Sites Reservoir awarded voter-approved funding

More than 50 years after the Sites Reservoir was first proposed and four years after voters approved Proposition 1 funding to improve California’s water supply, the state’s first above ground water storage project in 40 years could be headed for reality.

The California Water Commission last week awarded the Sites project $816 million in state funding to help build the reservoir about 10 miles west of Maxwell. The Commission also agreed to provide the Sites Project Authority with $40.8 million in early funding to assist in completing the necessary environmental analyses and obtaining permits.

“Sites is a smart and long overdue investment for California,” said Sites Chairman Fritz Durst, in a statement last Tuesday. “The decision by the California Water Commission furthers the will of California voters, who overwhelming called for new water storage, by moving the Proposition 1 process closer to implementation.”

The Water Commission on July 24 awarded a total of $2.7 billion in voter-approved bond funding to help kick-start a range of water-storage and groundwater projects.

The funding, although highly important, is far less than what is needed to get Sites or any of the other projects completed.

Sites manager Jim Watson said the project does not have the money currently to build the $5.2 billion reservoir, although the project has garnered the support of 35 local and regional investors.

“We are working on our finance plan,” Watson said.

Watson appeared before the Water Commission on July 24 to make one last plea for the full $917 million Sites had requested by making the case that the project would provide more water for environmental purposes than all the other projects combined.

“For the state’s investment, Sites has the biggest bang for the buck,” he said. As proposed, Sites will add up to 500,000 acre-feet per year of usable water to the state’s water system, which represents two-thirds of the total amount of annual storage being created through Proposition 1 funding. The state’s investment in Sites represents the most cost-effective water storage solution at $47.50 per acre-foot (when amortized over 40-years) on a dollar per annualized acre-foot basis, Watson said.

“Sites is the only project approved by the Water Commission that can improve water supply reliability within the Sacramento Valley Watershed while also increasing flows on the Sacramento River at times that are most critical to struggling fish populations,” Watson said.
With state funding decisions made, environmental studies, permits and construction contracts will be the next hurdle, state officials said, with projects like Sites still likely to face more opposition from environmental groups like Friends of the River, who said the project puts at risk the Sacramento River’s dynamic flow-based ecosystems, as well as the river’s endangered salmon, riparian dependent wildlife species, public lands, and water quality.

Overwhelmingly, however, the Sites Reservoir project has bi-partisan support from state and federal legislators, who believe the project is necessary to deal with future drought and increased population.

“Sixty-seven percent of Californians voted to support Proposition 1 funding for Sites Reservoir,” said Congressman Doug LaMalfa, in a statement. “That support clearly isn’t limited to Republicans or Northern California – most of California agrees this is a necessary and beneficial undertaking for our state. Funding from the state will unlock millions more in available federal funding which I ensured was included in the WIIN Act last Congress. While there’s certainly more work to be done, I’m happy we can finally start moving forward on a project that is so widely recognized as critical for our water needs. As I’ve said before, we must have storage that allows us to store more water in wet years in order to prepare for dry years. Sites Reservoir is much needed storage.”

In addition to Sites, the California Water Commission last week awarded funding to seven other water projects in Contra Costa, Fresno, Sacramento, Kern, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties.

Water Commission Chairman Armando Quintero said the state believes the projects will ensure the strongest return on the public’s investment.

“We applaud the applicants for their hard work to get to this point, and we are confident they will use this momentum to do the remaining work needed to secure these crucial investments in California’s water future,” Quintero said.

Applicants must complete remaining Proposition 1 requirements, including final permits, environmental documents, and commitments for non-Proposition 1 funding, by Jan. 1, 2022, to receive a final funding award from the commission.

Water Commission staff said last week it was possible that in the event that one or more of the projects drop out, then their funding could be redirected toward the remaining projects.