Contra Costa’a Lost Valleys

Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) voters will decide on March 2 whether to expand Los Vaqueros, a 100,000-acre-foot reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County. The proposed $1.5 billion project would inundate up to 2,000 acres of additional land. A “no” vote will effectively block any expansion. A “yes” vote would require further environmental review and water and construction permits, but voters would have no input on the final proposal.
The Los Vaqueros reservoir is part of the drinking water supply for 450,000 people in the eastern part of the county. The reservoir gets its water from the Delta, which, in turn, is fed by a network of rivers and streams that drains much of the state. Water from the Delta flows into San Francisco Bay, but about 40 percent of it is diverted into numerous canals and water projects for residential and agricultural use before it gets there. If approved, the Los Vaqueros expansion would drain an additional 200,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water (up to about 130 billion gallons) from the Delta.
“Imagine a dam six times as big, a reservoir five times as big and a water surface 170 feet higher than it was before,” says Seth Adams, of the Committee to Stop the DAM Waste. “Four square miles will be destroyed, including some spectacular areas, like Adobe Valley. The wildlife and recreation corridor along the west side of reservoir will be taken out entirely.” The expansion would inundate miles of oak woodlands as well as grasslands home to several endangered species, such as the San Joaquin kit fox.
Opponents of the project have criticized the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD), which controls the reservoir, for putting the measure on the ballot before environmental impact studies have been done and details about the project have been released. “[The timing is] entirely political,” says Adams. “What they’re looking for is a go-ahead from the public as political cover for a project that’s going to be disastrous. Voters won’t have the final say.”
The ballot measure includes several provisions that officials say are key to the project. One is that none of the water stored in the expanded reservoir will leave Northern California. Another is that the CCWD would retain control over the operation of the reservoir, even while other agencies share the costs. “CCWD wants to make clear to everyone what the conditions for expansion are with this vote,” says Gregg Gartrell, assistant general manager at CCWD for CALFED Studies/Planning. But if the measure is passed, it’s up to the water district, not voters, to make sure these conditions are met.
As with any major California water project, the Los Vaqueros expansion plan raises concerns that some of the water will be sold to Southern California. The district’s assurances to the contrary, says Adams, “carry no weight. The district can change its opinions at any point. Plus, water is a commodity. There have been several cases where water was transferred from one district to the next, and ultimately ended up sold to Southern California.”
The expansion plan calls for the construction of several new pipelines connecting Los Vaqueros to nearby water districts. One would connect Los Vaqueros to the East Bay Municipal Utility District; and another to the South Bay Aqueduct, which could feed water into southward-bound canals. The water district insists this won’t happen.
Water district officials contend that a larger reservoir will help the Delta, by giving the district more flexibility in its pumping schedule. According to a report by CALFED, the joint state-federal water agency, greater reservoir capacity would allow agencies that depend on Delta water to pump and store water at peak flow times, and avoid pumping when fish are near intakes or water quality is low.
But Bay Institute senior scientist Tina Swanson says that the Delta’s fresh water supply is already precariously low. “Those peak flows which make it through the Delta into the bay are critically important to the estuary, and we’ve been reducing both the frequency and the duration of those flows for decades,” says Swanson. “We’ve reduced the bay to chronic drought conditions.”
Only six years after the completion of the Los Vaqueros reservoir, critics wonder if the expansion is really necessary. Adams points to 1988 CCWD campaign materials that claimed the original reservoir would “give CCWD customers enough high-quality water to meet their needs, even during a prolonged drought.” District officials reply that Los Vaqueros was designed to provide only six months of drought protection, which would be insufficient to deal with a prolonged drought like the one that hit the region from 1987 to 1993.

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