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In One Week: Insurance Turmoil, Tehama County Groundwater Trouble

Photo source: nytimes.com

I spent the better part of the past week in a state of confusion and frustration, because our homeowner’s insurance policy – claim free for over 25 years – did not renew when it was supposed to and we were not notified. On Sunday, I went on my Allstate app to pay our auto and home premiums like I do every month. My home policy bill said “paid in full” and “expires tonight at midnight”.

Wait – tonight? At midnight on a Sunday? I called Allstate’s corporate number and asked what was going on and the gal said, “Yes, I can see you weren’t renewed, but I can’t see why. Let me ask my Team Leader.” Me: “OK. Thank you for your help.” On hold for several minutes. Gal: “Oh, sorry. My Team Leader is in a meeting.” Me: “On a Sunday morning?” Gal: “(giggle) Oh you’d be surprised.” Me: “You’re right. I’d be very surprised if your Team Leader was in a meeting on a Sunday morning.” Gal: “I really want to help, but I have no answers for you. You’ll need to talk to your agent tomorrow.” Me: “After my coverage expires, you mean.” Gal: “Yeah, sorry.”

I left a voicemail with Sonia, my agent in Chico, and sent an email. Monday morning at 9:05 I called Sonia’s office and was told the same thing. Yes, you have no coverage. No, we don’t know why. Sorry no one contacted you. Have a nice day.

I ran to my baby sister who is a retired commercial fleet policy writer. She found the numerous code sections my agent and Allstate had violated and encouraged me to call the CA Insurance Commissioner. The Commission agent verified that everything about the situation was illegal and directed me to a webpage where I could file a complaint, which I did. But still no coverage.

I called my buddy Cody – grandson of Red Bluff legend Andy Houghton – at Cody Marshall Insurance Services to see if he could help. He said the best option would be to get my policy renewed and suggested I pay a visit to Julie Foster’s Allstate office on the 800 block of Main St. in Red Bluff.

Julie Foster’s Allstate office in Red Bluff

Everything changed when I walked into Julie’s office, where I was immediately offered a seat and an ear. I began to explain the predicament to insurance goddess Shannon and Julie came out of her office to hear the deets, giving me sage advice like the seasoned professional she is. Shannon opened my account through the Allstate site and within minutes had filed an appeal with the insurance giant, I assume enumerating the many ways the company and my agent had failed in their legally and morally obligated duties. She probably said it more nicely than I would have.

Julie’s team on the job! You’re in good paws!

While I was out for a run Thursday morning, Shannon left a voicemail saying our policy had been renewed. EEEEK! I called back right away, overwhelmed with gratitude for what she had done. Obviously, I wanted to switch all of our Allstate business to Julie Foster’s office and Shannon got that ball rolling, too. See ya, Sonia.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to Julie Foster and her incredible team – especially Shannon. They went above and beyond for someone they had never made a penny from serving – because they care. If you’re walking by that office – which is absolutely gorgeous btw – poke your head in and thank them for keeping your Tehama County scribe safe in her home. They have candy, too.

While I was home working on and worrying about our insurance situation, I thought I’d listen in on the Tehama County Groundwater Commission meeting for comic relief. New District 4 Supervisor Matt Hansen had requested an agenda item for an informal discussion on a possible temporary ag well moratorium in the water challenged areas of the county. He won his election 66% – 34% on the promise that he would work to protect our groundwater. He was keeping that promise.

Supervisor Matt Hansen

Nobody expected the moratorium to be given the green light by the commission. Even I thought it needed improvement and would have voted against it as written. Cattle rancher and nice guy Kevin Borror noted the part I would have red-lined. The ordinance would have required a CEQA review (EIR) for a replacement well. When your viable well fails for one reason or another and you have thirsty critters, you have no time to spare. Those permits should be expedited, in my opinion.

The crowd was much more “well” behaved than the mob at the Registry Workshop. I didn’t hear the word “commie” once. Excellent points were made on both sides, but the core of the matter remains. Pumping more water out of the ground than goes in is not sustainable.

A lawyer from Butte County talked about the potential lawsuits a moratorium might elicit against the county. He spoke so fast I almost couldn’t understand him – and I am a native New Yorker. He was obviously invited (and probably compensated) by the people who don’t want a moratorium under any circumstances. Even temporarily. Even just in affected areas. To my knowledge, Glenn County has not been sued over their ag well moratorium, which they adopted in 2021 and have extended.

Another guy tugged at our heart strings by reminding us that farmers are heroes, not villains. Note to dude – it’s kind of weird to call yourself a hero. It’s like the dumbest guy in the room telling everyone he’s a genius. Not that farmers are villains, either. They’re just people trying to protect their businesses. They need to remember it’s not the domestic users threatening their way of life. It’s the local and out-of-area corporate interests who are turning rangeland into orchards.

Retired Department of Water Resources guy Michael Ward did a short PowerPoint presentation, with slides on historic and projected groundwater use.

Michael Ward at the lectern

Groundwater levels have been steadily declining for decades and one wet winter will not fix things. This is about long-term trends. Ag development from dry-farmed grasslands to orchards in the county is on the rise, in large part because we have no restrictions on what can be grown where or how much water can be mined…ahem, pumped.

Slide from Michael Ward’s presentation

That makes us extremely attractive to monied interests from other states, SoCal, and even other countries – hello China. They see us as rubes, water pockets ripe for the picking. But how do we stop that? People have the right to sell their land to whoever has the dough, neighbors be damned. Land use and zoning anyone?

After a long line pf Public Commenters both pro and con, Chairman Moule of the Tehama Board of Supervisors couldn’t resist throwing Supervisor Hansen under the bus. Moule, who rarely has an unuttered thought, started with the caveat, “I didn’t intend to speak today,” then went on to denigrate Hansen for bringing a moratorium to the Commission. “What if all five supervisors wrote their own moratoriums and we had to discuss the merits of each one?”

Board Chair Bill Moule

Yes, what if? What if all the supervisors showed they were concerned about the very real existential threat to the hundreds of families who have no water? What if it was discussed every meeting? What if an ad hoc was formed, with real groundwater experts on it, not people whose livelihoods depended on unrestricted pumping? What if County Counsel was tasked with writing something? Hint – maybe copy Glenn County’s.

Let’s not forget that another supervisor DID bring a moratorium before the supes, not even the GC. That would be disgraced misogynist former Supervisor Bob Williams, who had County Counsel throw something together in October of 2021, before Moule was even a supervisor. Williams had attended a Town Hall in Rancho Tehama Reserve, where many domestic wells are dry, and residents demanded he do something to help them.

 

At that time, GC Chair Clay Parker promised the commission was ”working on something” and would bring it back before the board. That never happened, of course, and Williams was crushed by Hansen in the aforementioned 66-34% race. And no, I never get tired of typing that.

Ultimately, the Groundwater Commission decided not to approve Hansen’s moratorium last week nor even to amend it to make it more palatable. Instead, they went with identifying and developing management areas, as if we don’t already know where dry wells are occurring. Sigh.

I also heard no discussion of Governor Newsom’s recent Executive Order that encourages storage of this bountiful flood water we’ve been blessed with. I’m not a big fan of Newsom’s, but at least he is trying to make it easier for us to keep more of what fell out of the sky. Credit where it’s due. Regulations have been eased to facilitate diversion of excess water to storage areas.

Of course, all the surface storage facilities are full or getting there. The Sites Reservoir has not materialized – why exactly? Whatever the reason, storing water underground is preferable to surface storage for a number of reasons. Evaporation and cost being the two bigguns.

It’s up to the Groundwater Commission and the Flood Control Water Conservation District to figure out a way to get some of this winter’s precipitation banked for dry times to come. However, when I checked the Tehama County meetings schedule, I noticed the FCWC meeting for April 17 had been canceled. Normally that only happens when there is nothing to discuss, which is clearly not the case right now. Wassup, FCWC? Have any production well owners stepped up to offer their wells for possible injection recharge? Have natural recharge areas been identified?

We can work together to protect our domestic wells and keep local farms profitable. People have great ideas, but that doesn’t mean we should still be drilling willy-nilly where domestic wells are going dry. The board of supervisors has the power to adopt a temporary moratorium in vulnerable areas without approval of the GC while management techniques are explored. Please stop kicking the can down the road, supes. It’s a dead end.

While we’re on the subject of water, I had been hoping never to write about Groundwater Sustainability Executive and Deputy Director of Public Works Justin Jenson again. You may recall Jenson had been fined $33,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for rip rapping his riverfront property. Many of his friends and former colleagues reached out to me publicly and privately to tell me what “really” happened.

Justin Jenson

There were three stories. A few people said Jenson thought the permits had been secured by the previous owner of the property. Others told me the fine cost less than the permits, so of course he chose the less costly and time-consuming route. A couple mentioned he had bragged about how he handled the project.

The one thing everyone agreed on was that he did everything by the book – as if the permits had been in place and would be checked on by the Army Corps of Engineers. They all said he had taken exceptional care every step of the way. That was good to hear.

What I didn’t expect was an email last week from Coral Ferrin, Tehama County Personnel Director. Apparently my column unintentionally triggered an investigation by the county to see if Jenson had violated the County Code of Conduct. Look at them being all efficient and stuff.

Personnel Director Coral Ferrin – Tehama County website

The letter from the investigator read, “After careful review of the evidence, allegations surrounding violations of the Code of Conduct were determined to be unfounded.”

It is interesting that an employee can admit to violating federal law and still not be in violation of Tehama County’s Personnel Rules. It’s also nice to know that someone is reading this column and taking action. Who’da thunk?

Liz Merry

Liz Merry was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx, then transplanted to the Jersey Shore. She moved to Chico in 1984 and married her comedy partner, Aaron Standish, in 1990. They have lived in Manton since 1994.

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