CHICO, Calif. (CN) – A plan to transfer water from the Butte Water District to Kern County and two other areas could harm several species, a group claims in court.
Last month, the Butte Water District (BWD) approved a plan to transfer up to 16,850 acre-feet of water from the Feather River in Butte County to the water districts for Dudley Ridge, Kern and Palmdale counties, according to AquAlliance, a group that monitors water use in the Sacramento River watershed.
Representing 60 percent of Chico’s annual water demand, 93 percent of the water will go to Kern, 4.8 percent to Dudley Ridge and 2 percent to Palmdale, AquAlliance says.
The nonprofit and its executive director Barbara Vlamis sued Butte Water District in Superior Court for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The three other water districts are named as real parties in interest.
“BWD would make the water available to the real parties in interest by idling cropland or through groundwater substitution,” the complaint states.
AquAlliance also says groundwater-use restrictions in Butte County will confine groundwater substitutions to BWD’s service areas in Sutter County.
“BWD would also generate transfer water by replacing surface water from district wells located in Sutter County with water pumped from the groundwater basin underlying Butte and Sutter Counties,” the complaint states.
AquAlliance says the BWD approved the project after an initial study purportedly showed no major negative effects on the county’s groundwater supply or on the surrounding environment by the water-transfer project.
The so-called negative declaration also found that the project would have “less than significant effects” in four areas required for analysis under CEQA: visual effects, biological resources, cumulative effects and hydrology, the complaint states.
But AquAlliance says the declaration did not comply with CEQA and that the district should have prepared an environmental impact report.
AquAlliance attorney Michael Jackson did not want to speculate about the district’s motivation, but said its reliance on an initial study rather than a comprehensive impact report fits a pattern.
“They’ve been getting by with doing only initial studies for the past 10 years,” Jackson told Courthouse News in an interview. “They keep transferring small amounts of water without figuring out if it’s causing impacts on the environment.”
Though Kern County irrefutably has groundwater problems, AquAlliance says pumping from other districts is not the solution.
“The Kern River is one of the world’s best examples of what happens when you pump too much groundwater: the water dries up, and you end up with a river of dirt,” Jackson said.
Though the Butte district concluded that the project would have no significant effect on the environment, AquAlliance says the study failed to consider the project in combination with the plan of the California Department of Water Resource (DWR) to transfer 250,000 acre-feet of Northern California water to regions south of the Delta.
“By segmenting many BWD and DWR projects into numerous pieces and preparing only portions of the environmental review (and regulatory permitting) consecutively as opposed to concurrently, the lead agencies have failed to consider the whole of the project and therefore have failed to analyze the broader ecological implications of the project,” the group said in a joint letter to the district with two other water groups.
BWD and DWR’s decision to chop up the larger-scale project into smaller, separate projects denies the public its right to know about and comment on the project’s many potential environmental effects, according to the letter.
The groups also question the finding that the transfer will have “no impact” on overall water quality, noting that scientists still do not fully understand aquifer systems. They quote Karen Hoover, assistant professor of hydrology at California State University, Chico, who says that there is currently no way to analyze aquifer structure.
“In essence, the thickness and extent of the water-bearing units has not been adequately characterized,” Hoover said, as quoted in the letter. “Neither the diagram supplied by the Department of Water Resources in Technical Memorandum 3, nor the description of the stratigraphic layers in Bulletin 118, are sufficient to characterize the geometric complexity of the permeable, water-bearing units or the less permeable, confining units.”
But BWD did not disclose this information in its study and instead went forward with the project in an area that has experienced historical groundwater declines, the groups say.
Transferring such a large quantity of water out of the Delta region threatens several endangered species, including the giant garter snake and Chinook salmon, according to the letter.
“Flooded rice fields and irrigation canals in the Sacramento Valley can be used by the giant garter snake (Thamnothis gigas) for foraging, cover and dispersal purposes,” according to the groups’ letter. “Fallowing of the rice land to transfer water south of the Delta will directly reduce habitat for the giant garter snake.”
The district tried to lessen the threat against this species by using the 2009 Drought Water Bank Biological Opinion in its study, but the groups say more recent versions of the opinion do not show how fallowing rice fields for water transfers affects giant garter snakes
“Knowing this, how is BWD able to assert that there will be less-than-significant impact on GGS,” the letter states.
The same is true for the Chinook salmon, according to the groups.
Despite severe restrictions on salmon fishing in California under the Federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Chinook salmon numbers were at record lows between 2007 and 2009 because pumping water from the Delta kills young salmon before they can spawn, according to the letter.
Though the North Coast Chinook seems to be recovering, the district’s study allegedly failed to include data on salmon-run numbers in the main stem of the Sacramento River.
Jackson, the AquAlliance attorney, said the project would undermine recent conservation efforts.
“California spent tons of money to save salmon by increasing flow rates in the rivers to increase fish passage,” he told Courthouse News. “It just doesn’t make sense to do that and then turn around and pump water back out.”
AquAlliance and its allies condemn BWD for perpetuating mismanaged water in California.
“Removing water from currently healthy watersheds and basins to continue supplying water to agricultural interests in arid portions of the state with depleted ground water basins is an act of folly at best and of immorality and corruption at worst,” according to the groups’ letter.
“This type of transfer will alter the economic and environmental viability of the areas of origin and will not encourage the receiving areas to practice holistic management of the resources found in their own watershed, nor will it prepare them for periods of drought.”
AquAlliance wants the district to revoke its approval of the negative declaration and to conduct an environmental impact report that complies with CEQA.
“Water contractors south of the Delta continue to see the Sacramento River’s watershed as the last exploitable solution to continue business as usual,” Vlamis, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “Our lawsuit seeks compliance with that most basic of all environmental and moral laws: comprehensive analysis and full disclosure of impacts and alternatives.”
Butte County, which styles itself the Land of Natural Wealth and Beauty, is a small county of about 220,000 people north of Sacramento. A popular location for filmmakers, the county is well-watered by several creeks and rivers, and has parts of two national forests and two wildlife preserves within its boundaries.
The Butte Water District is represented by Dustin Cooper of Minasian, Spruance, Meith, Soares & Sexton.
Apparently inundated with calls about the case, the district plans to release a blanket “no comment” statement soon, an employee told Courthouse News.