Dec 22, 2021
Sites Reservoir clears a critical funding hurdle

The atmospheric river storm that brought some rain and snow to the parched state may serve as a reminder that California is still waiting to build planned infrastructure for storing water in wet years for use in dry years.

The California Water Commission recently took a key step forward on funding four water storage projects. They now are eligible to receive funds from $2.7 billion earmarked for public benefits of new projects authorized through the Water Storage Investment Program.

The funds are a portion of the $7.1 billion authorized through Proposition 1, a water bond passed by voters in 2014.

While commission members did not formally award any funds, they voted to advance four projects as feasible for construction and eligible to receive bond money.

The projects include Sites Reservoir, a proposed major storage facility north of Sacramento. If built, the Sites project is planned to be a 1.5 million acre-feet capacity off-stream surface storage reservoir in Colusa County west of Maxwell. The eventual total cost of the project is estimated at $4 billion. The vote could free up $837 million in WSIP funds overseen by the commission.

Others in line for funding are the Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project, the Kern Fan Groundwater Storage Project and the Willow Springs Water Bank Conjunctive Use Project.

Separately, the commission found that two additional proposed Central Valley projects also met certain requirements, making them eligible to apply through the WSIP to compete for available bond money if the commission does a second solicitation for project funding.

“There is nothing more important right now than building out properly vetted water storage projects that will serve our state and its citizens for generations to come,” said California Water Commission Vice Chair Matt Swanson.

During public comments, Justin Fredrickson, California Farm Bureau water and environmental policy analyst, said, “It’s been a long road to get here. It’s been very expensive and a very elaborate process and has required a lot of commitment from the project proponents.”

Fredrickson urged commissioners to approve and move projects forward in the WSIP process. “We can’t just get by with (current) infrastructure that’s not getting any younger,” he said.

Under Proposition 1, projects receiving funding must include additional public benefits. For example, the commission said the Sites project would include water deliveries to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the Yolo Bypass to benefit delta smelt, storage to capture flood flows and increased opportunities for recreation.

Representatives of environmental and fishing groups and tribes spoke in opposition. They argued that the Sites project would neither benefit fisheries nor the environment.

Barry Nelson, policy consultant for the Golden State Salmon Association, argued that Sites fails to advance long-term objectives of restoring ecological health and improving water management for beneficial uses of the delta as required under the California Water Code. Nelson added, “Salmon runs are in desperate shape.”

Sites Project Authority Executive Director Jerry Brown (no relation to the former California governor of the same name) told commissioners, “The Sites Reservoir Project is not going to solve all of our problems. If we do absolutely nothing, I can guarantee you that things will get worse.”

The Sites project is necessary, Brown said, along with other water resiliency solutions such as groundwater storage, recycled water and conservation to improve the state’s water situation for the environment, people and agriculture.

“There is commonality in what (project proponents and those opposed are) trying to do. Where we might differ at this juncture is in how we would approach solving some of our problems,” said Brown, who added that the Sites project is the only project of seven that has not been fully funded. “It is a big responsibility, and it requires an all-of-the-above approach as it relates to our state of 40 million people.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, told commissioners he is among a bipartisan group of 22 legislators who signed a letter in support of the Sites project. He pointed out that surface water storage, including benefits for water supply and the environment, has been recognized in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s water resiliency portfolio.

“Sites provides, most fundamentally, operational flexibility,” Gallagher said. “It does provide for the entire state and the goals that we have to ensure that we can be more resilient in this time of climate change and even this time when we are experiencing devastating drought.”

Of the other projects that moved forward, Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project would enlarge an existing reservoir in Santa Clara County from 6,000 acre-feet to 140,000 acre-feet.

The Kern Fan Groundwater Storage Project in Kern County would develop a regional water bank to recharge and store up to 100,000 acre-feet.

The Willow Springs Water Bank Conjunctive Use Project in Southern California would leverage 500,000 acre-feet of existing groundwater storage and operate conjunctively with the State Water Project.

Should the commission offer a second solicitation of projects, the agency conditionally approved the proposed Stanislaus Regional Water Authority Regional Surface Water Supply project and the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir project. The regional water project in Stanislaus County would provide water from the Tuolumne River and deliver it to allow for integrated use of groundwater and surface water.

The Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir project, west of Patterson, would deliver Central Valley Project water from the Delta-Mendota Canal. Water would be stored until needed for drier periods for irrigation, groundwater recharge and wildlife beneficial uses.

“We are developing this (Del Puerto) project because of activities that we are also doing in tandem to better manage our available water supplies into the future,” said Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District.

Commissioner Daniel Curtin spoke in favor of advancing the water projects, adding, “I can’t get my head around how we can restore the groundwater system in California without surface storage capabilities.”

Local water districts backing the projects must move to a permitting phase that needs to be completed before they are eligible to receive their final funding awards from the commission.

Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation

The location of the proposed Sites Reservoir, planned for Colusa County west of Maxwell, California. The water storage facility would cost nearly $4 billion.
Photo: John Hannon


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