Water worries

Important meeting is packed to the gills, but what’s the plan?

Many locals interested in preserving the North State’s water resources turned up for the water meeting hosted by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Many locals interested in preserving the North State’s water resources turned up for the water meeting hosted by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Photo By Dugan Gascoyne

Close to 200 people, an unusual admixture of farmers and environmentalists, jammed into a conference room in the Chico Masonic Center Tuesday evening (Jan. 11) to listen and then give input on proposed water transfers from sellers in the North State to buyers in the south scheduled to span the next decade.

Lacking, however, was any clear description of the transfer plan.

The meeting was hosted by the federal Bureau of Reclamation—the largest wholesale water supplier in the United States—and a state water district called the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents agricultural water districts in the south.

According to its printed agenda, the purpose of the meeting was three-fold: Provide information about creating an environmental-impact statement and report; gather input from the public on alternatives and environmental issues; and answer questions. But it was obvious early on that a vast majority of those in attendance were a bit suspicious about the real intentions of those putting on the meeting.

Before the festivities began, Louis Moore, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, offered a verbal explanation for the meeting.

“It enables us to go out to the public and share with them what we’ve heard and what we’ve developed up to this point,” he said. “And it allows the public to comment on what we’ve presented.”

Brad Hubbard, also with the bureau, addressed the gathering with a slide show and said there was no specific project defined yet.

“We have a general scope that we are going to present tonight,” he said. “There are no designs; there are no project descriptions available yet. We are not going to get that together until we hear from you, go through the scoping meetings, get the final comments and develop the alternatives.”

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of local water-protection group AquAlliance, said the information offered was much too vague to elicit any meaningful comment.

“How do they expect to get any kind of input on whatever impacts there could be if you don’t even know what the project is?” she asked.

Vlamis did allow that having a public meeting on proposed water transfers was something she as an environmentalist had been requesting for decades. She referred to the bureau’s literature that specifically mentions it will abide by current guidelines capping transfers to 600,000 acre-feet of water each year.

“That is what they are going to study,” she said. “Whether they transfer it or not, we don’t know.”

Local environmental attorney Richard Harriman said the meeting was not being run by the rules set out by the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“You can’t go forward with commentary without having a project description,” Harriman said. “This is simply an improper procedure in terms of the law. We need to have another meeting where we know what the project description is.”

And so it went, with a couple dozen public comments, all questioning or downright condemning the proposed water transfers.

At the end, Hubbard, from the bureau, said he wasn’t surprised by the tenor of the meeting. “We knew before coming in here that people were going to be a little emotionally charged,” he said.

Hubbard had two more of these meetings to address, one in Sacramento the following night and one in Los Banos on Thursday (Jan. 13). He said he didn’t expect nearly the same amount of emotional outpouring at either as the meetings head south.