Groundwater plan unveiled

Long-term solution reduces salts and dependence on imported
water, but needs city cooperation to be effective
A just-completed plan to provide safe water year-round and
adequate supplies in times of drought by managing the county’s
aquifers comes as downstream counties are focusing on Hollister’s
impacts to the regional water system.
Long-term solution reduces salts and dependence on imported water, but needs city cooperation to be effective

A just-completed plan to provide safe water year-round and adequate supplies in times of drought by managing the county’s aquifers comes as downstream counties are focusing on Hollister’s impacts to the regional water system.

The plan is the result of a study of the county’s complex underground water supply and was designed so that the local agencies that affect it are not at odds with each other.

Its release by the San Benito County Water District comes two weeks after Hollister hurriedly approved a plan for a new sewage system without waiting for the report or taking input from other local agencies that draw on the aquifer impacted by its percolation ponds.

“We have a responsibility to change what goes into the wastewater,” said John Gregg, executive director of the county Water Management District, formed by the legislature to monitor local groundwater supplies.

“This great groundwater basin that we live in doesn’t have an outlet. It just gets saltier and saltier,” he said. “Whatever we put into it stays here.”

The management plan includes a proposed system of pipes that would one-day transport treated wastewater to farmers for irrigation in an effort to keep municipal waste from percolating into the aquifers. It explores a half-dozen options for future sources of water, including the reopening and re-alignment of the high-quality Cienega Valley pipeline, which Hollister once used. The city currently uses only a portion of the broken line.

It also points out that Hollister has not studied whether there are options for using its wastewater other than percolation – if it were treated to a higher standard. On the other hand, the Sunnyslope Water District has a future partner in Ridgemark Golf Club, which could use more for watering the course than the district is capable of supplying.

Need for a countywide groundwater plan became clear after Hollister’s percolation ponds became increasingly less effective over the past few years. While the city percolates wastewater, San Felipe water used for crop irrigation has been pouring into the aquifer, and both cause water tables to rise.

The two issues are seemingly at odds, considering that 21,000 tons of salt a year goes into the San Juan Valley aquifer in the form of farm runoff and Hollister wastewater percolation. The groundwater plan says salts must be reduced at the water softener source and by working with farmers to manage usage. It also calls for abandoned wells to be sealed to prevent seepage.

Through a series of treatment facilities, holding basins and pipelines crossing the northern end of the county and the San Juan Valley, the Groundwater Management Plan could compensate in times of drought or saturation, rid the San Juan Valley and downstream regions of high amounts of salts and contaminants and provide good drinking water for everyone.

At least that is what planners are hoping for.

“The water quality here is poor,” said Gregg. “It’s just the hand we were dealt.”

* * * *

Hollister’s new sewage plant plan does not jibe with the groundwater plan – now four years in the making – because the proposed facility will percolate more sewage by creating more ponds, and not all of the wastewater will become cleaner or less salty than what is produced today, the water district maintains. The new facility will have a new disinfecting plant, but not all the wastewater will be put through it. Nor does the plan address the rising salt levels put through the system other than to rely on the new Lessalt plant, which serves a blended, less salty water to people living on the west side of Hollister. The percolated wastewater eventually becomes groundwater in the fertile San Juan Valley basin.

“Why did they do that?” said Gregg. “They either, A) didn’t have enough time or B) their plan is an opening statement to claim a minimum commitment to the community.”

Councilman Brian Conroy agrees with Gregg that the city’s plan doesn’t go far enough.

“From my limited understanding, the ponds are percolating poorly because of the salts in the water,” said Conroy. “I think that needs to be studied. Lessalt is a good start but we may need to take it a step further.”

Conroy also feels that the new sewage plan needs to be more regional in its scope, especially concerning downstream farmers of the San Juan Valley.

Up until the announcement of the new sewage plan, Hollister had been participating in the groundwater study with a consortium of agencies including the San Benito Water District, Sunnyslope Water District and the Water Resources Association.

Then a month ago Hollister surprised its partners by announcing a new $18.5 million sewage plant in time for its date with the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The city drew criticism when it did not comply with the pending groundwater plan nor seek regional input from other agencies and neighboring counties.

“It passed the city council with such finality,” said Gregg. “It’s frustrating because we spent so many hours working on this (groundwater) plan. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It was too late.”

City Manager George Lewis said the city’s sewage plan was put forth because of the deadlines the regional board placed on them. They had already missed May’s deadline.

“We decided to move forward on a parallel plan with the groundwater management plan, and we will tweak it as it gets developed,” said Lewis.

Lewis also maintains that the new sewage plan has been accepted by the Water Resources Association and “will have the same capacity for disinfecting and treatment called for by the groundwater plan.”

But Lewis added that some of the wastewater may still be treated to only secondary levels via the percolation ponds.

That won’t be good enough for the groundwater management plan, according to Gregg, who believes the city’s new sewage fix is basically an extension of the old one. He said that the city’s wastewater has to be disinfected to tertiary levels to fit into the groundwater plan.

He is pinning his hopes on a clause in the city’s new sewage treatment plan that says the new facility “must be considered within the framework of the groundwater management plan.”

Meanwhile regions downstream from the sewage ponds are worried about Hollister’s long-term plan. Larry Cain, City Manager of San Juan Bautista says his town has been grappling with overloads of salt in the aquifer from which it draws its drinking water – the same one into which Hollister’s ponds percolate.

“It’s like the kid who hands you a telescope, and you look in it and all you get is a black eye,” he said. “The central problem is that Hollister still isn’t going into tertiary treatment. That water is still percolating into the San Juan Valley. And we can wait and wait for them to do something effective, but then again, someday, after enough movement in plate tectonics, Disneyland will pass by San Juan Bautista.”

Santa Cruz Supervisor Tony Campos was upset by the thought of more percolation ponds. Several months ago after the May spill he wrote letters of concern to the City of Hollister and San Benito supervisors. He heard back immediately from the supervisors but has yet to hear anything from the city.

“It seems like they’re not really paying attention to what’s going on,” said Campos of the city. “We don’t want to get stuck with another accidental 15 million gallon spill again.”

Monterey Supervisor Lou Calcagno said that Hollister’s wastewater problems have long been a concern to Monterey. The next-door county, he said, will be inspecting the water that flows from the San Benito River into the Pajaro Watershed and beyond – particularly to see what makes its way into his county’s coveted Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“Let’s face it: it’s our watershed,” he said.

Percolation ponds, he said, cause the lighter, salty water to float on top of the aquifer.

“It flows somewhere, so where does it go? – I’d say horizontally,” Calcagno said. “There’s no doubt we want to see a lot cleaner wastewater going into the ponds if it’s going to be percolated. The ponds are at the bottom of a river, and it’s going toward the ocean.”

* * * *

“The process was so ugly,” said Gregg, as he gathered his thoughts over the hundreds of meetings he has survived since 1998, when local water agencies and local governments first got together to pursue the groundwater management plan.

“When people act individually they take water for granted – like if you punch a hole anywhere for a well, it’s OK,” he said.

For years everyone thought that the San Juan Valley basin aquifers were nearing empty. Even when San Felipe “blue valve” water was piped in from the San Luis Reservoir in 1987, people still thought the groundwater was low, “like it had a hole in it,” said Gregg.

Now they’re full again. It doesn’t help that even without man’s intervention the San Juan Valley has a 100-year history of high salts. It makes sense, said Gregg, when one considers that millions of years ago the mountain ranges of South County were submerged in the ocean. Today the rains still bring that salt down the San Benito River into the San Juan Valley. While it’s not the main source for the high salts in the San Juan Basin, it’s another contributing factor.

“It hasn’t changed a lot,” said Gregg. “We have a closed system where salts are continually added.”

Farmers would be happy to see 600 to 700 milligrams of total dissolved solids (salt) in their water. As it is, they get twice the amount, 1,200 to 1,300 mgs of TDS. Leaf crops – a hallmark of the San Juan “salad bowl” — can only withstand 300 mgs of TDS and must depend on the imported blue valve water.

Urban areas consume less water than large agricultural spreads, but expend much more contaminated water. A dense urban population produces wastewater with water softener salts, household chemicals and lots of human sewage.

“It’s not about blame,” said Gregg. “These are the contributors and we need to identify best management practices. The plan is to help people identify those practices and put them in place. The challenge is, are we going to treat it or are we just going to get rid of it?”

But salt isn’t the only thing in the local water. According to Gregg, in the Pacheco Creek area and east of Fairview Road, the water is high in iron and manganese, which leaves a bad taste and stains clothes orange. Also east of Fairview and east of Highway 156, arsenic and boron have been cropping up the groundwater. Boron is particularly bad for plants, dwarfing yield and size, especially in trees.

It doesn’t stop there, he said. Over time, even the vitamins and drugs humans take can make their way back into the food chain.

“If you’re at the bottom end of the food chain, how much aspirin, Prozac and Viagra can you take?” he asked.

Imported San Felipe water was thought to be a solution, at least to dilute the high salt content of the groundwater. The intent, said Gregg, was to over-supply the Pacheco sub-basin. But today, the blue valve water has saturated the Pacheco Basin as well as the San Juan Valley – and it’s all saltier than ever because farmers continue to use chemicals and fertilizers and urban areas keep using water softeners. In a perpetual circle, it gets pumped back up and goes through someone else’s salty water softener again.

“We have a system where we export salts and solids to the San Juan Valley,” said Gregg. “It’s called the Hollister sewer system.”

* * * *

The groundwater management plan proposes blending of San Felipe water and groundwater, sending it through a new pipeline that starts from an underground storage bank in the dry Bolsa, follows next to the old San Felipe line on the eastern side of town, then turns west to the San Juan Valley. It would redistribute the water more evenly, and be less salinated since it would be half blue valve.

Another pipeline proposed in the plan would run disinfected wastewater out of state-of-the-art Hollister treatment facility through the San Juan Valley, where the salts would be removed at another point and taken to a disposal site. The clean wastewater could then go into a third pipeline that would go to farmers in the valley, like one in Monterey County. Any clean wastewater not used could go into the San Benito River.

The plan also includes new subsurface drains in the lower part of the San Juan Valley – where groundwater is seeping up through the soil. Some farmers have to run extra water into roadside ditches – where a neighboring farmer has to deal with it downstream.

Gregg also wants to treat and de-mineralize the groundwater – before it goes back into the system — eliminating the need for water softeners and the county’s high dependency on San Felipe Water. If water softeners are absolutely necessary, then they should be the cartridge types that are taken away to industrial sites for recharging.

An environmental impact review of the groundwater plan is expected to be ready by June 2003.

Gregg doesn’t hold a lot of hope for Hollister leadership to pitch in and join in the groundwater effort.

“Do they want to be responsible for running a pipeline the length of the San Juan Valley?” he said. “Apparently not. Do they have a capital improvements plan? I submit they don’t. They need to review their organization, the small number of people they have, their partnerships with local agencies and outside resources.”

Gregg said he sometimes imagines people 100 years in the future looking at an old framed photo hanging on the water district wall, a picture of himself and other water shakers whose decisions today will affect future generations.

“It’s not about John Gregg or George Lewis or (City Engineer) Jim Perrine,” he said. “If we screw up the valley, then at some point we screw up those people in the future.”

Leave your comments