State downsizes Sites Reservoir water-storage site

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By Vicky Boyd


Calling its move “right sizing,” the Sites Reservoir Authority recently decided to decrease the size of an off-stream water-storage project west of Maxwell after receiving input from stakeholders.

Although Farm Bureau leaders say they don’t agree with shrinking the size of the project, they nonetheless remain supportive of new water storage facilities.

“It’s been an uphill battle in trying to get projects like this even going and moving,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker. “And now for them to downsize it is not the direction we want to be heading. We don’t want to say we’re supporting it being a smaller project, but we’re supportive of the project happening as long as it’s something that can be expanded in the future. We would like to see the complete project done now.”

Dave Simpson, chair of the SJFB Water Committee, said he was disappointed with the move because the state just released a separate feasibility study that examines levee improvements and flood control for much of the Central Valley.

“I’m just mystified,” said Simpson, after he read the Sacramento-San Joaquin Drainage District feasibility study for the Delta. “It’s something that the water commission is looking at, so it’s a little frustrating when the state wants to use billions of dollars. I don’t know where they’re going to find it.

“If you want to do flood protection, you do that with a multi-use project (like Sites). What makes more sense? Do you build floodways and levee setbacks or a reservoir so you have more flood storage capacity? To me, it’s like taking conventional wisdom and upending it.”

In addition, Sites is designed to provide flows during dry periods to benefit fisheries and other environmental uses downstream and in the Delta.

SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel said the state needs water storage, even if it is a smaller Sites Reservoir.

“I’d like to see as much water storage as possible,” he said. “But it’s better to do something rather than nothing. I’m wondering how the changes will affect the actual usage of Sites.”

Vogel said he hoped the smaller reservoir will be designed in a way it can be expanded in the future.

Saving for a drier day

Even in a year like this when much of the state is in a moderate drought, large flows generated by sporadic rain storms could be diverted into Sites Reservoir and saved for drier summer months, Simpson said.

He’s seen just such benefits, although on a smaller scale, with a project the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District is involved with on the Mokelumne River.

“Even in our little district, when the flows were running heavy after that last storm, we used it to fill up Tracy Lake to use when we don’t have it,” said Simpson, who sits on the conservation district board.

Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources, said he’s equally frustrated with the way the California Water Commission has hijacked Sites and taken it away from the water commissioners.

“Those who don’t want new water storage don’t want water storage, period,” he said. “They clearly do not understand the need to increase water storage to strengthen our water resiliency as we are in and continue to head into decidedly longer dry periods punctuated by flashier storm systems in particular. We need to be able to divert that excess flood flow into storage to carry us into longer dry periods.”

He cited Proposition 1, approved by voters in 2014, which provided $2.7 billion for water-storage projects. Sites project developers requested $1.6 billion but only received $816 million. The Water Commission said project funding was tied to a ranking system that weighed ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control, recreation and emergency response.

David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, said he can understand the financial savings involved in reducing the size of Sites. On the other hand, construction costs would be that much higher should reservoir supporters decide to enlarge it later on, he said.

Much like Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, Sites is being designed with future expansion in mind.

One of the biggest hurdles with the project’s original size was obtaining the necessary California Department of Fish and Wildlife permits, Guy said.

“That’s just the world we live in,” he said. “We don’t agree with that, by the way, but that’s Fish and Wildlife.”

As someone who has followed Sites for years, Guy said he’s optimistic about the project’s future.

“I’m confident that this one is going to get built,” he said.

30 years in the making

Talk of Sites Reservoir has been ongoing for at least 30 years for a 14,000-acre valley 10 miles west of Maxwell. About 30 water agencies are currently participating.

As originally proposed, Sites would have provided 1.8 million acre-feet of off-stream storage and carried a price tag of $5.1 billion. The revised plan calls for a 1.5 million acre-foot multi-use project with a cost of $3 billion.

The average annual yield would be decreased to 243,000 acre-feet from the original 505,000 acre-feet. Gone is an 18-mile-long pipeline that would have diverted Sacramento River water to the reservoir. Instead, project developers propose using existing Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and Tehama-Colusa Irrigation District canals. Also eliminated was a hydro-power plant that would have generated power during peak use periods.

Because the changes were significant compared to the original environmental impact review/environmental impact statement circulated for review in 2017, the Sites authority plans to revise the document and recirculate it for comment.

The document, as well as a revised feasibility study, is expected to be released in 2021. A final EIR/EIS is expected to be finalized in 2022, according to the authority’s timetable. Depending on permitting, construction could begin as early as 2022, with build-out expected to take about seven years.