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Commentary: It’s time to fulfill the promise: Build Sites Reservoir

Issue Date: August 18, 2021
By Jeffrey P. Sutton
Artist rendering of Sites Reservoir, an off-stream water storage facility proposed for Colusa and Glenn counties north of Sacramento. Voters approved new state water infrastructure in 2014.

California is in a dire situation. Most of our state's major reservoirs are precariously close to being effectively empty. We are less than two months away from the new water year when we start to replenish water supplies. Drought is to be expected in California. But are we as prepared as we could be? Were we ready for this year? We would be unquestionably better off if we had more storage capacity to save more water in advance of droughts. The proposed Sites Reservoir project would fill that role.

Sites Reservoir is a proposed multi-benefit, off-stream water storage facility, located north of Sacramento in rural Colusa and Glenn counties. Sites will serve to capture and store stormwater and flood flows in the Sacramento River, after all other water rights and regulatory requirements are met, for release primarily in drier years. This is not a big on-stream dam project of past generations. Sites Reservoir delivers on the promise of Proposition 1, the $7.1 billion water infrastructure initiative that earned near-unanimous support in the Legislature and was approved by 67% of California voters in 2014. It is a 21st century project that will help California remain resilient in the face of changing and challenging climate conditions.

California's water management infrastructure was predominantly developed in the 20th century and was not designed to operate under anticipated future climate conditions. Further, our aging and insufficient water infrastructure was developed prior to the population boom California has experienced during the last half century and is now being stressed beyond its capabilities. Our needs for water to serve our communities and farms, sustain our environment and fuel our economy have increased far beyond the capacity of our current water supply system. This has resulted in a predictably unreliable and unsustainable water management system during periods of drought.

Simply put, our current water infrastructure was not designed with future climate conditions in mind. But Sites Reservoir is. Extensive modeling has indicated that Sites Reservoir actually performs better and provides even greater water supply benefits to farms, people and the environment of California under even the most challenging climate change scenarios.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves in today are prime examples of why we need to build Sites Reservoir now. Just a couple of years ago, in 2017 and 2019, we experienced a series of atmospheric river events that produced so much runoff that it overtopped our flood control system, causing localized and regional flooding impacts throughout Northern California. If Sites Reservoir had been in place during that time, not only could we have avoided many of those flooding impacts, but we also could have captured and stored much of this excess runoff for use in a dry year like we are currently experiencing. In fact, if Sites Reservoir were constructed and operational during these past few years, we would have a million acre-feet of water stored for use today to help mitigate the impacts we are experiencing in this very difficult drought situation.

The benefits go well beyond agriculture. Sites Reservoir will likewise have a significant, positive impact on the environment, which also suffers during drought conditions. A significant portion of the Sites Reservoir Project's annual water supplies will be dedicated to environmental uses to help improve conditions for Delta smelt and to enhance Pacific Flyway habitat for migratory birds and other native species. In addition, in years such as 2021, Sites could greatly help operations to preserve the cold-water pool in Shasta Lake into the late summer months to support salmon development, spawning and rearing.

Sites also provides great benefit to our urban areas, which also need more water in dry years. The many benefits of Sites Reservoir have afforded the project a tremendous amount of support from across California. The project provides many diverse benefits, but at its core, it is a project that will help create a resilient water supply for all of California. This is why it was included in the state's Water Resilience Portfolio.

Though located in the Sacramento Valley, the significant benefits associated with Sites Reservoir will accrue statewide. Cities and water agencies across the state, as well as our federal and state partners, are collaborating to make Sites Reservoir and these resulting benefits a reality. Drought conditions in California are inevitable and predictable. However, with prudent investments in necessary water infrastructure, the impacts from the intermittent droughts that California experiences can be greatly mitigated and more effectively managed.

By building Sites Reservoir, we have a unique opportunity to greatly change the way droughts impact farmers, people and the environment. It's time to build Sites now.

(Jeffrey P. Sutton is the general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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