan formation. The Tuscan, which underlies the counties of Butte and Tehama, is said to hold huge amounts of fresh water, which makes it both a great asset and a source of anxiety for the county, as water is quickly becoming the most sought-after resource in the state.

To illustrate how nervous the county is about the Tuscan, Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi relayed an anecdote in which he heard a representative of the state’s Department of Water Resources refer to the aquifer as the “Tuscan Reservoir,” indicating that the state may already be drafting plans to use the water in it. Historically, that has meant sending water from its source in Northern California to the more populous—not to mentions more politically powerful—south.

“We’re still fighting to reclaim the surface water we lost 50 years ago,” Craddock said, referring to the ongoing fight over the relicensing of the Oroville Dam. “I don’t want to miss the boat on groundwater.

“We have to be at the forefront of this. We can’t let anyone come along and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, so we’ll do it for you.'”

Perhaps as a way of hedging its bets, the county is also seeking grant funds for a couple of other projects related to the Tuscan, including a joint project with Tehama that would identify and seek to protect areas where water seeps into the aquifer, along with a project that would look into using water from the aquifer to germinate rice. Currently, farmers complain that water from the Sacramento and Feather rivers is too cold to use on their rice crops.

Another high priority for the county, and especially for Yamaguchi, is strengthening and widening the Magalia Dam, which forms a reservoir critical to maintaining Paradise’s water supply. But state inspectors have said the dam is not stable enough to withstand even a moderate earthquake, so the water behind it is kept at levels so low it must be pumped over the dam to reach its destination. Even worse, the dam forms part of The Skyway, Paradise’s main traffic artery. If a wildfire were to break out and the dam were impassable, residents in the hills could be trapped.

Fixing the problem could be enormously expensive, however, as the reservoir would have to be drained and a temporary dam built while the road and dam were being fixed. County officials have previously said that a permanent solution could be some 10 years and $40 million away.