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Water: Setting the sights on Sites

An artist's rendering of the proposed Sites Reservoir complex. (Image: California Department of Water Resources)

Sites Reservoir has been talked about for decades, but now that project officials — and backed by 70 major allies — have formally submitted an application for state bond money, the question arises: Will this $5 billion project actually come to pass?

The proposed surface reservoir would be located in Colusa County, but is competing with 11 other applicants for part of a $2.7 billion coffer of state money devoted to water storage projects. Sites wants $1.6 billion in state money, the largest amount of any applicant, then will cover the rest through revenue from  water agencies that benefit from the reservoir and even federal sources.

The state bond money originates from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water-measure passed by voters in 2014 amidst California’s historic drought.

Even if the state funds don’t get approved, Sites can still be built, although on a reduced scale.

The 32 local water agencies that have already signed on for the project could provide enough money for a smaller reservoir, said Project General Manager Jim Watson.

“We don’t need (the state) to give us money to fund the project, because we could build this project all on our own today, but that would come at the extent of providing water for the environment,” Watson said. He said that if the reservoir is not granted any of the state funds, the authority board would then seek investments from other water groups.

The state bond money originates from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water-measure passed by voters in 2014 amidst California’s historic drought.

Sites, which would divert water from the Sacramento River and store as much as 1.8 million acre feet, is one of three applicants proposing a completely new surface reservoir. The added storage space could produce an average annual yield of 500,000 acre feet of water — enough to serve the needs of roughly 13 million Californians for one year.

To receive Proposition 1 funds, the 12 projects must show they provide environmental benefits to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta or its accompanying tributaries.

According to the Sites Project Authority website, the facility is environmentally friendly, at least in part because it would be an “off-stream reservoir,” meaning the project would not dam an existing river.

Instead, the project would take water from the nearby Sacramento River via a constructed pipe and, in the process, spare the migration flow of the area’s salmon population.

But environmentalists suggest the benefits to the state would be marginal in comparison with the huge outlay in costs, and note the potential for environmental damage.

To receive Proposition 1 funds, the 12 projects must show they provide environmental benefits to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta or its accompanying tributaries. The delta is the heart of the state’s water system, and these benefits may include ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control benefits, emergency response, or recreational purposes.

Watson said Sites would help the environment in part because it would aid the state’s declining smelt population by moving water into the Yolo Bypass area. The additional water would give the area more nutrients, and as a result, provide the smelt with a more reliable food supply. According to the Sites Project Authority website, the project would also improve Pacific Flyway habitat for migratory birds.

“You’re basically trying to use Sites as a regulating reservoir to bring water into the system to meet downstream demands.” — Thad Bettner

Thad Bettner, the  General Manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, said the reservoir would also protect the Sacramento River salmon by providing them better access to cold water pools.

He said that during dry periods California could use Sites’ water for downstream irrigation needs instead of completely relying on Lake Shasta’s supply. Shasta could then better maintain the cold water temperatures that its salmon population needs during spawning and rearing season.

“You’re basically trying to use Sites as a regulating reservoir to bring water into the system to meet downstream demands” he said. “Then you’d save a like amount water up in Shasta that would then be available for winter and spring (salmon) runs.”

“Surface water reservoirs are not a panacea, but they are valuable for capturing water when it’s available in the peak flows.” — Dave Bolland

Environmental groups argue that Sites does not provide enough public benefits to justify use of taxpayer dollars or the potential harm the facility may do toward the environment.

Ron Stork,  policy advocate for the Friends of the River Foundation, said that even if all the projects vying for Proposition 1 funding were completed, they still would not provide anywhere near enough water to meet California’s growing demands.

“If these (water storage) projects, that essentially dam rivers or divert from rivers that have already been diverted and heavily tapped, are going to make a difference, then they will only make a difference in the one percent level,” Stork said.

But, Dave Bolland, the director of State Regulatory Relations for the Association of California Water Agencies, said building surface reservoirs can be part of a broader approach to revamping California’s water system.

Bolland said if these storage projects are accompanied by other changes to state water use, such as the construction of new conveyance systems or the passage of more efficient environmental laws, California will be better prepared for the potential effects of climate change, such as a smaller Sierra snowpack.

“Surface water reservoirs are not a panacea, but they are valuable for capturing water when it’s available in the peak flows” he said.

The California Water Commission, the group that determines which projects receive funding, is currently reviewing the 12 applicants.

The Commission will be measuring the cost of each project against the public benefits they would supposedly provide.

“It’s not a beauty pageant. It’s an investment program,” California Water Commission spokesman Chris Orrock told Water Deeply,  a news site that covers water issues.

The California Water Commission will announce which of the 12 projects receive Proposition 1 funding between May and June next year.

Temperance Flat Dam, another proposed surface-level facility, would provide an estimated 1.26 million acre feet of additional water storage, applied for $1.3 billion. The project would be located on the San Joaquin River about seven miles upstream from Fresno County’s Friant Dam. The area is in the heart of California’s agricultural empire, and the farming community has long pushed for the reservoir.

Other applicants, like the Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Project, aim to adjust existing facilities.

Los Vaqueros, a nearly 20-year-old reservoir located in northern Contra Costa County, would have its earthen dam raised by 55 feet. The project would ultimately increase the facility’s storage capacity from 160,000 acre feet to 175,000 acre feet and provide enough annual water for 1.4 million people. The Contra Costa Water District, which oversaw the application, is seeking $434 million.

Six different environmental groups have come out in support of the Los Vaqueros expansion, in part because the project would provide habitats for wildlife as well as storage water for local residents and farmers, according to The East Bay Times,

The California Water Commission will announce which of the 12 projects receive Proposition 1 funding between May and June next year.


  • FrogasaurusRex

    Does noone realize how inefficient large shallow reservoirs are? This is basic education stuff… Are we crazy??

  • Chipmunk

    “Environmental groups argue that Sites does not provide ‘enough’ public benefits (an average annual yield of 500,000 acre feet of water — enough to serve the needs of roughly 13 million Californians for one year) to justify use of taxpayer dollars or the potential harm the facility may do toward the environment”

    Notice how ‘environmental groups’ (social justice groups) do not see locally produced food over imports as a public benefit in Colusa county; however,

    “Six different environmental groups have come out in support of the Los Vaqueros expansion, (175,000 acre feet and provide enough annual water for 1.4 million people) in part because the project would provide habitats for wildlife as well as storage water for local residents and farmers”, in Contra Costa County which is in the Bay Area.

    Sites= 13 million Californians | Los Vaqueros = 1.4 million ‘people’.

    Anyone?

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