Guest comment: Act now to save our groundwater

The future of Butte County's water could be decided by a handful of wealthy landowners unless the public speaks up now

Flooded rice field in Butte County. (Photo by Cynthia Mendoza, for U.S Department of Agriculture)

Maintaining groundwater levels adequate to sustain agricultural and domestic use and streamflow in Butte County will be at risk if management is in the hands of private interests through the proposed Tuscan Water District (TWD), a special district seeking to experiment with groundwater recharge.

The TWD application seeks the “Formation of a new water district with the primary purpose, power to import, transfer and recharge water within the Vina and a portion of the Butte Sub-basins.” This kind of water banking requires a drawn down aquifer to create storage space which results in dry wells, diminished streamflow and the death of groundwater dependent vegetation such as the Chico Urban Forest.

The TWD proposes a 1 acre equals one vote process, which would be dominated by two large corporate landowners: Farmland Reserve: owned by The Mormon Church (23 percent of the acreage in the proposed district); and Rancho Esquon, owned by the Hofmann family, a San Francisco Bay Area developer (17 percent).

Jim Brobeck (CN&R file photo)

The proposed TWD water-bank strategy needs to be identified and fully disclosed. When a groundwater management plan includes imported water for recharge projects, ownership of that water “stored” in the aquifer is retained by the recharge agency vs the overlying landowners. The “stored” surface water might be exempt from a county ordinance that restricts out-of-basin export of groundwater.

Water-conservation projects, on the other hand, would be able to accomplish sustainability without establishing another taxing, quasi-government agency.

In the coming weeks, there will be hearings in Butte County to consider the formation of the TWD. These are likely the only remaining opportunities for the public’s voice to be heard:

– Sept. 1, 1:30 p.m.: Butte County Water Commission
– Sept. 8, 5:30 p.m.: Vina GSA board meeting
– Sept. 14, 9 a.m.: Butte County Supervisors

The author is a water policy analyst for AquAlliance and a member of the stakeholder advisory committee for the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

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