San Francisco public utility acquires Wool Ranch property in Milpitas

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently purchased
nearly 800 acres of verdant, rolling hills and expansive bay area
views east of Milpitas, a property known as Wool Ranch, adding
cohesion to its collection of protected lands that surround the
watershed feeding the Calaveras Reservoir.

The $9.7 million acquisition follows the completion of the new
Calaveras Dam in May 2019, an earthquake-resistant improvement on
its predecessor, which was built in 1925. As water in the reservoir
inches back toward its maximum capacity of 31 billion gallons,
officials from SFPUC say that protecting the lands of the
upper-watershed safeguards water quality and provides refuge for
wildlife, including several rare or endangered species.

“We moved pretty quickly,” said Carla Schultheis, the
program manager for the environmental improvement projects on the
watershed. “It was a great opportunity for us to buy a piece of
property that was in the watershed so close to Calaveras.”

The Calaveras Dam is the largest of five Bay Area reservoirs
that contribute to the Hetch Hetchy system. While most of the Bay
Area’s water comes from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt stored in the
Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, the remaining 15%
is sourced at these local reservoirs, contributing to the drinking
water in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

The original Calaveras Dam was built within a thousand feet of
the Calaveras fault line. When the 76-year-old dam was found
vulnerable to major earthquakes during an inspection in 2001,
officials were forced to reduce the reservoir to 40% of its maximum
volume to ensure the safety of nearby communities, which would be
leveled in the event of a catastrophic failure.

Constructing a new, safer dam was the largest of the 87 projects
included in the Water Systems Improvement Project, a $4.8 billion
initiative that was approved by voters in 2002. The dam cost $823
million and took nearly eight years to complete, four years longer
than initial estimates, and more than double the cost. When
construction began, the water level in the dam was reduced even
further, to 20% of its capacity.

Now, the water level in the Calaveras Reservoir is rising,
currently at 63% of its maximum capacity — enough water to
provide 60,000 Bay Area families with a year’s supply of water.
Unlike the San Antonio Reservoir to the north, which is partially
fed with water from Hetch Hetchy, Calaveras relies exclusively on
the rain run-off funneled into the reservoir by the Arroyo Hondo
and a diversion dam on the Alameda Creek.

The newest land from the Wool Ranch purchase is part of the
2,300 acres that SFPUC owns, adding to the 40% of lands surrounding
watersheds that are protected from development by a nonprofit or
government agency.

“We’re really close to the urban fringe, and this area could
be developed, and that’s really something we don’t want to see
in the watershed,” said Schultheis. “Once you start having
houses and cars and all that, we just lose the control we have over
water quality.”

Citing those concerns, Schultheis said that though a public
utility owns the land, it won’t be accessible for public use.

“We want to protect the watershed, and it’s a really vast
watershed,” she said. “Having the resources to patrol the area
would be pretty daunting.”

Keeping the land closed to the public might have some benefits,
especially for the wildlife that frequents the ranch and
surrounding areas.

“If you name it, it’s here!” said Clayton Koopmann, the
rangeland manager for the watershed. He rifles off a number of
species he’s seen in the area: California red-legged frogs,
western pond turtles, Alameda whip snakes, Bay checkerspot
butterflies, even a resident herd of Tule elk. The largest nesting
habitat for golden eagles in the U.S. is just north at the San
Antonio Reservoir, and three known bald eagles nests make their
home near Wool Ranch.

“From a species standpoint, it’s a really unique and diverse
area,” he said. However, a single animal seems to predominate the
lands surrounding Wool Ranch — cows. While none are currently
grazing on the newly acquired property, grazing allotments are
expected in the future.

“They’re our employees,” laughs Pat Jones, who said the
cows reduce fire risk by consuming a lot of the grasses that act as
fast-burning fuel.

Jones is the watershed keeper, the “eyes and ears” of the
watershed, as he describes it. He’s done the job for eight years,
patrolling the roads to ensure there isn’t poaching or illegal
dumping. Recently, he spent an afternoon chasing cows off the
narrow and winding Calaveras Road. Every once in a while, a
misguided semi-truck driver will get stuck on one of the road’s
hairpin turns.

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Today, Calaveras Road is free of cows. Jones pulls over to take in
the scenery, pointing out a bald eagle’s nest and various other
landmarks around the dam. The shimmering water of Calaveras
Reservoir stretches below, flanked on one end by the scarred land
around the newly constructed dam — the only reminder of the 2.7
million thirsty customers and the sprawling metropolis just beyond
the hills.
Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
San Francisco public utility acquires Wool Ranch property in Milpitas