News Feature | October 4, 2018

Water-Access Limits Could Complicate Massive Reservoir

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Sites Reservoir is a major new water project planned in California with funding from the Proposition 1 state water bond.

But even with project funding already awarded, plenty remains unsure about the massive project.

“The $5 billion Sites Reservoir project recently won by far the largest award in a state funding competition. But separate state regulatory actions could limit how much water it can tap from the Sacramento River,” News Deeply recently reported.

Recently, the project won over $816 million in state funding for construction, the report stated. The reservoir, once completed, would deliver enough water every year to serve 1 million homes. The total construction cost would be $5.1 billion. More than two dozen water agencies are expected to contribute to the total, the report said.

“Much of the project’s appeal lies in the fact that it is an off-stream reservoir, meaning it would not store water by damming a major river. Instead, it would be filled by water pumped from the Sacramento River, 14 miles away, during times of surplus flow. On average, project proponents estimate, about 500,000 acre-feet of water would be available annually for delivery to farms, cities and wildlife refuge areas,” the report stated.

Rob Thomson, environmental planning manager for Sites, described the upsides of the approach, which is said to be designed in ways that benefit wildlife.

“It’s a way of starting to head toward sustainable surface water management,” he said, per the report.

According to a report from the California Water Resources Department describing the benefits of the plan, “Sites Reservoir would release water to the Sacramento River to improve Delta water quality for ecosystem functions.”

But even with funding on the way, the effort is not without complications.

Regulatory actions “converging on the project mean Sites could be forced to cut its 500,000 acre-foot annual delivery estimate. This, in turn, could make its water more expensive for the agencies that choose to invest,” the report stated.

For Sites, one potentially problematic regulatory action is the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

“Led by the State Water Resources Control Board, it would require thousands of water-rights holders to reduce their diversions from the Sacramento River and its tributaries in order to improve flows for aquatic habitat and water quality,” the report stated.

Doug Obegi, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, described how this could affect Sites: “When the water board adopts new standards for Delta outflow and Sacramento River inflows to the Delta, that would limit the periods of time when Sites could be diverting. It would significantly reduce the yield of the project.”

Thomson, the environmental planning manager for Sites, said it is too early to tell how the regulatory process will affect the reservoir project.

Even with $816 million afforded to the project, funding the whole thing could be a challenge.

“My concern is that this (money) is more of a down payment on what we need and not an end solution,” said Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Project Authority, per The San Francisco Chronicle. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”