facebook linkedin twitter

California Moves Slowly on Water Projects Amid Drought

August 31, 2021by Adam Beam, Associated Press
Kevin Spesert, public affairs and real estate manager for the Sites Project Authority, points out the main canal of the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District, on Friday, July 23, 2021, near Sites, Calif. (AP Photo/Adam Beam)

SITES, Calif. (AP) — In 2014, in the middle of a severe drought that would test California’s complex water storage system like never before, voters told the state to borrow $7.5 billion and use part of it to build projects to stockpile more water.

Seven years later, that drought has come and gone, replaced by an even hotter and drier one that is draining the state’s reservoirs at an alarming rate.  But none of the more than half-dozen water storage projects scheduled to receive that money have been built.

The largest project by far is a proposed lake in Northern California, which would be the state’s first new reservoir of significant size in more than 40 years. People have talked about building the Sites Reservoir since the 1950s. But the cost, plus shifting political priorities, stopped it from happening.

Now, a major drought gripping the western United States has put the project back in the spotlight. It’s slated to get $836 million in taxpayer money to help cover it’s $3.9 billion price tag if project officials can meet a deadline by year’s end. The Biden administration recently committed $80 million to the reservoir, the largest appropriation of any water storage scheduled to receive funding next year. 

And the project could get some of the $1.15 billion included in an infrastructure bill that has passed the U.S. Senate.

Still, the delay has frustrated some lawmakers, who view it as a wasted opportunity now that the state is preparing to cut of water to thousands of farmers in the Central Valley because of a shortage.

“The longer you don’t build, the more expensive it gets,” said Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, whose rural Northern California district includes farmers. 

Storage was once the centerpiece of California’s water management strategy, highlighted by a building bonanza in the mid-20th century of a number of dams and reservoirs. But in the more than 40 years since California last opened a major new reservoir, the politics and policy have shifted toward a more environmental focus that has caused tension between urban and rural legislators and the communities they represent.

The voter-approved bond in 2014 was supposed to jump-start a number of long-delayed storage projects. But some experts say the delays aren’t surprising, given the complexities and environmental hazards that come with building new water projects.

“We have about 1,500 reservoirs in California. If you assume people are smart — which they kind of are most of the time — they will have built reservoirs at the 1,500 best reservoir sites already,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis. “What you have left over is more expensive sites that give you less water.” 

California’s Mediterranean climate means it gets most of its rain and snow in the winter and spring, followed by hot, dry summers and falls that see rivers and streams dry up. The largest of California’s reservoirs are operated by the state and federal governments, although neither has built a new one since the 1979 New Melones Lake near Sonora, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Yosemite National Park.

That could change with the Sites Reservoir project, which would flood what’s left of the town of Sites, located in a valley amid California’s coast range mountains.

The town’s roots go back to the 1850s, when John Sites, a German immigrant, settled there. At its peak in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was known for a sandstone quarry that provided building materials throughout the state, including the iconic Ferry Building in San Francisco.

But when the quarry closed shortly after World War I, the town slowly dwindled. Fire destroyed many of the buildings, leaving behind about 10 houses on unirrigated land that can only be used for agriculture during the rainy season. Officials would have to eventually buy those properties from residents to build the reservoir. With only two ways in and out of the valley, it’s an ideal spot to flood and turn into a massive lake to store water.

But unlike most California reservoirs, Sites would not be connected to a river or stream. Instead, operators would have to pump water from the Sacramento River whenever it has extra to give. The idea is to take advantage of wet years like 2018, when California got so much rain and snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains that reservoirs were filled beyond capacity.

“We’re really redefining how water is developed in California,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority, who has no relation to the former governor of the same name.

Pumping the water is expensive, which, along with concern from environmental groups, is one reason the reservoir has been talked about for more than 60 years but never built. Many environmental groups argue the reservoir would do more harm than good because they say operators would have to pull way more water than is environmentally safe from the Sacramento River to make the project feasible. 

“Fundamentally, it is a deadbeat dam, a pretty marginal project, or else it would have been built years ago,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, an environmental advocacy group.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which included the Sites Reservoir in its water plan, sees the reservoir as a way to prepare for a future impacted by climate change. California’s reservoir system is designed to capture water from melted snow in the mountains. But climate change could mean less snow and more rain, which the state is not as equipped to capture.

“We are going to start swinging to more extremes, (a) dry, deep drought or big flood,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources. “I do think there is some value to those kinds of projects.”

It will cost $3.9 billion to build the Sites Reservoir, and that’s after project leaders made it smaller to shave about $1 billion off the price tag. Most of the money will come from customers who will buy the water, the federal government and bank loans. California taxpayers have pledged about $836 million to the project from a bond voters approved in 2014.

But to use that money, project leaders have to meet a deadline by the end of the year to show the idea is feasible. 

“I’m absolutely confident,” Brown said. “It’s going to be close, but it’s going to make it.” 

Environment

November 24, 2021
by Tom Ramstack
Supreme Court Sides With Tennessee in Dispute Over Aquifer Water Rights

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Tennessee and Mississippi must limit their use of water from... Read More

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Tennessee and Mississippi must limit their use of water from an underground aquifer to give each other a chance at it. The ruling takes on added significance as global warming makes water rights a touchier subject... Read More

November 24, 2021
by Dan McCue
Study Finds Significant Bipartisan Support for Corporate Social Responsibility

WASHINGTON — A new, groundbreaking study suggests not only is there strong bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental,... Read More

WASHINGTON — A new, groundbreaking study suggests not only is there strong bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental, social and governance challenges, but that the bipartisan appeal of these initiatives dramatically increases among Americans under the age of 45. The study, “Unlocking the Bipartisan... Read More

November 23, 2021
by Kate Michael
German Ambassador On COP26: ‘Ample Reason To Be Satisfied.’

WASHINGTON — Representatives from more than 100 countries recently gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate conference in an... Read More

WASHINGTON — Representatives from more than 100 countries recently gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate conference in an effort to pledge commitments and action against climate change, especially actions to prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, which would unleash severe climate change... Read More

November 23, 2021
by Reece Nations
Democrats' Methane Fee Proposal Faces Uncertainty in Senate

WASHINGTON — House Democrats succeeded in including a proposed fee on methane emissions in the Build Back Better Act, but... Read More

WASHINGTON — House Democrats succeeded in including a proposed fee on methane emissions in the Build Back Better Act, but the measure will have to endure scrutiny from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., before it becomes law. The Democrats' framework for the Build Back Better Act... Read More

House Moves Toward OK of Dems' Sweeping Social, Climate Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats brushed aside months-long divisions and approached House passage of their expansive social and environment bill Friday,... Read More

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats brushed aside months-long divisions and approached House passage of their expansive social and environment bill Friday, as President Joe Biden and his party neared a defining win in their drive to use their control of government to funnel its resources toward their... Read More

November 11, 2021
by Reece Nations
UCLA Study Ties Human-Caused Climate Change to Widespread Wildfires

LOS ANGELES — Research published this week by scientists from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explains that the main... Read More

LOS ANGELES — Research published this week by scientists from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explains that the main cause of increasingly frequent wildfires throughout the western United States is human-made climate change. The researchers identified vapor pressure deficit as the predominant variable linked to... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top