LOS ANGELES — As California grapples with worsening cycles of drought, a proposal to create a new water district in Butte County has sparked fears of a profit-driven water grab by large-scale farmers and outside interests.
In the walnut and almond orchards along State Route 99 near Chico, agricultural landowners have led a yearslong campaign to form the Tuscan Water District — an entity they say is vital for the future of farming in this part of Northern California. They say having the district will enable them to bring in water and build infrastructure to recharge the groundwater aquifer.
Yet some residents argue the district would open the door to water profiteering, claiming the plan would connect local supplies to California water markets, and allow the state to demand transfers during drought emergencies.
The proposal, which will be decided Tuesday via mail-in balloting, has generated debate about the use of partially depleted aquifers to store imported water. Although major water suppliers in other parts of the state, such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, have invested in efforts to bank water underground for times of drought, the concept has met with deep suspicion in Butte County.
“You put in the infrastructure, you start taking over the groundwater basin for private profit, and it changes everything,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, an organization focused on protecting water resources in the Sacramento Valley. “It becomes this economic engine for these people that want to take over ownership.”
Supporters deny the charges of seeking to sell or export water. They say the district is necessary to address the local groundwater deficit and achieve sustainability in the coming years, as required under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.
“This is the most important development in local agriculture in a hundred years,” said Richard McGowan, a farmer who is one of the campaign’s leaders.
Local nut and fruit orchards depend entirely on groundwater, which because of overuse is projected to require reductions in pumping to meet state-mandated sustainability goals.
McGowan said the district, once formed, could plan projects to transport water to the area and use that water instead of pumping from wells, or use it to recharge the groundwater basin. Another benefit of forming the agency, he said, would be the ability to apply for government grants to fund infrastructure projects.
“We’re going to have to become sustainable,” McGowan said. “This gives us a great opportunity to work together to preserve this water resource we have. And now water has become such a hot topic, and the state has now become involved with it, that it almost dictates that we do something like this.”
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