Apr 27, 2022
Butte County, California, farmers propose new water district

A group of Butte County farmers, who rely solely on groundwater to farm mostly tree crops north of Chico, are one step closer to finalizing formation of a new water district. They say the new district will help future generations comply with a state regulation to bring groundwater supplies into balance in 20 years.

“Water is our lifeblood, and we have to manage it and be able to fight for our future,” said Butte County farmer Darren Rice, who grows almonds north of Chico. “And to do that, you have to be on an even playing field with the other players that are already in the game managing water.”

Rice said California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) puts “a challenge in front of us to manage our aquifer responsibly.” It was a challenge they were determined to address.

Local farmers consulted with water districts, Rice said, and they “got a sense of how they were empowered” in order to create a local agency that could “meet the challenges that SGMA demanded.”

SGMA, signed into law in 2014, establishes a new structure for managing groundwater in California and requires groundwater sustainability agencies to manage groundwater locally and develop and implement plans to achieve long-term sustainability.

The purpose is to avoid undesirable results, such as diminishing groundwater levels, reduction of storage, seawater intrusion, degraded quality, land subsidence and surface-water depletion.

With the area north of Chico in Butte County unserved by a water district, Rice joined other farmers five years ago to start the process of forming a water district to help manage groundwater sustainability. Butte County officials supported the effort.

After years of work, numerous meetings and outreach and approval of a majority of landowners, they formed the proposed Tuscan Water District. The district covers more than 100,000 acres, including farmland largely consisting of tree crops.

Despite some opposition, the district’s formation was unanimously approved in February by the Butte County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). District proponents have a final hurdle of asking landowners to ratify the LAFCO vote later this year.

“There are more than 300 water districts in California. This is the first time in 30-plus years that a water district has been formed in Butte County,” said Tovey Giezentanner, spokesman for the proposed Tuscan Water District. “It will allow this group of landowners to benefit from the economy of scale of essentially banding together to pursue projects.”

The proposed service area, Giezentanner said, lacks a water purveyor that would be able to work with Butte County and the area Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency to plan for maintaining aquifer supplies.

“With no district in place to help the subbasin achieve sustainability and work in concert with the county and GSAs to develop a plan for the unserved areas, the (Tuscan Water) district will fill that void,” Giezentanner said. “If the district is not formed, it becomes the county’s and the Vina GSA’s responsibility to solve the problem.”

Giezentanner said forming the district offers farmers with representation in the local SGMA process. He said the district plans to identify sources of water, recharge opportunities and ways to incentivize farmers for water conservation efforts.

The area’s groundwater sustainability plan identified a groundwater deficit of 10,000 acre-feet annually, so the subbasin is going to, either through conservation, recharge or new supply, replace 10,000 acre-feet of water, he said.

“They are either going to put more water in the ground to recharge, stop using as much water through demand conservation or bring new water in,” Giezentanner said.

Tuscan Water District proponents agreed that the district would not sell water out of the area and ensured that projects pursued are consistent with the goals identified in the local groundwater sustainability plan.

“We are going to make sure that our projects are consistent with where the GSA wants to go,” Giezentanner said.

Rich McGowan, who farms nut crops and prunes north of Chico, is among those helping to form the water district. He said the Vina Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s groundwater sustainability plan “recognizes opportunities that will help with sustainability.”

“Opportunities range from bringing in surface water to conservation to recharge and all of the above,” McGowan said. “We’re going to work with the local GSA to implement whatever solutions are affordable and reasonable for the grower base.”

Recognizing that water is a finite resource, McGowan said, he and the fellow farmers who proposed the new district felt they needed to take action to preserve the resource for the next generations.

McGowan said his “heart goes out to” future-generation farmers such as his own children, given the challenges ahead, including water, labor and regulations.

McGowan said he and his fellow farmers are working to give the next generation “not only the same opportunity, but (also) the tools to be successful.”

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson, who farms in Oroville outside of the district boundaries, said by forming Tuscan Water District, farmers will be able to retain more local water through groundwater recharge and other projects.

“The farmers are demonstrating that water conservation isn’t just on our mind during a drought and that, when the drought is over, they will be looking at increasing storage both above and underground in years that water is plentiful,” Johansson said. “It’s a costly endeavor, and because farm families stepped up and invested in this district, the generations after them will benefit.”

– Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation

Almond grower Darren Rice. Photo: Christine Souza

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