Contra Costa looks to expand Los Vaqueros

With the region’s water supply already stretched thin by drought conditions, the Contra Costa Water District, along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is looking at further expanding the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County.

Board members are expected to vote tonight on whether to conduct a feasibility study for possible expansion.

The plan to increase the reservoir’s capacity from its current size, 160,000 acre feet, to 275,000 acre feet, has been part of a long-term vision for the region, the Bureau of Reclamation’s manager for the project, Brooke Miller-Levy said:

“It’s been going on for a long time, it’s just been recent that we’ve been directed by our leadership to move forward with finishing the feasibility study.”

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The bureau already completed an environmental impact study on a possible expansion of the reservoir to 275,000 acre feet, but Miller-Levy said the feasibility study was never finalized, partly because state funding dried up. The bureau requires a 50 percent share of the cost to be funded by a non-federal entity, she said.

Part of the reason for the meeting tonight will be to discuss how costs for the study will be shared, Miller-Levy said.

The district most recently completed a 60,000-acre-foot expansion of the reservoir in 2012, which was intended to supply water for the district’s current and future customers, as well as potential partner agencies, water district spokeswoman Jennifer Allen said.

The additional expansion could include regional, state and federal partners as the district explores different ways of storing and transferring water to other agencies, Allen said:

“There’s definitely interest in seeing that facility expanded to provide larger regional benefits and we’re working with other local, regional, state and federal agencies in order to explore those options.”

Last year, the district approved a pilot agreement with the Alameda County Water District for a one-time purchase of 5,000 acre feet of water that was stored in the reservoir for summer use when water sources are scarcer, according to district officials. Allen said it’s an example of the types of agreements that could come out of a future expansion of the reservoir:

“We’re looking at creative ways to use existing facilities to provide larger benefits.”

So far, Allen said no partners have been identified for the possible expansion of the reservoir, which would include increasing the height of the dam and expanding the amount of acres covered in water in the reservoir’s existing location.

In addition to determining the technical feasibility of expanding the reservoir, the study will also look at the project’s financial feasibility and potential economic impact, Miller-Levy said:

“It’s looking at all of the opportunities, the costs, the needs, in order to get to different alternatives…and draw out, which alternatives will be most beneficial.”

Although a study of the possible expansion’s environmental impact has already been completed, Miller-Levy said environmental staff will be reviewing the work to see what needs to be updated:

“When we submit it through the Secretary of the Interior as a final feasibility report, the final environmental impact study/report has to be attached to it.”

After the Secretary of the Interior signs off on the feasibility study, Miller-Levy said the report moves to the Office of Management and Budget and then Congress must vote to approve the project before construction can begin.

If the board approves the feasibility study tonight, the report won’t likely be completed until the end of 2016, at the earliest, Miller-Levy said. The timeline after that point gets a littler murkier, but Miller-Levy said there’s interest at the congressional level to see the feasibility study complete:

“We can’t make it rain but we can try to at least create available storage.”