Evading Public Accountability, Privileging Business Interests
The Tuscan Water District project took shape during the Covid lockdowns, when public meetings were all by Zoom and local journalism was on the back foot. Private discussions and plans among some of the area’s growers and county officials – with considerable overlap between them – had conceived a new agency that would evade input or control by the vast majority of the voters who depend on the Tuscan Aquifer’s health.
The TWD’s stated purpose, to “recharge” the aquifer in the longer term, would give growers cover for an unprecedented drawdown of groundwater levels in the short term. That drawdown was set out explicitly in the state-mandated groundwater sustainability plan drawn up by the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency, whose remit covers the TWD area as well as Chico, Durham, and the low foothills.
This plan to lower the groundwater level up to 200% beyond historical lows in some areas is likely to cost Chico much of its urban tree canopy and dry up the wells of many of the same Butte County landowners who will have to pay for the District in a new property-tax assessment.
WE HAVE A LOT TO LOSE IF WE SNOOZE.
Meanwhile, the aquifer’s geology is not even suitable for “recharge” activity. It leaks westward toward the hundreds of deep wells recently sunk in Glenn and Colusa Counties. And the layering of clay and volcanic rock close to ground level is too complex to do anything but play whack-a-mole with shifting shortfalls.
The legal ramifications of "recharge" are even worse. By long legal precedent, river and creek water injected into the ground belong to whoever pumped it in. Each infusion of private water into the ground will slowly erase public ownership of the groundwater.
The TWD's entire frontage on the Sacramento River, along with those water rights, belongs to Farmland Reserve, an international land-acquisition arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and one of the biggest agricultural landowners in America. This entity has been buying up land aggressively, in keeping with a broader trend toward small orchard-farms giving in and giving way to big industrial ones.
Once pumped into the ground, even as the infusions leak away to the west, those who put it in the ground will have the right, and financial incentives, to pump "their" water back out again, regardless of how low the groundwater has sunk in the meantime.
We at Groundwater for Butte have been looking at the same facts, studies, and plans the District's supporters have looked at. They know the groundwater situation is dire and they have persuaded much of the agricultural community that they have the answer. But their claims that the Tuscan Water District will ensure continued local control of groundwater are either naive or cynical. We fear they may also know that their answer will be about them, not the public, emerging as the winners.
The county's agricultural elite – whose favored politicians now dominate the Butte County Board of Supervisors and every other agency overseeing this area's water – are creating a vehicle to raise and spend large amounts of public money so that they can carry on business as usual, keep expanding nut-tree agriculture, and forestall difficult, science-respecting limits to groundwater depletion in a time when droughts are bound to get longer and more severe.
The final irony in this saga? Once the District has plumbed our basin into the State's complex water-transfer infrastructure, all Sacramento has to do is declare a drought emergency and it can pilfer hundreds of thousands of acre-feet from beneath us. Some remember that this already occurred in 1994, wreaking havoc upon water quality and supply in the Durham area.
Groundwater For Butte Isn't Having It.
The water belongs to all of us, not just to agriculture. But the TWD precisely excludes almost everyone dependent on the groundwater from any say over its establishment or how it is run. Its map was surgically drawn to exclude residential neighborhoods, because areas with "too many" residents can't be put to a "landowner-only" vote like TWD's.
Chico residents get their water from Cal Water’s industrial-strength groundwater wells, but if Cal Water must drill deeper wells to draw from diminishing groundwater levels, this will translate to higher water bills.
Chico’s urban forest and most other tall old trees in the area also survive on shallow groundwater. The lower the water table is allowed to sink, the more of those are going to dry up and die before our eyes.
For northern Butte residents outside Cal Water’s service area, relatively shallow domestic wells are at risk of going dry, and many already have.
Even though the groundwater situation will eventually affect everyone, the Tuscan Water District will privilege large landowners over everyone else with its voting structure.
100,000+ Chico residents will have no representation at all.
Approval of TWD is likely to:
–Thwart legitimate efforts to address expanding nut tree agriculture as a cause of groundwater overdrafting;
–Reduce or prevent conservation incentives;
–Postpone hard choices about groundwater use that ought to be taken up right now, in full view of the public; and
–Make it much more likely that our groundwater gets pilfered for far-away uses by plumbing the Tuscan into the state's water system.
Many of the TWD’s proponents sincerely believe it will help preserve the agricultural character and economy of this area that all of us cherish. But its structure practically guarantees the delivery of local water control into the hands of the most aggressive corporate actor – a story that has already been told up and down the Central Valley for decades.
It’s not quite putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s more like leaving the door wide open and saying, “Don’t worry, a fox will never come along and eat our hens just because we’ve created the perfect henhouse structure for him to do exactly that. ”
All the way back to 1850, however, that is exactly what has happened, over and over again, whenever California’s water is put where someone can steal it.
From the "Some Things Never Change" Department:
"Many of the farmers who had yanked out orchards or fallowed fields to get through the 1924 drought had only grown bigger in the decade since,” writes Mark Arax in The Dreamt Land (2019), reflecting on California’s inexorable increases in agricultural water usage.
“The lesson of dry times was the opposite of what a rational observer might expect. Rather than keep their acreage within a comfortable range of their water, farmers were planting to the absolute extreme of what the water could serve. Time and again, their calculations had forgotten that drought was a reality of the land. Indeed, their calculations had wished drought away.”
(From Chapter 13, “Moving the Rain.”)
Our county has one of the last healthy groundwater basins in the state. Of course the state water bureaucracy, and commercial interests linke to key politicians and state officials, want to get their hands on it. The limits being imposed upon us in a time of climate change are not acceptable to those whose jobs depend on sustaining the fiction that, as with freeways, all we have to do is build more infrastructure and everything can keep growing as it always has.
The course they are on will certainly inflict permanent damage on the groundwater and aquifer if they are not stopped.
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."