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Groundwater

JUDY BROWN: GROUNDWATER

Glenn County, CA – The summer of 2001 began hot and early in the Northern Sacramento Valley. Blistering winds and 11 percent humidity forced farmers to suck thousands of gallons of water from the ground to keep their crops from shriveling. In central Glenn County, a farmer noticed that water levels in his wells had dropped precipitously.

Finger-pointing and rumors began skittering around the county: irrigation districts were selling so much groundwater to Southern California that the aquifer under the fields of the county was running dry.

The situation could have escalated into lawsuits, name-calling in the media, and heated arguments in the halls and councils of local government, except for an event that occurred in February 2000: A revolutionary ordinance that a group of forward-thinking people had convinced the county to adopt. How something with a tongue-twisting name like “basin management objectives concept” could defuse a potentially volatile situation requires a look at Glenn County’s water affairs – a long story, here made short.

Glenn County’s economy depends on irrigated agriculture, mostly rice, almond orchards and dairy cattle. Most of the county’s estimated 800 farmers rely on irrigation districts that contract to buy water from the canals diverted from the Sacramento River.

On the other hand, cities, industries and houses rely on groundwater. When thirsty Southern California came sniffing for water in Glenn County, many residents were afraid that the irrigation districts, which were selling surface water to people outside the county, might tap into the county’s limited groundwater supplies.

In 1992, a bill protecting groundwater resources passed the California legislature, but after water irrigation districts lobbied against it, the governor refused to sign it.

“It crashed and burned,” says Judy Brown, a third-generation farmer in Glenn County who relies on the Kanawha and Orland-Artois (pronounced are-TOYS) water districts for 40 percent of her annual irrigation needs. “That left a lot of hard feelings and unhappiness in the community on both sides.From the ashes of that meltdown, after a year or so went by, the problem was still there.”

In 1994, Sandy Denn called a meeting. She’s a farmer who lives in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, one of the districts that wanted the option to sell its water to central or southern California. Anyone who was interested in solving the county’s water problem could attend. Cities and local residents who wanted to hold onto their groundwater, water irrigation district representatives who wanted to be able to sell water, and farmers who worried about both gathered regularly to find a way to protect groundwater users and still allow water districts flexibility in selling water outside the county.

“We met for a long time,” says Brown. They worked slowly, first developing a memorandum of understanding that established a county Water Advisory Committee in 1997. With the help of a small group of scientists -- Toccoy Dudley, chief of the groundwater section in the state Department of Water Resources northern division and his staff, Kelly Staton and Dan McManus; and Allan Fulton, University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water resources management farm advisor for Tehama, Glenn, Shasta and Colusa counties – they educated themselves about how water moves under, through and around Glenn County.

“None of us landowners have the scientific knowledge or expertise to do what we’re doing,” says Brown. “It’s only because they’ve been there providing that knowledge that we’ve been able to advance as much as we have.”

The group explored many different alternatives for protecting its water, but none satisfied everyone until Dudley came up with the idea for basin management objectives – BMOs.

Brown, who chaired the Water Advisory Committee for two years, explains BMOs this way: “The idea was to understand at what point the water levels would have to drop to start having an unacceptable economic impact. We wanted to set up our management systems so that we stayed above that that threshold of pain.”

The county’s aquifers vary throughout its area, so the Water Advisory Committee divided the county into 17 sub-areas that set their own levels. Dudley and Fulton assisted people in setting levels, and Fulton wrote a series of newsletters funded by the Renewable Resources Extension Act that were sent to thousands of county residents.

The ordinance also said that if water levels dropped to the specified levels in any of the county’s areas, the technical committee of the Water Advisory Committee would start an investigation. And so, in the hot summer of 2001, when water levels dropped in sub-area 9, the technical committee got to work.

What they discovered startled most of the county except the members of the Water Advisory Committee. The culprit in the disappearing water wasn’t an irrigation district that was pumping groundwater out and sending it south. It was many culprits – the farmers of the Orland-Artois Water District, who explained their actions by pointing their fingers at their own water district.

The Orland-Artois Water District is known as a water-short irrigation district. Its water allotment, which comes from Shasta Dam via the Tehama Colusa Canal, is barely enough to meet its members’ needs, but not in drought years. Its supply was halved in 2001 because Shasta Dam didn’t have as much water as usual due to increased demand from many water districts. So when the district had to buy more expensive water from other water districts to make sure it could meet its members’ needs, its farmers decided to pump groundwater for as long as they could to save money and to hold their surface water as insurance for late summer use.

“So we had a double whammy – increased demand and reduced recharge because the surface water wasn’t used early in the irrigation season and all of these areas down-gradient (in central Glenn County where the aquifer was deeper) showed the consequences,” says Brown.

The episode was a wake-up call for the Orland-Artois Water District, as well as for Glenn County. Where there used to be enough water so that farmers didn’t have to worry about affecting their neighbors, now everyone in the county realized they were pulling water out of the same system. One person’s action could affect a farm on the other side of the county.

“The ordinance gives us some protection from harm,” says Brown. “But that isn’t going to solve all of our water problems.” She knows that the county will have to look into making its water supply more reliable by recharging aquifers, perhaps working with flood-prevention agencies to figure out a way to save and use floodwater.

As is characteristic of the ends of stories, they are usually the beginning of others. Orland-Artois decided it needed to find more water. [See AGENCY story for more information.] Facing the prospect of having to put her 2,700 acres into orchards to remain profitable, Judy Brown, her brother, cousin and sister have decided to sell Finch Ranch. She’s enrolled in a master’s program in geology at California State University, Chico, after which she plans on pursuing her fascination with water by working at the Department of Water Resources.

“These issues are not going away,” she says. “And I can provide the farmer’s perspective.”

-- June 2004
Jane Ellen Stevens

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