Groundwater “overdrafting” has long afflicted nearly every agricultural county in California. The vast network of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and canals set up by the state and federal governments from the 1930s onward was itself a response to river and groundwater depletion that threatened an already vast agricultural complex, and some urban centers, 100 years ago.
Today, once-abundant water deliveries from the north state’s rivers and dams have fallen off dramatically due to chronic drought and episodic attempts to protect what’s left of riparian and aquatic ecosystems. Once again, groundwater is being depleted in agricultural portions of the state such as the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys to such an extent that many wells are going dry.
And land is, again, sinking fast. When the aquifers are drained too much, the geological structures that hold the water collapse, one grain of sand at a time. The damage is permanent and irreversible. No amount of future rain will bring back that storage space. It’s gone.
SGMA: New Sustainability Law Sets Off A Scramble.
In 2014, the California Legislature finally acted by passing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). It states that groundwater is a State resource to be used for the benefit of the entire public. The law explicitly prioritizes residential needs over agricultural use when they conflict.
County governments in areas with degraded groundwater are required to make plans and set goals for sustainable groundwater management.
They may delegate that responsibility to other local government agencies, so long as sustainability planning includes meaningful participation from all groundwater stakeholders.
In other words, you and I must have input, or at least, our elected representatives must.
The Other Law: Unintended Consequences.
Regrettably, by stretching the deadline for sustainability some 20 years out from its passing, the SGMA seems to have created incentives for some large growers to drill more and deeper wells in order to get what they can while they can.
Amidst this overall atmosphere of devil-take-the-hindmost – a perennial feature of California’s water battles, all the way back to the Gold Rush – the Tuscan Water District emerges, its boosters promising it will protect our groundwater, behind closed doors, in the hands of a small number of large growers.
What could go wrong?
Public water, captured agencies.
The State designated the Vina subbasin (the portion of the Tuscan Aquifer underlying northwest Butte) as a high-impact sub-basin. This means it is among the most heavily-damaged or at-risk groundwater basins.
In a series of moves that were neither widely publicized nor widely understood – though Supervisor Debra Lucero did her best to blow the whistle – in the wake of SGMA's passage, Paul Gosselin, then director of Butte County’s Department of Water & Resource Conservation, did two things.
First, he contacted the largest agricultural groundwater pumpers in Butte County and suggested they organize privately to form a new groundwater organization that could have significant influence over how the county would comply with SGMA.
The pumpers formed the Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County (AGUBC), an invitation-only corporation formed to develop groundwater proposals and spur the formation of the new water district.
Second, Gosselin persuaded the Board of Supervisors to create a new entity – the Vina Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (Vina GSA) – to formulate a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) instead of having the County do it.
The structure he proposed for the governing board of the Vina GSA was wildly unrepresentative of groundwater users and heavily weighted in favor of agricultural users.
For example, the City of Chico, with over 100,000 groundwater users, can appoint only one City Councilor to the Vina GSA board, while the Durham Irrigation District, with about 500 customers, can also appoint one of its directors.
Chico’s current representative is Kasey Reynolds, with Addison Winslow the alternate.
The Butte County Board of Supervisors, the majority of whom receive substantial campaign contributions from agricultural interests, agreed that one of the two Vina GSA seats allotted to citizen stakeholders would be filled from a list of nominees supplied by the AGUBC. Jeffrey Rohwer holds that position with Steven Koehnen as the alternate.
The “non-agricultural domestic well user stakeholder” seat is held by Evan Tuchinsky, a former Chico News and Review contributor now working at the Chico Enterprise-Record. Both publications are strapped for resources like all local journalism is these days, but this issue could hardly be more important to the area's future. Well owners may want to email Mr. Tuchinsky ( and ask him where he stands on the District and what he is doing to defend their interests on the Vina GSA.
One more acronym before we go.
Additionally, the Vina GSA was positioned into working on its groundwater sustainability plan in parallel with the Rock Creek Reclamation District GSA, an entity representing about 4,000 acres north of Chico which, in turn, is controlled by members of the AGUBC.
Cozy relationships, many of them family ones, and thus potential conflicts of interest, are rife throughout the overlapping board memberships of these entities deciding the future of our groundwater in the Tuscan Aquifer.
Though the stakes couldn’t be higher, the TWD has so far been progressing towards inception with barely any public awareness. We fear it was conceived from the get-go as a way to avoid making the hard public choices the SGMA demands (see Politics). Its proponents appear to have conceived it in backroom deals among a few agricultural elites, county employees, and (some) elected officials.
Excluded from involvement, though the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires it, are the rest of us who depend on the groundwater: Small well owners as well as urban and rural residents.
And very few noticed this was all happening until a ballot arrived in some of our mailboxes, asking homeowners and small growers to pay to top up the same aggressive pumpers who are putting our shallower wells at risk.
The Endgame for Public Water?
Butte County has both authority and responsibility to oversee groundwater sustainability under State law. It has already established some 14 Groundwater Sustainability Agencies – including the Vina GSA, which contains the TWD area – to submit separate sustainability plans to the State.
It did so in January, 2022, and was promptly put under pending litigation by a coalition of environmental and sport-fishing groups.
The Vina GSA, also under de facto control of agricultural interests, declared it would allow water tables to sink to unprecedented depths under its sustainability plan submitted to the state – low enough to guarantee the failure of untold numbers of domestic wells and mature native trees.
Meanwhile, State sustainability regulators went ahead and approved the plan on August 1 – six months before they were required to. Paul Gosselin, architect of the TWD while heading Butte County's Department of Water Conservation and Resources until 2021, is now Deputy Director of Groundwater Sustainability for the State of California. His office approved 10 GSA plans statewide that day. Three of them were in Butte County.
The Vina Groundwater Sustainability Plan was crafted to provide the maximum storage space – in the aquifer, which is a public resource – for a handful of private water owners. River and creek water are too scant in Butte County to meaningfully serve TWD’s territory. While TWD proponents refuse to say so out loud, they plainly are counting on two things.
One, that a compliant Board of Supervisors will give them a deal on the 27,500 acre-feet of county-owned Feather River water behind Oroville Dam.
Two, that they can find a way to acquire some of the surface water rights owned by the Paradise Irrigation District, which at the moment serves fewer customers than before the Camp Fire. This is likely the real reason behind proposals to ship Paradise’s sewage to Chico’s treatment plant, 18 miles and tens of millions of dollars' worth of trench and pipe away.
And who's going to pay for all this new infrastructure? Federal and state infrastructure grants will be applied for, diverting funds that would otherwise be directed to more sensible and sorely-needed County repairs.
Taxation without representation.
The District's creation will enable steadily increasing assessments on those paying the per-acre tax – without those taxpayers having any meaningful say.
They'll ask for $10 per acre to start, but that's just to pay back whoever or whatever has spent almost a million dollars on this effort already. The cost of infrastructure and water will be added on from there. So the assessment is almost certain to go up.
If you're a homeowner in this proposed district, you'll be paying for them to build a privatized water toll road so that your neighbors, the big pumpers, will never have to seriously confront what this is all doing to the ecology and the quality of life of the entire community.
The illusion of local control.
Water has been snatched out of public hands – often at public expense, under cover of quasi-public entities – and brought under de facto private control before in California. The Resnick tree empire in Kern County is Exhibit A. The Kern County Water Bank fell under Stuart Resnick's personal control after a series of opaque financial deals left him controlling just over 50 percent.
Could that happen here? Ask Farmland Reserve. The international agricultural arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) owns some 12 percent of the TWD's proposed area – 12,000 acres out of 102,000 (figures are approximate). It has been expanding aggressively in recent years.
The quality and position of that land is significant: It contains almost the entire Sacramento River frontage in the TWD's boundaries. Since the plan is to "recharge" the Tuscan at least partly with surface (river) water during wet years, once pumped into the ground, that water will be legally owned by this one entity. That's power.
The final irony awaiting TWD's self-deceiving supporters is this: Once the infrastructure is built to “convey surface water,” it will be far easier for State officials, facing shortages of water elsewhere, to commandeer Tuscan Aquifer water for use outside Butte County simply by declaring a drought emergency.
Some may remember that this is what happened in 1994, wreaking havoc on wells and water quality in the Durham area and beyond.
Let the sunshine in – please.
Even before it is formally established, the Tuscan Water District has already proven to be undemocratic, bumbling, and expensive – an unnecessary new bureaucratic agency that is certain to exclude non-agricultural water users from meaningful participation in groundwater planning, in violation of State law.
Would you prefer that TWD proponents act out in the open? We would. We still have no idea who put up the million to get the thing this far. And yes, we know – a million isn't quite what it used to be, is it? Just small change to some! A little gamble on voter approval – so what if it goes down the drain?
But the nearby Monroeville Water District, a much smaller one across the Sacramento River, ended up levying an extra property-tax assessment after its establishment, to pay back the formation costs to the project's initiators.
We'd hate to see this undemocratic fiasco lead to years of legal battles. But pushing unpopular policies all the way across legal lines seems to have become a habit of political folks and their large donors in Butte County lately. They have their way, and we pay.
It has to stop.