Willing to buy land for recreation; work with city, county

Sponsors of the proposed Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir project have come forward with an offer to purchase additional property adjacent to the reservoir for limited recreation activities, such as hiking and bird watching, in order to garner support for the project.

The offer was announced during a public meeting last Wednesday night, as a standing room only crowd of more than 100 people on all sides of the issue came to ask questions and voice their opinions and concerns about the proposed private project.

The meeting was held the night before the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was released, to provide those interested in an opportunity to ask questions before attempting to find the information in the large document, Charles Gardiner, owner and principal strategist at The Catalyst Group said.

Project development process

A project like this one requires due diligence to determine whether it is possible. During that process, the project’s developers contact the agencies from whom the project will need approvals. Public workshops are often held, as well.

There are numerous interested agencies in this case: Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Water Resources, Bureau of Reclamation and Division of Safety of Dams, among others.

The land development process itself includes three milestones:

A Scoping Meeting, which is an opportunity for anyone (the public, private industry and government agencies) with any interest in a proposed project to offer comments on the topics that should be addressed in the EIR. The Scoping Meeting for this project was held in July.

Based on the results of the Scoping Meeting, a draft EIR of the items to be studied in the final EIR is generated. During the 45-day public comment period that starts when the draft EIR is released, questions and comments are still accepted. All public comments received during the 45-day comment period must be included in, and addressed in, the final EIR.

The completed studies are compiled into a final EIR, which must be certified.

Water supply challenges

Del Puerto Water District Manager Anthea Hansen explained the issues local water districts face, including what she referred to as the Bureau of Reclamation’s “right to short us,” on water allocations in dry years, as well as impacts of laws meant to protect endangered species, such as the delta smelt, which also restrict water available to farmers.

For two years during the recent drought, she said, water districts received zero percent of their water allocation. She also mentioned an average allocation of 35 percent, adding that even that amount of water is not sufficient to grow food.

White then explained how that average played out during recent years: 0 percent 2014, 0 percent, 2015 five percent in 2016, 100 percent in 2017, 50 percent in 2018. “In order to survive, in the Central Valley,” he said, “you absolutely need storage.”

Further complicating the issue is that, while local water districts store their water in the San Luis Reservoir, they have no control over it once it is there – state and federal agencies have that power, Hansen said. If it is available when it is not needed locally, it can be lost to other users, she said.

The recently-completed North Valley Regional Recycled Water project, which was spearheaded by the Del Puerto Water District, pumps recycled water from neighboring communities to the Delta Mendota Canal (DMC), from which it is made available to farmers on the West Side. The project provides a unique water resource in that it is reliable and available year-round, but it is still only a part of what is needed to grow crops, and 27 percent of that water goes to nearby wildlife refuges, Hansen said.

The proposed reservoir, she said, would provide storage that local water districts would be able to control.

Filled from DMC

If approved, the facility would consist of a 260-foot high earthen main dam, along with three saddle dams. It would be filled from the DMC, using water for which these particular water contractors already have contracts. “We’re not changing anything in our supply portfolio; we’re just taking supplies that are available at certain times and putting them in a place where we can protect them for the times we need them,” Hansen said.

Recreation

Due to public outcry, project organizers have taken steps to address the community’s interest in recreation, going so far as to express willingness to purchase additional land to accommodate such activities.

During the discussion, Hansen emphasized that the water district “does not exist to create recreation opportunities; it is in the business of supplying water for agricultural use.” But she also said that the district has initiated discussions on the possibility of recreation opportunities in the vicinity of the dam with both the city of Patterson and the county.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of the comments and take them very seriously. I, too, am a resident of this community,” she said.

Program Manager Andrew (Andy) Neal also pointed out logistics that would prevent boating and other activities, such as fluctuating water levels, as well as the possible need to relocate PG&E facilities in a way that would preclude over-water recreation.

Still, Hansen said, the group is working with city and county staff to see how the community’s interest in recreation activities in the area might be addressed. “I’ve offered up my ability to affect change, by gathering these folks, and I hope to continue those discussions.” She mentioned the possibility of “some really good partnership opportunities, because there will be some areas that will be very suitable,” for hiking and as bird watching and, possibly, bicycling.

Some members of the audience pushed for recreation activities to be developed along with the reservoir, but the realities of government funding preclude that option.

Director of Stanislaus County Parks & Recreation Jaclyn (Jackie) Dwyer said the county is “very, very interested in” a recreation site based on the reservoir. “Obviously, this is a lovely place that everyone loves to go,” she said, acknowledging also that “it brings in some tourism for you (the community).”

However, she explained, creating new recreation amenities would take time, because the county would first need to undertake costly feasibility and environmental studies, which would require the approval of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.

“I would hate to tie these two (projects) together. That would take years, because we’d have to start allocating funding, because any project would be taxpayer-funded. So that’s an entirely different process.”

“But I can say, unequivocally, it is something we want to work on,” she added, The county is interested in developing some type of recreation amenity for the community, in the interest of increasing the likelihood that the community will accept the proposed reservoir.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors would be the agency to follow up with on possible future recreational opportunities in the area, she said.

Security

Del Puerto Canyon residents and ranchers expressed concerns about an increase in trespassing, citing current issues such as fence-cutting, drinking and graffiti, and “all the other stuff that goes along with the hikers, that we already deal with. Hikers that you’re encouraging to come up here don’t respect (the land and fences) already… so encouraging more of them, what security are you gonna give us?”

“Unfortunately, if that occurs, it’s trespassing,” Hansen said. “We will have security, and staff, and I guess we’ll do what everybody else does: call the sheriff. You can’t control what the public’s gonna do. If we have to make adjustments,” she added, “then we’ll do that.”

Flood concerns

In answer to concerns about flooding in the event the dam were to break, Manager of EIR Preparation Robin Cort cited the “stringent” safety requirements of the California Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD), a division of the California Department of Water Resources. To receive approval from that agency, the project EIR will have to include every possible safety hazard associated with it, including fault lines and seismic activity, utilities (such as overhead power lines) and facilities such as the Shell Oil line, and detail how those safety concerns will be addressed.

The DSOD requires the project plan to consider “a very, very catastrophic event – one that is inordinately unlikely,” Cort said, adding that project organizers believe they can eliminate the possibility of a dam failure of that magnitude.

She also pointed out that as the dam will not be located on a river, there will be “a whole lot more control of how we manage flows, and how we manage water in the reservoir.” That, in turn, she said, adds “a whole extra level of safety.”

White added that the dam will have some space reserved behind it for flooding. “So after the facility is built, folks that are along the creek that have had to pay for flood insurance over the years, we will probably get them out of a Zone A floodplain, and will probably reduce or eliminate” the need for those whose property is along the creek to carry flood insurance.

As an example, White referred to Los Banos Creek Detention Dam, built in 1962. “That project was built for one reason – they should have built it for water supply as well, but they didn’t - they just built it for flood control.” There are photos from 1955, he said, showing Los Banos Creek flooding “huge portions” of Los Banos. During the floods in 1997, which he described as being “of equal size and proportion to the one in the 1950s,” the flood water was controlled through the reservoir. “We’re anticipating that same flood control benefit on Del Puerto Creek,” he said. 

The dam will also have sensors as part of an emergency warning system for area residents in the event of a catastrophic dam failure.

In response to a question about how those in the canyon would get out in the case of a dam failure, Cort said that a plan would be required in order to obtain approval from the DSOD.

The owners of the facility would be responsible for an evacuation plan, in case of emergency, Neal added.

On the flip side, Hansen said that the reservoir would help prevent flooding by capturing flood flows on Del Puerto Creek, which would subsequently be released in a controlled fashion. To protect wildlife, the releases would be timed to mimic the natural changes in flow of the creek.

The project will not have any flood control benefits for Salado Creek, White said.

Groundwater

Although the proposed reservoir would not supply drinking water, it will contribute to groundwater recharge. Hansen pointed out that the City of Patterson is “totally reliant on groundwater.” Her agency is working with city staff “to understand those groundwater needs for now and in the future, and making sure that our project is coordinated with those needs, so that it’s a positive net benefit for both city residents” and the farmers who will benefit directly from the project.

White also mentioned the cooperative effort required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was put into effect during the most recent drought. The law requires all entities dependent on an aquifer, such as the Delta Mendota sub-basin, to work together to protect the sustainability of that aquifer.

Editor’s note: The City Council on Tuesday approved a resolution authorizing the adoption of the Northern and Central Delta Mendota Region Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

No taxpayer funding

Hansen also emphasized that no city or county tax money will be used for the project. Instead, the group is working quickly in hopes of qualifying for funding under the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act for the Nation (WIIN), which expires in December, 2021.

The fund “is actually moneys that are collected from the water contractors, as they repay their debt on the Federal Central Valley Project, Hansen said. “They’re re-appropriating moneys that have been collected from the water contractors.”

Any such funding the project may receive “would be commensurate with the level of benefit that we can provide to the environment, or to the wildlife refuges,” she said.

If the project is approved, it will take six years to construct, and the roadway will be completed before dam construction begins. 

Process, final approval

Neal explained that the project sponsors are currently conducting a feasibility study. If the boards of directors for the water districts deem it is feasible, the group would continue to work with the appropriate agencies to obtain the necessary permits: Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Water Resources, Bureau of Reclamation and Division of Safety of Dams, among others. The final step before construction could begin would be for the project developer to acquire the land.

Public comment meeting

Another public comment meeting will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 15, from 4 to 6 pm at the Hammon Senior Center.

The draft EIR is available at https://www.delpuertocanyonreservoir.com/assets/pdf/reports/Del-Puerto-Canyon-Reservoir-Draft-EIR.pdf, as well as the Patterson Library and the Del Puerto Water District Office.

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