Charlie Mathews

If at first you don’t succeed... get elected to the agency that denied you in the first place and try again.

At least, that was the plan for Charlie Mathews, a Yuba County rice farmer and board member for the Yuba County Water Agency, who plans to reintroduce an initiative that would essentially redistribute proceeds made by pumpers for groundwater substitution transfers to other parts of the county, including a portion to residents. 

“We are proposing an initiative that tells the water agency how to divide this money up that’s made from groundwater substitution transfers,” Mathews said.

This isn’t the first time Mathews has raised the idea. He pushed a similar initiative – known as the “Groundwater Fairness Act” – back in 2016 when he was serving as chairman of the Cordua Irrigation District, but it was halted by YCWA over legalities. 

So, Mathews ran for a position on the agency’s board, won, and is now hoping to get a different result, with a few modifications to his original plan.

“We are talking substantial redistribution. We want to educate people that there is an issue out there. There is enough money stored underground to make Yuba County a better place,” Mathews said.

Groundwater substitution transfers are when an someone pumps groundwater out of a local aquifer to replace surface water allotments that would’ve normally been used for a specific purpose, such as farming. Then the surface water is sold for a profit during dry years. 

It’s a method that has been used by various entities across the North State since 1991 and can generate anywhere from $100 per acre foot to several hundred dollars an acre foot in revenue each sale, depending on the need.

Initiative

Mathews argues that Yuba County’s groundwater aquifer is like a bank account that has been building for several decades, but the only entities currently making a profit are YCWA and the hundred or so pumpers throughout the county. 

To put it in perspective, his math shows approximately $175 million has been deposited into that bank – hypothetically – between 1982 and 2015.

Between 2013-2015, he said, YCWA and several of its member units pumped a total of 162,146 acre-feet of groundwater, raising nearly $85 million in revenue for those entities. 

State law says the groundwater belongs to the pumper, and YCWA has contracts with most of its member units to utilize the water for sales. But Mathews still questions whether the water should belong to them or to Yuba County residents, who helped pay for the bonds to construct New Bullards Bar Dam – which has led to significant groundwater recharge, he said.

To illustrate, imagine a Southern California water district offers to pay the agency $400 an acre-foot of water during a dry year. Under his initiative, Mathews proposes that pumpers receive a flat rate of $110 per acre foot, then the agency would retain $15 an acre foot. Whatever is left over would be split between irrigation districts, water companies, residents and municipalities.

In his old plan, he suggested a portion of the revenue go toward a reduction on annual property tax bills for residents. This go around, he says residents could benefit by having the leftovers go toward reductions in something like their PG&E bills.

Aside from extremely dry years, the change wouldn’t impact the agency much – in the past they’ve typically retained $15 per acre foot. The biggest impact would be on pumpers, who would see a loss in the millions.

YCWA opposition

On Thursday, Brent Hastey, chairman of the board for YCWA, said the agency had no idea Mathews was trying to reintroduce the initiative.

“Obviously, if the people vote for it, we will work with what they vote for, but I wish Mr. Mathews would bring it back to the board for a full discussion,” Hastey said. “From an agency standpoint, we just want to know what’s going on.”

One of Mathews arguments is that water sales are one of the agency’s main sources of income. He said the agency is making about double what it is spending in a year and is putting the surplus into reserves – with the goal of saving up to $300 million.

Hastey said there’s a good explanation as to why. The agency is looking at building a new spillway at New Bullards Bar – which will likely cost around $160 million. The agency has also identified about $200 million in needed levee repairs and flood work, or a total of about $500 million in needed projects throughout the county. The agency also sets aside about a $1 million each year to help other agencies in the county fund different projects that benefit the agency’s mission.

Not to mention all of the work they’ve been a part of to date, from levee improvements throughout the county to Marysville’s setback levees. 

“When things break at the agency, they cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix. If Oroville taught us anything, it’s that you need those savings, and the Lake Oroville facility is owned by the state. We aren’t as fluid as the state; if we break something, that’s a hundred million we need to pay,” Hastey said. “We have a billion-dollar project at New Bullards Bar. So, is a $200 million reserve too much? I don’t think so.”

Hastey also questioned Mathews’ plan on having PG&E reduce customers’ bills. 

Mathews based the idea on a 2006 decision by the state’s Public Utilities Commission that the utility company could offer an optional service reduction for districts or agencies that generate proceeds for hydroelectric power sales. Still, there’s nothing that says they would honor the terms of his most recent initiative, if passed. 

“I think the agency has invested a lot of time and effort in trying to make the community safe and to improve flood protection,” Hastey said. “It’s a complicated topic that needs an open discussion with the community, and even the (YCWA) board.”

Next steps

Mathews is hoping to get the initiative on the fall ballot. In order for him to start collecting the needed signatures to get it there, he must first go through the water agency to have a title and summary drafted.

That’s where his last initiative stalled out, after the agency wouldn’t write a title and summary due to issues with the initiative’s legality. 

Mathews contends the agency’s refusal was illegal, but he said taking it to court would have been too costly.

Now, backed by what he said is a legal precedent requiring the agency to provide a title and summary, he is hoping this time around renders a more favorable outcome.

“We are trying to schedule it as an item for discussion at an upcoming groundwater supply committee meeting, which I’ve already requested,” Mathews said. “As soon as I can get a commitment from the water agency that they will write the title and summary, we’ll start the process.”

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