Sites Reservoir closer to getting funded 

The California Water Commission on June 28 adopted the Sites Reservoir project’s final application score, setting the stage for the Commission to conditionally award the project Proposition 1 funds later this month. 

The proposed Sites Reservoir is one of eight projects still in the running for $2.7 billion from the bond, which voters approved in November 2014 to help expand the state’s water storage capacity, although it scored third from the bottom and may not get the full $917 million the Sites Authority requested, officials said. 

The Water Commission is set to announce the funding awards over a series of meetings, July 24-26, when it also will consider requests from Sites and three other applicants for early funding to help complete feasibility studies and environmental reviews.

All eight projects are expected to add a total of 4.3 million acre-feet of storage to California’s water system, said Water Commission Chairman Armando Quintero. 

“That’s significant,” Quintero said. “Right now there’s 40 million acre-feet in the reservoirs of California, so this is literally a 10 percent increase in that number.”

The proposed 1.8 million acre-foot off-stream Sites Reservoir, which will be constructed about 10 miles west of Maxwell at a cost of $5.7 billion, underwent an extensive evaluation process by three state agencies to determine the public benefits such as ecosystem improvement, water quality, flood control, emergency response and recreation, as well as its flexibility in water delivery, economic feasibility, and the likelihood the project will be completed. 

“I think it is financially feasible and economically feasible,” said Water Commissioner Joseph Byrne, of Los Angeles, who urged the Water Commission to give Sites a higher score. “It got 35 partners (onboard), and I personally have a high level of confidence that it’s going to happen.”

Although Sites will likely get the largest single award from the bond, the project only scored 61 our of a possible 100 points, which ranked it on a funding tier below five others eligible for full funding or $1.6 billion, including the popular Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project, which scored 82 out of 100, the Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Project, which scored 76 out of 100, and the Temperance Flat Reservoir Project, which scored 71 out of 100. Sites and two other projects will have to share the remaining $980 million, leaving them $146 million short of their total requests, officials said. 

Sites proponents said they were not happy with the final score, and had hoped the agencies evaluating the project would have considered that Sites would increase water availability in the state more than all the other projects combined. 

“On a regional scale, (Sites) enables flows to improve conditions on the Sacramento River, Feather River, Lower American River, and in the Delta,” said Jim Watson, general manager. “This scale would be significant if we adapt to the future effects of climate change and strive to find sustainable solutions for people and the environment. Sites will provide water to the highest environmental needs when a species needs it most.”

Watson, at the June 28 meeting, asked the Water Commission to increase Sites’ final score to reflect the federal benefits to wildlife refuges, and also to award points for flexibility for the state to manage its own share of the water as changing environmental conditions demand.  

Danny Merkley, water resource director with the California Farm Bureau Federation, also urged the commission to fully fund the Sites project based on the total amount of water that will be available. 

“California Farm Bureau is supportive of those projects that have the greatest impact on the state’s aging water infrastructure – an infrastructure that has not kept up with today’s conditions: a reduced Sierra snowpack, significantly increased population, and environmental policy that was never envisioned at the time the state’s infrastructure was designed and built,” Merkley said. “The Sites project is one that is key to upgrading our water infrastructure, with positive impacts to the greater statewide infrastructure, including the Sacramento Valley, groundwater levels, Delta and environment, salmon and other species.”

Although Commissioner Bryne said he supported moving Sites up in score because the project was strategically located, has an adaptive management component, and offers a lot of water that would benefit fish ecosystems and the environment, the Water Commission ultimately decided to let the final public beneift scores for all eight projects stand. 

Commissioner Daniel Curtain, of Sacramento, said the focus “project by project” had gotten so complicated that it became hard to keep the big picture in mind, and that continued reevaluations that would move projects up or down could prevent the state from ever getting the money “out the door.” 

“If we get all these projects built, we can go home feeling very happy that we have actually improved the two elements for me: the statewide water system and regional sustainably,” Curtain said. 

Watson said the funding application process for Proposition 1 money was arduous and had required a lot of effort and patience, but that the Sites Authority would now focus their energies on getting the reservoir permitted and built as expeditiously as possible. 

Supporters of the project, including Valerie Nera, of the California Chamber of Commerce, said the Sites Reservoir would provide a new water management tool that is intentionally operated to reduce the impacts of drought.

“The project provides flexibility to adapt to future climate conditions to provide water to the highest environmental needs when they occur,” Nera said. “Sites is a modern, environmentally sound water solution.” ν