Tehama Groundwater Still In Jeopardy – Groundwater Commission Circles The Wagons

Shasta Lake near capacity – photo by George Johnston – Red Bluff Daily News

After this past winter, it’s hard to believe California is still experiencing water woes. Not surface water, of course. The lakes, rivers, and creeks look terrific. But deep underground, the aquifers look pretty much the same. The shallow aquifers have seen a great increase in water, but the deep ones have not recharged and it could take decades or eons for that to happen.

Many local jurisdictions are taking real steps toward groundwater sustainability, but Tehama County’s commercial nut growers are still fighting tooth and nail against any regulation or oversight. The state has mandated local agencies be formed to address sustainability on the local level and the nut growers are not down with that at all.

Screenshot from YouTube

Tehama’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency is made up of 2 groups – the Groundwater Commission and its governing body, the Flood Control Water Conservation District. The FCWCD is actually the 5 members of the Tehama County Board of Supervisors wearing their cute little water hats.

The Groundwater Commission is an 11 member appointed panel. One rep from each of the three incorporated cities, one from 3 water districts, and one from each of the 5 supervisorial districts. The GC bylaws state that the supe district reps are the only ones who do not serve at the pleasure of their appointing agency. Every other commission member can be replaced on a whim – not the supes’. Also, the GC bylaws state the supes choose their reps from the recommended applicants given to them by the GC. So, even though new District 3 Supe Pati Nolen found an excellent retired DWR person who is also a farmer, she is unable to make him her rep until water lawyer Bart Fleharty’s term expires in November ad the GC recommends him. Or unless she gets an agenda item and a 4/5 vote to remove and replace Fleharty, And she has submitted that item to the FCWC’s July 17 agenda, so we’ll see how it goes.

Bart Fleharty – flehartylaw.com

I recently listened to the audio of the meeting back in 2016 where Fleharty and walnut mogul Hal Crain were chosen as the recommended candidates for appointment to rep supe districts 3 and 4, respectively, in which neither reside. The bylaws state that the five supe district reps should reside or own property in that district. It does not say shall, so they were both seated legally. Hal does own property in D4, but Bart checks off neither box.

Guess who else owns property in D4? Casey Safreno, the Woodside bazillionaire who bought the 1500 acre Williams Ranch – owned by former D4 Super Bob Williams’ family – in the land of dry wells west of Corning and is turning that grassland into another orchard. (Read more on Casey here.) The bylaws allow him to serve on the GC – not that anyone has asked him. Yet. Bart Fleharty, D3 rep, was the agent in that $5 million sale. How much is that land worth without the ability to pump unlimited amounts of water? Surely not $5M. Commissioner Fleharty profited bigly by helping to keep an ag well moratorium off the books. So did the Williams family.

I’m not saying Hal Crain is anything like Casey, Bart, or Williams – even if he does have a financial interest. Hal has been instrumental in pioneering new watering techniques and schedules that use less water. The University of California experimented in part of one of his orchards by postponing the traditional early season watering that was actually giving the trees more water than they wanted, resulting in disease and yellow leaves. Note to Hal – any cannabis grower worth her salt could have told you those symptoms are caused by overwatering – just ask next time. And thank you for being open to thinking outside the box.

Hal Crain – photo courtesy phys.org

Of course, groundwater doesn’t fit neatly into supervisorial districts, but isn’t that the whole point of having supe district reps? Having residents of those districts serve would create a balance similar to the House and Senate in Congress. The Water District and City reps can be from elsewhere, if their expertise qualifies them, but the supes’ appointments should require residency.

The term Private Pumper is used to describe many commission members’ qualifications to serve. A more apt name might be Commercial Pumper, with Domestic Pumper added to differentiate. Not that there are many, if any, of those. Maybe add a Dry Well Pumper designation for true representation.

These bylaws are the reason people are distrustful of the GC. The bylaws take all power away from their governing body and desperately need amending. District 2 Director (and also Supervisor) Candy Carlson made some revisions to the GC bylaws and submitted them as an agenda item at the last FCWCD meeting. A long discussion ensued. The only thing that every director appeared to agree on was that supervisors should get to choose their own district reps. Four of the five felt that rep should serve at the pleasure of the supe, with Chairman Bill Moule disagreeing, probably because he currently has 2 reps residing in his district which is a violation of the governance structure. He thought each rep should serve until they resign or retire, like the Supreme Court, because otherwise you’d have new members every time there was a new supe/director, Goddess forbid.

Candy Carlson

Bill Moule

It’s hogwash, too. New D4 supe Matt Hansen is happy for now with his rep, Hal Crain, who was appointed by his predecessor Bob Williams, whose family sold the aforementioned ranch for $5 million. Moule apparently doesn’t realize the supervisorial reps serve 4 year terms, after which they must reapply.


Matt Hansen

At that meeting, D3 supe/director Pati Nolen made it quite clear that she wanted to replace Bart Fleharty, who lives in Moule’s D1, giving Moule 2 reps from his district. No wonder he likes the current arrangement. District representation on the GC was a central part of her campaign and she is trying to keep the promises she made to her constituents.

Pati Nolen

GC Chair and Red Bluff Mayor Pro Tem Clay Parker gave a short history of how the commission was formed. He assured Nolen that she could remove Fleharty with a 4/5 vote of the board of directors, as it states in the GC bylaws. And after listening to this meeting, it’s clear that only Moule would potentially oppose Nolen seating her own rep, so there’s the 4 out of 5 she would need.

Clay Parker

I’m wondering if that’s even necessary though. The bylaws govern the Groundwater Commission, not the board of directors. It says so right on the document. “Tehama County Groundwater Commission Bylaws”. The Flood Control Water Conservation District is the governing and decision-making body over the GC. This is like a disgruntled employee writing a rulebook for a business and expecting the owner to adhere to them. I may be wrong about this, but I want someone to show me where it says the FCWC has to abide by these bylaws. Yes, they approved them – for the GC to follow. If they had called them the GSA bylaws, the FCWC would have to abide by them because they are part of the GSA. I think somebody screwed up. Hah.

At the GC’s May meeting, there was an agenda item called Well Moratorium Ad Hoc Committee Formation. It sounded like the GC was going to take a serious stab at an ag well moratorium after shooting down D4 Supe Matt Hansen’s admittedly slightly flawed moratorium.

GC Chair Clay Parker came out swinging by announcing he didn’t like the name Well Moratorium Ad Hoc. He suggested Well Drilling Management Ad Hoc to replace it because their tongues would fall out of their heads if they said the M-word aloud. And it sure clarified the intentions of the ad hoc, didn’t it?

There was no discussion of including members of the public on this committee, of course. The five members are Hal Crain – Commercial Pumper, Richard Edsall – Commercial Pumper, David Lester – Commercial Pumper, Bart Fleharty – lawyer who profits from the status quo, and Clay Parker – Red Bluff Mayor Pro Tem. They will “look at data” and “take appropriate action”. Isn’t that what the GC is supposed to be doing already? Just how far down the road can they kick that can, anyway?

There was a presentation on groundwater levels by a DWR representative at the beginning of the meeting, and the picture is not rosy, as we’ve already discussed. There weren’t many questions or discussions, but the numbers don’t lie. This is the very data they should be using to take action in affected areas. We don’t want to end up like the San Joaquin Valley.

Fresno is the number one agricultural county in the entire nation, with around 1.88 million acres (about half its total 3.84 million) under cultivation. Coincidentally, Tehama County has 1.86 million acres total, so Fresno has an entire Tehama County planted. They also have the worst land subsidence in California as a result of overdraft.

According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, Tehama County has around 600,000 acres or about a third of total land in ag, but only around 72,000 of those are irrigated. What do those numbers mean? They mean a small percentage (12% of ag land or 4% of all land) is using 94% of all groundwater in the county. Domestic use is 4%. Native vegetation uses 2%.

The number of irrigated acreage has surely gone up since 2017 – we’ve all seen the proliferation of orchards. Has it doubled? It’s possible, though unlikely. But even if it has, that’s still only 8% of all acreage in Tehama County using 94% of the groundwater.

And it’s not just here – overdraft has become a global issue. A new study found that groundwater depletion has now shifted the Earth’s axis. “Earth’s rotational pole actually changes a lot,” said lead study author Ki-Weon Seo, a professor in the department of Earth science education at Seoul National University in South Korea, in a news release. “Our study shows that among climate-related causes, the redistribution of groundwater actually has the largest impact on the drift of the rotational pole.”

Guess where most of the depletion is happening? Western North America and Northerwestern India, of course. We’re number one! We’re numbe rone! You can read CNN’s article on the study here. It’s being reported in many other publications, too.

So what are we going to do? Injection recharge, subterranean and surface storage, and identifying and utilizing natural recharge areas all need to be looked at and weighed for effectiveness. Limiting the number of thirsty crops in vulnerable areas must be considered.

It’s simple, really. To achieve sustainability we must stop pumping more water out of the ground than goes in. There should have been a plan in place before this year’s bounty of rain went out to sea. Where y’at, Groundwater Commission? Tick tock.

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.

Notify of

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments