Drought prompts foothill water storage plans
By Kate Campbell
More than 100 Nevada County community leaders toured the site of a proposed dam and reservoir on the Bear River. Nevada Irrigation District offered participants a glimpse of current water facilities and explained how system upgrades and more storage will benefit local water users.
Wyatt Price, Nevada Union High School Graduating senior, past FFA chapter president
For nearly a century, Nevada County community leaders have talked about building an additional dam on the Bear River to increase water storage capacity and improve water-system flexibility.
Historically called the Parker Reservoir site, the proposed facility, which has not been officially named, has been part of Nevada Irrigation District's water plans since the early 1920s.
Although proposed again and again through the decades, NID general manager Remieh Scherzinger said the project was never completed because of changing water conditions, as well as shifting economic and political environments.
About 90 percent of the district's water goes to agricultural uses, mostly small foothill farms and ranches.
"The current drought forces us to look at the project again and find a way to get it built," Scherzinger said, outlining various NID system upgrades during an educational tour of district facilities, followed by a discussion of the proposed dam site.
The district serves about 25,000 parcels—farms, homes and businesses in Nevada and Placer counties. There are a number of water infrastructure improvement projects that Scherzinger said are designed to increase system "resilience and redundancy."
Last year the district filed for project approval for the dam and reservoir with the State Water Resources Control Board, a first step in the planning, permitting, financing and construction of the proposed 110,000 acre-foot reservoir between its existing Rollins and Combie reservoirs.
NID estimates the new facility will cost about $160 million to build and take about 10 years to finish and fill with water
Scherzinger said revenues from hydroelectric energy production, potential funding through state water bonds and possibly a local bond issue will cover the cost of installing the district's first new dam in 60 years.
Created by Nevada County voters in 1921, the district holds senior, pre-1914 water rights to the Bear River and has over time acquired additional post-1914 water rights.
The 120-mile-long Bear River originates in the Sierra Nevada at Emigrant Gap on the border of Nevada and Placer counties. It flows into the Feather River near the confluence with the Sacramento River south of Yuba City-Marysville.
In its formative years, NID acquired several hundred acres of land along the Bear River where the proposed Parker Dam and now owns more than 1,200 acres within the proposed project area.
The district said in briefing documents that Parker Reservoir would directly benefit the southern portions of NID, including the district's Placer County service areas.
Upstream areas in Nevada County would also benefit as the district would be able to route more water from the mountains down the Yuba River/Deer Creek watershed and less down the Bear River side
A half-century ago, NID voters overwhelmingly approved a local bond issue to fund the Yuba-Bear Project, Scherzinger said. Those bonds have been repaid and he said, "It's our hope we'll receive the same strong community support as we move forward this time."
NID directors also said preserving water rights and retaining "area of origin" water resources within the district is in the best interests of NID customers and taxpayers.
Nevada County Farm Bureau director David Barhydt said, "This project will be a real benefit for agriculture in this county because it will increase water storage dramatically. With an expanding population there's increasing demand."
He said NID is approaching the proposed dam and reservoir with a new way of thinking, pointing out that the science and technology used to build dams and reservoirs 50 to 100 years ago is far different than today.
"I think this new dam will include many innovative approaches to habitat and wildlife protection, as well as provide clean power generation and a more stable water supply given climate change. These things weren't a concern 50 years ago," Barhydt said.
"We need to build smart dams and we need to take into account how that helps support the environmental things we're already doing on our own farms and ranches," he added. "We're improving the soil, protecting against erosion and conserving wildlife. We need the water resources to continue sustainably producing food."
Agriculture will directly benefit from the project, said Scherzinger, because it will help compensate for the loss of snowpack water storage, which is occurring with climate change, and "it will help ensure we have the water we've promised agriculture for more than 100 years."
Last week NID, along with Nevada City, Placer County Water Agency and other Sierra foothill water providers, was sent a curtailment notice by the state water board.
Enthusiasm for the project, however, is not universal.
Water officials in neighboring counties have expressed concern that flows into the southern part of the district and beyond could potentially be disrupted by additional storage facilities on Bear River.
For Wyatt Price, Nevada Union High School graduating senior and outgoing president of the school's Future Farmers of America chapter, he said he sees the proposed dam as necessary to the future.
"It will be a long time before anyone will benefit from this proposal," Price said. "But, I know we're going to need a better water supply in the future. More people are moving to the county and they'll need water and we need to plan ahead."
Nevada County Farm Bureau President Karen Henderson said county farmers and ranchers support NID's efforts and vision in moving forward to increase water storage in Nevada County.
"We're excited and hope once the Parker Dam is completed it will be the new star that shines a light on the future of water storage for California," Henderson said.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.