Government / Politics

Experts, politicians speak at water forum

Experts, community leaders, farmers and political leaders gathered to talk about water supplies and quality

The 2017 San Benito County Water Forum, held at San Juan Oaks Golf Club on April 21, brought together national, state and regional water experts, along with farmers and community leaders to discuss current agriculture water allocations, the drought, local floods, implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), and other water-related topics.

The event was coordinated in response to requests from local government, water agency, agricultural, community, land use and business leaders to share facts and resources, identify issues and opportunities and collaboratively form solutions.

“The idea is that water is such a precious resource and valuable commodity, we wanted to bring everyone up-to-date on the status of water allocation, the drought, local flooding,” said Bob Tiffany as he kicked off the event. “We have people of all phases of water throughout the community.”

The event was sponsored by the San Benito County Farm Bureau, Veolia Water North America, Central Ag Supply, Pacific Scientific, Graniterock, Gavilan College, Sierra Pacific Associates, TriCal, Inc., The Garden Mart, and Todd Groundwater.

Speakers included Congressman Jimmy Panetta, State Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, along with water district managers and experts from throughout the region. Jeff Cattaneo, San Benito County Water District's general manager, was the first speaker. He commented about the history of the region's groundwater management, which he said dates back to 1920. One of the main issues concerning the groundwater in San Benito County is that it is a closed basin in that very little of the water that flows into the basin flows out, he noted. Through the years, over-pumping has led to water shortages. Also, there has been a buildup of salt, primarily from the use of home water softeners.

“That’s what drove the community to vote for alternative supplies of higher quality water,” Cattaneo said. “Our basin has an effective usage space of half a million acre feet, so there’s a significant amount of water stored there when it’s full. Going into this last drought, we were able to rely upon that water supply.”

The federal contract supplies 43,800 acre feet of water, with about 9,000 acre feet a year for urban demand and 35,000 for agricultural use. Cattaneo said that while the supply for agriculture use was plentiful, the cost is high. He said the district was able to sell the water for $760 an acre foot, but it cost the district $1,100 an acre square foot. However, the cost was offset by bringing in water from other sources and blending it with the federal water.

“This year looks about as good as it can get with 100 percent on our contracts, which was shocking to us because last year, going into fall we were anticipating that it was going to be a dry year,” he said. He also said that there is so much water that it’s difficult trying to figure out where to store it and that for the first time since 2007, efforts are being made to percolate water back into the basin. “We’ve seen a significant increase in the groundwater levels just from natural runoff. In some of the wells in San Juan Valley, it’s come up 15 feet already and we’re anticipating that will continue through the summer.”

Bill Avera, Hollister city manager, told the audience that the city’s water management personnel’s efforts over the past 20 years have resulted in abundant supplies of quality water. The supply each year is accomplished by importing nearly 40 percent of what's needed, while groundwater accounts for the remaining 60 percent.

“The more imported water we can get into the system and our treatment plants, the better quality water you’ll end up with,” he said. “When West Hills (the new water treatment facility in the hills above Riverside Road west of Hollister) comes on-line in July, we’ll start doing about 80 percent surface water and 20 percent groundwater. It might be just luck, but we’re in a good position to start to meet new state requirements, as far as quality is concerned.”

With an annual urban demand for water at just 5,800 cubic feet, while there are 2 million gallons in San Luis Reservoir and 500,000 gallons in the basin, Hollister is in a great position as far as future water demands are concerned, Avera said. He commented that people who are concerned about recent growth, as far as water availability is concerned, the number of new water connections have stayed under 2 percent annually for a number of years. He said water capital improvements should easily meet future needs.

Don Ridenhour, general manager of Sunnyslope Water District, said that when the West Hills Water Treatment plant is completed in July, it will be six months ahead of schedule. He said work has begun on the first phase of pipeline to help Hollister comply with chromium-6 regulations. He said water quality issues need to be locally controlled.

“We don’t need the state coming in and mandating the improvements and changes we need to make,” he said. “It’s important to do it on our terms and in our timeframe. That will help keep it more affordable.”

Harry Blohm, Hollister Urban Area Water Project Manager, addressed the “chromium-6 (Hexavalent chromium) problem” by asking the audience how many had seen the movie, “Erin Brockovich." When many raised their hands, he responded, “We don’t have an Erin Brockovich problem. That was a man-made accidental chromium issue. Ours is a naturally-occurring chromium-6 problem. Public health experts tell us that it is a mild carcinogen, but the state has seized the day and imposed a regulation on water agencies so what we’re going to have is a chromium-6 level that is less than 10 parts per billion (ppb), with a target level of much less than that (8 ppb).”

Blohm said the desired level of chromium-6 in the city’s wells is 8 ppb. At present, though, he said they fluctuate between 13 and 15 ppb, and sometimes fall below 10 ppb.

“Our target to meet state regulations and protect the health of our citizens is 8 ppb,” he said, adding that a number of treatment options have been considered, all of which are expensive, averaging $19 million to $20 million. He said the district, however, chose a blending method that would cost $7.49 million. The state has already approved the plan and it will take about seven years to implement. “We have until 2019 to do it; and in fact we’re way ahead of the game.”

Congressman Jimmy Panetta said he realized that it has always been a challenge to come up with solutions that appeal to everyone. He compared what was being discussed during the water forum to what is happening in Congress. He said his first 100 days have been a whirlwind of activity. In that time, he said Congress has voted 221 times on legislation, resolutions and procedural votes. He went on to compare the number of public contacts with the local congressional office in Salinas, stating that in all of 2016 there were 48,000 forms of communication, compared to 41,000 in the first four months of 2017.

Panetta said the two committees — Agriculture and Natural Resources — on which he serves reflect his district.

“We are working on the 2018 Farm Bill,” he said, and then quipped, “As far as the Natural Resources Committee, I enjoy being on the Ag Committee. It’s (Ag Committee) very bipartisan. It speaks to me. I enjoy that topic. I enjoy letting it be known that I’m from the salad bowl of the world.”

Panetta described the Natural Resources Committee in less glowing terms.

“It’s very partisan,” he said. “So much so that two weeks ago, Don Young from Alaska was yelling and berating the ranking member, trying to put forth evidence to support their cause. At least it puts my finger on the pulse so I know what’s coming down the pike.”

Water issues come through the Natural Resources Committee and Panetta said he has recently seen presentations on water projects for the area. He pointed out an irony of the county having been so successful in conserving water and having too much water.

“The Central Valley Water Project and the San Felipe Division were built in the 1980s, and San Benito County has to pay back $100 million,” he explained. “We’re supposed to pay it back based on water delivery revenue and a price of basically $2 million annually. But the revenue has dropped because you’ve done such a good job conserving water. On top of that, repayments are supposed to be doubled in the next decade. How are we going to keep up with that payment schedule?”

He said he wants to add an amendment to a new bill submitted by Republican Rep. David Valadao, HR23, “Gaining Responsibility on Water Act," which would allow the county to renegotiate the payment schedule.

“It’s probably going to roll back a lot of the environmental protections we have right now with the Central Valley Water project,” he warned. “Another issue we’re working on is the zebra mussel at San Justo Reservoir. We’re working with the Appropriations Committee for funding and meeting with the Bureau of Reclamation to discuss eradication.”

Caballero took twice as long as Panetta to discuss water — one of her favorite subjects.

“Our region cannot continue to exist, growing the foods that we all need without water,” she said. “Without water, rural California does not exist.”

As a cabinet member for Gov. Jerry Brown, she said she served on his drought task force, with a mission to make sure the state was working with the counties struggling with water issues. She went on to cover a wide range of water-related topics, including a disappearing salmon population, levee failures and changing the dam system from being used for flood control to water storage.

Other speakers during the forum were: Ara Azhderian, San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority Water Policy Administrator, Vicki Morris, Aromas Water District General Manager, Dr. Iris Priestaf, Todd Groundwater President, Jim Heitzman, Veolia Hollister Domestic Water Recycling Facility Project Manager, Abby Taylor-Silva, Grower Shipper Association Vice President, Richard Bianchi, San Benito County Farm Bureau Past President and farmer, Shawn Novack, Water Resources Association of San Benito County Water Conservation Program Manager, and Matt Orbach, San Juan Bautista Planning Director. 

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]