Member Spotlight: Valley Water – July 2019

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jul 19, 2019
  • Newsletters

Workers release water into Valley Water’s Madrone Channel Outlet. Groundwater replenishment has been a top priority for the South San Francisco Bay Area agency since its founding in 1929.

Valley Water Celebrates 90 Years of Accomplishments

For nearly a century, Valley Water has transformed a sinking valley of orchards with the help of a complex water system involving reservoirs, percolation ponds, treatment plants, and vast pipeline networks, to support the world’s technology hub. Now in its 90th year, the agency is celebrating its dedication to proactive groundwater management, a core tenet of its founding. Groundwater accounts for almost half the water used in Santa Clara County, making it a critical lifeline for Silicon Valley.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District, now known as Valley Water, was founded in 1929 in response to overdrawn groundwater basins, land, and the increasingly clear need for central water management and conservation. This effort was led by local farmers and business leaders who recognized the critical link between economic prosperity and a reliable water supply.

To address the sinking valley floor, early Valley Water leaders took swift action in finding a way to replenish groundwater. In the 1930s, the agency built six surface water reservoirs to capture stormwater and four additional reservoirs were constructed in the 1950s. Leaders also strategically built percolation pond systems in areas where natural gravel allows for water to easily seep down and refill aquifers. This was the start of something big — regional water reliability and groundwater recovery.

However, a surging valley population strained groundwater resources and subsidence continued. Between 1915 and 1969, downtown San Jose had permanently sunk by nearly 13 feet. The region’s water demands quickly outpaced existing supplies, so a contract with the State of California allowed Valley Water to start bringing water in from state-owned reservoirs outside of the county. In the 1960s and 70s Valley Water built two drinking water treatment plants to treat local and imported surface water, which helped reduce groundwater pumping and relieve pressure from aquifers.

By 1970, the agency had essentially halted permanent subsidence through an integrated water system that made use of imported and diversified local water supplies. In the next two decades, the agency would work to obtain additional imported water and build its third drinking water treatment plant.

Originally known as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the agency acted swiftly during its early years to build storage. A 1950 photograph shows the construction of the Anderson Dam spillway.

Over the course of 50 years, Valley Water built a reliable and sustainable system with diverse sources and major valley pipelines that could convey surface water from reservoirs to treatment plants and percolation ponds. This unique and ingenious method of ensuring a reliable water supply while guarding against subsidence drew the attention of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which designated Valley Water’s system a Historical Engineering Landmark in 1976.

As a special district and not a direct water retailer nor a land use agency, Valley Water’s role in groundwater management is unique. To help protect groundwater quality, Valley Water regulates the construction, maintenance, and destruction of all wells in Santa Clara County. By providing free water quality testing and rebates for nitrate treatment for domestic wells, the agency helps ensure well owners are empowered as community partners in protecting groundwater resources

Just as critical as preserving groundwater is fostering a close relationship with the community. Valley Water strives for transparency in groundwater operations. The annual rate-setting process engages the stakeholders and residents with an opportunity to learn and opine on the rates levied to protect and augment water supplies.

To ensure its ability to continue protecting the region’s groundwater resources and supporting a healthy life, environment and economy for the residents and businesses of Santa Clara County, Valley Water conducted a groundwater benefit zone study. The study reassessed areas benefitting from groundwater management activities to help ensure fair and equitable charges for well users. An independent panel of experts reviewed the study and the resulting proposed benefit zones that reflect the variance of benefits in the region. The proposed zones were presented this spring and will be implemented contingent on approval of the Valley Water Board of Directors, which is expected to occur this summer. 

Ensuring a reliable water supply for nearly 2 million people requires a multi-faceted approach. Valley Water’s groundwater management programs have pioneered local water resource management for almost a century and are constantly evolving to meet the needs of a ever-growing valley.

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