Over the past two years, Silicon Valley’s largest water provider, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, has had a long list of challenges and setbacks.
In 2020, the federal government ordered its largest dam, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, drained for earthquake repairs. The price tag has since doubled to $1.2 billion. The district’s plan to build another big dam near Pacheco Pass also doubled in cost, and that $2.5 billion project has been hit with a lawsuit and funding shortfalls.
As the drought worsened, the district has pushed for conservation and spent tens of millions of dollars to buy water from Sacramento Valley farmers at high prices. The agency’s 7-member board has clashed on multiple issues; one board member, Gary Kremen, temporarily stepped aside as chairman this year amid an investigation into whether he bullied staff members; and the agency spent $3.2 million this spring on a ballot measure to extend board members’ term limits that critics, including the San Jose City Council, called deceptively worded.
Control of the district, which is one of the largest government agencies in Santa Clara County with a budget of $917 million and 904 employees, will be up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election. Voters can begin casting ballots by mail in about two weeks.
Four seats are up for election, carrying four-year terms.
In District 1, which represents the South County and East Foothills, incumbent John Varela, the former mayor of Morgan Hill who has served 7 years on the water district board, is running unopposed and will retain his seat. In District 4, representing Almaden Valley and Campbell, incumbent Linda LeZotte, a former San Jose city councilwoman, is retiring. She will be replaced by former State Sen. Jim Beall, who is running unopposed.
The two remaining seats, in District 6 representing East San Jose, and District 7 from Palo Alto to Los Gatos, are held by Tony Estremera, a San Jose attorney who has served for 26 years on the board, and Kremen, a technology investor from Los Altos Hills who has served 8 years.
Estremera, Kremen and Varela, along with fellow incumbent Dick Santos, currently hold a narrow majority over LeZotte and incumbents Barbara Keegan and Nai Hsueh. That 4-3 majority selected Rick Callender, a longtime water district executive and former president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, as CEO in 2020.
In March the majority voted 4-3 to place Measure A on the June ballot allowing board members to serve four 4-year terms. It passed narrowly with 50.6% of the vote.
The measure, which allowed Estremera to run for another term, failed to note that in 2010, Santa Clara County voters limited board members to three terms. It asked instead if voters wanted to “limit” the board to four terms after the district’s internal polling showed voters opposing a fourth term.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called the measure “self-serving dishonesty” and said the $3.2 million spent to place it on the ballot should have been spent to reduce residents’ water bills. The San Jose City Council voted 7-3 in April to formally oppose the measure.
In interviews this week, both Estremera and Kremen said they copied language from 1998, when Santa Clara County supervisors won voter approval for a measure to extend their terms from two to three. But in hindsight, both said they should have worded it more clearly.
“If I had realized folks were going to be that critical of it, I might have used different language,” Estremera said.
Estremera is being challenged by two candidates, Chuck Cantrell, a member of the San Jose Planning Commission who was appointed to that body by Liccardo, and Diego Barragan, a former aide to San Jose city councilmembers Xavier Campos, Kansen Chu and Margie Mathews who now works as director of operations at Voler Strategic Advisors, a San Jose public relations firm.
Cantrell, a former tech industry marketer who works as development director for the San Jose Conservation Corps, said he opposes building Pacheco dam, and opposed plans by former Gov. Jerry Brown to build two huge tunnels under the Delta to make it easier to move water from north to south. Kremen and Estremera both voted in 2018 for the water district to support and help fund the twin tunnels, which Gov. Gavin Newsom withdrew when he took office in favor of a smaller one-tunnel plan.
Cantrell, 56, who is endorsed by LeZotte, Keegan and Liccardo, said he supports a dramatic expansion of recycled water, and investigating desalination.
“We need to work on abundance instead of always looking at scarcity,” he said.
Barragan, 41, said his goals are to keep water rates affordable; reduce graffiti and illegal dumping in creeks, and expand educational programs. He said he has not yet made up his mind on Pacheco dam.
Estremera, 72, said the community needs veteran experience to help it through the drought and to complete major water projects. If he wins re-election, he said, he will focus on Pacheco dam, Anderson dam, supporting Newsom’s Delta tunnel plan, and participating in the expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County to provide more water to the South Bay.
Kremen, 59, said his accomplishments include leading efforts to get $485 million in state bond funding for the Pacheco dam project, pushing for larger rebates for people who buy water-efficient appliances and remove lawns, and getting flood control work completed on parts of San Francisquito Creek.
He said he plans to work on the Los Vaqueros, Anderson and Pacheco projects; and advocating cities in the South Bay adopt more water-efficient rules in their building codes to boost conservation.
“The agency is slowly moving in the right direction,” Kremen said. “Water is an extremely conservative field and water agencies are probably the most conservative of government agencies. It takes a long time to right the ship.”
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Kremen launched a campaign to run for county assessor but dropped out in March after a staff member leaked semi-nude photos of him and his longtime partner and accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the accusations and asked the water district board to investigate whether he had sexually harassed anyone there. The board widened the investigation to also include accusations he bullied staff members. The investigation is pending.
Kremen’s challenger is Rebecca Eisenberg, a Palo Alto attorney who worked in the past for PayPal, Trulia, Reddit and other companies. Eisenberg, 54, said she opposes the Pacheco dam project and Newsom’s Delta tunnel, and would push the district to build temporary housing for people living in creeks, and dramatically expand water recycling.
Endorsed by LeZotte and Keegan, she ran unsuccessfully for Palo Alto city council in 2020.
“The water district board has a lot of disfunction,” she said. “This is an extremely important time. More and more studies are coming out showing that we have a lot less time than we previously believed to make substantial changes to our behaviors and actions because of climate change. We need to make big systemic changes. And that is not happening at the water district.”