Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The story of the return of salmon to the Guadalupe River in San Jose is more the result of its high tech industrial activity than to watershed restoration efforts that we talk about today.

In the mid 80's, we discovered a horrible oversight of our otherwise genius pioneers of Silicon Valley. They neglected to connect the fact that solvents dissolve stuff as well as rinse off electronic parts, and the tanks and pipes holding their volatile organic chemicals started to leak into our precious underground aquifer.

The bright Stanford grads working at a South San Jose semiconductor company were quite embarrassed that their "tank that never filled" was poisoning well water a mile or two away.

IBM had an even bigger problem. The brilliant folks at that facility buried all their chemical solvent storage tanks in a gravelly area on the campus, so any leakage could just flush away quickly. Secondary containment, which was later mandated along with monitoring wells, was not ever considered as part of good management practices.

The cost of IBM's ignorance of nature and environmental health soon turned into a $90 million water bill, as the hydrogeologists determined that IBM had sunk their tank farm in an old alignment of Coyote Creek, that nature had later filled with gravel during succeeding floods. And the plumes of the leaked chemicals were heading to our main groundwater basin that serves most of San Jose its drinking water at the incredible velocity of 10 feet per day.

High capacity well pumps were quickly installed down gradient of the several leaking solvent tanks, and IBM began pumping 15 million gallons per day of contaminated groundwater and dumping it down a storm drain. The volatile organic chemicals in the water would then release from the water into the atmosphere where they began destroying ozone when they reach that endangered level.

All this water continued to flow toward the Guadalupe River through a somewhat lined channel called Canoas Creek. Canoas Creek once functioned as an overflow channel from the Coyote Creek, a condition forever interrupted when the railroad placed an embankment across the channel over a century ago.

Once this water began flowing all year down the Guadalupe River, the salmon began to run within a few short years. Some of NGO's that focus on stream restoration today may have the actual run history. But the fact that a huge groundwater cleanup operation from the Valley's biggest and oldest high tech employer supplied the necessary water for restoring a salmon run in the middle of a huge metropolis is a strange kind of legacy that could only happen in the wild west, in the wildest part called Silicon Valley.

This would be a good place to end this story, except that the legacy since has shifted the burden of providing the necessary stream flow for the salmon runs onto the public, namely the Santa Clara Valley Water District. All the Water District dam permits from the State require that the owner make necessary releases to protect existing fisheries. A large number of people were suddenly employed by the Water District to learn their new role as salmon stewards. Eventually the Water District, under CEO Stan Williams’ leadership, amended the District Act (in a good way this time) to be the authorized steward of our county's watersheds.

Our endless work awaits us.

Never Thirst!

Pat Ferraro

1 comment:

MartinJG said...

just found this site through Margaret Bruce. This post caught my eye in that as a Santa Clara Valley native, the IBM and Fairchild leaks were what got me into the Environmental field.

I never knew the details in your post though I recall the blame of the day. Interesting perspective!