Sites Reservoir proposal being readied for water commission

From left, Colusa County Supervisor Gary Evans, rancher and landowner Mary Wells, and Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority, stand below the proposed water line if Sites Reservoir is approved and built in western Colusa County, Calif.

Could Sites be California's next big reservoir?

If built, Sites Reservoir could hold as much as 1.8 million acre feet of additional storage Reservoir would help better manage other northern California reservoirs for environmental purposes Seven agencies make up the Sites Joint Powers Authority

California’s latest drought has made the need for additional water storage self-evident to a larger segment of the population. So much so that lawmakers were pressured into putting a new water bond on the ballot – albeit smaller than the plan approved several years earlier that lawmakers refused to let voters decide upon.

Perhaps the one project closest to the top of any list for consideration is the Sites Reservoir project, an off-stream facility hidden from view by most Californians in a quiet foothills location on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley.

The passage of Proposition 1 by California voters in late 2015 earmarked $2.7 billion for water storage. If approved for funding by the California Water Commission, Sites Reservoir could be in line for a portion of that money, making the long-standing idea closer to reality.

Water commission approval could happen in 2017 or 2018 at the earliest.

What puts Sites Reservoir near the front of the line is the preliminary work that’s been going on for decades and the joint powers authority (JPA) created in 2010.

Signatories to the JPA include the counties of Glenn and Colusa, Reclamation District 108, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, Maxwell Irrigation District, and, the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

A seven-member board of directors with seven alternates governs the JPA.

Jim Watson, general manager for the Sites JPA, says even if the project is approved by the California Water Commission, it will be more than a decade before it could be complete.

Pending approval and California’s ever-present environmental document phase, Watson says the JPA is looking at ideas where they could begin construction in a manner to allow water to begin flowing into the area prior to completion, which could shorten the period needed to eventually fill the reservoir.

More storage

The reservoir is projected to hold as much as 1.8 million acre feet of water and cost between $3.2 and $4 billion to complete. Only half of that cost would be funded by the California Water Bond. The other half would be funded by the JPA.

To hold back that water engineers must design and construct nine small dams and two main dams. Most of the water for the reservoir will come from off-site, though there are small streams capable of adding minimal storage to the reservoir during the rainy season.

Filling the reservoir will largely come via the Sacramento River and existing facilities, including the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) canal and the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority (TCCA). GCID pulls water into its system from the Sacramento River near Hamilton City while the TCCA sources its water from the Sacramento River at Red Bluff.

The GCID is the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, covering about 175,000 acres, of which about 140,000 is farmed. TCCA is a JPA consisting of 17 Central Valley Project water contractors with a service area spanning four counties along the western side of the Sacramento Valley. It covers almost 150,000 acres of farmland that produce over $250 million worth of crops annually.

Getting water into the new reservoir will take well over 10 miles of pipeline to connect the two canals and the Sacramento River with the lake. According to Watson, the goal is to use existing water conveyance facilities to move water as close as possible to the reservoir before building pipelines to move the water into the lake.

When complete, water will be able to flow both ways – from the river to the lake and from the lake back to the Sacramento River.

“If there’s a disadvantage with the project it’s the length of pipe back to the Sacramento River,” he said.

Conversely, the location of power lines and the electrical grid are one large advantage to the location. The main electrical grid is located between the proposed reservoir location and the Sacramento River.

Relocation

Not all about the location of Sites Reservoir is that simple as there currently are people and farms living in the valley that will be flooded with several hundred feet of water if the project is built.

Mary Wells is one of those farmers.

Wells is a fifth generation farmer in the area and is the great-great granddaughter of W.H. Williams, founder of the northern California town that bears his name.

Wells farms rice and almonds outside of where Sites is proposed, but raises cattle and lives on land that will be inundated by water if the lake is built.

She supports the reservoir and sits on the Sites JPA as a member of the Maxwell Irrigation District. Her support, however, is not without some soul-searching.

Wells purchased the original John Lee Sites Ranch in 1974, two decades after officials with the Central Valley Project (CVP), fresh from their completion of Shasta Dam, had envisioned building Sites Reservoir as an extension of the CVP.

According to Wells, that idea dried up during President Carter’s administration in the late 1970s “never to be seen again because the political wherewithal was not conducive to building any new reservoirs.”

In the 1990s the Northern California Water Association got the ball rolling again, she said. In 1991 the California Water Commission visited her ranch with the idea of revisiting the Sites Reservoir plan.

Twenty-five years later as the idea of Sites Reservoir gains momentum and the JPA makes its introductory moves Wells says the land she purchased in the 1970s could soon be swallowed by progress.

While she supports the need for water storage and the “greater-good” that includes displacing 36-40 residents from a quiet area far from the noise of freeways and boulevards, it’s not without its sense of loss for native grasslands and a way of life.

The valley where Sites Reservoir is proposed hosts native grasslands, which provides good winter forage for her cattle.

“So, if you speak of the better good, it’s not without a loss to the cattle industry and to native grasslands,” Wells said. “I’m very sensitive to that, as are some of my neighbors.”

“It is not without realizing and feeling very adamant about the fact that the cattle operation is an integral part of all of this,” she said. “That is a tough thing to lose.”

“There’s a lot of history here,” Wells says.

While her almond trees on the valley floor might survive the drought, what’s the sustainability of farming going to be for future generations, she asks.

“If I don’t participate in building this reservoir, what is generation six going to do with their own almond trees and cattle; what about generation seven?”

Local support

Gary Evans farms in the next valley west from where Sites Reservoir could sit; he also represents the region on the Colusa County Board of Supervisors. He too supports the Sites Reservoir project for much the same reason Wells does.

Evans is a fifth-generation farmer with a sixth generation of Evans’ also farming in western Colusa County.

For Evans, who is active in the political process, the idea of a locally-controlled JPA sits better with him than an outside government entity dictating how the lake will be built and managed.

“It’s important that the JPA drive the bus on this and not a federal or state government agency,” Evans says.

Furthermore, Evans is sensitive to his constituents in the area “and that they don’t get squashed like ants in the process.”

The lake could house recreational facilities on the north half of the reservoir while leaving the southern half of it will be left for environmental purposes, Evans says.

Benefits

According to Watson, had Sites Reservoir been up and running at the outset of the latest drought, carry-over water could have been stored and available in four major California reservoirs: Shasta, Oroville, Trinity and Folsom.

As it were, Folsom Reservoir fell below “dead-pool” level in late 2015, causing officials to scramble to add portable pumps and temporary pipeline to convey what little water was left to urban residents in the Sacramento area.

In the case of Shasta Lake, additional water storage there would help benefit the cold water pool used to maintain temperatures in the Sacramento River for migrating salmon.

Additionally, Wells says the water stored in Sites will help northern California water contractors, some of whom have rights dating back to the 1880s.

“No one wants to lose their home; this is a very bittersweet thing for me,” Wells says. “But on the other hand there is a greater good, looking forward, to continue agriculture in the north state.

“I think this has to happen ultimately, and what a better way to do it than with the local JPA making these decisions.”

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