It’s time for California to build the Sites Reservoir

(Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

It’s time for California to build the Sites Reservoir

California politics, homepage news, global warming

George Skelton

November 13, 2023

The California state government began drawing up plans for the Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley seventy years ago. And it still only exists on paper.

So kudos to the governor. Gavin Newsom, for deciding it’s finally time to get this slow project going.

Fast track means that opponents have only a limited time to challenge the project in court on environmental grounds.

Newsom used a new law he pushed through the Legislature in June aimed at making it easier to build transportation, clean energy and water infrastructure by expediting lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Sites is the first project to be accelerated.

It will be the largest dam built in California in about half a century, since 1979, when the federal government completed New Melones in Calaveras County.

It will also be the first major dam built since 1999, when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California completed Diamond Valley in Riverside County.

Much of the public, especially agricultural interests and Republican politicians

have has

complained for years about California not building more dams. Now it appears that a significant new reservoir will actually be built.

Sites located on current rangelands in Colusa and Glenn counties, 70 miles north of Sacramento, could hold 1.5 million acre-feet of water, enough to serve 3 million homes annually. It will be California’s eighth largest reservoir.

This will be an offshore reservoir, siphoning water from the nearby Sacramento River.

The idea is to absorb the water during high river flows, especially during flood threats, and hold it until the river water is low. The diverted water will then be released back into the river and into aqueducts southward from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It is supplied to farmers and city people.

But it’s nonsense to blame the state government for not building more dams in California.

We have a boatload of reservoirs approaching 1,500. About 1,000 are important.

Virtually every river worth damming already has been. We are running out of viable locations. There is a security problem: the state is ravaged by earthquakes.

We’re also much more concerned about environmental damage today than we were during our dam-building efforts in the mid-20th century.

And many Northerners have had it with Southern cities and corporate agriculture trying to tap more water from the Northern state. This is especially true around the delta, where salmon numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades as water is pumped south.

Thus, these sites will likely be the last reservoir of this size or anywhere near built in California.

We must continue to reduce water use. That means, among other things, that between 500,000 and 900,000 hectares of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley will disappear over the next twenty years, experts say. Agriculture uses 80% of California’s developed water and exports much of its crops abroad.

Plant solar panels instead.

More remediation and replenishment of groundwater, collection and recycling of rainwater in the cities is also desperately needed. Governments at all levels have spent billions on these efforts.

However, Sites looks like a worthy project.

Because it is an outstream reservoir, it will not hold back salmon trying to spawn upstream, as many large dams such as Shasta, Oroville and Folsom do.

In addition to providing irrigation water in summer, it also provides flood control in winter. Done properly, it can help manage flows for migrating salmon.

There will be boating, fishing and camping.

But some environmental groups object. They especially don’t like checkers.

Building new dams and reservoirs is a thing of the past, said Erin Woolley, senior policy strategist for the Sierra Club. California should allow other projects that do not impose environmental costs.

For starters, Woolley fears that releasing standing water into the Sacramento River after it has been stored in a warm summer pool will increase the river’s temperature. That would be bad for the fish and increase toxicity and algae in the delta, she says.

Woolley also points to recent research showing that reservoirs emit significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Locations would produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, she says.

Okay, too bad! We need water to drink, bathe and grow food. It is a necessary trade-off. Fossil fuels are the main culprit of greenhouse gases, not reservoir water.

Either way, the project is intended to minimize emissions, said Sites executive director Jerry Brown, who has no relationship with the former governor who lives nearby on his family’s ancestral farm.

No, the ex-governor had no property on the lake.

There is some public confusion about whose project this is. It’s not the states. The state originally planned a much larger reservoir, but abandoned the idea. It was picked up and shrunk by local water districts and counties.

The expected cost is $4.5 billion, most of which will be paid by water users

Angelinos Angelenos

. MWD of Southern California plans to purchase 20% of the water.

The state has committed $875 million for public benefits, environmental protection, flood control and recreation. It comes from a $7.5 billion water bond, of which $2.7 billion is for water storage, set up by the government. Brown and passed by voters in 2014.

The FBI is also throwing in big money.

Project director Brown expects that


in the next two years


state and federal regulators will issue the necessary permits and construction will begin in 2026 and be completed in 2032.

With fast tracking, the aim is to resolve any environmental lawsuits within 270 days, at least within a year. This is expected to shave years off project development and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Whatever. It will undoubtedly be faster than 70 years.


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