CONCORD, CA — Few people visit a public garden bearing their own name, but that was what Bette Boatmun experienced as she strolled through the drought-resistant, waterwise and blooming plants in the Bette Boatmun Conservation Garden last month.
The Concord resident left more than her name when she retired from the Contra Costa Water District board of directors in December. Her legacy includes the historic Los Vaqueros Reservoir, guiding a community through two severe droughts, and nearly a half century of local and statewide governance.
Formed in a special election in 1936, the district manages quality drinking water, conservation and use rates for more than a half-million central and eastern Contra Costa County residents.
Longest serving board member
A native New Yorker, Boatmun settled in Concord with her young family six decades ago. During a July interview, the longest serving of the 34 directors in the district’s history reflected on her journey that started in 1974 and spanned 46 years. She revealed her strong convictions, her steady commitment and a vivacious personality that belies her 83 years.
“They were looking for a woman and asked if I would help to find one,” recalled Boatmun, seated in the conference room at the Concord Avenue water district complex. “I contacted people through AAUW (American Association of University Women) and members that I knew in the League of Women Voters, women I knew who lived in the district – they had to reside in the district – and wasn’t having much success.”
One Sunday leaving church, she encountered a water district staff member who encouraged her to apply. Boatmun, an executive at the YWCA in Bay Point, was selected out of 19 applicants. Residents elected her to a four-year term in 1976 and to 10 more terms.
Balancing needs at Los Vaqueros
Boatmun easily counts the finalization of Los Vaqueros Reservoir as the biggest accomplishment during her tenure.
In 1988, voters approved the dam and watershed project for 20,000 acres in the Diablo Range of northeastern Contra Costa County between Brentwood and Livermore to preserve water quality. Work on the $795 million project started in 1994, with completion in 1998 and an expansion in 2011.
“Some of the challenges had to do with (planning) the recreation for Los Vaqueros,” she said. “The board really looked statewide at what was happening with reservoirs. The questions were: Do you allow swimming? Do you allow people to bring in boats? Do you allow bicycling all over the place? How close can you get to the reservoir?”
Balancing water needs and recreation desires was at the forefront of the often-heated public comment and debate.
“Obviously we came to a compromise, because in a reservoir your source water is very important. The less treatment you have, the better it is at the tap for the constituency,” she said. “So, we put in some regulations that many people did not like because it restricted some of the recreational activities that they wanted. But recreation was not the first purpose of that reservoir – the first purpose was to have a water supply for our customers.”
John Gregg, the district’s manager of operations and later assistant general manager over 30 years, praised Boatmun’s unwavering environmental support. He called her a “firm advocate for the environmental standards that the project adopted, particularly for the objective of the use of open space and acquiring control of the watershed.”
He vividly recalls how she championed equality in pay and in diversity.
“She was an outspoken advocate of equal pay for equal work and an outspoken advocate for affirmative action,” Gregg said. “What ‘affirmative action’ meant was bringing into the employee group people from the Black community into a lily-white base. It was really a different time.”
Donald Freitas, who served alongside Boatmun for 16 years starting in 1979, calls her a “water warrior” who also paved a path for local elected women.
“In the 1970s, few women were elected and appointed to boards. Part of her legacy is that she opened up a lot of doors and she never stopped doing that,” said Freitas, who later served as an Antioch City Council member and mayor.
Boatman remains active in a Central and Eastern Contra Costa County group she helped form for women who have held elected or appointed positions. She is also involved in the past presidents’ council for the Association of California Water Agencies and in several committees of the state association.
Outreach and public education
During her tenure, Boatmun helped devise tiered water rates for people in need.
“I introduced the concept of having a different rate schedule for people who were disabled or low income,” she said, referring to what the district today calls its Lifeline program.
Boatmun navigated severe droughts in 1976 and in 2013 and looked on this July as the board asked for 10 percent voluntary water use reduction, a first step in the district’s conservation process outlined in the Urban Water Management Plan.
“The history we have with the residents of the district is that they are very good at conserving and will probably do more than the 10 percent,” she said, adding that water use still remains down 10 percent to 15 percent from 2013, when the state mandated a 25 percent reduction.
She helped pioneer the conservation department’s garden education program, a vision that led to removal of an acre of grass from the district grounds in 1991 to be replaced with a drought-resistant garden with hundreds of plant species. Directors named the garden after Boatmun in 2014, her 40th year as a board member.
“Lawn-to-garden people can get many suggestions, and they’ve been ecstatic about that. They save money, get help from the district and from landscape architects. Many services are available to the public,” she said.
The district is planning an October dedication celebration for the addition of a Butterfly Garden, previously a sheet-mulching demonstration area now lush with milkweed and dozens of waterwise plants to attract natural butterflies. This addition is adjacent to the conservation garden Boatmun helped create that also bears her name.
Asked if she remembers her response when colleagues named the garden after her, she replied softly with a smile. “Oh, I think I cried. I just thought that was above and beyond.”
Karen Jenkins is pleased to be a correspondent with the Concord Clayton Pioneer News. She has worked as a community journalist on and off for three decades at publications including the Contra Costa Sun in Lamorinda; the Antioch Daily Ledger; the Avon-Beaver Creek Times in Colorado; Roll Call in Washington, D.C. and the Daily Nexus at UC-Santa Barbara. She is also the student advisor for The Sentinel, the student newspaper at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek. She may be reached at Karenjenkins241@gmail.com.