Where we are, where we may go and how we disagree
By Heather Hacking – 05/24/2014 – Chico Enterprise-Record
Water rights, water transfers and water reports were among the topics of a forum Thursday night in Chico that included an update on groundwater levels.
Each speaker was allowed to give a presentation, with the main disagreement over water transfers, specifically transfers that involve groundwater.
Barbara Vlamis, of AquAlliance.net, said transfers “year-after-year” continue without adequate environmental review, especially the cumulative impacts.
“The impacts on groundwater are unknown,” she said.
Farmer Bryce Lundberg said leaving land unplanted for a year can be good for farming, to allow the land to rest. Also, water districts spend the money on needed projects, including those that help the environment, he said.
Glenn County’s largest surface water irrigation district has also made the decision not to pump groundwater this year, said Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District manager Thad Bettner.
Wells will go lower this year, Bettner said, but it won’t be because of Glenn-Colusa, which is often an “easy target” for criticism.
MORE STATE GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT
Changes are underway for how the state watches over groundwater, explained Paul Gosselin, director of the county’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation.
Butte County currently keeps track of groundwater levels, with details on 125 wells.
In recent documents, the state has said local agencies should take care of groundwater management, and if that doesn’t take place the state will serve as a “backstop.”
“Whoever comes through (locally) will need a groundwater management plan and 20-year planning horizon,” with updates every five years, Gosselin explained.
The target would be “safe yield and monitoring.”
Currently, groundwater use is not reported.
Some of the ideas being discussed at the state level include more groundwater metering, tiered pricing to encourage surface water use, limits on installation of new groundwater wells and careful watch of land use, Gosselin noted.
“The question is what role will the state play. How will they oversee,” groundwater management and “not create a huge bureaucracy?”
Communities in the Sacramento Valley “have some issues to collectively work on,” Gosselin said, “and figure out amongst us what is the best means to sustain and manage for the long haul.”
“We can take care of our own. We have in the past.”
GROUNDWATER MONITORING REPORT
The mountains hold only 10 percent of the normal snowpack, said Christina Buck, the county’s water resource scientist.
Rainfall is down, runoff is down, water storage is down and this year has been projected as a critically dry year.
As of reports in March, the average well depth has decreased four feet from last year, Buck said, with several at historic lows.
As would be expected, areas where pumping occurs have the greatest groundwater decrease, and areas crops receive surface water are doing better.
For the Chico urban area, which relies on wells, the groundwater levels have dipped 9 feet, she said.
When compared to droughts in the 1970s and 1990s, groundwater decreases are at the lowest point since records have been kept, she said, showing charts to the audience.
CONCERNS ABOUT WATER TRANSFERS
Vlamis, of AquAlliance, said her “group is deeply concerned about water transfers out of the area.”
When water rights were established 100 years ago, farmers grew annual crops, she said. But today, trees are a dominant crop and need water even when it is scarce.
Vlamis has long been asking for environmental review of the cumulative impacts of water transfers over time.
In state documents, there is a misrepresentation that groundwater levels in Northern California are fine, Vlamis said, and the state promotes groundwater transfers from the valley. Yet, the records kept in Butte County show groundwater declines, she said.
“For these people to say there is not an impact to groundwater is unconscionable,” Vlamis said.
A LEGACY OF WATER RIGHTS
Water rights play a key role in the way of life of the Sacramento Valley, said Lundberg, who helps runs Lundberg Family Farms and is president of the board of the Northern California Water Association.
Farmers of more than 100 years ago should be “remembered and revered for their foresight and ingenuity.”
“They brought water from the rivers to farmland to protect ag, the environment and groundwater.”
“Without water rights, water in Butte County would flow south,” and would not be available for the local economy and wildlife, he said.
Also, surface water used locally replenishes groundwater. “What would our aquifer look like if Butte County used only groundwater?” he asked.
“It’s often referenced that California agriculture uses over 80 percent of California’s water,” Lundberg said.
However, this is developed water. If water used by the environment – for fish and plants – is factored in, the environment uses 59 percent, he said, and agriculture 37 percent, with urban water use at 4 percent.
AN EYE ON SITES RESERVOIR
Surface water storage has taken a hit this year, noted Bettner, and groundwater pumping is up.
All trends are toward less water supply in Northern California, he continued.
Bettner’s water district is among the members of the Sites Reservoir Joint Powers Authority,http://www.sitesjpa.net.
Flows from the Sacramento River comes primarily from rain, not snow, he said, and the reservoir would store 1.8 million acre-feet of water.
One acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or about as much water as used by four people in Chico in a year.
Bettner said the project shows great potential for storing water, allowing flexibility in water releases from existing reservoirs, and timely releases of cold water for fish.
The forum was sponsored by Butte County, the city of Chico and AquAlliance.
Contact reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.