Sites Reservoir Aims to Reshape California’s Water Landscape

sites reservoir location

(Credit: Sites Reservoir)

by | Mar 19, 2024

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Colusa County, California, could soon be home to the largest new reservoir in the state in 50 years.

In accordance with the Bureau of Reclamation’s recommendation, Congress greenlit the allocation of $205.6 million in federal funding for the Sites Reservoir Project under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act). This act aims to enhance water infrastructure nationwide through grants. Notably, this allotment represents the largest single WIIN Act grant designated for a storage project.

Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton remarked, “With the support of the Biden-Harris administration, Reclamation continues to make historic investments in Western water infrastructure projects like Sites Reservoir. This project underscores Reclamation’s strong collaborations with the State of California and the Sites Project Authority, along with our ongoing dedication to bolstering drought resilience in California and the broader Western region.”

Impact on California’s Water Management

Known for its sprawling rice farms, almond orchards, and conservative politics, the county, with a mere 22,000 population, has its hopes pinned on this $4.5 billion project that has been discussed since the 1950s. This project, led by the Sites Project Authority, can potentially alter the county’s reputation and leverage it as a fundamental player in California’s water management.

Jerry Brown, Executive Director of the Sites Project Authority, extols this initiative as having a “definite tailwind at our back”. He views the funding as a vote of confidence, indicating that the federal government recognizes the significant benefits and sound investment the project represents.

The reservoir, envisioned to be 13 miles long, 4 miles wide, and 260 feet deep, would store water diverted from the Sacramento River in wet years. This storage would then serve both cities and farms around the state in dry years. The potential Sites Reservoir would rank as California’s eighth-largest, four times the size of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. It aims to supply water to 500,000 acres of Central Valley farmlands and 24 million inhabitants, including those in Silicon Valley, the East Bay, and Los Angeles.

Plans for the groundbreaking have been set for 2026, with construction completion by 2032. This would make Sites the largest new reservoir in California since New Melones Lake’s opening in 1979.

Sources of Funding

In 2023, Sites Reservoir secured $30 million in funding from the Bureau of Reclamation under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This latest investment brings the project’s total federal contributions to $439.3 million, including $379.3 million from the WIIN Act and $60 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This sum covers the current estimated capital cost for the allocated 9% participation planned for Reclamation’s use.

With the latest funding approval, the project now boasts more than 90% of its financial lining from various sources including a $2.2 billion loan invitation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), $875 million from Proposition 1, a water bond approved by voters in 2014, and $60 million from Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

2024 and Beyond

The project enjoys support from Governor Gavin Newsom, farm organizations, labor unions, and water agencies, including the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose, Zone 7 Water Agency in Livermore, and the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles. The Sites Reservoir Project was certified by Governor Newsom under Senate Bill 149, which streamlines judicial review for selected infrastructure projects to avoid California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) litigation delays.

The project is not without its dissenters. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club argue that the filling of Sites will divert too much water away from the Sacramento River, negatively impacting endangered species and depriving the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of fresh water. Arguing for more sustainable solutions like water recycling projects, conservation, and sustainable farming projects.

The project’s future will be decided through a series of hearings scheduled from June to November, where the State Water Resources Control Board will analyze fisheries studies and other documents to decide whether to award the water rights necessary for the project to move forward.

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