SUE KING: AGENCY MANAGER
Orland, CA – In 1976, the Orland-Artois Water District slipped unwittingly between a rock and a hard place -- a water district short of water.
The district was in the middle of building its distribution system when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave it a contract for 53,000 acre-feet of water. It promised more when the system was completed. In the meantime, a moratorium on new contracts was decreed, and when it was lifted, there was no more water to contract.
“Our growers are having to pay 100 percent on a distribution system that’s only two-thirds full, is what it amounts to,” says Sue King, general manager of the Orland-Artois (pronounced ar-TOYS) Water District (OAWD), which buys water from other districts to make up shortfalls.
The OAWD receives water from the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, which delivers water to 17 water districts in the Northern Sacramento Valley. The canal authority is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project, which distributes water down the length of California. OAWD’s water contract provides only two-thirds of the 79,500 acre-feet needed by the 197 farmers in its district, a patchwork of farms in Glenn County. [One acre-foot of water is enough water to cover an acre in one foot of water, which is 325,851 gallons.] That’s in abundant-water years, when winter snows plump in thick layers in the Sierra Nevada and melt slowly in the spring to fill the Shasta Lake reservoir. In drought years, it’s less.
“Luckily most of the landowners in this district have their own wells,” says King.
In the last few years, it became clear that the district’s demands and costs for water would never decrease in thirsty California, which, in another 20 years, may be short two million acre-feet of water, says King. Landowners are switching more of the district’s 28,988 acres from row crops to orchards or vineyards, which require water every year, no matter how low the annual allotments. In the last 10 years, the price of water has tripled. In 2005, a tiered payment system, enacted to encourage conservation in water-rich districts, goes into effect. It puts another 20 percent of the district’s allocated water out of reach of district farmers.
“Our landowners don’t grow the type of crops to pay for $60-water,” says King.
OAWD realized that a time was approaching when even its farmers’ groundwater, drawn from a shallow aquifer 150 to 300 feet deep, wasn’t going to be enough.
The tipping point came in 2001, when a farmer in central Glenn County noticed that water levels in his wells were dropping fast. [See Groundwater story for details.] Because the Bureau of Reclamation had cut OAWD’s allotment in half that year to 26,000 acre-feet, the district had to buy more expensive water to meet its members’ needs. To save money, its farmers decided to pump groundwater for as long as they could and to hold their surface water as insurance for late summer use. The heavy groundwater draw in one area of the county began affecting farmers’ wells where the aquifer was deeper.
“What happens is when our district is short on our contract water and all of our farmers begin to pump, you’ll see a dramatic decrease, a decline in the water level,” says King.
It was clear that the district had to find more water from a different source.
Two scientists who transferred into the Northern Sacramento Valley opened a path to that water: Toccoy Dudley, chief of groundwater in the California Department of Water Resources northern district, and Allan Fulton, an irrigation and water resources management farm advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension. Dudley became interested in the valley’s groundwater after some farmers in Butte County saw their wells go dry when a nearby water district sold its surface water to people outside the district and substituted groundwater for irrigation.
“One of the things that I wanted to do when I came up here was to explore geologically why, of all the places we did water transfers in the Sacramento Valley, that particular area was so problematic,” says Dudley. “I started looking at all the geologic logs in the area and I noticed that there was a particular unit that you could identify on all the logs and I just kept following it across the valley over here into Glenn County and all the way up to Tehama County.”
While Dudley was tracking the deep rock layer across the valley, Fulton moved from the San Joaquin Valley in 2000 with two goals. His first is applied research to develop water-saving farming practices. In pursuing his second goal -- connecting people with the best information with those who need it -- he found Dudley.
“A lot of folks up here realize that they have challenges,” says Fulton, who covers Tehama, Glenn, Shasta and Colusa counties from his office in Red Bluff, “and that the solutions to their challenges are understanding the resource. Without a science-based understanding, it’s a guess, and very random at that.”
Dudley developed a detailed map of the aquifers and their geologic formations. With funding from the Renewable Resource Extension Act, Fulton began writing a series of newsletters about groundwater, water wells and pumping plants. He distributed thousands of copies to people in Glenn, Colusa, Tehama and Shasta counties.
When Dudley gave a presentation to the members of the Glenn County Water Advisory Committee about how water moves through the valley, Sue King was in the audience. She thought her board would be interested in Dudley’s analysis.
When he told the OAWD board about a deep confined aquifer in a layer of rocks under Glenn County, Sue thought: “Gosh. Why don’t we look at that as a potential water supply to help our district?”
Even though the water in this aquifer was under pressure, and would rise close enough to the surface to pump economically, an individual farmer couldn’t afford to drill a well that deep. But the irrigation district could. So, it drilled a test well past the shallow Tehama layer to 1100 feet, into the aquifer’s deep Tuscan layer, and kept going to 1500 feet, into the Upper Princeton, another deep layer that also contains water. They were able to pump 5,500 gallons a minute from the well.
After calculating pumping costs, they’ve decided to pump 3,000 to 3,500 gallons per minute from 1,320 feet, just at the top of the Princeton layer. The water at that location comes within 76 feet of the surface. Over the next five years, they plan on drilling nine more wells into the Tuscan layer, in areas of the county that are at lower elevation, where the water comes within 20 feet of the surface.
“If we didn’t have the information that Toccoy had given us, we wouldn’t even be looking at drilling these wells,” says King, “because we didn’t know those aquifers were even down there.”
With 10 wells, the district will be able to pump about 30,000 acre-feet of water every year, enough to make up any shortfall from the Bureau of Reclamation. “We’ve estimated it’s going to be cheaper to pump that water than it is to buy the surface water that we’re currently using from the Bureau of Reclamation,” says King.
The water has other benefits. It’s reliable during drought years. It’s free of moss and/or algae, which proliferates in surface water in the summer heat and clogs farmers’ drip irrigation systems. Its temperature is a constant 70 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that farmers can use it for frost protection. And it will leave more water available to landowners whose wells tap the shallow Tehama formation.
Even if OAWD pumps water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it will take but a drop (one-tenth of one percent) of the total aquifer, which Dudley estimates at 30 million acre-feet. That’s about seven or eight times the size of Shasta Lake reservoir. He’s now tracking the age of the water to calculate the aquifer’s recharge rate. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories determined the water under Glenn County was 50,000 years old. In the same aquifer under Butte County, it’s 100 years old. Dudley thinks water from the Sierra Nevada recharges the aquifer.
Although the deep aquifer isn’t connected to the shallow Tehama formation from which the districts farmers pump groundwater now, the district has encased the shallow portions of the deep well, and turned the test hole into a monitoring well to allay any suspicion that the deep aquifer is drawing water down from the shallow one.
North of Chico, 90 percent of agriculture is on groundwater. As water becomes scarcer, people have to work together to manage it, say Fulton and Dudley.
“People have to think collectively as community rather than as individual landowners,” says Fulton. “Glenn County farmers are working very closely with each other. They’re a good example of how people working together solve problems.”
“You have to understand resource to manage it,” says Dudley. That’s where the science of water distribution comes in. Once people understand, a light bulb goes on. They feel like a big weight is lifted off them. People in Glenn County know where water charged from, and they’re preparing if impacts manifest themselves.
“In every community, water has polarized people. In some counties, they’re real close, others, they’re far apart. Where they’re in the middle, it’s our work that’s bringing them together. Everywhere we’ve worked, been able to bring people closer together.”
-- June 2004
Jane Ellen Stevens