Reliable Water Supplies for Reliable Food
Author: Mike Wade, Executive Director, California Farm Water Coalition
Millions of people across our nation, and countless millions throughout the world depend on California’s farms and ranches for the food they eat every single day. California leads the nation as the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter and serves as a vital link in the world’s food supply chain.
However, a resilient and reliable water supply is essential to ensure that California farmers and ranchers can continue to provide a safe and reliable food supply to our nation and the world. The state’s water infrastructure is getting older and stressed beyond its capabilities, and our water demands have increased far beyond what the system was designed to support, particularly in dry years or during times of drought. While water supplies for everyone are stretched to the limit during drier years, they are always especially tight for California farmers, who need the right amount of water at the right time of year to grow their crops. A combination of inadequate infrastructure, longer dry periods and droughts, and less snowpack make our water supplies uncomfortably uncertain. A more reliable water future is both necessary and possible if we deploy a broad portfolio of solutions – including both above and below ground water storage.
One project that is deservedly getting attention now is Sites Reservoir. Located in Colusa and Glenn counties, Sites Reservoir is a proposed multi-benefit 1.5-million-acre foot off-stream, reservoir. A forward-thinking water storage project, Sites Reservoir is one of several key projects outlined in the state’s recently released Water Resilience Portfolio. Once constructed, Sites Reservoir would capture and store stormwater flows from the Sacramento River—after all other water rights and regulatory requirements are met—for release primarily in dry and critical years for environmental use and for California communities, farms, and businesses when it is so desperately needed.
This is a project we need to advance – it is a generational opportunity to construct a multi-benefit water storage project that helps restore flexibility, reliability, and resiliency to our statewide water supply. While it brings many statewide benefits to the table, there are many vital benefits to the agricultural industry and the communities that rely on the agricultural economy, particularly in the Sacramento Valley where Sites Reservoir would live. Local agriculture will greatly benefit from improved reliability of water supplies during drier years, even allowing for water exchanges when resources are scarcest. A more reliable water supply creates a stronger agricultural economy which creates a ripple of benefits for our rural communities. Job creation, flood control and additional recreation opportunities are other key local benefits that the project would provide in the Sacramento Valley Region.
Sites Reservoir is also a smart move for the environment. A significant portion of the water stored in Sites Reservoir will be set aside for environmental purposes. This water will help aquatic species and habitat withstand dry year conditions. This becomes a win-win, helping the environment and also creating more flexibility for water operations.
Different than other large water storage projects that require major dams, Sites Reservoir is off-stream, meaning it doesn’t dam any of our major rivers. This is one of the many reasons it has broad support and representation from the local counties where the project is located, along with cities, counties, water and irrigation districts throughout the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, Bay Area, and Southern California. Collectively, the participants in this project serve water to over 24 million Californians and over 500,000 acres of farmland throughout California.
As with any major project, Sites Reservoir has been refined and improved to get to where we are today. For the last several years, the Sites Project Authority has been meeting with landowners, stakeholders, NGOs, state, and federal partners, permitting agencies and project investors to receive input about Sites Reservoir. With this input in hand, the Authority embarked on a process to “right-size” Sites Reservoir. Through a rigorous Value Planning effort, they reviewed the project’s proposed operations and facilities to right-size this project for investors and participants while still providing water supply reliability and enhancing the environment. The project before us now is a 1.5 million acre-foot reservoir – a smaller footprint reservoir that costs less than the original proposal. The changes Sites Reservoir underwent made a good project even better.
California must invest in new infrastructure to secure a more reliable water future for farms, businesses, the environment, and all Californians. With a new plan on the table for a long-term, resilient water supply, now is the time to take action. California simply cannot afford to wait any longer to build Sites Reservoir. Our families and food supplies depend on it.