Government / Politics

County water district joins Santa Clara in agreement that may result in expanded reservoir

New dam on upper Pacheco Creek could help store water for dry years and provide better flood control in the Lovers Lane area

In a 4-1 vote, the San Benito County Water District Board of Directors this week approved a plan to join two other water districts in considering building a reservoir above the existing Pacheco Pass Reservoir near where the north and east forks of Pacheco Creek intersect. Officials say a new reservoir could help local districts bank water during wet years and potentially improve the flooding threat in the Lovers Lane area, through which the creek runs.

Jeff Cattaneo, manager of the San Benito County Water District, told the board on Feb. 27 that the agreement establishes the guidelines and principles for the proposal, which will be led by the Santa Clara Valley Water District and include the Pacheco Pass Water District.

“Santa Clara will hire consultants to do the grant application that will be somewhere around $200,000,” he said. “If it looks like it is not feasible, the project will end and there will be no further expenses. If it looks like it will go forward, then there will be up to $700,000 in costs associated with preparing a grant application.”

Cattaneo explained that because the grant process falls under Proposition 1, it will be competitive in nature. He said the total amount available is up to 50 percent of the cost of the project. As the Santa Clara district takes the lead, the local water district will participate because the counties are already partners in the San Felipe water pipeline that brings Central Valley Project water to San Benito County.

“This reservoir they are looking at building would be to store imported Central Valley Project water from San Luis Reservoir,” he said. “Part of the problem with San Luis Reservoir is that in late summer when the algae blooms there when the water level is low, it creates a problem for taste and odor. In addition, it sometimes makes it difficult to get our water because there are times when there simply is not enough water in the reservoir and the intake is actually higher than the lowest point to take water out of the reservoir.”

Cattaneo said San Luis almost reached that point last year. One of the advantages of this proposed project, he said, would be to provide a place to “park water” in wet years so both districts could draw out as much water as they needed, without restrictions, during dry years. He explained a common problem throughout the state is that even in wet years with abundant rain, there is not enough storage space to keep the water.

Additionally, Cattaeno explained that through a contract between the water districts and the Bureau of Reclamation, the two county's service areas were combined into a single service area. This gives the districts the ability to transfer water between each other without have to ask the bureau for permission to do so. In wet years, when there was more water than could be used by San Benito County, it could transfer water to the proposed reservoir to hold it there.

“This would provide us with the additional benefit to move and share our water supplies with Santa Clara in years that are critical for us to maximize the amount of water that we can bring in to this district,” Cattaneo said.

At this point, the water district is not obligated beyond $45,000 (its share of the grant process). If the project is approved and moves forward and the board does not like the economics of the project, the district would not have to participate in any part of the project, Cattaneo said.

“So, our biggest risk is $45,000, to see if we can pull something off that benefits everybody?” asked Joe Tonascia, district vice president. Cattaneo said he was correct.

The Pacheco Pass Water District could benefit from the agreement, according to Cattaneo, because it has a significant amount of deferred maintenance costs in regards to the Pacheco Pass Dam (or, North Fork, as it is officially called). He said the spillway is in need of significant repairs, and there are other maintenance needs that might be discovered. He also said a flood study may have to be done, along with modifications to raise the height of the dam.

“Just the spillway project, the last estimate we had was in excess of $1 million,” Cattaneo said. “That was four or five years ago before additional damage had been done to it. It may be significantly more now and perhaps up to $2 million.”

The advantage for the Pacheco Pass Water District if the project moves forward is that the dam would be removed and replaced with the new dam further up the canyon. This would alleviate Pacheco Pass Water District from being responsible for potentially millions of dollars in repairs to the existing structure.

“Pacheco Pass Water District would always maintain their water rights on Pacheco Creek and that would have to be maintained by any new facility that is put in,” Cattaneo said. “It will be a win-win for Pacheco Pass Water District. They would have all the benefits of water supply that they currently get and they’d be out from underneath the responsibility of having to make those repairs.”

District 3 Director Frank Bettencourt asked if the water in the proposed reservoir would be designated for agriculture or other uses. Cattaneo said water use would come under the restrictions of the current water license, unless amended. He said the proposed agreement had nothing to do with amending water rights or having the county water district take over Pacheco Pass Water District.

“It’s simply an agreement to pursue the option of a Prop. 1 application,” he said. “Everybody retains what they have.”

Audience member Richard Bettencourt asked if the new dam and reservoir would be used for irrigation or flood control. Cattaneo explained they would be used for water supply with associated flood control benefits, though how much would be determined by a flood study.

“You would have seen significantly less flood damage in the Lovers Lane area if the new dam had been in place,” Cattaneo said.

When asked how the public in San Benito County would benefit from the project, Cattaneo explained it would be mainly to store wet year water, which would inevitably provide a more consistent water supply.

District 4 Director Bob Huenemann, the lone dissenting vote on the proposal, asked what would happen if Santa Clara County completed the project on its own and San Benito County had to negotiate on the open market for water. Cattaneo told him while that would be an option, he would prefer that the district “have its foot in the door from the beginning,” in order to be in a better position to negotiate any options.

“We don’t know what the Prop. 1 process will turn out to be, so for $45,000 at this point it gives us more options than if we choose not to do anything,” he said.

Bettencourt questioned the wisdom of the water district spending $50,000 on a study when the Pacheco Pass Water District did not have any members. Cattaneo explained that the $50,000 was divided between San Benito and Santa Clara counties. Bettencourt also wondered if any of the information from the study could be used for the new project. Cattaneo said he didn’t think much of the information would be applicable to a grant application that would mainly cover the benefits derived from a new reservoir.

San Benito County Water District Board President John Tobias said that while the project proposal noted potential benefits to the San Joaquin Delta and local creeks, he wondered why the Monterey Bay National Sanctuary was not included. Cattaneo told him the agreement document was not meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible beneficiaries of the new reservoir.  

“This (agreement) is not what is going to be sent to the state, and I suspect in preparing this document, Santa Clara looked at the key elements that would be necessary to get enough information to their board in order to understand what the purpose of this was,” Cattaneo said.


John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]