Water these guys up to?

The future of Butte County groundwater

Photo By Tom Angel

Anyone who follows the politics of water in this state already knows that Butte County sits on top of one of the largest and least-developed sources of fresh water in California. It’s called the Lower Tuscan aquifer, and it underlies not only Butte, but Glenn, Colusa and Tehama counties, holding as much 30 million acre-feet of what is no doubt the region’s most precious resource. How that resource will be managed, however, is at this point completely unknown.

What is certain is that the state’s population is climbing, and with all the subdivision-building, large-scale farming and water-intensive manufacturing going on, many locals worry that the rest of the state is just aching to put a straw in the Tuscan. (Chico already gets its water from the Tuscan, via wells operated by California Water Service.)

Butte County has been trying for years to get a handle on the situation, fearing that the state’s water contractors will find a way to suck the water out of the ground and send it to an ever-thirstier Southern California before scientists can even determine how much water we have and how it gets in the ground in the first place. But with so many competing interests and so much money and power involved, the county sometimes seems woefully outclassed and local officials, environmentalists, farmers and developers are all beginning to wonder what their—and their opponents'—next moves will be.

So when a proposal surfaced before the Butte County Board of Supervisors called “Regional Integration of the Lower Tuscan Groundwater Formation into the Sacramento Surface Water System…” alarm bells began to sound across the county. Drawn up jointly by the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and environmental consulting firm the Natural Heritage Institute (NHI), the proposal is part of a grant application seeking $500,000 in state funds to set up a management scheme for the Tuscan aquifer. (See NHI’s Website, http://www.n-h-i.org for more details.)

Water watchers were immediately suspicious.

“Just the name of the grant is enough to trigger willies,” Barbara Hennigan, chairperson of the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, said. “It’s a study based on pumping. Well, what happens if you overpump? Do you just say, ‘Whoops I went too far?'”

Other groups chimed in, claiming in essence that the NHI proposal is a way to start extracting water from the Tuscan, an act that could place the counties in a subordinate position to whatever agencies ended up controlling the process.

All this prompted the CN&R to engage various players in state water politics in a series of conversations about what is really going on with the Tuscan. Up first is Butte County Water Commissioner Ed Craddock, a former employee of the state’s Department of Water and Resources, who for the last few years has worked on the county’s behalf to further understanding of its groundwater resources.

During that time, the county has adopted both a groundwater plan and a series of Basin Management Objectives, which has led to the formation of oversight committees in every part of the county to identify and deal with groundwater issues. Craddock, who will retire at the end of this year, was first asked specifically about the Natural Heritage Institute’s grant proposal, which the county declined to support.

Ed Craddock

Photo By Tom Angel

Ed Craddock

CN&R: What is the NHI proposal?
It is a plan to look at long-term management of the Lower Tuscan. NHI’s real agenda, I think, is that they want to increase in-stream flows for fish.

CN&R: Who is NHI?
NHI is a fairly competent environmental firm. They were instrumental in writing the Agriculture Water Planning Act. They’ve also worked with the county on the Poe power plant relicensing. They have a pretty highly qualified staff and board of directors. I think they’re pretty outstanding, but they are from San Francisco and they don’t always agree with local folks.

CN&R: What is the county’s take on this?
Butte County’s position more or less says … we want to take care of our in-county urban and environmental needs before we start looking at water transfers. We need to control our own destiny.

CN&R: How well do the four counties overlying the aquifer work together already?
We don’t have a memorandum of understanding with the four counties yet. We have just been working together on the four-county drinking water plan. It’s very complicated. For instance, Cal Water, which supplies Chico, is the biggest pumper of Tuscan water.

CN&R: Is the county operating on the assumption that more pumping from the Tuscan is inevitable?
I think we are assuming it will be used and it is already being used. The state government potentially can come in and take it but we want to say, ‘We can do it. We are in control.’

Greg Thomas
President of Berkeley’s Natural Heritage Institute. NHI, in partnership with the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, recently caused a stir locally when it sought to sign Butte County onto a grant proposal that would fund a study of the Lower Tuscan. Some county environmentalists and farmers saw the plan as a pumping scheme that would pave the way for water to be sold southward. If that were to happen on a large enough scale, they argued, it could disrupt the agricultural economy of the Northstate and permanently harm the environment. Thomas said NHI’s proposal has been thoroughly misunderstood.

CN&R: Will conjunctive water management lead to Northstate water being sold?
It doesn’t have anything to do with that at all. There’s a lot of uninformed opinion in the basin—it’s regrettable. All conjunctive water management means is that you coordinate the management of the surface water system—the reservoirs—with the groundwater system. The only thing that’s beyond the conventional in this is taking a regionalized, integrated approach, since this is a regional aquifer.

Exports are a business. We’re not in the water export business. We’re not a water agency of any sort. If exports are going to occur in the Sacramento Valley, it will be under the existing and future regulation requirements that govern water transfers.

CN&R: What would your project do?
The whole purpose of integrated planning is to put a plan in place before water resource development occurs. Here we are talking about a big system and the underlying assumption is that of course it’s going to be developed. If it’s going to be exploited, it’s better that it be done in a long-term, sustainable manner. To do that you really need to know how it operates. To know that, you need to utilize it.

Greg Thomas

Photo By Tom Angel

CN&R: Will you be studying how water gets into the aquifer?
The recharge of the aquifer is something that’s going to be investigated under the plan already being pursued by Butte County, so the results of all of that obviously would be factored in to the regional planning that takes place. Our planning proposal does not envision that we will go out in the field and gather additional data.

The real question is, given the current state of knowledge, what are the risk factors that are associated with the uncertainties? Those risks need to be assessed and managed in a way that no one will be placed at risk in the future as the aquifer is utilized.

CN&R: How would you do that?
What you need is a monitoring program that allows you to detect change and then a mechanism that changes and moderates the extractions when those changes are detected.

We can’t continue to fly in ignorance about the future use of this aquifer. One of the fundamental misunderstandings is that this is not a plan for development of the aquifer. We have no plan; all we’re proposing is a plan that will lead to an integrated management regime for the aquifer.

CN&R: Can further use of the aquifer be a good thing for Butte County?
I don’t know if I can pass judgment on what’s good or bad. If it’s going to occur it has the potential benefits of making secure water supplies that are otherwise insecure. There’s a lot of not-very-clear thinking on this issue. This is a common property resource. It’s not confined by political boundaries or water district boundaries or anything else. The way the rules of the game work, any overlying landowner anywhere in that four-county area has access to that aquifer, so drilling that occurs in one part of the county has the potential to affect users throughout that entire basin.

Butte County is vulnerable in a world in which there is unmanaged development of this resource, unmanaged access to this resource. If you’re vulnerable, you’ve got a particular stake in making sure there’s a management plan in place and a way to do that is to bring together all the interests to pool all their knowledge and data. What you do is set it up so you can make a deliberate choice before development takes place.

David Guy
Executive director, Northern California Water Association (NCWA). NCWA represents water rights holders in northern California as well as local government with the goal of protecting water rights and water supplies in northern California.

CN&R: Is development of the Lower Tuscan inevitable?
There are already 300 and some wells in the Tuscan, the city of Chico gets its water from the Tuscan, and most of the domestic wells in Butte County are in the Tuscan, so obviously it’s a very important water source for northern California and Butte County.

CN&R: Will the aquifer be linked up with the rest of the state’s water system?
I don’t know where that’s coming from. There’s no linkage that I’m aware of.

CN&R: What about water transfers?
There have been water transfers and I think there will be what I like to describe as some “strategic water transfers.” That’s quite honestly designed to take the pressure off northern California. Our bottom line is that we want to protect northern California water rights. We want to make sure supplies are available for northern California in the future. That means for the farms, the cities … wildlife refuges and other managed wetlands. Water transfers are such a small piece of that.

David Guy

Photo By Tom Angel

CN&R: Does Metropolitan have designs on Northstate water?
Clearly they have a broad portfolio of assets they’re looking at and obviously the State Water Project is a huge part of that. They get a tremendous amount of … Northern California water. I do think there are going to be years when they are going to be interested in acquiring some additional water—no question about it. Some of the folks in the Northstate will be willing to do that as long as the needs of the Northstate are met first.

CN&R: How do you ensure that?
One of the things we’re working on is integrated regional management. There a lot of proposals–the NHI and Glenn-Colusa plan is one of maybe four or five that look to understand the Tuscan better. [If] we can understand the resource better … we can make sure the aquifer is protected. I can guarantee you, talking to the districts up in the Northstate, they do not want to impact any water user. They’re in the business of supplying water and they want to protect the resource for future uses.

CN&R: What would an integrated management scheme look like?
[It would] include meeting the needs for farms, wildlife and fish. It’s a matter of integrating all that, having water right holders, local governments, all kinds of interests working together to accomplish that goal.

Water is not something that lends itself to bumper sticker slogans. It’s never quite as simple as some people would like you to believe.

Tim Quinn
Metropolitan Water District

CN&R: What do you see happening with the Tuscan aquifer?
A lot people in your part of the world want to understand it more and perhaps get some value out of. In Southern California … we have learned about our groundwater basins and we have made them work for us. Up in northern California, where the need was never there as it was in the south, it’s happening a little bit. From the little I know about it … I think they do have an asset they want to understand better and learn more about.

CN&R: And is Met trying to get its claws on it?
No. If you think we’re lurking around waiting to swoop in once the asset starts to get developed, I’m sorry, that’s not the way we operate. We’ll do just fine even if we never have anything to do with the Lower Tuscan Aquifer. On the other hand, what I’ve learned from building partnerships and relationships from one end of this state to the other is, if the locals realize it’s an asset that could solve local problems but they don’t have quite the juice to get it done, and our resources can come into a process … that’s when I come into the equation.

I’ve never had to knock a door down. I’ve always been invited in. I learned a dozen years ago the only way you get invited in is by your understanding that you’re there to help solve a local problem.

CN&R: How would a region like ours set up a management scheme that would serve our interests?
It’s hard work. You start by really getting the technical information down, and the efforts the locals are making, I really applaud. You probably do have to create some sort of administrative mechanism … some vehicle in which all four counties are a part of the process. It does depend, but typically you need to get your water districts engaged as well. Certainly, if you want to include any other parts of the state, the water districts become an essential element.

CN&R: Is there a parallel situation in Southern California you would use as an example?
In terms of conjunctive management of the groundwater basin, we do it all the time everywhere. The strategies are different for the south of the delta water manager. For example, our basins are already dewatered. By which I mean they’ve got storage capacity. For years we had an overdraft situation, as has happened elsewhere. We have virtually no overdraft in groundwater basins in southern California today. In the decades where they were overdrafted, all the pumping vacated space. So we’ve got a fairly sophisticated management system.

Tim Quinn

Photo By Tom Angel

When they get the big storms going through the system, we want to pump more from the Delta, which we’ve always been encouraged to do. We then bring that water down and put it somewhere like Diamond Lake, a $2 billion surface storage facility, which really begins to drive home how you need to conjunctively manage your surface and groundwater facilities.

When we get big storms in the Delta, giving us a good, healthy state project supply, typically there’s a high correlation with the San Gabriel Mountains. Our groundwater guys are putting their locals’ cheap water into their groundwater basins, and we [had] no place to put water, so we built Diamond Valley Lake. It can take water from the big storm events and we hold it there and then bleed it out into the groundwater basins later.

CN&R: That’s done through percolation?
Yes, that’s the best way to get water underground. You put it into big spreading basins and it sinks underground. Some of the member agencies do injection wells, but that’s quite expensive—you don’t inject if you don’t have to.

CN&R: Are there places where it hasn’t worked?
It’s pretty straight forward. Probably the premiere example of a conjunctive use manager is the Arvin-Edison water storage district. Their supply has varied from as little as 10,000 acre feet to as much as 35,000 acre feet from one year to the next. So they’re managing those sorts of huge variations, and the way they cope is that, when they get the big year, they get the water underground big-time. They have also coincidentally partnered with Metropolitan. We invested in their spreading basins [and] additional extractions wells. Our money built a pipeline to move water from here to there, and we have a right to take water when it is dry up to certain amounts. We have a high priority in the system because our capital dollars made it happen, but they know it will cause them no problem–they’ll still be able to meet their demands. And when we’re not using that infrastructure, they’re using that infrastructure–they use it more than we do.

I suspect that conjunctive management in the Sacramento Valley will end up being quite different but the notion of managing your groundwater storage capacity with your surface capacity, getting outside partners, nobody understands that better than Arvin.

CN&R: What about environmental consequences—do trees, for example need a high water table to survive?
That’s typically not a problem where I come from because our groundwater basins are dewatered. It could definitely be a legitimate issue in certain parts of the Sacramento Valley. To the extent it is, you’ve got to stand up to it, identify the issue and make sure that you’re mitigating for it, and possibly make dramatic changes to your project.

CN&R: So studying it first is the key.
Absolutely. Five, six years ago, I thought, “These people don’t know anything about their groundwater basins.” They simply hadn’t been studied—you didn’t need to know so you didn’t know. In Southern California, we have been intensely studying our basins for a century, and we know every pebble in the alluvial deposits … Up here there was a lack of knowledge combined with arguably foolish-decision making in the mid-'90s with DWR water banks. You learn the groundwater basins may be full but it was clear to us at the time people were hurt and they should have been taken care of right away and they weren’t. That created paranoia factors that grew very large.

CN&R: As an overview of state water policy, what is happening with the federal and state systems being linked up, the resurrection of the peripheral canal idea, and linking the Lower Tuscan to the rest of the state’s water systems?
The first two, yeah. The latter, I think people can get worked up over nothing. Look, nobody’s going to come in and raid your groundwater basin. It’s not going to happen. The state and federal projects are not going to do that, period, end of story. It may be that at some point in the future, the locals might decide it would be nice for an outside partner that’s got resources you don’t have, and if it moves in that direction, that’s fine with us. We are not desperately waiting to get in to the lower Tuscan Aquifer.

[As for] the integration of the state and federal projects: One of the things that is in the Cal Fed record of decision is a need to better integrate those projects, so that they work better together. We can solve problems by better integration and more efficient management of the system, and that will take pressure off to do things that would do more environmental harm. You may have heard of the meetings we had two years ago in Napa. That’s where we met and pounded out an agreement to integrate the two projects and share the benefits thereof, consistent with the directions we were getting from the CalFed record of decision. That discussion is very real and both sets of contractors are determined to move progress along those lines forward.

The Peripheral Canal: It’s the elephant that’s in the room after the Jones Tract failure, the lessons coming out of New Orleans and Katrina—it is true that our delta and their delta have some common characteristics. Thank God not many people live in our delta so when it goes out it’s not really life that is threatened. We have transportation that goes through the Delta, we have railroads that go through the Delta, we’ve got natural gas systems, PG&E’s communications system, EBMUD’s aqueduct, the Hetch-Hetchy aqueduct is not very far from there, and we’ve got major water projects feeding the economy of California. To not think more seriously about “are we really as protected as we need to be” is arguably irresponsible.

So the peripheral canal appears to be coming back. I frankly have been trying to run away from the issue but I’ve come to realize it is the elephant in the room. As responsible managers, we need to deal with it and I’m very hopeful it’s dealt with in a strictly scientific way. We’ve got to keep the politics away from it as much as possible on both sides. One of the ideas out there [is to form] a very high-level, bi-partisan, squeaky clean, blue ribbon task force and put the charge to them to answer some of these questions about long-term stability and emergency preparedness in the Delta. CalFed said we have to look at this again and we’re coming up on the time we have to look at it again and identify that issue and insulate it to the degree you can from the ugly politics that have surrounded the issue in the past. I will tell you quite honestly I wish the issue would just go away—my life would be a lot less complicated—but clearly it’s not.