Sites Reservoir CEO Jim Watson and the Sites Joint Powers Authority are temporarily without an office after the recent flood in Maxwell brought about two feet of water into the old Wells Fargo building that now serves as the headquarters for the Sites Reservoir Project.
The irony doesn’t escape Watson.
“There’s a lot of irony there, that a creek we’d be damming up over-topped its banks and flooded our building,” Watson said in a sit down with this publication last week. “Hopefully that’s the last time it rears its ugly head. But with four inches of rain in 24 hours, that would be one of the local flood control benefits to Sites.”
Putting irony aside, the flooding in Maxwell was symbolic for another reason: In California, the pendulum has once again swung from drought to deluge. As floods have replaced drought as California’s new water crisis, Watson is hoping that all of this water doesn’t curb public enthusiasm for storage projects in the state, particularly – for obvious reasons – the Sites Reservoir project.
“We have to (break the cycle),” Watson said. “The original system was built with a projection of growth and increased demand that allowed us to defer investments, and it has lasted decades. That incremental cost they spent on overbuilding the original construction is what has allowed to defer many of those investments. You look at conditions back when the project was approved, the population, how water was being used and how they forecasted it, we’ve way exceeded the capability of the current system.”
In other words, California might be emerging from its most recent drought – one of the worst in the region’s history – but the next one is looming. As far as Watson is concerned, the wet weather is great, but it’s just another reason to get the dam built – the sooner it happens, the quicker it can be filled.
Lessons from Oroville
As the world continues to watch the situation at the Oroville Dam and California’s aging water infrastructure is brought into the national spotlight, Watson could be facing another challenge: the public’s growing concern over dam safety.
Watson said that the investigation into what went wrong at Oroville Dam spillway will be enlightening, and likely shape how Sites Reservoir, and other reservoirs around the country, will operate and be maintained in the future.
“I think its raised questions here, certainly,” Watson said of the impacts Oroville had upon the conversation surrounding Sites Reservoir. “You’re going to have 300-foot tall reservoir dams in your backyard, and of course you are going wonder what the consequences are. What are the risks, and what are we doing to manage the risks? I would expect the lessons learned from Oroville to be taken into account for all dam operators, who will have to look at whether they have certain vulnerabilities,” Watson said.
In a number of different cases, the risks won’t be the same for Sites – mainly because the reservoir will be located off-stream, with water pumped in from the Sacramento River pumped into the reservoir during periods of high flow.
While the reservoir will offer some local flood control benefits, natural inflows into Sites are minimal in the grand scheme of the project. The concerns at the off-stream Sites Reservoir would be much different than those at Oroville or Shasta, which are tasked with managing huge inflows while they attempt to balance flood control and maximizing water storage for the dry months.
“Certainly, there are benefits of having a multi-purpose reservoir like Oroville, that not only provides a water supply, but also flood control benefits. But operators are continually trying to balance the two, and they’re often at odds… I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes,” Watson said. “Since we’re off-stream, and our upstream inputs are so minor, the risk of spill is very low… you have a lot more control with off-stream storage.”
Still, Watson expects that the lessons learned from Oroville would be taken into account for all dam operators, who would have to take a close look at their own facility’s potential vulnerabilities.
“By the time we are in design, I’m sure those lessons learned will be well established within the findings. But I think Oroville also points to the need to think about the future. You have a dam that has a 100-year life. How would you go about modifying it?” Watson said. “We do have to re-invest, and we have to reinvest in an environmentally sensitive way. We know way more than we did in 60s and 70s, and people value the environment more and want it to factor into these kinds of investments. How do we do that? By looking at strategies like off-stream storage. We don’t have a flood control requirements, so we can store more over winter season. That’s a huge risk that for dams like Shasta and Oroville that they just can’t take. It also gives us a lot more flexibility to lower the levels to do work in off-season, without interrupting operation.”