10 Questions with Thad Bettner

The Sacramento Valley holds some of the strongest water rights in California, so you might think it’s home to fewer drought worries. Not so. Thad Bettner of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District talks about proliferating regulations, inadequate funding and imperiled salmon runs.

Written by Renee Cashmere Published on Read time Approx. 12 minutes

Thad Bettner is general manager of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, located in the heart of the North Sacramento Valley, where meeting the water demands of agriculture run hard into the water requirements for endangered species such as salmon.

The district has some of the most secure water rights in the state, and its farmer-customers use that water to primarily grow rice, along with 40 other crops, including orchard crops such as walnuts and almonds as well as annual vegetables like tomatoes.

Everyday life in Bettner’s district revolves around balancing resources for an agricultural economy that fuels the state, and making sure the environment is provided for as well. Add to that sweeping new state legislation on groundwater management and how to allocate Proposition 1 dollars for new water supply projects, and the the balancing act gets complicated.

Drought continues to quicken the pace on implementing regulations and driving forward new improvements to storage. Bettner’s district is one of 10 members of a joint powers authority formed to support the proposed Sites Reservoir, which could cost $3 billion to store 1.8 million acre-feet of water. He raises concerns around practical implementation of such new water projects, and questions how we are going to pay for the future of water management in California.

Water Deeply: How has the drought affected the way you do things at Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District?

Thad Bettner: Well, I think certainly from the amount of planning that we need to do both internal to our operations and how we allocate water to our own growers, there has been a significant change. We’re delivering less water, so just from a recovery standpoint, we’ve had to adjust and increase rates to keep the district operating, so those are some significant internal concerns and issues.

Externally, trying to protect and enhance the environment around us has been huge as well. We are trying to protect salmon in the Sacramento River, how we divert and use water, making sure salmon are doing the best they can, as well as providing habitat for the pacific flyway in the fall and wintertime for birds migrating down through the valley. We’ve got this balance between how we manage our district internally, while also providing for the environment here in the Sacramento Valley.

Water Deeply: What are the challenges in providing water to your district?

Bettner: This year, one of the things we came across was we had some periods where we had to cap our diversions to try and coordinate the right flows and releases from Shasta Reservoir in order to protect fish. There was a point where, this summer, they limited releases out of Shasta Reservoir to 7,200 cubic feet per second in order to protect winter-run salmon (typical releases are around 12,000 cfs). All of our demands are downstream of that point. We all had to cap our diversions in the heat of summer, and we did have some challenges trying to meet crop demands through the summer months based on what was planted in the springtime. We had to move some water around or let some fields go, or hold them off irrigating until later, or try to delay some of our deliveries just to get through that critical period.

We expect we’re going to have to do those kinds of things in the future to protect the fish in the summertime. Just recently, we had an issue where, because we capped our diversions, we had a little extra supply at the end of the year. We tried to make that available for bird habitat, but our contract didn’t line up with when the wildlife communities funded us for the birds. So we worked with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to move some water to November and December, which was helpful. But that was another one of the actions we took this year that — while good for the environment — was a challenge for operating our system.

Water Deeply: What are the biggest concerns you hear from farmers and landowners in your district?

Bettner: This year we heard about whether water was going to be interruptible. We may get a certain water supply under our settlement contracts (with Reclamation), but there was some concern from the growers, who said, ‘Are we really going to get that water all season long?’ In summer, we did have to cut back our diversions. Even though we had a volume of water, the timing wasn’t quite right, so we took steps to try and cover that diversion gap. The growers worked with us and we had an agreed-upon plan going into this year. We had to tweak it in May based on some temperature differences in Shasta. We communicated all these changes with our growers, and they understand and worked with us to get through the season.

With rates, what we did was, several years ago, we adopted critical-year water rates. We did get some pushback then — that was three years ago — not a lot, but we are going through the process where we’re probably going to have to do another rate setting for the next one to three years sometime in 2016.

We’re guessing that growers are going to be concerned about how the district is spending money and asking whether those rates are justified. But at the same time, I think most of our growers understand the situation. They understand what the ag economy is doing, that these issues are related to water and the environment, so as long as they know we’re spending money wisely and there’s some accountability there — nobody likes to get their rates increased — but I think there’s some understanding there.

Water Deeply: Can you tell us about the fish screen project constructed at GCID?

Bettner: Our district has one of the largest flat-plate screens in the Sacramento Valley, and as far as I know, the rest of the world. It’s been pretty instrumental in allowing the district to continue to divert water for our growers and protect their interests, as well as all the environmental values and the working lands. Our district provides for endangered species like the giant garter snake and water for the Pacific Flyway. We also divert water for refuges in our district, so fish screens allow that operation to continue.

Obviously, the reason to construct the screen was to protect the fish. We’ve done studies after it was built to ensure it was, in fact, protecting fish. We would release fish upstream of it, catch those fish downstream, and based on how many we released and how many we caught, we found between a 90 and 95 percent survival rate. Just from a structure that will divert water, it’s providing and meeting the purpose it was designed for.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the fish recover, so I think there’s some disappointment in the fact that, despite all these actions that took place, and we spent a lot of money ($80 million, completed in 2000) on all these screens, we’re not seeing the results to the fisheries. I think there’s still a big question mark there.

Water Deeply: What is your biggest concern about the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)?

Bettner: This is probably going to be one of the most significant pieces of legislation that we’re going to have to implement that’s come around for a long time. We have so much on our plate. We’re trying to do general planning, and everything that’s going on with surface water. We’re trying to look at storage projects, then the State Water Resources Control Board potentially changing Delta standards that could require more water going into the Delta and out the Golden Gate. It’s like the drought invigorated everyone to just do something, but there’s no real coordination on what that plan looks like. To throw groundwater and SGMA in the middle of that when you have all these other moving parts — it’s a little challenging.

I think one of our biggest concerns is it’s going to take a little time. I think the state legislature don’t have a lot to do, so they tend to make new laws before we’ve even had the time to implement the ones they’ve put on the books already. I think our concern is we’re committed to working with locals, meeting the deadlines and putting plans together. We have another year and a half to put governance together, we have until 2022 to put our water sustainability plans together and to figure out what the region is going to look like. We’re going to get new legislation in that time period because legislators make changes, and all of a sudden we’ve got new laws. That kind of happened this year where we had SGMA passed last year, and now we even have revisions to SGMA. That’s my concern.

We just have a lot on our plate, and we are really trying to do a good job implementing all the laws and regulation passed on to us, it just becomes a little bit overwhelming. It’s almost like, How do we get started on all this, and is it going to get changed on us? I think there’s some hesitancy in thinking, Well, is this going to change so much that what we planned is really not going to be the future reality we’re dealing with?

Water Deeply: How do you think storage projects such as the proposed Sites Reservoir, or raising Shasta Dam, can improve water supply?

Bettner: I think we’re all realizing that in the Sacramento Valley, storage is really going to be needed, not so much for water supply, but for the flexibility that we lost with the infrastructure of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. The last several years, we’ve been basically operating the projects to protect endangered species, like winter-run salmon. The value of new storage isn’t going to be so much water supply, but more for how these projects can be operated to benefit the environment. Sites and Shasta both have the foundations based on those premises for moving projects forward.

Water Deeply: What do you think is the likelihood of Sites being built and the biggest challenges to that happening?

Bettner: Shasta and Sites have different hurdles. Shasta, being a federal project run by the Bureau of Reclamation, state Prop. 1 dollars can’t be used for that project. So that project has to be funded through the Bureau and through Congress, so how to pay for it going through the typical federal process — it hasn’t been done in such a long time. I think the strategy to get it done has not quite been clearly articulated yet. I think there’s a lot of willingness with the folks up here to work with the Bureau, but it’s just got some big hurdles about how to pay for it, how to deal with endangered species, and you have Native American concerns. How you resolve those are going to be significant challenges.

Sites is a little different. It’s off-stream (meaning it won’t dam a major river). A lot of the issues have been identified, addressed and mitigated. We have a good joint powers local authority, districts and counties working on it. So there’s a good local collaboration. We’re trying to get the financial fundamentals of how you pay for the project first, before you get into a lot of the things about design and environmental. We’re trying to put together a payment strategy. Certainly Prop. 1 dollars and taking water yield out of the project and dedicating it to environment is going to be significant. So we’re committed to that. But there’s also going to be water available for water supply and whoever wants to purchase it. I think no other project is currently being formulated like that. The other current projects — Shasta, Temperance Flat, other storage projects — haven’t necessarily looked at a local way of leading the way. We kind of have that in place and feel pretty good about it.

I think that’s why we keep going back to Sites. It’s such an instrumental project in that it helps to provide new capacity for operational flexibility for things like the right temperature and flows for salmon, the right flow allocation for smelt. Things like that, we just can’t do now right now with the current (water) projects.

Water Deeply: What are your thoughts on the lawsuit filed recently by the Natural Resources Defense Council and others against Reclamation over water flows for salmon? Your district is one of the targets of that suit.

Bettner: We’re pretty disappointed and not surprised, particularly because that group has pretty much sued everybody at this point in the water world in California. So their strategy remains the same of trying to solve things through the court with a judge. I think we’ve tried to be more proactive and say there’s other ways to get a solution. We’re working with other proactive partners in the NGO community — like Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited — to look at ways to do things both voluntarily and with projects.

Water and temperature is one tool for the species, but we also see that environmental restoration and commitment to that is another thing needed. If you look at the Sacramento River mainstem, where the winter run base their survival upon, there have been no projects on the Sacramento River. We put up fish screens and other things, but in terms of habitat, we’ve done nothing to help the species. What we’re saying is we need more projects, which we’ve done at Painters Riffle up in Redding for spawning habitat, we’ve got Reclamation District 108 doing projects, we’ve got another project going on in the Yolo Bypass.

We would have much preferred that, if they had concerns, they would sit down and talk to us and say, here’s some better ways to fix it — and by the way, we can implement it now versus trying to wait and go through an entire court process to solve problems. I think on the smelt litigation, in which they sued us, they’re trying to add salmon to it. The smelt litigation has been going on for about 10 years. So is that really the right way to solve problems, versus saying are there more things we can do cooperatively, voluntarily, versus they just want to take water and they think that’s going to solve it? So we’re very disappointed. But if that’s the path they want to take, we can’t change the premise of how they operate.

Water Deeply: How will salmon management/preservation affect your water supplies in the future?

Bettner: We’re always going to plan every year to say, How do we get to the point where we operate in a way that’s protective of the fish in the Sacramento River? We’re committed to doing that. As a matter of fact, we’re meeting in early December with National Marine Fisheries Service to start talking about 2016 operations. We’re not going to say, well we have settlement contracts and water rights and tell everybody else that’s what we’ve got — don’t bother us. We’re definitely working through the operations side just as much as some of these restoration projects.

We have to. We work in the environment where we live, so operations that are protecting fish are important. I do think that our perspective is we need these habitat projects to help, but we also think there’s been improvements in ways to identify what fish are doing in terms of population numbers and survival. We think there’s better ways of potentially counting fish to estimate populations, so we’re going to try working with the agencies to see if we can coordinate with them on those activities.

We’ve also offered to provide biological services if they don’t have enough funding to pay for fish trapping costs or new fish traps. If that’s the shortage in getting good data, we’re willing to pay for that and provide whatever we can in order to make sure we have good foundations for data and science, so we know exactly what the fish are doing.

Water Deeply: What direction would you like to see California take in the future with how we manage our water?

Bettner: We’ve published, in the last three years, some of the most sweeping changes in water regulation that we’ve seen in a long time, from SGMA to what the State Water Resources Control Board has been doing to urban requirements and usage, to little or no water being available for agriculture. Part of this is getting communities used to all these changes without continuing to implement change after change after change. We need to wait for systems to respond, and unfortunately we haven’t had this happen yet. We’ve seen some instantaneous responses. But I think that longer term, we still need to see these play out.

The other thing is, How do we pay for all this? We have water rates internally that I think everybody is wrestling with. We have our share of improvements we have to make locally and regionally. We have the state saying they want things done on a state level. We have the environment that needs new funding for projects. So, really, how do we pay for all this stuff?

Then the other thing we need to make sure of is you need water to deliver. You need a (farm) commodity to charge for in order to generate revenue to pay for all these things. With all these regulations, somehow we also need to have some basis of reliability, so there’s a cost recovery mechanism in place to be able to get agencies to invest in all the improvement that we know is necessary.

By now there’s no reliability. We do have the drought, but there’s also been regulatory changes that have made the system less reliable, less predictable, so what do you charge? How much do you charge and what benefits are people getting? You’ve got to generate a pot of money over and above your costs to pay for habitat restoration and capital improvements. That’s going to be another big challenge over the next few years.

Top image: An aerial photo of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District’s fish screens and pumping station, located on a side channel along the Sacramento River. (Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District)

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