Los Vaqueros Project: Blending Consistent Water Quality and Reliability with Concern For Environment

Dec. 28, 2000
Water Diversion
The Los Vaqueros project, the first major water project to be built in northern California in over a decade, was recently completed in a valley 45 miles east of San Francisco. The result of a collaborative planning process in which environmental issues were put on equal footing with technical and financial considerations, Los Vaqueros will provide better water quality and reliability for over 400,000 customers of the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD).

Los Vaqueros taps high-quality water from a new intake at the Old River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for blending with water from an existing source when the salinity levels rise during dry periods. A new 100,000-acre-foot off-stream reservoir stores a 3-month water supply for emergencies (a significant increase over the former 3-day supply) and gives spawning fish a 30-day respite from pumping each spring. The $450-million project is composed of a 192-foot earth-filled dam nine miles south of Brentwood, a pumping plant on Old River, a transfer facility, 15 miles of large-diameter AWWA C300 reinforced concrete cylinder pipeline, and five miles of MLMC steel pipeline.

A century ago, los vaqueros (the cowboys) grazed cattle in the valley that now holds the reservoir. At the inception of CCWD some 40 years later, the area remained primarily agricultural, and salinity was not the concern it is today for the district's residential and municipal customers. The problem was that the district's primary intake, the existing Rock Slough intake in Oakley, is close enough to San Francisco Bay to be adversely affected by salt water intrusion during dry periods. Desalinization was not a feasible alternative. Not only does it use a great deal of energy, but it also creates a mineral-laden byproduct requiring disposal.

The Los Vaqueros project, in creating a new intake six miles farther from the bay and a reservoir, gives CCWD the flexibility to divert higher-quality water directly to the Contra Costa Canal, the main artery to customers. The district also can store this good-quality water in the newly built Los Vaqueros reservoir. Whenever salinity increases in the water at the Rock Slough intake, CCWD now can blend it with the stored water, maintaining consistent quality all year.

Planning Process

Although the Los Vaqueros solution sounds simple, it was the result of a lengthy and complex planning process. During the early stages of planning in the mid-1980s, CCWD was aware that several other water projects in northern California had recently failed to gain permits, often due to environmental impacts. Therefore, a new approach was taken-one that gave equal weight to environmental, technical and financial issues and involved permitting agencies in the effort to develop an effective solution.

CCWD identified 126 ways to achieve its dual objectives of consistent water quality and reliability. The district's goal was to select the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Following a rigorous feasibility analysis, the alternatives were narrowed to five. Some alternatives failed to achieve both quality and reliability; others, such as desalinization, were not economically feasible; still others, such as a dam and reservoir upstream of the current project, would have resulted in greater impacts on animals and plants. Los Vaqueros emerged as the CCWD's preferred alternative.

One of the major challenges was a continually shifting regulatory environment. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary was undergoing constant change. A major water source for southern California's agricultural area, the delta had been seriously affected by increasing demand over the years. Each change in environmental requirements for projects affecting the delta called for analyses of project operations.

CCWD met these challenges through a dedicated use of resources. The district's staff includes experts in water issues and computer modeling. This modeling is a tool being relied on heavily in planning California's water future. More than 200 studies were conducted to describe alternatives for operation of the Los Vaqueros Project during long-term hydrologic cycles.

Net Environmental Benefit

In addition, there was a growing list of threatened and endangered species, as well as candidates for future listings. In developing the Los Vaqueros solution, the district's staff and consultants worked with permitting agencies to determine appropriate ways to mitigate environmental impacts on listed species and others. Some of the actions taken were
  • Keeping California tiger salamanders away from the construction area through use of temporary fences lined with buckets buried in the ground, from which salamanders were retrieved and transported by hand to safer areas.
  • Installing a fish screen on the Old River intake to protect several special-status species, including the threatened Delta smelt and endangered winter-run Chinook salmon.
  • Careful relocation of a two-lane highway in the area of inundation, reducing potential wetland impacts from approximately 25 acres to 5.3 acres.
  • Undertaking an extensive valley oak replacement planting and monitoring program, creating 394 acres of valley oak woodland and savanna to replace 176.8 acres in the area of inundation.

Ultimately, CCWD had to show that the Los Vaqueros project would have a net environmental benefit to the delta. The ability to store water in the off-stream reservoir means that neither the Rock Slough nor Old River intakes must operate continuously, as Rock Slough had in the past. This enables CCWD to shut down both intakes for 30 days each spring, when Chinook salmon and Delta smelt are spawning. In fact, this is the key environmental benefit of the Los Vaqueros Project, and an important example of the results of this collaborative approach.

Public Approval

The Los Vaqueros project avoided significant public opposition because of CCWD's environmental approach. In addition, since this project does not increase the water supply, it does not induce residential and commercial growth in the area, which often is a source of public opposition for water projects. CCWD has a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for 195,000 acre-feet of water a year, and currently uses approximately 130,000 acre-feet. There will be no increase as a result of Los Vaqueros. Another reason for the project's success is that it creates an off-stream storage reservoir that does not require damming a major stream to fill it.

The district also has an active public communication program in place. During this project, the program included sharing information and progress reports about Los Vaqueros through community newsletters, fact sheets, a web site, and a telephone hotline. In 1988, CCWD received voter authorization to sell municipal bonds to finance the project.

During the planning process, it was known that the area near the proposed dam and reservoir was likely to contain human remains and artifacts of prehistoric people. Beginning in 1994, tests were conducted at nine sites in the area. Archeological excavations revealed burial sites that were more than 2,000 years old, as well as numerous artifacts believed to be up to 8,000 years old. CCWD worked very closely with representatives of the local Native American community and experts from Sonoma State University to develop and carry out plans for cataloging and conserving archeological discoveries and reburying human remains.

Pipe Selection

The water conveyance system was designed by Montgomery Watson, Walnut Creek, California. The Old River pumping plant lifts water from the delta into 34,000 feet of 78-inch diameter pipe that is connected to a four-million-gallon steel reservoir at the transfer facility. The transfer reservoir provides hydraulic grade control for the system and acts as the intake for the transfer pumping plant. From here it is pumped through 24,000 feet of 72-inch diameter pipe to the reservoir or fed by gravity through a third pipeline composed of 28,000 feet of 90-inch diameter and 19,000 feet of 96-inch diameter pipe, to the Contra Costa Canal.

The contractor, ARB Inc. of Brentwood, California, selected the pipe based on CCWD's performance specifications. Reinforced concrete cylinder pipe (AWWA C300) was selected because of the ease of installation that resulted in reduced cost compared with steel, given the poor supporting strength of the soils at the site.

Under these conditions, use of steel pipe would have required the contractor to substantially increase the volume of the excavation to provide the necessary compaction for support of the pipe. The design pressure for the pipeline ranged from 50 to 175 psi, and earth cover from 8 to 40 feet. A six-inch layer of pea gravel and geotextile fabric was used as pipe bedding.

Ameron International furnished the reinforced concrete cylinder pipeline from its Tracy, California, plant. That plant is certified by the American Concrete Pressure Pipe Association, under its third-party, audited, compliance audit and certification program to produce concrete pressure pipe according to AWWA standards.

Engineering Challenges

To provide a stable foundation for the embankment dam, some 2.4 million cubic yards of earth were excavated 40 feet to bedrock. An extensive grout curtain was created along the base to prevent water seepage around and under the dam, ensuring stability under all conditions.

Geological conditions posed other challenges as well. Soft peat at the Old River intake site required the facility's perimeter to be stabilized with 1,500 stone columns sunk 40 feet into the ground as well as 152 composite concrete and steel piles supporting the intake structure.

However, the most significant engineering challenge of the project arose when geotechnical studies showed that the rock on the left dam abutment had several fissures that were up to a foot in width. Working closely with the California Department of Safety of Dams and a team of technical consultants, the contractor excavated this unstable rock and installed a concrete overlay that solved the problem.

Construction of the Los Vaqueros Project began in 1994. By the end of 1997, most of the system's components were in place (the new 13-mile road around the 18,500-acre watershed; the dam and spillway; the new intake and transfer facilities; and the pipeline) and testing was underway. Early 1998 saw the first surge of water from the Old River intake into the reservoir. It is expected to fill to 100,000 acre feet. Even before that, customers began to benefit from the better quality water diverted to the Contra Costa Canal.

Now and in the future, Los Vaqueros will provide consistent water quality and reliability for the people throughout the Contra Costa Water District.

About the Author:

Bruce Ross is the president of Bruce Ross Associates, New York, N.Y.

The Los Vaqueros Project at a Glance


  • Improve water quality for CCWD's 400,000 customers through storing higher-quality delta water from wet seasons for blending with the delta supply during dry periods
  • Store a 3- to 6-month emergency water supply
  • Other benefits, including protection of rare natural and historic resources within the watershed


  • Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary
  • Intake at Old River, near Discovery Bay


  • 100,000 acre-feet of storage
  • 1,400-acre surface area
  • 170-ft maximum depth
  • 2.5 miles at widest point/2.5 miles at longest point
  • 16.1 miles of shoreline, when full


  • Located 9 miles south of Brentwood, Calif.
  • 192 feet high
  • 1,000-foot crest length
  • 2.8 million cubic yards of fill material

Conveyance system

  • Intake facility at Old River with 250 cubic-feet-per-second capacity (10,500 horsepower) pumping plant; fish screens
  • Transfer facility with 200-cubic-feet-per-second capacity (8,400 horsepower) pumping plant
  • 15 miles of 72- to 96-inch-diameter reinforced concrete cylinder pipeline (AWWA C300) connecting the transfer facility to the intake and Contra Costa Canal
  • 5 miles of steel pipeline connecting the transfer facility to the dam

Project Schedule

  • Construction started 1994
  • Project completed 1998
About the Author

Bruce Ross

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