Government / Politics

Water district manager explains ongoing closure of San Justo Reservoir

Jeff Cattaneo says he is sympathetic to those who want to fish there, but is concerned about potential eco-terrorism

After the meeting held last week at The Vault in downtown Hollister by 80-plus citizens who were united in stating that they “just want to go fishing,” and a planned protest March 3 at the 400 Block, no one seemed to have a complete understanding of exactly why San Justo Reservoir remains closed after eight years. Benitolink spoke to Jeff Cattaneo, district manager of San Benito County Water district, to see if there is satisfactory answer.

First and foremost, Cattaneo said, the reservoir is still closed because it is still infested with the invasive Zebra Mussels, and the Bureau of Reclamation and California Fish and Wildlife are unwilling to lift the quarantine.

“California Fish and Wildlife, however, is starting to back off on that, saying that perhaps it wasn’t their jurisdiction since it’s a federal facility,” he said. “But they’re still against having any public access to that site.”

Cattaneo said that the while the county water district is sympathetic to both sides, it is responsible for maintaining the reservoir according to its contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. He said, though, the recreation aspect of the reservoir is the county’s responsibility, which also has a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation to operate it.

He said he understands the frustration of those who want to fish at San Justo, but said there is no absolute resolution to the Zebra Mussels. He said the preferred method of eradication is to use potash because it was demonstrated to work in one other body of water back east called Millbrook Quarry. Potash was effective in getting rid of the Zebra Mussels there primarily because the quarry was a closed water system, a much different scenario than San Justo, which has water flowing in and out, comparable to a natural lake. So, Cattaneo said, there really is no realistic comparison between the two.

“There’s all kinds of natural formations in San Justo like rocks and ridges where the mussels can hide,” he said. “The only way the potash could be effective there is to have a complete, even distribution of the potash that would get into every little pocket, and that’s not going to happen. That’s why I have not advocated for the water district to spend $3 million or more to do something that nobody can convince me is going to be effective.”

The mussels are not causing any operational problems at San Justo, Cattaneo said, noting that the district drains the reservoir down as far as it can each year, and at the end of the year fills it back up. Those mussels that are exposed by the draw-down die.

“Doing this each year has allowed me to significantly control the amount of Zebra Mussels in the reservoir,” he said, adding, “There’s a fraction of the mussels that were in there in 2008.”

An additional natural control method involves a reoccurring algae bloom and die-off, normally in late summer. As the algae decays, the process depletes the oxygen in the water. The mussels, according to Cattaneo, cannot live in low-oxygenated water. Therefore, there are very few mussels at the bottom of the reservoir. He said the district then attempts to run the low-oxygenated water back through some 150 miles of pipe that makes up the district’s distribution system, where it sits and, theoretically, kills any mussels that may have made the journey upstream, as it were.

“The worst part about the Zebra Mussels for a water system operator is they establish colonies inside the pipes,” he said. “We’ve conducted inspections and the only Zebra Mussels we find are very small, if we find any. There are no large, adult Zebra Mussels in there. The two methods have basically solved my Zebra Mussel problem, from an operational perspective.”

The protesters have said all they want to do is get through the gate and take their kids or grandkids fishing, even if they have to rent gear to avoid any accidental contaminations. But Cattaneo said that’s not the issue, as far as the Bureau of Reclamation is concerned. He said sabotage or eco-terrorism is a real concern to the bureau.

“If you get one disgruntled person who is upset with Santa Clara Valley Water District or some other agency who goes up there to fish and harvests the Zebra Mussels as they’re standing on the side of the reservoir and puts them in their bucket, then they take off to Coyote Reservoir, all they’ve got to do is dump those in there and Coyote or Anderson are going to be contaminated,” he said.

Cattaneo said from the water district’s point of view he’s OK with people using the reservoir for recreation purposes, but he said it’s up to the county to submit a review to the federal agencies to accept that there is a reasonable assurance that the mussels will not get out of the reservoir.

County supervisor Jamie De La Cruz said at the last  board meeting that, “it’s time to tell the feds to butt out.” Cattaneo said it’s really up to the county, but that it has to come up with a management plan that all the federal agencies and other water districts can go along with. At the same supervisor's meeting, De La Cruz was told that discussion concerning San Justo would be on the next meeting agenda, and that the two federal agencies had been invited to attend.

At the first protest meeting, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said there needs to be a protest at the entrance to the reservoir and there was talk among those present at possibly “jumping the fence.” Velazquez went as far as to say the sheriff would most likely not challenge a couple hundred protesters, especially if the group included two hopeful politicians intent on replacing retiring Congressman Sam Farr, along with a supervisor or two.

 “If they want to demonstrate, that’s fine as long as they don’t trespass onto the property,” Cattaneo said. “That’s going to be a huge deal. I had a conversation with Ignacio and I told him ‘you’ve got to back off on this, trying to get people to go into the reservoir.’ That’s going to cause more problems than he can imagine.”

Cattaneo warned anyone thinking of trespassing that the reservoir is a federal facility.

“Anyone who encourages people to break into a federal facility, there’s a place down in Lompoc they’ll send you,” he said, speaking of the Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, and added that federal agents will react, even if local law enforcement doesn’t. “What the sheriff will do is call Monterey and they’re going to send people and everybody will be arrested.”

While sympathetic, Cattaneo said he does not have the authority to open the reservoir to the public or operate the recreational part of it.

“The county has to develop the recreational management end, if there is going to be one,” he said. “I’ve had conversations with California Fish and Wildlife and said we really have to be working toward consideration for a recreation management plan that would allow access because even if we got approval to do the eradication, I don’t have confidence that it’s going to be successful.”

Cattaneo explained that even if there was a successful eradication of the mussels it would be another six years before anyone would be allowed to enter the facility.

“It would take two or three years to do the implementation part because it’s not just a matter of going up there and dumping a bucket of something in the water,” he said. “There’s a lot of potash that would be poured in that reservoir. And then you have to come up with a plan of how you would get it evenly mixed. And then it’s going to take two to four years of monitoring to make sure what you did was 100 percent effective.”

He said what has been happening during the eight years the reservoir has been shuttered was four years of activity on the part of the water district trying to figure out how to solve the infestation problem and come up with the environmental documentation.

“We finished our part of the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) documentation two years ago,” he said. “We provided the Bureau of Reclamation with all of the information that they needed to do the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) part of it four years ago.”

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]