Editorial: Getting Sites Reservoir across the finish line

By Sarah March 6, 2024

It’s difficult to build big water infrastructure projects in California. It takes collaboration and agreement across geographic and political divides. It takes time, funding, and the will of diverse stakeholders to advance solutions to address our state’s biggest water challenges. When you have a project that boasts all the above, you can get the job done. For us, that project is Sites Reservoir.

Sites Reservoir is a new way of capturing and storing water – rather than damming a major river, the proposal involves utilizing existing infrastructure to convey and store water off-stream and deliver it back into the system when it’s needed the most. When flows are high on the Sacramento River – and once all other senior water rights are met – a portion of the water will be piped into Sites Reservoir. The reservoir would store water to use during dry years for the environment, cities and farms. It’s a savings account for water, something we need more of in California.

Major storms like the ones we’ve had in California recently show what Sites can do. Based on 2023 flows and significant storms this January and February, it is estimated that Sites Reservoir would be 80 percent full today.

We have jointly been advocating for Sites Reservoir for years and have secured more than $244 million in federal funding for its planning and development. It’s a project that members of both parties support simply because it’s good for people and environment and will address key water supply challenges facing our state. The public agencies participating in Sites Reservoir will secure space in the reservoir, a proportional share of the water, and the flexibility to use that water when they need it. This helps meet the diverse needs of cities, farms, and the environment.

One critically important benefit is that Sites Reservoir will be the state’s first and only reservoir that captures and stores water specifically for environmental uses. Federal and state agencies, who have a responsibility to maintain and protect our ecosystems, will be able to use the dedicated environmental water stored in Sites to support their environmental needs and priorities. The Sites Project Authority has adopted diversion criteria for its operations that are highly protective of fish, ensuring real-time, in-river conditions dictate operations. Coupled with state-of-the-art fish screens, this enables capture and storage of water with far less impact on our environment than the dams of the past.

This project provides a key part of the solution to California’s water challenges and it’s designed with our future climate in mind. That’s why the federal and state government, water agencies from across all of California, plus the Sites Authority―which will be the owner and operator of the project and is made up of irrigation districts and local governments in the Sacramento Valley―strongly support this project.

2024 will be a significant year and will build on the project’s momentum. This past year, the state and federal government issued the Final Environmental Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement for the project, both of which analyze environmental impacts and identify mitigation measures. We were pleased to see the Governor’s endorsement for the project through his certification qualifying the project for judicial streamlining.  Major funding opportunities were secured through avenues like the Water Infrastructure and Finance Innovation Act (WIFIA), which will save Sites participants tens of millions of dollars through low interest loans. And looking ahead to the coming year, California regulators are considering Sites’ application for a water right permit.

As we are in another winter season, which could leave California bone dry or sopping wet, it is clear we need long-term solutions to the state’s water woes. Sites is one piece of that solution and it’s a win for California. The project has come a long way and it’s exciting to see how close we are to the finish line. More than ever, we need to keep up the pace and progress to ensure this essential project is built.

Congressman Mike Thompson represents California’s 4th Congressional District which includes numerous participants in the Sites Project. As a long-time champion of Sites, Congressman Thompson secured the first ever appropriation for Sites Reservoir during his time in the California State Senate.

Congressman Doug LaMalfa is a lifelong farmer representing California’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the physical footprint of Sites Reservoir. He previously negotiated the 2014 WIIN Act, which created the water storage funding process, and has led multiple Congressional water storage appropriations efforts over the past several years.


Originally appeared as a Daily Democrat opinion article.