Tense negotiations

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Debra Lucero asks county staff for information about a proposed pipeline from Paradise to Chico.

Supervisor Debra Lucero was on the receiving end of public outcry near the end of a day-long meeting of the Butte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Oct. 22).

Several attendees who shouted from the gallery appeared to be spurred by the accusation Supervisor Doug Teeter levied at his colleague: “You’re holding us hostage.”

The controversial topic at the center of his chiding involved a study examining a proposed water pipeline that would run down the Skyway, connecting Paradise Irrigation District (PID) and California Water Co.’s Chico branch. The intent of that project between the two municipal water purveyors is twofold: to temporarily keep PID, which lost about 90 percent of its customers in the Camp Fire, financially viable and to improve groundwater sustainability, the latter helping the county adhere to the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

The idea is that Cal Water would purchase treated surface water from PID to avoid pumping groundwater for its Chico customers in the Vina sub-basin, where the aquifer has been declining 6 to 12 inches per year for the past two decades, according to the county’s director of Water and Resource Conservation, Paul Gosselin.

But Lucero voiced several problems. She’s concerned about groundwater study documents Cal Water has not released to the public and a “hastily made” contract with construction engineering company West Yost Associates. The consultant’s scope of work for the study hasn’t been fully fleshed out, she said, especially when it comes to examining environmental impacts and the cost to ratepayers.

The agenda item before the supervisors was a mid-year budgetary adjustment to fund the study that required a four-fifths vote. This left Lucero in a unique position. (Supervisor Bill Connelly was absent.)

After Teeter’s accusation, Lucero replied that she was not holding anybody hostage, to which attendees cried out, “Yes, you are!”

After Chairman Steve Lambert pounded his gavel to quiet the chambers, Lucero stood her ground, arguing that the ball is in the utility’s court. “If Cal Water is … willing to give us access to things that I think would be very valuable for openness and transparency moving forward, I would vote for this [study].”

Teeter agreed with Lucero that “Cal Water should probably be more transparent in what they do,” but the study would answer a lot of her questions, he added.

As the supervisors sat at an impasse, County Counsel Bruce Alpert stepped in to suggest a path forward: Give Cal Water two weeks to provide county staff with the documents. With a reluctant yes from Teeter, the vote was unanimous.

This isn’t the first time this issue has come before the supervisors. The county voted to sign a contract with West Yost after its Sept. 10 meeting. Supervisor Tami Ritter was the only nay vote at the time, voicing many of the concerns Lucero expressed this week. On Tuesday, Lucero wanted to rescind her yes vote for the contract. Her earlier vote was predicated on getting those documents, she thought.

The cost breakdown for the study would involve $72,000 from the county (from Proposition 1, the state’s Groundwater Sustainability Program), and $71,800 split evenly between PID and Cal Water.

West Yost, headquartered in Davis, also has provided extensive consulting work for Cal Water. Ritter, voicing her support for Lucero’s request of the documents, said she sees a potential conflict of interest. “To me there’s some cross-over there that, unless we are able to see the work that has been produced, that’s problematic,” she said. “These are public dollars.”

George Barber, district manager of Cal Water for Chico and Oroville, told the supervisors that the company will provide the documents requested, which includes research conducted for at least 16 basin-wide water conveyance alternatives. The holdup is that there are hundreds of pages to review and prepare, as well as security concerns to take into account.

Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for AquAlliance, told the CN&R that the Chico-based water advocacy group has requested these documents from the utility as it has conducted these studies over the past 10 years and has been “rebuffed” every time.

Brobeck also agreed with Lucero that the scope of work isn’t comprehensive. It’s important for Cal Water customers to consider whether they are willing to pay to keep PID afloat. While the study mentions examining volatile organic compounds of the water that could be transported, it doesn’t mention herbicides or other chemicals that could compromise the water quality, he added. A comprehensive study would examine many alternatives to help the county conform to SGMA.

He told the CN&R he is “concerned that this disaster is being used” to push this project forward without proper examination of the impacts to the groundwater-dependent ecosystem and the ratepayers.

Lucero shared similar concerns. The county should be wary of blindly trusting an investor-owned utility, especially after the Camp Fire, she said.

Barber told the panel that Cal Water wants to participate in this study to improve the health of the aquifer and benefit its customers—the cost and water quality are important. “We are here at the table to be considered as maybe a buyer of water if this project makes sense,” he said.

Eight of the 10 speakers who approached the panel supported the study. Several were Camp Fire survivors who expressed worries about the rebuild if PID doesn’t forge ahead with this project. “Paradise has to have water,” Paradise Councilman Steve Crowder said. “Help us survive, help us rebuild.”

It’s unclear if the county will move forward. Barber didn’t leave the supervisors with much assurances on the deadline: “Whether you get them all in two weeks, I certainly can’t commit to that.”