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Commentary: Sites Authority closing in on fulfilling water promise

Author: Fritz Durst

Preparing for drought is an everyday part of life for every Californian. Water conservation and efficient water management are now, and will continue to be, the focus for everyone as drought becomes more persistent in the state. This could not be truer for our state’s farmers and agriculture industry.

We are fortunate to live in a portion of the nation capable of producing more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. However, impacts of a changing climate, including less snowpack and extreme drought like the one we are in today, and challenges related to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act are causing farmers to fallow once-productive fields and experience the financial hardships as a $50 billion industry continues to decline.

Over the past 20 years, Californians have raised the bar when it comes to water conservation and innovative local water supply projects, including world-class water reuse, groundwater replenishment and implementing new efficiency tools. However, there is more we must do as a state to create a truly resilient and reliable water future.

California’s current water infrastructure was not designed with current or future climate conditions in mind. In recent years, the West Coast experienced a series of atmospheric river events. These storms produced powerful runoff in the Sacramento River that overtopped the flood control system, causing tremendous flooding and significant damage throughout Northern California.

It is these periods of large rainfall and runoff that we need to better capture. This is where Sites Reservoir comes in.

There is no existing infrastructure in place to capture and store excess water flows from the Sacramento River when they happen. Had Sites been in place during storm events since 2017, many flood impacts could have been avoided, and the reservoir would have stored nearly 1 million acre-feet of water to help mitigate impacts of today’s difficult drought.

Sites Reservoir will be a multi-benefit, off-stream water storage facility located north of Sacramento in rural Colusa and Glenn counties. The reservoir will serve to capture and store stormwater and flood flows in the Sacramento River after all other water rights and regulatory requirements are met.

With a capacity of approximately 1.5 million acre-feet, Sites can store the excess stormwater without the need to dam any major rivers. Extensive modeling indicated Sites performs best and provides even greater water supply benefits to farms, people and the environment of California, under even the most challenging climate change scenarios.

Water storage flexibility is the reason Sites works well for so many varied participants. The water reserved for the environment will be managed by the state through its investment under Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond approved by California voters. The water can then be used for environmental purposes when it is needed.

The reservoir’s storage flexibility, working in concert with our existing water management systems, could also help us respond more rapidly and in an adaptive fashion to the changing hydrologic conditions and the changing needs. This becomes a win-win for the environment and statewide water operations.

The Sites Project team has made considerable progress over the past several years. We achieved critical funding objectives, including an invitation to apply for a $2.2 billion Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan. This low-interest loan will cover half of the project’s cost. This is in addition to $875 million in Proposition 1 funding and a $449 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan.

Our goal is to begin construction in 2024, and we are closer than ever to final approval on the project.

The California Water Commission issued a feasibility determination in late 2021, an important regulatory step. And the Sites Project Authority and our federal partners issued a revised draft Environmental Impact Statement for public review earlier this year. We are close to finalizing that process. There are additional regulatory and permitting processes underway, including consideration of the project’s water rights application.

The project is widely supported across the state. Gov. Newsom, local counties where the project is located, cities and irrigation districts throughout the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California have all expressed their support. Collectively, the participants in this project serve water to more than 24 million Californians and more than 500,000 acres of farmland throughout California.

In the face of crushing drought conditions, the need for Sites is clearer than ever. Even in dry California, there are times when flows in the Sacramento River are greater than the system can handle, presenting an unrealized opportunity to store significant amounts of water generated by stormwater and flood flows.

It isn’t the only solution, but it’s an important part. We need an all-of-the-above approach. Sites is the modern, smart type of water storage we need to get through the next century.

(Fritz Durst is a Yolo County farmer and chairman of the Sites Joint Power Authority. He may be contacted at fdurst@rd108.org.)

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

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