Forum Explains Water Situation in San Benito County

San Benito County Water Information Forum outlines present water situation and future plans

More than 50 ranchers, farmers, water-resource people, business leaders and local politicians attended the San Benito County Water Information Forum, Sept. 17, at San Juan Oaks. Hosted by the San Benito County Business Council, the event featured experts who spoke on the four-year drought and how it is affecting the county, as well as water quality, its availability, what’s being done to increase the supply, conservation methods, and recent legislation.

If someone were to pick just two highlights of the three-hour forum they might be: 1) San Benito County has plenty of water, and 2) you cannot depend on El Niño to break the four-year drought.

“Over the past year or two, at every public forum, water has been a topic of discussion,” said Kristina Chavez Wyatt, executive director of the Business Council, “and how it’s used within our community, and how it’s a great value and asset here. That’s why we’ve come together with our partners to put together this information forum.”

Jeff Cattaneo, district manager of the San Benito County Water District, gave the general overview of the water situation in San Benito County. To give some perspective on how much water is below and around San Benito County, he said San Luis Reservoir holds approximately 2 million acre feet of water, while the groundwater basin beneath the county has about a half-million acre feet, which he said was pretty significant in helping county residents and growers get through the drought. 


“San Benito County Water District has worked hard to maintain that groundwater basin,” Cattaneo said. “Historically, one of the main issues about our water is that it is highly mineralized because it’s essentially a closed basin. Everything that flows into the basin stays in the basin.”

He said the district has worked with the City of Hollister to minimize various minerals in local water.

“Unlike a lot of other basins, where water moves in and out and helps flush the basins out to keep the water supply a little cleaner, that doesn’t happen here,” he said.

Despite recent concern about the drought that resulted in Gov. Jerry Brown declaring mandatory water restrictions throughout the state, Cattaneo indicated that San Benito County is in much better shape than the Central Valley.

“The only real issues in San Juan Valley from 2008 to 2014 is its (water level) dropped in the Lucy Brown/Bixby area about 40 feet, which isn’t a huge amount,” he said, “because if you go back to the mid-70s, it was down about 150 feet. So, there is still a significant amount of water in there. The biggest drop is on the other side of the Calaveras Fault. That’s primarily because the water supply for that area comes from Pacheco and moves this way and hits the Calaveras Fault and backs up. That’s why if you live out by Lovers Lane, historically, it always has a high water level.”

He said that in an average year, the municipal area uses about 9,000 acre feet, while agriculture takes about 35,000 acre feet. The federal contract to get water from the Bureau of Reclamation totals 43,800 acre feet. But he said it’s been a very long time since the area has gotten that amount.

In 2015, the municipality allocation was only 25 percent of 8,250 acre feet, while for agriculture, which is supposed to get 35,500 acre feet, received no water from the federal source—the same as in 2014. In 2008, the average allocation for municipal and industry was 75 percent and agriculture was 40 percent. Those have dropped today to 25 percent and 0 percent.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to deliver some water to agriculture customers,” he said, “and that’s primarily because the district had the foresight to store water back in 2010, when we had a water supply in excess of demand. And we’ve been using water from San Justo to carry water from one year to the next. So, while we’ve not been able to supply the agriculture customers with what they wanted, we have been able to supply them with a small amount of water.”

Cattaneo said that in order to keep the basin balanced, 20,000 acre feet of water over and above what is supplied naturally through percolation and through streams, must be imported. Without imports, he said, the area would be back to 1975 levels that were 150 to 250 feet below present levels.

He said the 15-year average in the federal water stored, which is where San Benito County gets its water, is nearly 11 million acre feet. This year, he said, there is only 3 million acre feet available.

“Everyone is hoping that this year El Niño is going to help us get out of the drought and solve all our problems,” he said. “We are so far behind in our water supply in the state that even if we do get an El Niño, our allocation for agriculture is going to still be zero. However, we’re hoping that by the end of the season we can get it up to 15 or 20 percent.”

What all this adds up to is more expensive water.

“We’ve been able to secure some more water (for agriculture) and it’s going to be about 4,000 to 5,000 acre feet, but it’s going to be very expensive,” Cattaneo said. “They’re going to have to pay over $1,100 an acre foot. The normal agriculture cost of water is $170 to $180 an acre foot. We have to do whatever we can to bring all the water we can, even if it’s expensive.”

Harry Blohm has been the project manager for the Hollister Urban Area Water Project for 11 years.

“The state controls our water quality through regulations and I’ve met with lots of groups like this and people say ‘why not fight the state?’” he said. “The short answer is, ‘you’ll never win.’ So, what we’re doing is starting a quality control board that has dictated waste discharge requirements to protect our ground water basin, and it’s a very strong asset for this county.”

Blohm said Sunnyslope is coming into compliance on discharge requirements, but is still has a way to go as far as reducing nitrates and other salts. Hollister remains out of compliance since January, he said. So far, the state has not fined the city for non-compliance because a number of projects are already underway, including the West Hills treatment plant that will begin construction Sept. 21, and the implementation of a Chromium VI mitigation solution.

“The state has promulgated regulations that require the water supply have a chromium VI component that is less than 10 parts-per-billion,” he said. “To put that in perspective, about 15 years ago we couldn’t even measure 10 parts-per-billion. Now that we can, we have a regulation that we have to comply with.”

Blohm reminded those attending the forum that Chromium VI, or hexavalent chromium, was involved in groundwater contamination by PG&E that led to a class-action suit spearheaded by Erin Brockovich, which resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement in 1996. 


He outlined new home developments of which Sunnyslope Water District must meet the demands, including: 155 units in the Santana Ranch project; another 155 units under construction in The Village; and an additional 25 scattered units; all of which are anticipated to be completed within the next three years. He said the 2008 Hollister Urban Area Master Plan will have to be addressed to reflect future water demands and impact fees.

Don Ridenhour, general manager of the Sunnyslope County Water District, gave an overview of the district that was formed in 1954, and presently serves 19,000 residents. He said that while Sunnyslope and Hollister are separate agencies, they work together to move water back and forth and partner in a number of large water projects. Between the two entities there are nine wells. Additional water for Sunnyslope comes from the Hollister conduit, which is then treated at its salt water plant. A third of its water is imported surface water and two thirds is groundwater.

“We’re trying to change that to improve our drinking water quality, as well as our waste water quality coming into the city’s and Sunnyslope’s waste water treatment plants in order to meet state regulations of what we discharge,” he said. “We want to change that to as much as 70 percent surface water and 30 percent groundwater.”

Ridenhour said there has been a significant reduction in demand because of the drought and conservation efforts, even though the communities continue to grow.

“It’s not a lot of fun to have a drought when you’re a water manager,” he said. “In 2014, we were under a voluntary program and we were aggressive about our conservation message. When we asked for a 15 percent reduction, we got 14 percent, so we did pretty well. Unfortunately, in the spring of this year, the state decided that statewide we weren’t conserving enough water and they placed mandates on all agencies throughout the state.”

He said the mandates were based on reductions between 18 percent and 25 percent, but they varied by agency depending on per-capita water use.

“Sunnyslope is largely a single-family residential customer base and our water use is a little higher per capita, so our mandate was 28 percent,” he said. “The city mandate is 22 percent because their population is a little denser than ours. We’re partnering with the city, so we try to keep our messages the same.”

Ridenhour said Sunnyslope is meeting its mandate and is down 26 percent since Jan. 1.

“The state’s mandate didn’t kick in until June, and we’re averaging 36 percent since June 1,” he said. “The hot topic is the development and its impact on water supplies and why are we allowing development while we’re in this drought.”

He said approximately 340 homes are presently under construction.

“People say the Santana Ranch is a 1,100-home development,” he said. “Well, that’s not in one year. Our agreement with Santana Ranch is over six or seven years, and maybe even 10 years for that project to build out.  Right now, they have approved 155 units under construction, so we’re looking at maybe 340 units in three years. That build-out timeframe is not dependent on Sunnyslope, it’s dependent on the real estate market and the demand for housing.

“We see our job as planning on how to provide water and waste water for developments as planned for by counties and cities. So we go out and find water and build facilities to serve that development in your community, and not to be the one to control that development.”

He said the district is starting to work on an update to its water master plan in partnership with San Benito County Water District and Hollister to determine the level of development over the next 10 to 15 years. He added that they need to take another look at impact fees to make sure developers are paying their fair share of costs of water facilities.

Shawn Novack, water conservation program manager for the Water Resources Association of San Benito County, discussed water use and how consumers can help conserve. He said the community has been doing well in meeting the mandates, which he said is all about efficiency. He said in the late-90s the daily usage was about 220 gallons per person. Through the water management plan, he said the goal is to decrease usage to about 150 or fewer gallons per person.

Novack described indoor water use in homes that do not have water-efficient toilets or clothes washers. Between the two, they account for 48.4 percent of water used. Dripping faucets and leaks account for another 29.4 percent.

“That’s why we focus on the toilet-replacement program and we’ve seen the replacement of over 8,000 in the Hollister urban area,” he said. “And people think that if they have a leak they’ll hear it. That’s not always the case, so one of the services my agency provides is to go to their homes and show them how to read their meters. Each meter has a leak detector on it. If it’s moving you have a leak. We’ll try to help you find it. If it’s a toilet flapper, we’ll replace that free of charge.”

Novack said more than 50 percent of residential water use is for landscaping. Of that amount, he said, more than half is wasted.

“There are two things in water conservation,” he said. “We can use technology to help us use water more efficiently, and personal habits, the way we use water.”

He said the recent turf-removal program was a major success, so much so that the $100,000 allocated toward it in July was depleted by mid-August. He added that the state turf rebate program is still in effect and while he isn’t against turf, in order to keep it green it requires over 60 inches of water a year, in comparison to an average rainfall in San Benito County of only 11 inches. However, over the last six years rainfall has only been around 5 inches or less.

“It’s important that we plant climate-appropriate plants, and I don’t want it to get lost after this drought, but this is the new normal," Novack said. "We have to be efficient on how we use water all the time. In a growing population water is a finite resource.”

To check out water conservation rebate programs and water-saving advice, visit the Water Conservation Association of San Benito County's website:

Video clips courtesy of CMAP. Full videos from the water forum should be available on CMAP's site and Channel 17 by next week.





John Chadwell

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