The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) proposed on July 13 major changes to how the state’s water flowing from the Sierras to the California Delta is distributed. The five-member State Water Resources Control Board, which wrote the proposal, will vote on it in August.
The plan expands protections for fish, specifically salmon and delta smelt. Farmers, on the other hand, would lose some of their access to this water supply.
The proposal, according to a Sacramento Bee story, “could reduce water deliveries to a wide range of water users that pull water out of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the cities of San Francisco, Modesto and Merced and hundreds of farms in the San Joaquin Valley. The board's proposal would take an average of 288,000 acre-feet of water away from those users. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.”
San Benito County is downstream from these heavily regulated waters and may soon feel the impact to its surface water, or “blue valve” water supply, coming from San Luis Reservoir, by as much as 25 percent, according to Jeff Cattaneo, general manager of San Benito County Water District.
“What that does, it requires the operators of water projects to release additional water back to the rivers to enhance the flows to benefit the fisheries,” Cattaneo said. “It will impact water supplies because districts have to let that flow go by reservoirs in the Sierra foothills along the San Joaquin River and we can’t pick it up and use it. Water in storage has to be released and can’t be recovered.”
Cattaneo explained that as water flows downstream to the delta, pumps in both federal and state water projects pull it into the canals that transport the water through the Central Valley to a thirsty 24 million people in Southern California.
Along the way, water agencies have water rights that allow them to take water from the rivers and streams for irrigation, municipal uses, and even wildlife refuges. Individual landowners beside the rivers also have existing rights to use the water, but it’s uncertain how the new regulations will affect them.
For certain, though, the rights of water districts will be affected.
Cattaneo said it is not yet clear how much San Benito County’s water intake from the California aqueduct system will be reduced, because no one has gone through the modeling process yet to determine the possible impact.
If the DWR plan is approved, he said, blue valve water to the county will definitely be reduced each year. Despite the county’s access to aquifers, he said there will be an impact.
Cattaneo explained that for the aquifers to remain balanced (where water coming in is equal to water being taken out), the county must receive 20,000 acre feet of blue valve water annually, which is about 50 percent of the demand in the basin that includes San Juan Bautista and Hollister, up to Pacheco Creek. He said the county must adhere to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a complicated process that determines if and by how much water allocations may be reduced.
“The state has told [water districts] we must balance our basin and come up with a plan to keep them balanced,” he said. “We have to have that plan in place by 2022, and have the basin balanced by 2042. Fortunately, we’ve got a leg up on the whole process because we’ve been doing this for years and it’s not going to be difficult for us to do that moving forward.”
He said to keep the basin balanced it must continue to receive 20,000 acre feet every year, which can be difficult to do because the state is constantly trying to reduce the flow into the basin. If the state continues to cut the amount of inflow, it will be impossible to keep a balance unless restrictions are put in place.
According to Cattaneo, the same agencies that take water away are telling the district to figure out how to keep the basin balanced.
Even so, he said the basin is nearly balanced. In the last two years, it has almost recovered from the extreme drought that caused levels to drop to historic lows.
Most surface water is imported to Hollister from San Luis Reservoir via San Justo Reservoir and the West Hills Water Treatment Facility.
When surface water is plentiful, Hollister’s water can either be all surface water or blended with groundwater, according to Hollister City Manager Bill Avera. He said even though a potential 25 percent reduction in surface water, long-term, could never be a good thing, the city has access to a great deal of groundwater.
“In times where we don’t have as much surface water coming out of West Hills, we can turn on our wells and we blend,” Avera said. “We’re not like [San Joaquin Valley]. We have a huge basin with a lot of water in it. Over the years, Jeff has been able to get surface water from the valley and that allows us to not take water out of the basin.”
Avera said it is highly unlikely that Hollister would have to ration water.
“We would do our regular conservation efforts,” he said. “We’re using about the same amount of water that we were in 2004 because houses are becoming more efficient, people aren’t planting lawns, and the Water Resource Agency has done a lot with conservation. It’s strange that even though our community is growing rapidly, the amount of water people are using is basically the same as in the mid-2000s.”
Speaking for local farmers and ranchers, Richard Bianchi, a rancher and former San Benito County Farm Bureau president, said by text that if there were to be a reduction in surface water, the amount of farming would have to be curtailed. He said, though, determining how much is a complex answer.
“Some areas don’t have sufficient groundwater, while others do, but quality is an issue for some crops,” Bianchi said. “A farmer can deal with water quality issues, such as timing and types of crops. It is hard to deal with, though.”
New dam, more storage
To help set off future cutbacks or shortages, San Benito and Santa Clara counties have been looking at additional storage capabilities, particularly at the Pacheco Pass Reservoir. In March 2017, the San Benito County Water District Board of Directors voted 4-1 to approve a plan to join with two other water districts to build a new 350-foot dam behind the existing 100-foot dam near the north and south forks of Pacheco Creek. This would not only increase the amount of water stored in the reservoir, but prevent future floods like the one that devastated the Lovers Lane area of San Benito County in 2017.
Cattaneo said in wet years the county receives more federal project water than it can store, so the larger reservoir will enable both counties to store 140,000 acre feet of water for dryer years.
Water for fishing
In addition to drinking water and flood control, the reservoir could possibly bring back Central Coast steelhead trout throughout Pacheco Creek.
“Part of this project is to release additional water into the creek so there will be enough water for the steelhead,” Cattaneo said. “And, as that water passes through the creek it also percolates down into the groundwater basin. It will recharge that northern portion of our basin.”
Though the $1 billion dam project was approved last year, how it will be funded is still a question. Cattaneo said Santa Clara County has the bonding capacity to pay for the entire project, adding that it’s likely that San Benito County will partner with Santa Clara County, using its bonding capacity to pay a portion of the project’s cost.
“We’ve applied for Prop 1 funding [$7 billion in state set-asides] and it looks likely it’s the highest rated project in the state,” Cattaneo said. “The project will most likely receive $485 million to help pay for it. So, about half of the project will be paid for through state grant funds.”
He said it will be four to five years before construction begins on the new dam and another three to four years before it’s completed. Even though it will be considered a local building project, Cattaneo said there are not many local contractors capable of taking on such a large job.
“There will be opportunities for local employment, but it will be an outside contractor,” he said.
On July 24, the California Water Commission announced that the Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project will be awarded $484.55 million under Proposition 1, according to a press release from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The commission also approved the district’s request for early funding of $24.2 million.
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