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CA Dam Price Increases, Continues to Move Forward

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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Despite new studies revealing that project costs would nearly double to $2.5 billion, Santa Clara Valley Water officials have announced that they will be moving forward with the development of a new dam at Pacheco Pass in south Santa Clara County, California.

"It seems to me that the directors of the water district need to take every extreme measure we can find to continue this project, moving it forward and working with environmental groups as we always do," said Valley Water District Director John Varela. "[We need to be] finding the solution, finding the resources to bring this to fruition and make it happen."

On Jan. 12, directors voted unanimously for continued development and study plans for the project.

About the Project

The project was first unveiled in 2017 by Valley Water with the goal of increasing local water amid increasing droughts. Specifically, the project called for a 319-foot-high dam to be built along Pacheco Creek in the rural canyons just north of Highway 152 near Henry W. Coe State Park.

At the time, officials estimated the reservoir would cost roughly $970 million. However, due to inflation, that number increased to $1.2 billion by 2019.

According to current plans, the water district would replace a small, existing dam and reservoir on the site and build the new Pacheco Dam about half a mile upstream. The existing reservoir was built in 1939 and is a 100-foot-high earthen dam.

If completed, the new reservoir would increase its original capacity of 5,500-acre feet to 140,000-acre feet of water—nearly as much as all 10 existing dams the water district currently operates and enough to supply 1.4 million residents for a year. The East Bay Times reports that the project would be “the largest new reservoir built in the Bay Area since 1998 when the Contra Costa Water District built Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County.”

In addition to being able to store more water for residents, district officials also pointed out environmental benefits, which included a more regular supply of water downstream for endangered steel head trout, among others.

In 2018, the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown awarded the project $485 million from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond passed by voters in 2014. However, the project would only receive the money had it completed a draft environmental study by Dec. 31 and show how it would pay for most of the remaining costs.

Those tasks were further complicated a few months later in February when Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM drilled down to 340 feet on the site and found additional geological problems.

While the news came as a surprise to some, reports indicate that decades ago in 1993, the water district considered the same site for a reservoir project but withdrew plans following controversy over impacts to the state park. Back then, Wahler Associates reported that the site had “the possibility of old landslide deposits,” and concluded that the site would likely require deep excavations to achieve a sustainable foundation.

Additional studies by a contractor earlier this year revealed the same outcome regarding the rock’s instability. In the roughly 130 test borings conducted, crews found that the project would need to increase its digs by at least 30 feet in order to hit bedrock.

As a result, construction efforts would have to increase from five to eight years, adding at least $1 billion or more in additional costs.

“You want to put your foundation on bedrock, solid granite,” said Chris Hakes, the water district’s deputy operating officer for dam safety and capital delivery. “There are historic slides in the area, loose material that is subject to movement. You don’t want to put your foundation on that obviously because if there is any sort of seismic event, or even heavy rains or mudslides, it could undermine the foundation.”

Next Steps

As a response to the study’s findings, Ryan McCarter, project manager for the Pacheco Pass dam, presented five options to the Valley Water directors for consideration. Each of the options in some way suggests building the dam in a new location, changing the type of construction, less reservoir capacity, or a combination all three.

“I would not vote for going ahead with the project until there is a deeper look at the cost,” said board member Gary Kremen, chairman of the district’s water storage committee. “It has to be done. We do need the emergency water supply. But I’m not sure it makes sense at $2.5 billion.”

Others echoed Kremen’s concerns, citing that the project was likely no longer viable as surrounding areas of the proposed dam site are mostly private property and would be difficult to operate.

"The extraordinary cost increases signal further cost escalation and unacceptable water charge increases in the future, and lower cost alternatives to provide the same benefits are available," wrote Katja Irvin and Gladwyn d'Souza in the Sierra Club letter. "The extreme environmental impacts that would result from this project are certainly no longer justifiable, if they ever were."

The club also highlighted that approval of the project could mean increased water rates in parts of the county by about 145% over the next 10 years. However, Valley Water spokesman Matt Keller said that the Pacheco Pass dam would account for only 17% of that increase.

Amidst concerns, Valley Water directors voted to moved forward with the project, reporting that they would work on more community outreach beginning next month and expected to have a draft environmental impact report by the end of 2021.


Tagged categories: Locks and dams; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Reservoir; Upcoming projects; Water/Wastewater

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