Progress Reported on Planning for Sites Reservoir

Taylor HillmanWater

Efforts to build Sites Reservoir are moving ahead and officials sounded optimistic last week as they discussed preliminary steps to construct the 1.8 million acre-foot off-stream storage facility west of Maxwell.

However, they noted there are still many issues to be addressed about how the project will be financed and built.

Sites Reservoir has been studied since the 1960s and the project was one of a handful of high-benefit water projects listed as a priority in the CALFED Bay-Delta Program’s record of decision in 2000.

The deep economic recession, followed by a deeper drought, followed by a comprehensive package of water-related legislation, followed by California voters decisively passing a $7.12 billion bond measure that includes $2.7 billion set aside for the public benefit of water storage projects, prompts the question: What’s going on with plans to build Sites Reservoir?

The answer, local water officials said, is a lot, with activity increasing in the coming months.

“We’ve been vetting this project for five years and advocating for Sites with interest in poten-tially becoming lead agency for the project,” said Thad Bettner, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District general manager.

In August 2010, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Reclamation District 108, Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, Maxwell Irrigation District, Glenn and Colusa counties and Yolo County Flood and Water Conservation District entered into a joint powers agreement to help facilitate the project.

Then in July 2015, Colusa County Water District, Westside Water District, Orland-Artois Water District and Proberta Water District became members of the JPA.

In the past year, the JPA has been working with state and federal water agencies, signing a memorandum of understanding to partner with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to continue working on the feasibility studies for the project.

Bettner said the JPA is working to create a similar arrangement with the state Department of Water Resources for state environmental reviews.

“That will help as we talk to the water commission and the environmental community about the public benefits of Sites,” Bettner said.

All that advance work takes money, he said, to help with groundwork, like feasibility and environmental studies.

Ultimately, he said, estimates for building the dam, a hydroelectric plant, pipelines to move water from the Sacramento River 15 miles west to the proposed reservoir and pumps to lift the water into storage will cost up to $4 billion.

“We’re working to develop the financial resources locally and complete the studies that have to get done,” Bettner said. “We think it will cost about $5 million to get all that work done. Right now, we’re analyzing what needs funding and how do we do it.”

At a public workshop in Davis last month, water commission officials indicated it will be several years before regulations and programs are finalized, and storage project proposals approved.

Under voter-approved Proposition 1, water projects that meet stringent “public benefit” criteria—such as bolstering ecosystems, bettering water quality, controlling floods and improving recreation—may begin applying for available bond funding as early as Jan. 1, 2017.

The water commission will meet Sept. 16-17 in Sacramento to review draft regulations for investing in water storage projects and the upcoming rulemaking process. The commission will discuss public comments on the groundwater basin boundary emergency regulation.

Meanwhile, Jim Watson, a civil engineer with more than 30 years of project management experience in California, has just been appointed general manager of the Sites Joint Power Authority.

He said one of his first jobs is working with the water commission to understand project funding requirements.

“Sites will provide a lot of flexibility and benefits to the state’s water supply system wide,” said Watson, explaining the annual reservoir yield after filling would be up to 500,000 acre-feet.

“Because it can be reliably filled when there are surplus flows on the Sacramento River, the project can help deliver reliable supplies—preserving cold pool behind Shasta, easing demand pressure on Lake Oroville storage and helping groundwater aquifers,” he said.

The Sacramento River has 11 gauged tributary creeks between Shasta Dam and Big Chico Creek near Chico that contribute to one of the most reliable water supplies in California, he said.

Even infrequent storms during drought conditions affect these creeks, causing temporary increases in Sacramento River flows that could be captured by the Sites Reservoir intakes and transported into storage.

“We’re setting out to find ways to minimize impacts to species and habitat,” Watson said. “And we’re working on a project that uses renewable resources. A pumped storage facility reuses water to enhance supplies and can provide power supplies when needed.”

Watson said developing a financing plan for the project is a top priority because it will make a difference in costs per acre-foot to deliver water to the system.

“We’re looking at opportunities to reduce costs per acre-foot,” he said. “With conventional financing models used in the past 100 years, we know it comes out to about $600 an acre-foot. We’re looking at improving that number with alternative approaches.”

Taking a broader view of the proposed Sites Reservoir project, California Farm Bureau Feder-ation Water Committee Chairman John Garner said it’s clear the state needs more water storage, whether it’s a wet or dry year.

“Having additional water resources takes pressure off the state’s entire water-supply system and adds much needed flexibility,” Garner said.

“Sites Reservoir is a project that promises efficient use of water, capturing surplus flows below Shasta Dam and putting it to use before moving it to the delta and out to the Pacific Ocean,” said Garner. “When you’ve got high flows on the Sacramento River—200,000 cubic-feet per second going down the river—there’s plenty of water for everybody. If we can capture a million acre-feet of that water over time to be used later, it can benefit everything.”

He pointed to Folsom Reservoir on the American River, which in the current drought is being drawn down to near dead pool, and asked “how much would an extra million acre-feet help out the system in this situation today?”

The other aspect of a completed Sites Reservoir is the water released for migrating salmon can be recaptured and benefit other water needs later in the year, not to mention providing a certain amount of flood-control benefits, he said.

“The main question in our area is how to finance building the project,” said Garner, who farms in Colusa County. “It’s a big commitment, especially for agriculture in the north state to shoulder. That’s why a solid financing plan is so important.”

Permission for use is granted from the California Farm Bureau Federation. Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at