Primary purpose of San Justo is to supply water; recreation is second.

County staff and federal officials told the San Benito County Board of Supervisors and citizens March 8 that it could be five or more years—if ever—before the San Justo Reservoir opens to fishing and other forms of recreation. The popular fishing spot off Union Road has been off-limits to public use since invasive Zebra Mussels were discovered there eight years ago.

The public comment portion of the meeting became contentious when citizens lined up on opposing sides of the issue. In particular, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez challenged the supervisors to take a stand. Supervisor Robert Rivas responded at the end of the meeting—quoting Velazquez in a BenitoLink story in which the mayor suggested that if hundreds of protestors hopped the fence at San Justo neither the sheriff nor federal authorities would do anything—that it would be unlawful and dangerous.

But before the verbal fireworks began, using interactive graphs, county analyst Sara Fontanos explained the issues at San Justo in dealing with the invasive mussels that have kept the reservoir quarantined for the better part of a decade. Also assisting were officials of the Bureau of Reclamation, California Fish and Wildlife, and the San Benito County Water District.

Fontanos explained that the reservoir’s original primary purpose was to hold and deliver water. As a federal property, the two federal agencies are responsible for the reservoir. The mission of the Bureau of Reclamation is to manage, develop and protect it and other water resources in an economic and environmentally sound manner. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s responsibility is to manage wildlife, fish and plants in the habitats they live in for their ecological value and for use by the public.

“Obviously, from the county’s perspective, the goal is recreation, so trying to accomplish that on the county side, it was important to understand some of the guidelines and principles of the group that I’ve been working with,” she said of the federal representatives. “San Justo Reservoir is not actually designated a recreation area. Its primary authorization is water supply and water delivery, with recreation being secondary. It was important to recognize some priorities of the group were different that we’ve had to work out.”

Fontanos said the federal representatives were willing to work toward a recreation solution. She said the water district has been busy with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) studies toward eradicating the mussels, but said real discussions with the federal agencies did not actually begin until after the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) was released in April 2015. Then the Bureau of Reclamation approached the county on June 7 to discuss recreation opportunities, as work continued on an eradication plan. Then in October, she said, the county staff began having monthly phone meetings with the two agencies.

Supervisor Jamie De La Cruz asked Fontanos to explain to the public why NEPA is important to the process. She, in turn, asked Duane Stroup, deputy area manager of the South Central California Office, Bureau of Reclamation, to explain.

“The short answer is, it’s the law,” Stroup said. “As a federal agency, we have to follow the law and if we don’t we would be violating the law. We have to look at the impact of our actions. Just like the state agencies have to follow CEQA, we have to follow NEPA.”

Then Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked, for the public’s benefit, for an explanation of what NEPA was. Stroup said NEPA is the “mirror of CEQA” that is conducted on a national level and requires a public process to examine the impacts of the agencies’ actions that are disclosed to the public. He said the process involves studying social justice, climate change, water resources, resources for endangered species, air quality to be used in an attempt to minimize impacts. He gave an example of having to build a pipeline through wetlands without disturbing them.

“Why did it take so long to start NEPA?” Muenzer asked.

Stroup said the water district was working on the CEQA study, spending $3 million on a consultant to design a planning study to eradicate the mussels that included possibly draining the reservoir, which he said was not possible, as well as other alternatives. He said they came up with one method that has a chance at being successful for eradication.

“Because of all the work the water district did we are capable of coming down with a much smaller document and not having to spend as much time and money on that,” Stroup said. “So now we have an idea of what will be successful, which is putting potassium chloride into the reservoir.”

Potassium chloride has a number of uses in medicine, food processing, and as one of the three drugs used for executions. In this instance, it refers to potash, most commonly used in fertilizers. In the March 29 issue of BenitoLink, Jeff Cattaneo, manager of the San Benito County Water District, said he was not an advocate of using potash to eradicate the mussels because he felt it would not be effective due to underwater formations and rocks in the reservoir.

Fontanos said the county’s role as recreation manager will be to develop the plan for prevention or control of the mussels. She said the county, along with the water district, can act as advocates and seek out funding opportunities that may not be available to the federal government. She said once the reservoir opens to recreation activities it’s important to know funding sources to maintain it.

First and foremost, Fontanos said, is coming up with an eradication plan, which, she said, is moving forward because of the CEQA work done by the water district. Muenzer asked why the eradication plan is so important.

Kelly Aubushon, an environmental specialist with California Fish and Wildlife, repeated Stroup’s assertion, “that it’s the law,” adding that in line with its own code there must be either an eradication or a control plan in place.

“The bureau would like to proceed with eradication, so they must develop an eradication plan,” she said. “We need to spell out exactly how we’re going to implement this eradication.”

Muenzer asked her why the mussels are considered so dangerous. She said San Justo is unique because it is “essentially off-line,” meaning its connection to other bodies of water is minimal. She said the source water, San Luis Reservoir, is not infested. Because of San Justo’s small size, she said eradication is possible.

“There’s great risk if it’s not eradicated,” she said, “because it could get into San Luis Reservoir or O’Neill Forebay, and other bodies of water that are a hub for the Central Valley Water Project and you’d be looking at impacts of millions of dollars once they’re into a system. The Metropolitan Water District in Southern California operates nine reservoirs and they’ve spent $30 million in five years on control.”

De La Cruz said he believed that if a vendor were allowed to supply boats and fishing equipment the risk of mussels being transferred from San Justo would not happen. He asked if that scenario was something California Fish and Wildlife would be willing to consider. Aubushon said the agency would have to see the plan first, but said the agency was already invested in moving toward eradication rather than management. Cruz wanted to know what the timeframe was for a complete eradication.

Stroup said the agency would finish the NEPA study sometime in 2016 and then move forward with an eradication plan. Then he said it will depend on funding.

“We do a three-year cycle on funding, so we can ask for funding three years out,” he said. “We can go to the region or the department to seek funds from our budget to do it.”

De La Cruz kept prodding for an answer, asking Stroup if five or six years from now, and after millions have been spent on eradication, if he could make any guarantee that the mussels would be entirely eradicated.

“I don’t know if you could ever say that, without a doubt, it’s going to be 100 percent successful,” Aubushon answered for Stroup, “know that the agencies involved want it to be successful. We’re doing everything we can to ensure it’s successful.”

De La Cruz added, “That’s a scary phrase, ‘one day.’ I need a timeframe. I’ve got members of the community that have been waiting for eight years.”

“I’m not sure how I’m supposed to answer that,” Aubushon responded. “We’re on track with eradication. We’re moving forward with the proper documentation. We have funding strategies. We’re exploring recreation opportunities. I can’t stand here and tell you on April 17, 2020 it will be open and ready for recreation. I can’t give a specific date.”

When Cruz said he anticipates that it could be at least another five years before the reservoir might open, she apologized, “All I can say is, I’m sorry.”

As a somewhat uncomfortable laugh rippled through the room, Supervisor Margie Barrios asked if DMV boating fees were used to fund eradication efforts. Fontanos said the Department of Boating and Waterways, which is part of the state parks system, does use some money for mussel prevention and control. She said, however, that because San Justo is already infested and is not currently under any control plan those dollars do not apply, and the reservoir must be under a plan before funding can go toward control efforts.

Barrios said that even though she favored recreation at San Justo, and even though a vendor might supply boats and fishing equipment, people could still accidentally transport mussels via boots, clothing or toys that might contain a “dime-sized mussel.” She said she was concerned that other bodies of water could become infested, therefore, it was important that whatever was done, it needed to be done right.

“Doing it right the first time is essential,” Fontanos said, “and what I’m hoping the board will understand is the success of eradication will determine what recreation looks like out there.”

She added, that as an analyst, it was her duty to point out other options and put forth the possibility of some form of recreation before eradication is completed. She said, though, that she favored the way the staff had been progressing out of personnel cost concerns in trying to move in two directions at once with two different agendas: eradication and recreation.

“It’s a waste of energy,” Fontanos said.

Stroup said his agency’s concern, as the owners of the reservoir, is focused on the potential spread of mussels throughout the state’s water system. He compared the value of the state’s agriculture industry of $30 billion annually to $30 million spent on control measures annually.  He said if there were a decision to move forward with recreation the bureau would also need to move forward with another NEPA study because of potential impacts to other bodies of water.

“I think the most expedient path at this point would be through eradication,” he said.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he had been involved in a number of conversations with the federal government over the past few years and that he was encouraged by the progress so far and said he understands the community’s frustration.

“I don’t know how you could do eradication without drying up the reservoir,” he said. “I’ve talked with potassium suppliers and unless there’s something new, I don’t think any of them will warranty that they (mussels) can be eradicated. So this may be a body of water that is controlled by lowering the levels and a monitoring program. But the value of agriculture in this county is paramount and the investment that this county and the city has made in water treatment facilities is tremendous. Jeopardizing that water source is a serious issue.”

Botelho said he appreciated the joint effort to come up with a solution and that he thought it took guts for them to admit they don’t know when the process will be finished.

Jeff Cattaneo explained that if everyone was concerned about another five years passing before the reservoir might open for recreation, the opposition from other water agencies would be instantaneous.

“You think five years is a long time to get an eradication process through, you’ll be at it 10 or 15 years with these folks because they absolutely don’t want to see that reservoir opened,” he said. “The Santa Clara Valley Water District is already writing letters to DWR about the fact that we’re even talking about opening San Justo.”

Rivas said he was glad for the public comment was going on and that he had received a call asking him if he had seen an article on Benitolink about Velazquez and local residents calling for the reopening of San Justo.

“It’s one of those articles that gets your blood boiling,” he said, and then quoted the article: “‘Mayor Velazquez said, ‘at the end of the day, it’s real simple, either you want to get it open or you don’t.’”

Rivas continued, “It is not really simple. This presentation we’ve had here goes to show the layers of complexity in getting San Justo Reservoir open.”

He said all five supervisors want to get the reservoir open, but emphasized again that it has to be done under the right circumstances.  He reserved more comments until after giving the public the opportunity to speak on the issue.

Richard Gallagher said he had heard during the meeting that draining the reservoir might have eradicated the mussels. The conversation going on now, he said, would be pointless if that had happened. He said he favored draining the reservoir. That not being possible, he asked why the federal government can’t grant the property to the city and county and let them manage it as they pleased.

“Eight years of studying this and we’re still studying,” he said. “I’m part of the Parks Commission and we need to see this thing opened for recreation, for our community and our youth.”

Velazquez said of Botelho’s earlier comment about it taking courage for the government not to have an answer, “That’s what governments does. It never has an answer. We make a lot of excuses in government and we tell people what we can’t do, and then we ask them for more money not to do it.”

Velazquez said what he had heard at the meeting was frustrating and forecasted that the reservoir would not be opened for years and that neither the federal government nor state government would pay for eradication. He challenged the supervisors as the leaders of the community, telling them that each of them got into government because, “at some point in your life you got fed up and you wanted to cut through some red tape. Now, you’re the elected officials and you’re wrapped in red tape.”

Of the two options to deal with the mussel infestation, eradication and control, Velazquez said that it was possible to control the mussels. He said the community deserves being able to use the reservoir, which he recently visited with Cattaneo and the mayor remarked how beautiful it is and that it is a shame to waste it.

“What are we going to do, just keep saying no?” Velazquez asked. “When do we understand that it is us that makes the decision? What do you think is going to happen if we talk about this for eight more years?”

If he were the governor, Velazquez said, and the state was concerned about infestation of other bodies of water, he would close San Justo and have it patrolled and drained before the infestation spread. He said if there is so much concern something should be done now.

“If it’s that much of a priority, shouldn’t the state be taking care of it already?” Velazquez asked. “They’re going to wait and this problem is going to spread throughout the state and someone is going to say something should have been done at San Justo.”

Ann Ross complimented the board for its leadership and said she wished that people who advocate “jumping the fence” and breaking the law were at the meeting so they could have heard the presentation.

“Unfortunately, just like with a lot of other issues, people don’t want to educate themselves, they just want to complain,” she said, and added that there are any number of other places in the county to go hiking and fishing. She said there is no full solution to eradication. “It seems like it’s a small part of the community that’s angry. Because they’ve complained so loud and people want change and want to make it as dramatic as possible, I don’t see where that should change our minds at all about what’s right. Our leaders are here to protect our environment and us.”

Marty Richman said if there is a real desire to one day open the reservoir up to recreation, a control plan should be in the works immediately. He said that since no one seems to be working on a control plan while an eradication plan moves forward, he doubts if the reservoir will ever open again to the public.

“If you really intend to open it up you’d be working on a control plan today,” Richman said. “And if you don’t intend to open it up you ought to bite the bullet and tell everybody and quit playing around. If you think the mussels are a threat, they’re a threat today.”

Fontanos reminded the board that just because there is no control plan in place at the moment, when the time is right it will happen.

“There’s a sweet spot with the NEPA process to have a control plan in place, and we’re well aware of it,” she said.

Rivas used his position as board chair to voice his concerns before adjourning the meeting. He said it was important to understand the federal process and educating residents and the board how long the process would take, as well as the associated costs. Then he returned to the BenitoLink article that “made his blood boil.”

He pointed out how the article quoted Velazquez advocating hundreds of people showing up at the gate to the reservoir and jumping the fence. Again, he quoted the mayor about the sheriff not taking action. Then he repeated it for emphasis.

“I would hope the feds would do something about it,” Rivas said. “If Occupy Oregon taught us anything, it’s if you resist the federal government, people can get hurt. People died in that whole fiasco. Would our sheriff get in the middle of it? Absolutely, I hope the sheriff would uphold the Constitution he swore an oath to and would arrest all people that broke the law.”

Rivas said the issue needs to be approached with absolute responsibility. He said, “I refuse to endorse a militant call-to-arms, coordinated fence jumping, coordinated trespassing, and breaking the law will provoke only chaos in San Benito County, and it will ensure that nothing will ever get done or it will certainly make our job of making some progress at the reservoir very difficult to achieve.”

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...