Contra Costa Canal

The Contra Costa Canal passes near O'Hara Avenue in Oakley, Calif., Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (Tony Kukulich/The Press)

Construction of the Contra Costa Canal began in 1937 as part of the Central Valley Project under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but efforts are now underway to transfer ownership of the aging canal to the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD). 

Transferring the canal to local control is likely good news for the 500,000 residents of East and Central Contra Costa County who depend upon the 48-mile-long canal for at least a portion of their water supply. 

“The title transfer is a really good thing regarding local control, because the Bureau has owned the title, while we maintain it and we’ve paid for it,” said Connstance Holdaway, vice president at CCWD. “To be able to take the title is a great opportunity because we’re looking at almost 90 years of age. It was built when it was a rural community. Times have changed and it’s time to look at maintaining and improving the structure ... Without the Bureau involved, we’re able to do these things quicker.”

While upkeep and maintenance are important to current operation of the canal, the transfer fits into CCWD’s long-term plan for providing water service to the county.

“We’re looking forward to the next 100 years of what that system will look like,” said Jennifer Allen, CCWD director of public affairs. “For several reasons, we’re looking at a modernization of that system — for safety, for water supply reliability, for water quality issues — which will probably mean that, rather than an open-channel canal, that we’d be looking at some form of a pipeline that will be more appropriate for the landscape that the canal runs through now.”

In the early years of its operation, the canal primarily supported agriculture in the Central and Sacramento valleys. Increasing urbanization in Contra Costa County has transformed the canal into a vital component of water delivery for homes and businesses. 

“It is an aging canal,” said Allen. “It’s primarily a concrete-lined, open channel running through the community. There are safety issues related to having an open-water canal in more urbanized area than when it was farmland.”

Holdaway noted that, on average, one person has drowned in the canal every year since the it’s been in operation. Deceptively swift currents, slick banks and deep water are factors in those drownings. Converting the channel to an enclosed pipeline will, according to Allen, improve safety, water-delivery reliability and water quality.

CCWD has operated and maintained the canal, which originates in Rock Slough near Knightsen and extends to Martinez, since 1972. Modernization is expected to require a significant investment and, Allen said, CCWD determined that gaining title to the canal was an important step before those investments could proceed. 

“As part of our contract with the federal government, we’ve paid them back for building that facility,” said Allen. “Essentially, we paid them back in 2010. In order to take ownership of the canal, it does require an act of congress.”

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) got the transfer process started when he introduced the Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act in June, 2018. The bill was cosponsored by Rep. Jerry McNerney (CA-9) and Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-5). Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored the senate version of the legislation. 

“The canal has reliably served the people and businesses of our community for 80 years,” said Lisa Borba, CCWD president, in a 2018 press release issued when the Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act was introduced. “We appreciate the leadership from Senator Feinstein and Congressman DeSaulnier to help us gain ownership of a system we can modernize to serve our customers for the next century.”

The legislation passed both the House and the Senate and was wrapped up into a wide-ranging public-lands bill signed by President Trump in March. The passage of the bill authorized the Department of the Interior to enter discussions with CCWD pertaining to the canal transfer. 

“Passage of the Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act allows the Contra Costa Water District to implement long-overdue improvements to the canal,” said DeSaulnier. “This legislation will allow for critical safety and structural improvements, and will bring benefits to all Contra Costa residents.”

The process to complete the transfer of the canal’s title to CCWD could still take several years, and the start of the modernization process will likely take several more, but Allen is confident the process is moving in the right direction. 

“I think it’s a good reminder what exactly the canal does, that this is the backbone of water service for customers in Central and East Contra Costa County,” said Allen. “That is your drinking water, whether you’re serviced by CCWD or another retailer ... That is the water supply for the community and it’s a very important facility. That’s why we want to make it into something that will be providing reliable service for the next 100 years.”

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