Government / Politics

Protest to Reopen San Justo Reservoir Gains Political, Citizen Support

Citizens and politicians gather downtown to protest for opening San Justo Reservoir to recreational use

What started out as a conversation between two guys who just wanted to go fishing has evolved into a movement, a media event and even a political whistle stop for a state Assembly hopeful, as the protest to open San Justo Reservoir to recreational fishing launched March 3 in downtown Hollister. The reservoir has been closed to public use for the past eight years after invasive Zebra Mussels were discovered there.

Water officials have kept the reservoir closed as various agencies — at the local, state and federal levels — consider the best course of action to kill the mussels, which can spread to other waterways through pipes, buckets or boats.

“Dave (Gaban) asked me one day why we can’t fish at San Justo,” said Andrew Williams. “I wondered about that and talked to the mayor about it. I asked him if we could have a meeting at The Vault—which Mayor Ignacio Velazquez owns—and he said 'sure.' He said he’d handle the political side of it if I organized the folks.”

Williams said the protest is not political.

“It’s not about Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “It’s about opening up the reservoir so people can take their kids out there to fish or picnic.”

As the kick-off time drew near for the Thursday protest, people began to drift in one at a time or in small family groups. A news team from Salinas TV station KSBW showed up as did local politicians, the mayor, Councilman Raymond Friend, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz and Karina Cervantez Alejo, who is running for the state assembly.

The night before, though, those who had been organizing the protest came to The Vault to discuss strategy and make the signs. Velazquez, who had toured the reservoir earlier with Jeff Cattaneo, manager of San Benito County Water District, told those who came that he had a better understanding of what was going on at the reservoir and he joked about his comments on Facebook about possibly being “hauled off to the pokey,” after Cattaneo said anyone who trespasses onto the reservoir grounds could be arrested by federal authorities.

“So, the other day we had the story about me ending up in Lompoc Prison, somewhat joking around, but they (Cattaneo and water district board) understood what I told them, they better open this up or we’re going to start jumping the fence,” Velazquez said. “They opened the gate for me.”

Velazquez said that he had a good conversation with Cattaneo and noted that the problem was the county, the federal government, the water board, with everyone pointing fingers at each other.

“The water board has now said, ‘We’re good. We’re okay with opening this back up.’” Velazquez said to the group. “That was a big step. And if it wasn’t for you guys, as I said at the first meeting, you get 50 people together, we’re going to open this thing up. It’s because all of you showed up and did that that the water board decided ‘we’re out of this.’”

The mayor said the county water board’s position is that it is fine with recreational fishing and renting boats at San Justo, which is located off Union Road west of Hollister not too far from San Juan Oaks Golf Course. He said the board is not OK with bringing private boats onto the reservoir and allowing buckets.

“What they need next is a recreational management plan,” Velazquez said. “What they’ve done is say it’s the county’s turn. So, the spotlight is on the county supervisors and Jaime De La Cruz, who is here today, has already brought it up to the supervisors, which means they’re having a meeting Tuesday, March 8, to talk about this whole issue.”

Velazquez said the Tuesday meeting is important because in the past, the supervisors were pointing at other people for being at fault because they didn’t understand the issue. He said now that it’s clear that the water district board is OK with allowing recreational fishing at the reservoir, the county has to put a plan together.

“The one thing they’re (California Fish & Wildlife) using to scare everybody is saying the county is going to be liable if this (Zebra Mussels) spreads,” he said. “My answer to that is if they’re so concerned with it in the lakes why don’t they put the money into it to fix this problem? Why are we the ones who are shut down? We need to make sure each and every one the county supervisors is solid.”

De La Cruz said that a number of years ago he asked the county to bring representatives of the federal government to the Board of Supervisors in order to ask them why the people couldn’t fish in the reservoir.

“When the feds came in, they said ‘no, no, no,” and we said, ‘why not?’ and they never had an answer,” De La Cruz said. “I got very frustrated when I heard that Ignacio and members of the community were getting together and saying, ‘enough is enough,’ and I went back to the Board of Supervisors and said, ‘it’s time for the federal government to get out of our town and let us take care of our business. And their first response was, ‘who would take responsibility and the liability.’ Well, we have a lot of smart people in our community who can help on this issue and we can make sure those concerns are addressed.”

De La Cruz told the group that he is only one of five supervisors, but all that is needed is three to pass a vote in support of a recreational facility at San Justo.

“The federal government is going to make a presentation and they’re going to ask the Board of Supervisors ‘what plan do you have in place to ensure that the mussels are not moved from that lake?’” he said. “It’s very important that members of our community show up at that meeting on Tuesday. And we need your ideas and input because I’ve met with our staff and asked why can’t we just have a vendor out there who rents all the equipment so the community can go out and have fun. Every time I came up with an idea the county staff had an excuse. I said ‘you need to quit that and think outside the box. I hope with these meetings that positive action will occur.”

Velazquez said he appreciated that many in the group work, but that it was vital that as many as possible show up at the supervisors' meeting, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

“By being there, you’re going to pick up the other two votes he (De La Cruz) is talking about,” the mayor said, and then explained an email and letter-writing campaign to send, first ‘thank you’ letters to the water board, then another letter to the board of supervisors asking for their support, and a third letter to the city council to pick up a third vote. He motioned to Councilman Raymond Friend, and said they had two votes and only needed one more.

Velazquez then told the group that the plan was for as many as possible to come back Thursday to demonstrate at 4 p.m. at the 400 block next to The Vault in downtown Hollister, and that he had contacted KSBW-TV and KION-TV to cover the event.

“We don’t have to jump the fence anymore and we don’t have to worry about going to prison,” he joked. “From this point we talk to the supervisors and then find out who else is in the way. What you’ve done is amazing, but we don’t let up and say we’re good now. We’re not.”

He said it would take time for the protest to work.

“It’s going to be several months, but as long as we keep moving this thing forward, we’re going to have this thing done pretty quick,” Velazquez said. “The more you harass them the more they want to get rid of you.”  

As the meeting wrapped up and the sign painting began, Friend said, “I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s an important part of the recreation and it benefits the county and the city because the more people we can bring to the city, if it’s for recreation, even if it’s just to come for the day and fish the go through the city and it’s a good thing.

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, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]