By Tony Mercado
Every summer since 2006, the water district’s maintenance crews throw on the gloves, rev up the heavy equipment and venture deep into the county’s waterways to repair banks, strengthen levees and remove yards of vegetation and sediment. It’s tough and backbreaking work, especially when the heat piles it on, but it’s all about making sure waters stay in those very streams come winter time and don’t overflow into streets and homes.
“Our main responsibility in the watersheds is the maintenance of the creeks and channels,” said Chad Grande, the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Watershed and Operations Unit manager. “There are a lot of people and businesses that rely on us to make sure areas aren’t full of sediment because if they are, those conditions could potentially flood those areas.”
The Stream Maintenance Program is one of the water district’s biggest flood protection tools. Under the program, the district annually targets between 20 and 40 projects around Santa Clara County based on such criteria as how a site-of-concern impacts roads, private property, people and its potential for flooding.
In 2014, the water district completed 10 projects under the program. Last year, it was 18, still a low number due to a shifting focus on the historic drought and environmental permitting that limited the district’s time in the streams to about two months rather than the customary five months allowed by regulatory agencies.
The district has maintained streams for decades, but the creation of the Stream Maintenance Program more than 10 years ago helped streamline the process for securing permits from regulatory agencies such as the California Department of Wildlife or the Bay Area Air Quality District. Instead of having to get permits from every individual agency, the program allowed the district to negotiate a blanket 10-year permit. Two years ago, it negotiated a much more restrictive permit that is ultimately benefitting habitat.
“We’re a much stronger agency now,” said Grande. “We have become much more environmentally conscious and environmentally aware of the impacts we have, and we’ve gone to great efforts to try to minimize those impacts.
This year, the water district has 25 projects planned in the Guadalupe, Coyote, Lower Peninsula, Uvas/Llagas and West Valley waterways. And that’s not even the complete list.
“It’s not like this is the list that we do for the year, get them done and then we are finished for the year,” said Grande. “We always have a huge inventory of projects waiting to be done that did not rise to the level of what we are able to do. And every year we add new projects to the list and reprioritize everything.”
The program wouldn’t nearly be as strong as it is, however, without the support of the public. It gets its funding from the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program, a voter approved parcel tax that generates monies for the effort to clean up the area’s streams. The district’s Stream Stewardship Fund also contributes to the program and cities and counties sometimes contribute funds for specific work in their communities.