The Contra Costa Water District marked a milestone recently. Thanks to an increase in water storage capacity, the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Brentwood surpassed 100,000 acre-feet.

That's enough to meet the district's needs for a year. It's enough to withstand the nastiest, lip-cracking drought. It's testimony to the farsightedness of an agency that looked beyond its nose more than two decades ago.

"Prior to the construction of Los Vaqueros," said assistant general manager Greg Gartrell, "the district had about two or three days of emergency supply available."

Back then, board President Joe Campbell said, the district dropped its straw in the Delta every hour of every day. It pumped in the spring when the snowpack melted and water was clean. It pumped in the summer when water was brackish. It pumped whatever was there.

"I attended meetings before I was on the board," Campbell said, "and I told them the reason they pumped 24/7 is because they had no storage."

The reservoir is taken for granted now, but it faced long odds in the 1980s. The Peripheral Canal was pushed as a better solution until it was defeated by referendum. The cost of construction was judged prohibitive until Campbell and former state Sen. John Nejedly lobbied for public support of a $450 million bond issue in 1988.

That marked the starting gun for a project 10 years in the making.

Environmental studies, design and permitting took seven years. Construction added three years to that. Twelve miles of Vasco Road were redirected, 20 electrical towers and 12 miles of gas line were relocated, 20 miles of pipeline were laid, 8,000-horsepower pumps were installed, and a 192-foot earthen dam was built.


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Project managers overcame political and environmental hurdles. They jumped through regulatory hoops -- more than a dozen agencies, from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to the Water Resources Control Board -- to produce the largest dam on the Delta.

In its original configuration, the reservoir spread across 1,500 acres. With the dam heightened 34 feet and its recent expansion, it now covers 2,000 acres. Its new capacity is 160,000 acre-feet -- more than four times that of San Pablo Reservoir. Six-foot-diameter pipes deliver water harvested near Tracy at 200 cubic feet per second.

Gartrell, with the district for 25 years, says the operating principle is simple: "We fill the reservoir with high-quality water in the late winter and spring, and we use it when the water quality deteriorates so you get a constant quality."

Extensive measures are taken to protect wildlife. Stainless steel screens with 1/8-inch openings prevent smelt and other small fish from being sucked up. Pumping is stopped for two weeks in February and all of April to avoid interference with spawning seasons.

Los Vaqueros Reservoir stands as a rare example of forward-looking minds peering into the future and anticipating needs. It was a victory for proactive thinking. And the story doesn't end here.

"We've expanded to 160,000 acre-feet," Campbell said, "but we're already permitted up to go up to 275,000. We don't need that much, but other agencies do. If they come to us, we could expand and rent them space -- give them a place to park their water.

"That's a good deal for our ratepayers and for theirs. It's a win-win."

It's possible only because someone way back when was looking ahead.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.