When it comes to California’s historic water wars, John Nejedly is something of a folk hero. Between 1969 and 1981, while serving as Contra Costa County’s state Senator, he assumed a critical role in the management of the state’s water and park resources. In the early ’80s, he helped lead the titanic fight to kill the “peripheral canal” project, a vast scheme to divert water from the Sacramento River to the endless tract homes of Southern California. The battle laid bare Northern California’s resentment of Los Angeles’ ruthlessness and grasping ambition, and an overwhelming majority of Northern Californians voted to kill the canal. Now, at age 89, Nejedly whiles away the hours giving speeches at the Commonwealth Club and serving as a trustee for the Contra Costa College District. He is a little hard of hearing, and doesn’t take well to big crowds anymore. But he still has one last fight left in him.
In 1988, Nejedly chaired the campaign to build the Los Vaqueros reservoir, a $450 million project between Brentwood and Livermore that guaranteed quality water for eastern Contra Costa County even during the most severe drought. Although Los Vaqueros was originally conceived as part of the peripheral canal project, Nejedly and officials with the Contra Costa Water District assured the public that this water would serve the needs of only East County residents who, after all, would ultimately pay off the bond with a spike in their water rates. The voters agreed, and in 1999 jubilant officials cut the ribbon on their new dam, and East County could depend on fresh water in perpetuity.
Fewer than four years later, water district officials came back and asked Nejedly for a small favor. They had a new plan for Los Vaqueros, and asked if he wouldn’t mind chairing the campaign to convince the voters to go along. But when Nejedly saw what they had in mind, he was horrified. Officials planned to tear down the dam — whose construction costs are still being paid off — and build a new reservoir five times the size of the current one, at a cost of up to $1.5 billion. Officials claimed that they needed the new reservoir to enhance drought and delta ecosystem protection, but Nejedly suspected a more sinister motive: The new new dam proposal, he claims, is just a sneaky scheme to quietly export water to Southern California. In a meeting in his living room, Nejedly told district officials that he had no intention of helping them build their dam. In fact, he immediately became cochair of the opposition. Now he is dragging his old bones out of bed and tramping around Brentwood and Antioch, warning anyone who will listen that their elected officials are planning to sell them out to Los Angeles.
“At first I almost went along with it,” Nejedly says. “But then I asked them to send me material, and I read it, and it’s a scam. Here they had the people vote for Los Vaqueros, and three years later they tear it out.
“The project was never in any way supposed to be associated with water export to Southern California,” he continues. “The voters approved it; they now have the advantages in terms of quality water. And now, [water district officials have] completely reversed their commitment, to me and everyone else, that they wouldn’t project Los Vaqueros into an export project.”
In the March 2 election, residents of central and eastern Contra Costa County will be asked to approve an advisory measure that would allow the district, in conjunction with state and federal agencies, to start planning for the future expansion of Los Vaqueros. The project would flood hundreds of acres of land along the reservoir’s edge and submerge scenic trails in order to increase the reservoir’s capacity from 100,000 to as large as 500,000 acre-feet. According to assistant general manager Greg Gartrell, the water district needs to expand the project in order to enhance the Bay Area’s water storage capacity in case of drought, improve water quality, and protect fish in the delta. It has nothing to do with exporting water to Southern California, he claims; in fact, the bond covenant in the original dam proposal explicitly prohibits the district from doing so. The instant district officials tried to send water south, he says, some East County citizen would file a lawsuit, and the plan would be stopped in its tracks. “The people who are saying this know that that is a political hot button, and there is no basis for their claim,” Gartrell says.
But opponents say Gartrell is misleading the public. First of all, Los Vaqueros water doesn’t have to go all the way to Los Angeles. Seth Adams of the environmental group Save Mount Diablo says it need only go as far as the Central Valley at first. “The water’s going south,” Adams insists. “They’re going to tell you otherwise, but the only likely partners are the state and the feds, and they’re not gonna put a billion dollars in this unless it meets their goal. And their goal is moving water south. … What they’re talking about is water transfers. They’re sending water to the Central Valley, and water earmarked for the Central Valley would then go south. It’s a domino thing.”
According to Nejedly, once state and federal agencies get a piece of the expansion project, no prior bond covenant can stop them from having their way with Contra Costa’s water. And the big boys will start shipping delta water south just as they tried to do twenty years earlier. “The state of California can invalidate the district’s policies at any time; they can just take over the district,” Nejedly says. “For example, they say that one of the potential partners is the Bureau of Reclamation. If the bureau puts $1.5 billion into this project, do you think they’ll just let you do whatever you want with it? The [district’s] argument that they have a binding project is just foolish. They’re simply not autonomous.”
Them’s pretty serious fightin’ words for an advisory ballot measure in an East County water district. As Gartrell notes, a yes vote doesn’t even greenlight construction, merely the next stage in planning: “The advisory vote sets parameters under which [the district] would accept an expansion, but it doesn’t guarantee that the project would go forward.”
But water has a funny way of raising the blood pressure in California. It’s not just about a critically scarce resource in an overpopulated state. It’s about the three incompatible worldviews that coexist within the state’s boundaries: the agribusiness overlords of the Central Valley, the Angelenos who dream of infinite subdivisions, and the utopian northerners who’d prefer to keep growth to a minimum — all of them break out the long knives when it comes to water. As one of the state’s last Rockefeller Republicans, John Nejedly spent his career trying to bring a sense of responsible stewardship to California resources, beating back the appetites of his southern neighbors. Now, it seems he has to do it once again.
“They’re tearing down what they built, and giving the pipeline to the water exporters so they no longer need a peripheral canal,” he says. “They’re building at taxpayer expense exactly what they promised taxpayers they would never see.
“The people haven’t been informed,” Nejedly insists. “They’ve been told half-truths, and we have very little money to spend compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent on their elaborate brochures. But we’ll do the best we can.”