A long-dead proposal to flood a bucolic valley north of Sacramento and create a giant reservoir for thirsty Southern California is finding new life – and opposition – amid the impacts. of climate change and increasing droughts.
First conceived in the 1950s, the Sites Reservoir project was abandoned in the 1980s – the twilight years of major dam construction projects in the American West. Now, decades later, a super-drought in the Southwest and historic water constraints in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties are spurring renewed interest in the plan, prompting conservationists environmental protection very concerned.
Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District recently spent $20 million on project planning, saying the reservoir would make the area’s water supply more resilient during times of drought.
The proposal has also received bipartisan support led by Governor Gavin Newsom, $816 million in voter-approved bonds, and more than $2.2 billion in loans issued by federal agencies. and state provided.
“Drought is driving this project forward,” said Congressman John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), a longtime supporter of the proposal. “We are in the third year of a severe drought, and the frequency of droughts has shifted from every 10 years to every few years.”
Newsom backed the plan.
“We are actually going to finish the project,” Newsom said during a tour of the Oroville Dam last month. The reservoir, he said, is “something I’ve been advocating for a long time.”
The controversy turned the valley west of the Sacramento River into a battleground. Hardly a day goes by that agricultural interest websites and petitions circulated by conservation groups do not feature some divisive developments or fiery comments.
The $4 billion out-of-flow reservoir is intended to hold rainwater from the Sacramento River and won’t dam the river or prevent fish migration. Operating under a public-private partnership, it will hold 1.5 million acres of water at capacity and will be made available to investors for consumption, sale or rental. (One acre of water is enough to supply three households for a year.)
But environmentalists say the reservoir won’t do much to solve Southern California’s water problem.
“The Sites Reservoir won’t deliver much water – however, it will be costly and difficult to prevent because it causes elected officials to say, “Look,” said Ron Stork, senior policy expert. See, we’re doing something about the super-drought.” Support the nonprofit Friends of the River. “It becomes their solution to climate change.”
Sierra Club California also warned that the reservoir, about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell and Interstate 5, would facilitate development of the controversial Delta Conveyance Project, or Delta Tunnel. That’s because it would help justify spending about $20 billion, they say, to funnel freshwater through the tunnel from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Mike Conroy, executive director of the Federation of Pacific Coast Fishermen, describes the reservoir proposal as “an expensive water grab that benefits California’s most wasteful water brokers, not the average Californian.”
However, in an area known for its abundance of rice, almonds, walnuts, pistachios and fruit trees, public sentiment toward dams and reservoirs runs deep.
Billboards along Interstate 5 and Highway 99 proclaim, “Let’s dam it now,” “Newsom stop wasting our dam water!” and “Irrigation Problems.”
If authorized, the first new large reservoir built in California since 1999 would be owned and operated by a group of Central Valley agricultural interests and water counties.
Of the other 30 beneficiaries, Metropolitan Water District in Southern California will receive the largest share of the reservoir’s water as it will cover the largest share of the project’s development costs.
The second largest participant is the San Bernardino Valley City Water District, which has collected about $14 million, despite an ample supply of water stored in its groundwater basins.
“When it comes to water, the great balancer to all uncertainty is storage,” said Bob Tincher, county director of water resources. “Of course, if we don’t need that water, we can always sell it to someone.”
Project Sites calls for the construction of two large dams up to 310 feet high, as well as nine smaller saddle dams. Storm surge from the Sacramento River about 15 miles away will be redirected to the reservoir through two existing canals and a new pipeline.
A key obstacle to project completion was whether the California Board of Water Resources Control would grant a reservoir permit to divert water from the Sacramento River.
“The board’s decision on our application will make or break this project,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the agency.
“If we don’t get the right water, there’s no project. If we get to it, we will break ground in 2024 and be fully operational by 2030,” Brown said.
“Overall, we’re in pretty good shape,” Brown said. “Our exhaustive modeling and studies show that the Sacramento River has two to five times as much water availability as the 1.5 million acres we were looking for, even in low water conditions. drought”.
But while investors wait, opponents including conservation groups, the salmon industry and tribal leaders warn that many key issues remain unresolved by regulators and courts. decision judgment.
Doug Obegi, director of the National Resource Defense Council’s California river restoration program, said the results are intended to determine living conditions along the river for people, the landscape and endangered species including fish. Delta salmon and chinook salmon are endangered.
“Right now, people are playing around to get whatever water they can,” he said. “Farmers consider the rainwater harvesting of the Sacramento River to be crucial to their economic survival. Environmentalists say those surges are essential to sustaining the ecological network of life in the river. “
Other critics include Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources and expert on flood and dam safety management. To hear him say it, “Sites Reservoir will never cross the finish line.”
“Politicians are pushing it because voters like the proposal to build dams in extremely dry years,” he said. “But drought can also be catastrophic for investors.”
That’s because, he said, when water supplies are low, senior rights holders, such as rice growers in Central California, get water ahead of more junior rights holders.
“All I see in the Sacramento Valley these days are abandoned rice fields owned by farmers whose surface water supply has been cut off,” he added. “So investors may find themselves entitled, but no real water to put in their new reservoir.”
The Sites Valley is a look back in time – a large dusty bowl 13 miles long and about five and a half miles wide, where cattle and deer traverse grasslands surrounded by oak trees and arid creeks in the valley. the brutal heat of summer.
It’s also home to 20 people, including Mary Wells, a respected former Northern California water manager and policymaker who has run a cattle ranch in the valley for nearly half a century. century.
Wells and her children enjoy hiking and horseback riding in the area. And when they went out for a walk, they figured that in less than 10 years the entire valley could be underwater.
Wells doesn’t have beef with any of it. For her, it was not a matter of whether or not to fill the valley with stormwater, but rather the depth and speed.
“The bitter part of it all is the monetary and emotional loss more than anyone could imagine,” she said with a sigh. “The sweet part is knowing that this project is a thoughtful solution to the water crisis facing Central California’s agricultural industry and this amazing state.”
Critics point out that the reservoir will hold only a fraction of the 42 million acres consumed each year in California.
Steve Evans, a water consultant for conservation groups including the California Wilderness Coalition, is concerned that the reservoir’s diversion could disrupt the river’s ecology.
In one of the emerging successes of environmentalism, the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge is recovering from restoration efforts.
“Overlooking large swaths of rejuvenated riverbanks, where wildlife is moving again faster than expected,” Evans said, “Reducing the annual river surge,” says Evans. This means less important habitat for bobcats, wood ducks, tree frogs and migrants including the yellow-billed cuckoo. “
Still, the worry of local farmers and ranchers has been cornered by climate change.
The Sacramento River Basin has been severely depleted by a third year of drought, with current reserves in Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, at 1.7 million acres, compared with an average of 3.5 million acres for this time of year, according to the California Rice Commission.
So far this year, 370,000 acres of crops have been abandoned in the western part of the Sacramento Valley, mostly in Colusa and Glenn counties, the commission said.
National wildlife will only receive 15% to 18% of their usual water supply at the end of the season. Reducing water availability for wildlife shelters and flooded rice farms could set the stage for botulism and avian cholera outbreaks.
Members of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, a major participant in the reservoir project, need not go far to find a lifeless sign of severe drought.
Just one stone thrown out of their conference room window thousands of 18-year-old almond trees were recently flattened by the corporation’s chairman, Zachary Dennis, because he didn’t have enough water to feed them.
“I had no choice,” said Dennis, 42, as he scoured the property to consider his loss. “Our water allocation is down to zero, and the price of water from contractors is up to $600 an acre — about six times what it costs in normal years.”
Additionally, trees spanning 377 acres of land stopped producing almonds after the area was hit by frost in February.
“If it doesn’t rain a lot this winter,” he said sadly, “we’ll most likely have to buy insurance again.”
https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-05-31/drought-resurrects-plan-for-controversial-reservoir Drought resurrects plan for controversial reservoir