What is the Tuscan Water District?
TWD is a new water-trading and infrastructure-building authority in northwest Butte County. It was formally established in a December, 2023 "landowner" election, and will soon attempt tax all property owners in its footprint. Ostensibly this will fund pipelines and other infrastructure to “recharge” the steadily depleting groundwater from wet-year surpluses in the Sacramento River, county-earmarked water in the Oroville Dam, and other nearby sources.
Where did this idea come from?
The Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County, a private, members-only business group, spearheaded this project six years ago. But the idea came from Butte County’s longtime water-department chief, Paul Gosselin. He promoted it to local growers as one way to maintain “local control” of groundwater while complying with the state’s 2014 sustainability law. Gosselin first came to Butte in 2007 after working in government. In 2021, he became deputy director of groundwater sustainability for the State of California Deparment of Water Resources (DWR). In essence, the TWD idea came from the State and the many engineering-oriented, business-savvy consultant firms maneuvering about its water laws, regulations, and infrastructure budgets. Those who were sold on this as a way to keep the State out of our affairs are on the brink of guaranteeing it finds its way in the back door, via the Department of Water Resources – creator of the Oroville Dam, mover of water from places that have it to places that don't. We still have a relatively healthy groundwater basin; State officials and the ag industry know this.
Will TWD actually assure local control?
In the short term, it will deliver some measure of control, or a feeling of that, to the 500 or so landowners who petitioned for it. But it will give no say to the 107,000+ Butte County residents who depend on the Tuscan Aquifer’s health, including every homeowner in Chico and Durham. The 2014 state sustainability law claims to promote “local control.” We suspect this may have been merely a selling point to make sustainability more palatable to rural areas. Once TWD builds infrastructure (physical and legal) that plumbs our groundwater basin into the State’s bigger systems, the Governor can declare a drought emergency and order withdrawals. (This is what happened in 1994, wreaking havoc on the Durham area’s wells and water quality.) In addition, land ownership is trending away from old venerable families deeply invested in this area’s fate, toward business entities from elsewhere only interested in money. TWD’s structure practically guarantees eventual control by a handful of those outside entities.
What will TWD cost taxpayers down the road?
We have no idea. Contrary to its own policies, Butte County’s Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCo) approved TWD without demanding a 5-year financial plan. Contrary to its own policies, it has never disclosed who or what has put up the at least $1 million in formation costs to date. In other words, someone has enough money lying around to gamble on TWD being established, for they will be on the hook if it fails. If it goes through, then the County has to hold a second election to try to fund it. Both elections will be tacked to TWD’s costs so far. This is all before any delivery infrastructure or imported water is paid for.
I don’t get it. Isn’t TWD’s passage based on it getting $10 per acre per year, like in the first election in September 2022, which they aborted for some reason?
A property-tax assessment requires a two-thirds vote. It was illegal to put the funding and the establishment on the same ballot – so the County cancelled at the last minute. This time, the two elections will have to be separate.
TWD came into existence in December with almost 80% of the vote based on assessed land value – a reflection of how few large landowners hold most of the votes. When they try to fund TWD in a second election (required in the language of the first), that may fail as it requires a 2/3 vote.
But TWD may then seek State and even federal grants – another contradiction to “local control. Mr. Gosselin, the key proponent of Tuscan Water District while he was in charge of water in Butte County, is now Deputy Director of Groundwater Sustainability at the State Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. He has already splashed out $11 million in State grants to the Vina and Butte Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (which he also set up, and whose sustainability plans his office authored).
If TWD gets its first round of funding from California taxpayers through State grants, this subsidy will, like the TWD's voting structure, be of far more benefit to the biggest landowners than to rural residents on shallow wells they can ill afford to keep drilling deeper.
What’s wrong with paying a little more taxes so we can replenish the groundwater with new pipelines and keep the area’s agricultural character and economy afloat?
Groundwater For Butte's members are also deeply interested in maintaining this area's agricultural character and unique quality of life. But TWD will not accomplish that, and may do quite the opposite. This particular groundwater basin (the Vina Sub-basin) leaks toward the southwest, across county lines. Hundreds of deep ag wells in Glenn and Colusa Counties tug at the same weave of underground flows, depressurizing our own supply.
So pumping water into the ground is unlikely to solve the problem more than superficially. But it will accomplish something for water traders: Once river water piped in from elsewhere is pumped into the ground, by clear legal precedent from past California water battles, it belongs not to the public, but to the pumper. In short, “recharge” will slowly erase the basin’s public ownership. Private actors will profit from it nonetheless.
What can I do to help stop TWD?
Please get as informed as you can about this water district project – taking all PR from its boosters with a huge grain of salt – then talk to your neighbors and see how they feel about it, or if they even know.
The only way to cancel this undemocratic water district at this point other than with lawsuits, is to persuade enough landowners to vote against taxing themselves to pay for it. If TWD fails to get funding, it will run out of time and have to fold.
Groundwater For Butte is doing everything it can, with far less resources, to alert the public to what we feel is a heist-in-progress. We have created a community focal point for sharing information, resources, and strategy. In the fight against the TWD's establishment election of December 2023, we created much more community awareness and developed the infrastructure to mount an effective media campaign for the next round.
The elected officials responsible for getting it this far made up their minds long ago. Indeed, we suspect they were given huge campaign donations to get into the offices they hold simply to rubber-stamp policies favored by private interests that may be obscure even to them. But some of those officials, for example Butte County Supervisor Tod Kimmelshue (the key proponent of TWD from the beginning), face re-election in March, 2024.
It won't hurt to tell them directly that you and your neighbors have caught on to what they're doing.
We oppose the formation of the Tuscan Water District and demand that Butte County officials step up to their responsibilities under State law. The groundwater belongs to the public and must be managed transparently by publicly elected authorities - not privatized as a "water bank."