by Debra Lucero
The Tuscan Water District story is unfolding in Butte County. This isn’t the first time large landowners have joined together to try to “preserve their way of life and heritage.” It has happened all over the state and more recently, in San Luis Obispo where the proposition to form a new, powerful California Water District failed.
So, how did this current effort in Butte County get birthed?
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.
Public discourse is scheduled for Sept. 8 at the Vina GSA meeting and Sept. 28 at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Rock Creek Reclamation District’s agenda said: “Surface Water District Formation – Paul Gosselin.” I attended that meeting; (I realized then that I was on a steep learning curve and have tried to attend every water meeting I can). A week or two before, two of the proponents came to me with a list of Ag Groundwater Users of Butte County (AGUBC) 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 opportunity to participate had been given except for the two 2019 meetings.
The way the Tuscan Water District was developed is NOT good public policy; it encourages people to believe that nefarious activity is afoot — even if it may not be. Proponents will have you believe that the county was involved all along the way and it started years ago.
And … 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 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 ABUBC in ” … support of governance structures In each subbasin that will recognize and allow for new eligible local agencies …” The item was only on the consent agenda and never got fully disclosed in public.
The 2017 resolution is important as it is the single document upon which the Tuscan Water District has formed. It’s what proponents point to in order to say, “See, Butte County isn’t interested in providing services to areas without infrastructure to bring surface water.” It’s the permission document, if you will, but it was never discussed publicly or debated. It was passed on the consent agenda with Chair Connelly absent that day.
There was no public discourse by elected officials on this matter. Let me repeat this. There was NO PUBLIC DISCOURSE by elected officials on this matter. That’s scheduled – at this late juncture – for Sept. 8 at the Vina GSA meeting and Sept. 28 at the Board of Supervisors meeting. See Butte Water Watch for details.
My opinion: Remember our world in October 2017 when this resolution was passed. This was pre-Camp Fire, in the midst of the Oroville Dam Spillway crisis clean-up. The North Complex Fire, COVID, and now the most severe drought in recorded history had not yet happened.
Things have changed. The need for public oversight on one of the most precious life-giving resources we have must be front and center. The County of Butte needs to step up its game and protect all people.
To complicate matters, the City of Chico is serviced by California Water Service, the largest utility west of the Mississippi, which is also favoring the TWD formation. In the 100 years Cal Water has serviced Chico, it has failed to build a water treatment facility.
So … in another twist, the Town of Paradise has come into play.
In true disaster-capitalism fashion, thirsty agriculturalists, politicians and developers began to eye the “stranded asset” of the Paradise Irrigation District – its water and its water treatment facility. A pipeline is being proposed to bring Paradise’s water down the hill to Chico (our local Assemblyman James Gallagher has already greased the wheels on this by writing legislation for a design/build process on this pipeline and a potential sewer project. The bill recently passed). This would help both the ag world and those desiring to build thousands of new homes in south Chico.
Whether this is sustainable is questionable. What happens when Paradise does begin to build out? Will the town get its water back? Can water run uphill once it’s gone downhill?
In times of drought, 60% of California’s water comes from groundwater, according to a recent presentation by the Department of Water Resources on SGMA. But we’ve still not learned the lesson of California. We don’t need more schemes to bring water from elsewhere — like in the case of the tragically dried up Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles. Eighty years later, they’re having to re-water the Owens lakebed to keep the dust pollution down.
We need to learn to live within our means. If California were a bank account, it would be overdrawn by 10 times on its water allocations. Everyone knows this. Politicians know this. The governor knows this. State officials know this. Farmers know this. Environmentalists know this.
People in Colorado, who are watching that great river dwindle, know this. (I mention Colorado because California gets some of its water from there, too). Even average citizens know this. We are over-allocated. It’s time to face the facts and the greed that is perpetuating us into an uncertain water future — or no one’s future is sustainable.
We love our farms. We love our urban forest. We love our lakes and streams and way of life. We love our fish and wildlife. We need to be sustainable. It’s going to hurt everyone to get there.
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. #noontuscanwaterdistrict
Debra Lucero represents District 2 on the Butte County Board of Supervisors. This commentary is posted in more detail on her Facebook page here.