Housing / Land Use

State grant moves new Pacheco Reservoir project forward

The $969-million dam and reservoir project will replace the facility to store more water for dry years, and is expected to help replenish aquifers and bring back fish populations.
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The California Water Commission announced July 24 that the Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project will be awarded $484.55 million under Proposition 1, which is the full amount jointly requested by the San Benito County Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The estimated full cost of the project is $969 million.

The commission also approved the request for early funding of $24.2 million, according to San Benito County Water District Operations Manager Jeff Cattaneo. This will allow the two water districts—Pacheco Pass Water District is also involved, but not financially—to proceed with the next steps in completing environmental documents, design (including seismic studies), and permit applications without delay. The two districts will also submit applications for federal funds.

The project, located on the north side of Highway 152 in the Pacheco Pass, would expand the reservoir storage capacity by building a 350-foot earthen dam behind the existing structure. This would add up to 140,000 acre feet of water for use during dry years or other circumstances that require the release of water.

The reservoir will also be used to improve ecosystems throughout the region, particularly in restoring running water in Pacheco Creek for endangered Central Coast steelhead. Additionally, planners believe it will prevent the kind of flooding that occurred in the Lovers Lane area over the last couple years.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll shows California voters place water storage and drought at the top of their concerns. In the poll, 58 percent of likely voters support Proposition 3, the $8.9 billion bond on the November ballot to fund an array of water projects.

Early funding expected

Cattaneo said the $484 million is all the project will receive from the state. He said an additional amount of up to 25 percent might come from federal sources through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, approved by the Senate on Dec. 8, 2016. He said the $24.2 million in early funding will come out of the $484 million.

The $24 million “will help jumpstart the project to get to the draft environmental document that’s due December 2021,” Cattaneo said. “There will be studies to see if there are any endangered species. There will undoubtedly be some sort of mitigation that’s going to be required.”

If no more money beyond the $484 million is forthcoming from the federal government, Cattaneo said Plan B is to simply pay for it, preferably through water sales.

“If, however, we have to issue bonds, they would most likely be revenue bonds,” he said. “The difference between general obligation bonds and revenue bonds is voters have to approve general obligations bonds because it’s an assessment or property tax. If we have to do it, we would go for revenue bonds that are linked to water sales and our rates.”

Santa Clara County will have 90 percent of the water storage space in the reservoir because it has a much larger population and it plans to pay back a greater percentage of the unfunded portion. It also already pays for the maintenance of a five-mile long tunnel through the hills along the Pacheco Pass linked to the pipeline. Cattaneo said San Benito County will have anywhere between zero and 10 percent of the storage space, and its debt will be reflected by those amounts.

Dam needs repairs

Cattaneo said the smaller Pacheco Pass Water District benefits from the deal without having to do anything. The district currently owns the dam and reservoir. The dam is in dire need of retrofits and repairs to bring it up to the standards that the California Department of Water Resources’ Division of Safety of Dams requires in order for it to continue to operate.

“They would have also been responsible for the future operation and maintenance of that facility,” Cattaneo said. “The deal we struck between the three districts was that Pacheco Pass Water District turns the facilities over to Santa Clara. In return, the project would provide [Pacheco Pass Water District] up to 7,250 acre feet of storage space in the new facility.”

In addition to the storage space, Cattaneo said that Pacheco Pass Water District will retain water rights on Pacheco Creek that allow it to divert and store water, as well as re-release it for percolation.

“In that agreement Pacheco Pass Water District will keep that space in perpetuity moving forward,” he said, “and they will no longer be responsible for any operation or maintenance costs. It’s a really good deal for this county.”

The biggest public benefit of releasing water into Pacheco Creek, as far as how the state looks at the deal, is that the partners in the project are willing to set aside a significant amount of water that naturally occurs in the creek for the benefit of the steelhead, Cattaneo said.

“The way the agreement is set up, there will be more water than what the district is currently releasing for the benefit of the steelhead,” Cattaneo said. He added that the San Benito County Water District has two years to make a decision about how much of the water it wants, up to 10 percent, including the space in the reservoir to store imported federal water.

Where the water comes from

The existing reservoir is filled naturally by creeks in the hills, Cattaneo said. The new reservoir will be much larger than what is needed to store the naturally occurring water. There is a pipeline, built in the 1980s, that runs from the federally built San Luis Reservoir, that bypasses Pacheco Reservoir. With the new project, a lateral line will carry water from that pipeline into the reservoir. The main line will continue, as it now does, down to the Casa de Fruta area where it divides, one branch carrying water to San Justo Reservoir for San Benito County and the other to Santa Clara County.

Surface water for the two counties comes from two sources: state (California Aqueduct) and federal (Delta-Mendota Canal) aqueducts that begin near Tracy where the Sacramento River flows into the California Delta and meanders parallel to Interstate 5 near the foothills down to the O’Neill Forebay, and is ultimately pumped into San Luis Reservoir. Though the aqueducts are separate, it’s the same water that ends up being pumped from San Luis Reservoir to the two counties. It’s only on computers that there are federal and state water contracts. San Benito County only contracts with the federal government; Santa Clara County has both state and federal contracts.

San Benito County’s federal contract, Cattaneo said, is for 43,800 acre feet of water annually. He said how much water the county actually receives depends on the weather. And not all water users are equal.

“In critically dry years, I got no water for the agriculture portion of that contract,” Cattaneo said. “Two years ago, I got the full contract amount. But I have never seen a case where we were able to use the full 43,800 acre feet in any given year. So two years ago, I couldn’t use it all. I transferred some out, but a good portion of it was lost, reverting back to the federal government. If I would have had that facility that year, I would have been able to take all that water in the contract and move it there to store for dry years.”



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]