by Leslie Layton
posted Feb. 3
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) today gave its unanimous approval to the Tuscan Water District (TWD), a proposed district that will now give northwestern Butte County landowners the chance to vote on formation, with one vote allocated for each acre owned.
The seven-member commission voted after more passionate debate, with members of the public often arguing that the landowner-based voting structure isn’t fair to small farmers and homeowners. But TWD and LAFCO said the district has agreed to divide into nine voting blocks to minimize influence by the largest landowners.
The argument that the two largest landowners will control the board has thus been “seriously de-bunked,” said LAFCO Executive Officer Steve Lucas, referring to Utah-based Deseret Farms and Concord-based Rancho Esquon. “They will only control two seats. They will always be in a minority position.”
Lucas also said that TWD proponents asked him to remove a condition he and staff were drafting regarding water ownership in cases of recharge. Upon thinking more about it, Lucas said he agreed that the groundwater sustainability agencies should be deciding that issue.
Butte County District 2 Supervisor Debra Lucero intervened, suggesting the ownership question is a matter of state law – that when landowners undertake a recharge project, they then own an equivalent amount of water.
Priscilla Hanford, the first speaker during the public comment part of the hearing, said she supports TWD with the conditions recommended by LAFCO. Hanford, who served for eight years as a member of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, said she regrets that TWD has created “such polarization.”
Hanford, a Chico resident, said she’s a “fan of the LAFCO process” and issued a plea for “opening ourselves to a degree of trust that has been in short supply.” Her views were echoed by former Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan.
TWD critic Aimee Raymond said “we want to trust” but the LAFCO conditions “don’t cover everything.”
“LAFCO is doing their best but there needs to be a debate about these conditions,” Raymond said.
Peter Peterson, a Butte County grower, seemed conflicted about TWD. He said Butte County is “well-equipped” to meet the requirements of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but its leaders “believe the task before us needs to be handled by the people on the ground.”
“I support this,” Peterson said, adding that the problem is that the “governance is in the hands of people who own the land. I don’t think that serves the purpose of Butte County.”
Ed McLaughlin, one of the three lead TWD petitioners, said the county lacked “the resources and finances to take on this effort.”
“Today you have an opportunity to make a historic decision not to end up with a mess like in the San Joaquin Valley,” McLaughlin told LAFCO commissioners, adding that farming interests to the south are “after our water even now. We need to lock the door, which this effort will do.”
Chico attorney Richard Harriman, a TWD critic, then spoke, but was interrupted several times by LAFCO Commission Chair Carl Leverenz who said Harriman was misrepresenting a letter that had been sent in opposition to the district. Harriman then said there are plans for infrastructure that will encourage development west of the Greenline, which was designed to stop urban sprawl and protect farmland.
Lucero, who as an alternate to the LAFCO Commission had no vote, said the voting divisions TWD has agreed to will “help to create some equity.” But she is skeptical about other conditions imposed by LAFCO and approved by the commissioners that are meant to discourage out-of-county water exporting/marketing.
Lucero says Butte County needs to revise its policy on out-of-county water exports because the ordinance that was designed to discourage those exports was written several decades ago and is out of date.
TWD was given LAFCO’s stamp of approval by Leverenz, Vice Chair Bill Connelly, Tod Kimmelshue, Al McGreehan, Bill Sharman, Bo Sheppard and Greg Bolin.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.