Campaign Cash, Gerrymandering, Regulatory Capture, and Secrecy.
When the Tuscan Water District was first proposed, Butte County Supervisor Debra Lucero was outspoken in her opposition to it. She had represented District 2, a district dominated by nut orchards, since 2019.
"The County of Butte needs to step up its game and protect ALL people."
Lucero was alarmed from the beginning at the stealth and lack of transparency she observed in the TWD's creation and promotion to the public from the very beginning. It seems Paul Gosselin, then the Butte County Water Conservation & Resource Department Director, made a presentation to TWD-supporting groups, behind closed doors and with no public notice, on how to use the Local Area Formation (LAFCo) process to deal with state sustainability law – and apparently, also to intentionally evade it.
(Gosselin, who came to Butte County from Sacramento a dozen or so years ago to lead its Department of Water Resources and Conservation, returned there in 2021 well-connected to our area's water pumpers, who would need expensive public infrastructure to keep growing thirsty crops if pumping were restricted. He is now the Deputy Director of Groundwater Management for the State of California. In August, 2023, this agency approved 10 Groundwater Sustainability Plans statewide several months earlier than it needed to (deadline was January 2024). Three of those approved plans were for the Wyandotte, Butte, and Vina Sub-basins, all in Butte County. Tuscan Water District is to overlay the western half of the Vina.)
On September 5, 2021, Supervisor Lucero described San Luis Obispo County’s similar community battle over a proposed water district, which finally failed after millions of dollars were spent in what was taken by opponents to be an attempted end-run around the SGMA.
Lucero wrote on her Facebook page:
The former Butte County Water Conservation & Resource Department Director, Paul Gosselin (now the State of California's Deputy Director of SGMA – Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) and a former longtime Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission executive officer, John O'Farrell, came up with another idea – one that could circumvent the arduous San Luis Obispo process and even the Board of Supervisors.
They called it, “Navigating LAFCo in the Age of SGMA” and presented it to water attorneys at the 2019 April Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) conference. They had realized that the LAFCO law was different and a "less arduous standard to meet" – a statement straight from their presentation.
This presentation to water attorneys was months before it was EVER presented to the Butte County Board of Supervisors or unveiled here in Butte County. The first time it debuted in Butte County was at the Rock Creek Reclamation District's board meeting in September 2019 – five months after they presented it to the water attorneys…
A week or two before, two of the TWD proponents had come to me with a list of AGUBC (Ag Groundwater Users of Butte County) to show me how members were both large and small farmers.
They did not, however, reveal to me that a new water district was afoot. Perhaps they thought I already knew? Whatever the case, my own county staff had not informed me of this important development and it became a point of contention between myself and the department.
That September meeting was the first "public" unveiling and Gosselin, O'Farrell and Darren Rice ran the meeting. I was shocked that the county was helping a private, pay-to-play organization form a powerful water agency – in my district. They described it as the second largest water district (in terms of acreage) in the State of California at the time. They handed out documents and I asked for a set. I remember Gosselin looking at Rice to see if it was okay to give me a set and then did so. That stuck in my mind.
The next presentation was in Durham. I attended that presentation as well. It got a bit more rowdy than the Rock Creek presentation. People were shocked and dismayed at that meeting. There had been no prior public outreach. There had been no public participation up to that point. Nothing. Not until a fully baked plan was ready did the public presentations begin. The public had not been part of the formation process. There was simply NO opportunity for the average citizen to participate. The county did not hold workshops asking what the public would like to do with a public resource like water. The county did not hold workshops saying, "Hey, we think it's a good idea to let the largest landowners in Butte County control water decisions that could affect the City of Chico and its residents. What do you think?”
In fact, there were no public workshops held by the City of Chico on this matter nor did residents learn about a proposed district until a recent meeting (August 2021 – two years later) held at the Masonic Lodge by Butte Water Watch. This public meeting was criticized as being one-sided, and perhaps it was, but proponents of the district were given a chance to respond to questions by the public and up until that point, no other viewpoints or opportunity to participate had been given except the two 2019 meetings…
Proponents will have you believe that the county was involved all along the way and it started years ago – 2015, in fact, after the passage of SGMA in 2014. It's true the county water department was pushing groundwater users to organize and begin to discuss their collective future because they stood to lose the most with the passage of SGMA. This began as early as January of 2015, according to the presentation Gosselin and O'Farrell made to the water attorneys. After all, agricultural groundwater users pump 250,000 acre feet of water or 8 billion gallons from the Tuscan Aquifer in Butte County annually. For comparison, the City of Chico utilizes 20,000 acre feet annually. And that usage doesn't count any of the groundwater pumping in Glenn or Tehama.
It's also true that a resolution was adopted in 2017 by the Board of Supervisors (on the consent agenda – never publicly discussed – with Supervisor Connelly absent that day) recognizing the County of Butte and the AGUBC in " ... support of governance structures in each subbasin that will recognize and allow for new eligible local agencies to become members of the governance structure In compliance with SGMA" – whatever that means.
The item was only on the consent agenda and never got fully disclosed in public. No reports on TWD or its formation exist to the Board of Supervisors until late in 2019 AFTER disclosure had been made publicly at the two meetings described above.
There was no public discourse by elected officials on this matter.
Water is a public resource and elected officials need to protect the people, not just wealthy corporations and the largest landowners. This has to stop.
Did it stop? No.
SUPERVISOR TOD KIMMELSHUE
In 2020, Tod Kimmelshue was elected to represent District 4 – covering Butte's other principal agricultural district, south and west of Chico.
Soon he joined the board of Butte County's LAFCo, the state-mandated board that oversees special taxing districts set up by county governments to outsource certain functions.
He also is on the board of the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). Its Groundwater Sustainability Plan (recently approved by Mr. Gosselin) is the target of a pending lawsuit by environmental groups because it tolerates groundwater levels dropping to levels those groups say are sure to strand many domestic wells and kill many trees, with no provision to remediate the damage.
Kimmelshue is also on the Northern Sacramento Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Group, which is tasked with inter-county communication and coordination over sustainability efforts. He owns agricultural property inside the Tuscan Water District, which is within the Vina GSA.
By making decisions of public concern in such a broad web of connected public posts that inevitably impact his own business interests, Supervisor Kimmelshue appears to have multiple, significant conflicts of interest between public responsibility and private gain.
Getting Rid of Debra Lucero
True to his campaign slogan, "Nuts for Tod," Kimmelshue was generously funded by agricultural interests. In turn, he donated to the 2022 campaign of Peter Durfee, a Chico police sergeant who ran against Supervisor Debra Lucero on a law-and-order platform, even though the Butte County Board of Supervisors has scant direct involvement with anything police-related.
Durfee’s campaign conducted a slick character-assassination media campaign against Lucero leading up to the 2020 election. Lucero, for her part, ran on a promise to defend democracy in Butte County against the increasingly brazen moves by others on the Board to gerrymander it in their favor.
Unfortunately, by election time it was too late. The timing of the 2020 census and required re-districting put Kimmelshue, Doug Teeter, and Bill Connolly, the board's majority, in a position to put through whatever district map they pleased in late 2021.
And that's exactly what they did. There was a citizen-input process; it was largely ignored. In the end, by his own account, Kimmelshue and his wife sat down at their kitchen table the night before the vote and drew a map they liked, claiming it gave extra weight to Latino voters in Chico. They submitted it at the last minute, and it was approved by Kimmelshue, Teeter, and Connolly, with "no" votes from Lucero and Tami Ritter, the fifth Supervisor.
That's how Butte County got gerrymandered to subtract just enough votes from Debra Lucero to replace her with Pete Durfee, who is now taking two government salaries and said during his campaign that he intended to supervise the county from his police cruiser.
On August 1, 2023, the State Attorney General, Rob Bonta, opened an investigation into Butte County's 2021 redistricting.