by Leslie Layton
posted Jan. 31
Many on the petitioners’ list of 70 parties working to form the proposed Tuscan Water District (TWD) describe themselves as local families who want to ensure the future of their farms.
But whether it’s the landowner-based voting structure, the many out-of-town mailing addresses, or the fact that that they’re trying to secure supplies of what many are now calling the “new gold,” TWD has rankled many Butte County residents.
The Butte County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) will consider giving its stamp of approval to TWD at a 9 a.m. Feb. 3 public hearing in the Oroville City Council chambers. LAFCO will also recommend conditions for approval meant to address the concerns of critics.
TWD would act as a public agency run by private landowners charged with maintaining water supplies for agriculture, and would be one of the largest water districts in the state.
In forming TWD, the petitioners have done what they were prodded to do some five or more years ago by a Butte County government official. But their many opponents have been stunned by the voting structure that favors large, corporate landowners at the expense of small farmers and some 6,500 residents of the would-be district. They also worry that TWD will be used for water marketing.
“We are very aware that there are concerns about water being exported from the county in some way, and there can be additional safeguards,” said LAFCO Executive Officer Steve Lucas. One condition can be a prohibition on moving water outside the basin and a stipulation that any water brought in must stay, LAFCO says.
But LAFCO’s conditions won’t satisfy some critics, including Aimee Raymond, who sits on the Butte County Water Commission and has opposed TWD since 2019, undeterred by the rough-and-tumble world of local politics. (She says she was ousted from the Rock Creek Reclamation Board because of her opposition to TWD.) She questions whether the LAFCO conditions are enforceable.
(LAFCO is a state-mandated agency that meets monthly to consider changes to governmental organization.)
Raymond, a Bay Area transplant to the Chico area, loves living within driving distance of rice fields and orchards; from her patio she sees a gently rolling landscape dotted with Blue Oaks. She calls ag the “secret sauce” of Butte County. But she says there are options that are preferable to TWD’s one-vote-per-acre-owned voting structure.
Raymond says there are small farmers and urban and rural residents who also depend on the northwestern county groundwater that TWD will manage. A better option, in her opinion, would be a registered voter-based district covering entire Butte County. Even given the complexities of water management, Raymond says a more inclusive registered-voter district is a better bet.
“Yeah, I’ll take that gamble,” Raymond said. “As a registered voter, if you don’t like what the board is doing you can vote them out. In a landowner district, you’d have to buy their land.”
TWD says this is a water district formed to solve a particular problem – groundwater overdraft — and sidestep challenges farmers south of the Delta have faced as water there became scarce.
“That’s the long-term fear these guys have, that in 15 to 20 years they won’t have options except for fallowing,” said Tovey Giezentanner, TWD spokesperson. “On top of that, we have climate change, drought, existential conditions … they want to be sure that when the next black swan event happens, we’ve planned in a way to make the place better.”
In 2017, Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation officially urged ag water users to form a special district.
District 2 Supervisor Debra Lucero says the county at that time abdicated its role in water management and the job could have been given to the groundwater sustainability agencies that were forming. That spirit of abdication is still alive; supervisors voted 3-1 last fall to endorse TWD, with Lucero casting the sole vote in opposition.
“We’re not protecting resources that were entrusted to us. We’ve failed to do that,” Lucero said.
TWD: Local families & Big Ag
The TWD would be more than 102,000 acres, stretching from Butte’s northern border with Tehama County, west to the Sacramento River, east to Highway 99 and south to the Durham area. It bypasses most of the City of Chico.
The TWD includes, according to Giezentanner, small 28-acre farms up to a “couple of large farms.” If LAFCO approves TWD, landowners will themselves vote on formation, with one vote allocated per acre. After formation, votes will be based on land value, with more votes going to those who own the higher-assessed properties.
That means, Raymond says, that the top five or six landowners will decide who sits on the TWD board of directors.
Slightly more than 20 percent of the district is owned by the two largest landowners. Those landowners are also petitioners and aren’t headquartered in Butte County; Raymond says other petitioners have out-of-county mailing addresses, too. She worries that non-residents will be driven solely by profit-making rather than a sense of shared responsibility.
“Landowner districts worked when you saw your neighbors at the market and church,” Raymond said.
The largest share of votes cast as TWD forms would go to Deseret Farms, listed here as a subsidiary of Farmland Reserve, which has more than 11,800 acres in the district and is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Farmland Reserve, Inc., belongs to a multinational corporate family and is registered as an out-of-state nonprofit with the California Secretary of State.
The other large farm is Rancho Esquon, a 9,000-acre swath of land at TWD’s southern end that grows rice, almonds, dryland hay and has cattle grounds and a 900-acre wildlife preserve. The preserve is the legacy of former owner Ken Hofmann, a developer and philanthropist who was a co-owner of the Oakland A’s.
Now, Rancho Esquon is owned by the Concord-based nonprofit Community Youth Center.
“I think they would see that there’s a lot of good intentions” — Raymond Antonowich
Rancho Esquon General Manager Raymond Antonowich said the farm has a “long history in this area,” but its out-of-town home base makes it an exception among TWD landowners.
“These are family farms, people who want to pass on a legacy, which is their land, to the next generation, and they want some sort of security that there will be enough water for the next generation to be able to farm,” he said. “If everyone could look at the nuts and bolts of it — instead of the rhetoric – I think they would see that there’s a lot of good intentions.”
As water becomes scarce throughout California, the stakes are high – for both Butte County growers and town-dwellers. Climate change is increasing evaporation and producing more extreme weather patterns, making dry seasons dryer, warns Chico State geography professor Mark Stemen.
TWD, he argues, represents a “scramble” underway for supplies that will create an “aquifer aristocracy.”
In the world of water management, people like Antonowich distinguish between surface and groundwater. Surface water — from rivers, lakes, oceans or wetlands – is the meandering Sacramento River that every year brings snowmelt, if it can, from the Sierra. Groundwater is that water that soaks into the earth and is underground — in this region, the Tuscan Aquifer.
This area’s groundwater is over-drafted by 10,000 acre-feet, and as its level drops farmers must pump deeper. Some residential users have dry wells.
Rancho Esquon uses both ground and surface water and has “water problems” every year, Antonowich said. The ranch wants to purchase surface water, and the hope is that TWD can facilitate that.
No one wants to see the environmental devastation caused by massive damming, irrigation and over-pumping that industrial farming in the San Joaquin Valley provoked. In this area, forcing service providers like Cal Water to pump deeper could raise water rates. If tree roots can’t reach groundwater, the canopy suffers.
The point of disagreement is whether TWD is the vehicle to protect local water supplies or a vehicle for mismanagement and abuse.
The new gold
Critics at earlier public hearings have asked what happens to “good intentions” when land is sold or passed on.
Lucero said that in other parts of the Central Valley, small farmers have sold to large enterprises and multinationals.
Raymond believes there are, potentially, two kinds of parties that could become involved with TWD. One group is composed of the “business-ag people who want to make sure we have sufficient groundwater.”
But she warns there may be another group that becomes interested in water marketing. “This is the new gold that is to be had through water banking,” she said.
Water banking is a quasi-legal term that can start with artificial “recharge” — a concept that makes various appearances in the TWD application. For example: Suppose TWD wishes to move water from the Paradise reservoir and reduce groundwater pumping in the district. That’s an “in lieu” recharge that would typically cause a shift in ownership of a specific amount of groundwater that someone might wish to market.
Enforcing rules related to water marketing is a complex matter, and critics, including Raymond, say Butte County does little if any water code enforcement.
Raymond, who is retired from a global corporation where she managed innovation technology, believes the over-draft could be corrected, at least partially, by technology-based conservation measures.
“Reducing water use through planning and engineering controls would be more effective and sustainable” — Dennis Ramirez
The Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria agrees that conservation is the place to start, with “planning and engineering controls.”
The tribe sent a letter in December to LAFCO, opposing TWD. “The philosophy and approach of the TWD would not get us to sustainable water management,” says the letter written by Mechoopda Tribe Chairman Dennis Ramirez. The focus on “increased water source substitution” may result in an over-reliance on undependable supplies of imported water, it says.
The letter also says the TWD voting structure “grossly misrepresents the population that would be served.”
TWD may initially assess each district landowner up to $10 per acre to provide a first-year operating budget. Later, it will be able to assess landowners based on the benefit a project — a new facility, for example — provides a particular business.
The nonprofit AquAlliance, a group that watchdogs threats to the northern Sacramento River watershed, says new infrastructure poses a danger because it could be exploited by the state in an emergency. Executive Director Barbara Vlamis argues that in a severe drought, the state will be tempted to override local rules and move more water from Butte County south.
The TWD story really began about 2014 with the state’s passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that requires that local entities protect water supplies. About that time, growers in Butte County began talking about possible restrictions on water use that could come in the future.
“It was a very real concern,” said LAFCO’s Lucas, “because ag pumpers realized this could potentially affect operations in the future. The county wasn’t interested in actively managing the basin, of getting into the business of running irrigation and projects. The County encouraged them to have a voice at the table.”
In 2017, then director of the county’s resource conservation department, Paul Gosselin, went further by creating a resolution that Lucero said gave him “carte blanche to work with the groundwater pumping farmers.” The resolution was approved by the Board of Supervisors by consent agenda – as part of a package of seemingly minor business matters that were approved all at once. None of the supervisors who were then serving asked for public discussion.
Lucero is still troubled that the county encouraged the formation of TWD without openly discussing the implications. “A county bureaucrat made a policy decision that belonged solely to the Board of Supervisors,” Lucero said.
Gosselin was asked to comment on Lucero’s remarks, but his office – he now serves as deputy director of groundwater management in the California State Department of Water Resources – said he’s “recused himself” from all Butte County groundwater sustainability matters.
TWD will be expected to work with local water boards, such as the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency (Vina GSA) and the Rock Creek board with some structural oversight from LAFCO. “This is not a stand-alone, they-get-to-do-what-they-want district,” Lucas said.
But Raymond is skeptical – especially after getting ousted from the Rock Creek Reclamation District in 2020. She and the other board members were subjected to a recall after the majority opposed TWD. Then, last year, the district –also landowner-based — held its first contested election, and a board was voted in that unanimously supports TWD and includes petitioners and large landowners.
LAFCO, meanwhile, says its job is to make sure the district, if its approved by the seven-member commission, complies with state law. Two LAFCO commissioners, Tod Kimmelshue and Bill Connelly, have already endorsed TWD as members of the Butte County Board of Supervisors. Kimmelshue also sits on the board of the Vina GSA on behalf of the supervisors.
The Thursday LAFCO meeting will be held at the Oroville City Council Chambers, 1735 Montgomery St. in Oroville. The meeting can be watched on Zoom, but to participate during the public comment period LAFCO says in-person attendance is required.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.