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Deep reservations on Sites Reservoir

Carolee Krieger is executive director of the California Water Impact Network, a state-wide organization that advocates for the equitable and sustainable use of California’s freshwater resources for all Californians.

Pick your metaphor. A boondoggle, smoke and mirrors, a hot mess: Sites Reservoir qualifies on all counts.

With California’s dwindling water supplies dominating public attention and headlines, water planners are desperately seeking solutions. But too many are pushing decades-old proposals that simply don’t work within a 21st century context. Sites Reservoir is a prime example.

Sites is a proposed “offsite” reservoir named after the unincorporated community of Sites in Colusa County. It would not be an impoundment in the usual sense. Instead of storing water behind a dam blocking a major river, Sites would be filled by pumping so-called “surplus” water from the Sacramento River during high flow events in the winter and spring.

This stored water would then be released back into the river later in the year, collected in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, then transported to Southern California cities and farms via the State Water Project. Sacramento Valley wildlife refuges and endangered fish in the Delta are slated as secondary beneficiaries.

Or at least, that’s the assertion from project proponents. But the facts don’t align with the claims.

Sites was first proposed in the 1980s, when the implications of climate change weren’t even on the radar screens of policy makers. As such, the project is predicated on outdated assumptions that didn’t foresee today’s degree of reduced statewide precipitation coupled with more frequent and more severe droughts.

The Sites Reservoir currently has an estimated $5.2 billion price tag. Funding has accelerated over the past several months. In March, the California Water Commission increased project funding through Proposition 1 sources to $875 million, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency invited supporting agencies to apply for a $2.2 billion dollar loan. In April, the Metropolitan Water District Board of Southern California said it would contribute $20 million to Sites.

These funding pledges don’t necessarily mean Sites is a done deal. Approval of the loan packages may take several years and could be stymied at various points. Further legal action against Sites also is likely, and the project’s promised benefits need much closer scrutiny.

For instance, the Sites Project Authority (SPA) insists the reservoir will yield an annual average of 260,000 acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot is equivalent to 325,000 gallons, or enough water to supply two to three homes annually.) But as we’ve seen with the current catastrophic drought and its 2012-2014 predecessor, the “average year” of the future will not be the average year of the 1980s. Virtually all reputable computer models confirm it will be significantly drier.

That’s bad news for Sites. It’s unlikely the reservoir will ever hit its target yield. Some analysts estimate annual average yield could be as low as 50,000 acre-feet a year, and it’s possible – even likely – Sites will become what policy wonks call a “stranded asset:” an empty reservoir, one utterly incapable of fulfilling its intended purpose.

There are other major problems with Sites, including:

  • Assertions that Sites will only take “excess” flows from the Sacramento River are bogus. There is no excess water in California. The claims on the state’s developed water already exceed supplies by more than five times, and Sites does not create new water. The small-to-nil amount it would release would do nothing substantive to satisfy existing claims. Further, Delta outflows – critical for maintaining important fisheries, especially salmon – have yet to be decided by the State Water Board, making availability of the water needed to fill Sites less likely in the future.

  • Diversions for Sites will adversely affect the Bay/Delta ecosystem by concentrating contaminants and reducing the brackish conditions salmon, Dungeness crab, striped bass and various endangered species need to survive. Pollution in the Sacramento River will be increased because the point of discharge for Sites’ water would be the Colusa Basin drain, a locale highly contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

  • Because Sites will be a large, shallow reservoir in one of the hottest, driest areas of Northern California, a significant portion of its water will disappear due to evaporation. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have confirmed that Lake Powell, a major reservoir located on the Colorado River, loses 10 percent of the river’s total annual flow from evaporation. That same percentage will apply to Sites. Under the extreme best – and unlikely – scenario, the reservoir will collect 425,000 to 637,000 acre feet of water; analysts estimate evaporation will claim up to 46,000 acre-feet each year.

  • There are large deposits of cinnabar – mercury ore – in the location of the proposed reservoir. When inundated, much of the inorganic mercury in these deposits will transform into highly toxic methylmercury and disperse throughout the aquatic food web, posing dire public health risks.

  • Finally, Sites’ water will be extremely expensive. The SPA estimates it will cost users about $700 an acre-foot. That’s about par with the top prices the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the primary designated urban recipient for Sites’ water – pays for current deliveries. But the cost is sure to run much higher than that for city and suburban ratepayers because it doesn’t include pumping and water treatment costs.

California’s water crisis can be ameliorated through conservation, recycling, groundwater recharge – and most critically, the retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of industrial cropland in the western San Joaquin Valley that are tainted with toxic selenium and salt and irrigated with public trust water.

Offsite reservoirs are a poor response to 21st century water crises generally, and Sites is a particularly flawed example. We don’t need water “solutions” that burden taxpayers, create tremendous ecological damage – and do nothing to increase supplies. Sites must be stopped.

For updates on the Sites Reservoir, visit the California Water Impact Network on Facebook and Twitter.

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