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The Los Vaqueros watershed comprises 19,300 acres (78 sq km) of open space surrounding a 1,500-acre (6.1 sq km) reservoir, which can store up to 100,000 acre feet (120,000,000 cubic m) of water. The earthen dam is 192 ft (59 m) high and 1,000-ft (300 m) long, made of 2.7 million cubic yards of fill material. The watershed has 55 mi (89 km) of hiking trails and is open for fishing, hiking, and other activities year-round, though swimming is not permitted in the reservoir. A 20,000 acre (81 sq km) wildlife habitat is home to many rare, threatened, and endangered species including fairy shrimp, bald and golden eagles, Alameda whipsnakes, western pond turtles, California tiger salamanders, California red-legged frogs, San Joaquin kit foxes, and San Francisco dusky-footed wood rats.
The reservoir is named for Rancho Cañada de los Vaqueros ("Canyon of the Cowboys Land Grant"), a 17,760-acre (71.9 sq km) parcel of land given to Antonio Higuera and his nephews Francisco Alviso and Manuel Miranda in 1844 by the last non-Californio governor of Alta California, Jose Manuel Micheltorena. He was appointed by Mexico’s president, Antonio López de Santa Anna in 1842 and arrived in command of a “cholo” army, many of whom were convicts. (Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, in his “Comentarios Reales de los Incas” published in 1609 and 1616, used the term for the first time: "The child of a Black male and an Indian female, or of an Indian male and Black female, they call mulato and mulata. The children of these they call cholo. Cholo is a word from the Windward Islands; it means dog, not of the purebred variety, but of very disreputable origin; and the Spaniards use it for insult and vituperation.") Micheltorena used the rancho system to favor Mexicans like himself, rather than the rich Californios, and his predecessor, Juan Bautista Valentín Alvarado y Vallejo, who had been responsible for the confiscation and redistribution of the Catholic mission lands to prominent Californios, led a revolt. In early 1845 Micheltoreno was defeated at Rancho Providencia in the Cahuenga Pass in the San Fernando valley, north of Los Angeles, and Pío de Jesús Pico took over, the last governor before the American conquest.
In 1847 Alviso and Miranda sold their interests in the rancho to José Noriega and Robert Livermore (who had deserted from his English trading ship in the early 1820s and subsequently prospered in Alta California; among other things, he planted the first wines grapes in the area). During the California Gold Rush, their property was on the route from the southern San Francisco Bay area to the gold fields, and the area became known as "Livermore's Valley." Livermore conveyed his interest in Rancho Cañada de los Vaqueros to his wife and children in 1852, but in1854 he traded “his half” of Rancho Cañada de los Vaqueros for Noriega’s half of Rancho Las Positas. Both halves of Rancho Cañada de los Vaqueros were again sold, in separate transactions, in 1857. When Livermore died in 1858, his widow and children claimed their half of Rancho Cañada de los Vaqueros. The four children of Antonio Higuera also claimed a 1/3 interest in the rancho. Noriega hired an attorney and gave him a half interest in the property in lieu of a fee and sold the other half to Maximo Fernandez. By 1860, various parties held deeds totaling nearly twice the original land grant. The ownership disputes were not resolved in court until 1897. By then, incursions of saline water from San Francisco Bay into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta had become a serious concern. The Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) was formed in 1936 to deal with the issue (and others). A 1977 drought caused salinity levels to exceed public health standards and forced CCWD to ration fresh water deliveries. In 1988, voters approved funding to begin design and construction of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir project. In addition to building the $61 million, 192-foot-tall dam, CCWD had to build 12.8 miles of Vasco Road (connecting Brentwood to Libermore) around the watershed ($27 million), relocate 20 electrical towers and 12 miles of gas line, build a new $20 million 10,000 horsepower pumping plant and a new $12 million transfer station with 8,000 horsepower pumps, install 20 miles of 6-to 8-foot-diameter buried pipeline to connect all the new facilities to the existing canal system, and secure nearly 20,000 acres for the dam and the watershed, while committing itself to preserve the environment and respect Native American and other historical sites. Construction began in 1994 and was completed in 1998. Filling the reservoir with water began in February 1998 and was completed the following January, a year ahead of schedule An expansion project began in 2010 to raise the height of the dam to increase storage capacity from 100,000 to 160,000 acre-ft of water.
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