Tehama Groundwater Update – Cry Me An Atmospheric River


Lots of news from the Tehama Groundwater front. Four out of five of our Groundwater Sustainability Plans have been returned by the Department of Water Resources as “Incomplete”. The fifth GSP is still under review, but since it’s a copy and paste of the others, it will probably flunk, too. This is not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention, because the plans contain no steps to stop the overdraft of our aquifers or achieve sustainability.

A quick review of the structure of our Tehama County Groundwater Sustainability Agency. It is made up of its governing body, the Flood Control Water Conservation District (a.k.a. our Board of Supervisors) and the Groundwater Commission, made up of 11 appointed commissioners. One member from each of our 3 incorporated cites, one each from three of our water districts, and one from each of the 5 supervisorial districts.

Since the GC was formed, the 5 supe district appointees were seated upon recommendation of the GC to the board. The commission is heavily weighted with commercial water extractors. There is not one single actual water expert on the GC, so we hired consultants to do the heavy lifting for us. Because why get expert help for free from people who actually care?

So, what specifically is wrong with our GSPs that caused them to be deemed Incomplete? Too much to go into detail about, but here are some choice excerpts from the DWR comments on the Red Bluff Sub basin.

“Sub basin’s Plan does not satisfy the objectives of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) nor substantially comply with the GSP Regulations.”

One wonders whether the commission or our highly paid consultants, Luhdorff and Scalmanini (sounds like a German-Italian dish, doesn’t it?) ever even read the actual Sustainable Groundwater Management Act? Wait – what’s that? L&S actually helped WRITE the Act? Then how could they have failed so miserably in the task they helped create?

Could it be they were directed by the water profiteers on the commission to submit something that would give them a few more years of free unregulated water in exchange for a lucrative contract? It comes down to L&S being one of two things. Incompetent or dishonest.

More from the DWR’s determination –

“The GSA must provide more detailed explanation and justification regarding the selection of the sustainable management criteria for groundwater levels, particularly undesirable results and minimum thresholds, and quantitatively describe the effects of those criteria on the interests of beneficial uses and users of groundwater.”

That’s a nice way of saying, “Did you pull those numbers out of your butts? Throw darts at a board? Flip a coin? Go back and be serious this time.” In other words, the DWR pointed out the same things local water expert Michael Ward and others have been bringing to our attention for a very long time. For free. Ward has asked many times for justification of the Minimum Thresholds, levels that, if surpassed, would trigger some nebulous regulatory action. No justifications have been forthcoming. Our MTs were created so low that hundreds of domestic wells have gone dry with no action taken. The MTs also need to be exceeded continuously for several years before we lift a finger. Nice.

The GC has appointed a closed door ad hoc to amend the GSPs, because why let the public have any input? Red Bluff resident Andrew Grady asked that the discussions be held in public in the interest of transparency, but GC Chair Clay Parker said DWR could only consult in private. That was untrue, as Supervisor Candy Carlson immediately pointed out. Oops.

GC Chair and Red Bluff Mayor Pro Tem Clay Parker – he is also the former Sheriff of Tehama County

District 2 Supervisor Candy Carlson

Parker also said that most GSPs come back with comments – not just ours. A quick count on the GSP status page shows there were 17 GSP determinations in the batch with our 4. 11 of those were approved. 6 were not, including ours. Somebody call the fire department to put out Parker’s pants, please.

The new GSP ad hoc has three members, two of whom will probably not even be on the commission come January. Water lawyer and big money ag land agent Bart Fleharty, whose term is up Nov. 30, 2023, and Hal Crain of Crain Walnuts, whose supe will most likely replace him, too. The GC has until April 23, 2024 to submit the amended GSAs.

Coincidentally, mere days before these determinations were posted by the DWR, the FCWCD (BOS) released their GC Bylaw amendments. The Bylaws ad hoc, which consisted of Supervisors Carlson and Hansen, had been done working on them for months, but for some reason they were hung up in County Counsel’s office all this time. Have I mentioned our County Counsel, the law office of Prentice Long, serves a gazillion other jurisdictions and agencies? Including Trinity County, whose Grand Jury report took them to task for a myriad of wrongdoings. Busy folks.

The new GC Bylaws will allow each supervisor to choose the rep for her or his district, like the other 6 agencies represented on the commission who all serve at the pleasure of their appointing bodies. Previously the Supes could only choose from the recommendations presented by the GC, as mentioned above. So, in essence, the GC was choosing. And guess who they chose? Other commercial water pumpers, of course.

When the commission was formed, many people applied for more than one seat, resulting in some supe district reps not even residing in the district they repped. Case in point, the afore mentioned Bart Fleharty, who has represented District 3 since the formation of the commission almost 10 years ago. The problem is Fleharty lives in District 1, Board Chair Bill Moule’s district, who is apparently happy to have 2 reps on the GC. Bart’s term expires Nov. 30, and D3 supe Pati Nolen wants someone who actually lives in her district representing her constituents. Imagine that.

Bart Fleharty

However, the district residency requirement did not make the final cut of the Bylaws, so a supe may appoint someone living in another district, although they must reside in the county. I was in favor of of the residency requirement, but as D4 supe Matt Hansen reasonably pointed out, having only a requirement that the supe district reps live in Tehama County enables each supe to choose someone qualified from any district.

District 4 Supervisor Matt Hansen

So what makes a person qualified? Is it knowledge of water use or actual knowledge of hydrogeology? Why not both? We have many commissioners who know how to use water – boy howdy, do we ever – and the ag folks definitely deserve seats at the table. Theirs are important voices. But we need actual groundwater experts, too. If you know any hydrogeologists in Tehama County who would like to serve, they need to fill out the application – download   – and get it in by Nov. 30, 2023. They can and should apply for all five seats.

Related aside – District 5 Supervisor John Leach voted to give supervisors the power to choose their own GC reps a few months ago. A week or two later, he denied that power to D3’s Pati Nolen by voting no on Nolen’s motion to remove Fleharty as her rep. She needed 4 out of 5 votes to remove him and Leach voted No along with Chair Bill Moule.

District 5 Supervisor John Leach

District 3 Supervisor Pati Nolen

Why the flip-flop? We don’t know. But John is running hard for re-election, the only incumbent supe who has announced so far, so maybe he was working both sides of the street? Or maybe he couldn’t remember – he’s 81 years old, after all. I don’t know, but neither is a good look for him.

There has never been a real hydrogeologist on the GC since its inception and that’s why our crappy Groundwater Sustainability Plans were rejected as incomplete, even though we paid our consultants, L&S, millions to write them.

And guess what? Last week the board voted 3-2 to give L&S another $15 million in grant monies we received from the state to continue their less than stellar work for us. The scope is much greater now, of course, and with the predicted addition of at least 2 water experts to the commission in January, they should be able to produce not only the needed amendments to our incomplete GSPs, but a real plan moving into the future. That’s the hope anyway.

As far as that great wet 2022-23 winter we just had, it still resulted in 90 new dry wells in the county. Incredibly, members of the GC asked in public whether anyone was checking to make sure those wells were really dry, and not just a broken pump or failed casing. Newsflash – people with busted pumps do not report them as dry wells. So let’s put that little bit of victim-blaming to rest now, shall we? The nerve.

Some upper level wells did come back for now and that’s great – hoping for more with the Super El Niño predicted for this year. I’m sure the GC has plenty of innovative storage projects ready to go to take full advantage of any extra precipitation that might come our way. Can’t wait to learn about them. Whatcha got, GC?

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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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