Valley Water Board Chair John Varela speaks at a Feb. 23 press conference at the top of Anderson Dam, next to the spillway in east Morgan Hill. Photo: Michael Moore

As I begin a new term on the Valley Water Board of Directors representing District 1, I am honored to serve as the Chair in 2023.

While our region remains in a drought, we are cautiously optimistic about Santa Clara County’s water supply outlook this year. January storms brought much-needed rain and snow across California. Our community helped us achieve the state’s conservation goals in five of the past six months. However, it’s too soon to declare the drought over and end mandatory water conservation in Santa Clara County. 

No matter when this drought ends, we know another one will impact us in the future. To that end, my fellow board members and I will continue focusing on policies that provide Silicon Valley with a reliable supply of safe, clean drinking water, reduce flood risk to our communities, and protect and restore our natural environment.

While we are currently working on dozens of projects to help meet our mission, I’d like to share a few of our accomplishments from last year and highlight some of the things we are working on this year. 

Fixing Anderson Dam so it can safely withstand a large earthquake remains a top priority. Last year, Valley Water reached a milestone when our contractor began digging a new, 1,700-foot tunnel next to the dam. Once completed, the new outlet tunnel will increase the amount of water that can be released from Anderson by five times. We anticipate the work on the outlet tunnel will take another two years to finish, and once that is done, Valley Water will begin rebuilding the dam and spillway. 

Recycled and purified water is another vital component of our future water supply. We are working to expand our purified water to replenish groundwater basins in Santa Clara County and diversify our drinking water supply. In South Santa Clara County, we are expanding the recycled water distribution system. The project, which is expected to be completed this year, will allow more farms and businesses to have access to this crucial water supply.

Our agency is investing in various flood protection projects across the county, including the Upper Llagas Flood Protection Project in Morgan Hill. Once completed, this project will protect the city’s urban area from a 100-year flood and reduce the frequency of flooding in the surrounding areas. Our construction contractor made great progress last year in digging a 2,300-foot-long tunnel to eventually divert high creek flows around the city’s downtown area.

In the coming months, Valley Water will begin construction on the first of two flood protection projects located along a nine-mile stretch of Coyote Creek. Once completed, these projects will help protect homes, schools, businesses and highways in historically flood-prone areas. These measures will protect against creek flows like the February 2017 flood, which was a 20-year event.

Last summer, Valley Water completed work on the Uvas Creek Fish Habitat Improvement Project in Gilroy. The project helps restore and maintain healthy fish populations by improving habitat for steelhead and other native fish. 

And our agency will continue with annual efforts to study and better understand the migration habits of steelhead in Santa Clara County. Every year, Valley Water biologists capture, measure the length and weight of juvenile steelhead and insert a tag to monitor their movement. Understanding and maintaining threatened fish species is an important part of Valley Water’s mission to care for the environment.

We can’t achieve this work alone. Our agency continues to seek out investment partners, including the state and federal government, to help us complete these projects.

Recently, we celebrated the closing of $726.7 million in low-cost federal loans that will help fund a handful of major projects, including the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit Project and the Coyote Creek Flood Protection Project. These loans from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act are projected to save Valley Water $256 million over the life of the loans.

Last summer, Valley Water received $5.8 million from the California Dept. of Water Resources to help fund the Cross Valley Pipeline Extension Project. This project will help ensure Coyote Creek and the Coyote Percolation Pond in South San José have sufficient water to recharge groundwater and support the surrounding habitat and wildlife who depend on it while we rebuild Anderson Dam. 

It’s critical to our Board of Directors that we always do our best to maintain the lowest cost possible to our water retailers and our 5,000 well owners, while providing a reliable water supply for future generations.

John L. Varela represents District 1, which includes South County, on the Valley Water Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].

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