Like many local fishermen, Jeff Contival has been waiting for San Justo Reservoir to reopen since it closed in 2008. But the 83-year-old Hollister native has begun to lose hope that he’ll ever fish there again.
Contival retired 20 years ago after owning the Lock Stock & Barrel in Hollister for 18 years. But because of the reservoir’s closure, he was only able to fish there a handful of times after his retirement. “I’d like to see it open again, even if it’s restricted in some ways,” he said.
Contival is not alone.
According to Gabriel Herbst, San Benito County’s younger generation is also seeking open spaces for recreation. The 16-year-old Palma High School junior said he was only eight years old when his family moved to Hollister, yet has still felt the ramifications of the reservoir’s closing. He often goes fishing with his dad in Monterey Bay, or when on vacation in Mexico City.
The reservoir closing “definitely had an effect on fishing,” Herbst said. “Because it is closed, there’s not really anything to do here. And that drives people to go out to the reservoir in Los Banos. There’s really not much to do recreationally except for Hollister Hills, which has dirt bikes.”
While parks like the Pinnacles National Park and Thousand Trails provide hiking, walking and dirt bike recreation, those who live within Hollister city limits like Herbst, are not able to benefit from these experiences without a car ride to get there. The recreational needs of everyone, especially youth (such as walking, hiking, biking or picnics) could be easily accessible and beneficial—especially during COVID— if the reservoir were open for recreation.
The property where the reservoir is located— only three miles southwest of Hollister on 2265 Union Road— is 383 acres and has been closed for 13 years due to an infestation of invasive zebra mussels. These mollusks filter out the algae native species need for food, then attach to and incapacitate native mussels.
Today, the only boat allowed on the water belongs to the San Benito County Water District.
“The reservoir is not likely to be open until it can be ensured that there is a complete eradication of the zebra mussels,” said Jeff Cattaneo, district manager of San Benito County Water District. “And even with the plan that is in place, there is still no guarantee that that is going to work because it’s still experimental.”
The plan referenced by Cattaneo includes using potassium chloride—also known as potash— to eradicate zebra mussels. It proved an effective way to rid them from Millbrook Quarry, a lake in Virginia, but Cattaneo also acknowledged a significant difference. As a lake, Millbrook Quarry was a closed water system, while San Justo Reservoir has water flowing in and out. San Justo’s water is mainly used for irrigation.
Cattaneo said that today potassium chloride is the only way zebra mussels can be completely removed from the reservoir and its distribution system.
“You could use the potash that they would put in the reservoir to run through the distribution system and eradicate the muscles with that same potash,” he said, while noting that this plan has no guarantees, since potash has yet to be tried on a distribution system.
The only other option—to completely drain the reservoir—is neither possible nor feasible, he said.
“As soon as the reservoir is filled again—because the only way that the water gets in there is through our distribution system—there would be zebra mussels back in there again,” Cattaneo said. “For it to be successful, an absolute 100% kill rate from that process would have to be ensured, and that’s very difficult to do. All you would have to do is leave one male and one female zebra mussel in there, and then you’ve started the process all over again.”
Cattaneo said that boats are not the only way zebra mussels can be transferred. He cautioned that even fishing from the shore posed a threat, as zebra mussels can spread to other areas through fishing gear.
In October 2020, Congressman Jimmy Panetta sent a letter to the leadership of the House Committee on Appropriations to advocate for the inclusion of the San Justo Reservoir Zebra Mussel Eradication Project in the final Fiscal Year 2021 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill. Two months later, Panetta sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) Commissioner Brenda Burman asking for $5 million to implement the project. Burman replied on Jan. 12 that the BOR’s spending plan is under development, and that the project was being given “thorough and complete consideration.”
In 2019, San Benito County Water District deputy engineer Garrett Haertel said in addition to the estimated $3 million necessary to treat the reservoir, it would take an additional $3.5 million to treat about 100 miles of pipes in the system and $100,000 annually for monitoring.
Panetta is still working with members of the Senate to ensure that the original language regarding the necessary funds sought stays in the bill, according to his office. Panetta has also continued to encourage the BOR to address the issue.
San Benito County resident Marty Martinez has been campaigning for the reservoir’s reopening for several years. As a member of the Fish and Game Committee of San Benito County, and former owner of Hollister’s Bait and Tackle Shop, Martinez has been trying to raise money at the committee’s rallies to help fund the reservoir’s reopening.
“It’s just good for the community,” he said. “It can be a good place where kids could go fishing; the Boy Scouts could get their fishing badges there locally.”
Fundraising efforts like Martinez’s may be crucial for the reopening of the reservoir. Cattaneo said if the BOR directs federal funding to this project, San Benito County may need to contribute funds before it can reopen.
“I spoke with Mr. Panetta about this several times,” Cattaneo said. “Just because it gets funded through Congress doesn’t mean that it’s a no-cost option for the local community. It’s likely that they would still be looking for reimbursement for that, and the project is going to be maybe $3 million to $6 million to get implemented. So it’s not an inexpensive option to go forward with, especially without a guarantee that it is going to work.”
Though Contival may never fish there again in his lifetime, Herbst hopes his generation will have the opportunity to experience the recreational spot.
“If the reservoir did open, it would probably bring more people to Hollister, and more kids would be out there fishing, not causing trouble,” he said.
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