Saving Water for a Drier Day
Author: Ali Forsythe, Environmental and Permitting Manager
We often hear of the toll drought takes on California but, among the often discussed topics of a drought’s effects to agriculture, jobs, and urban and rural communities, impacts to the environment can be lost in the narrative. The fact is that the environment is high on the list of drought victims in California, as fish, birds and other wildlife and their habitat suffer alongside people, farms and businesses. As the State looks at investing in water infrastructure to ward off the most detrimental of droughts effects on the State, it must consider projects that support the environment, as well as people and farms.
The Sites Reservoir Project supports State and Federal goals for water supply reliability, environmental conservation and stewardship, State and local economies and local flood protection and recreation, and will significantly improve the State’s water management system in drier years. Located in Colusa and Glenn counties, Sites Reservoir is a proposed multi-benefit 1.5 million acre-foot (MAF) off-river, storm flow capture and storage reservoir. Designed to maximize benefits from big storms, Sites Reservoir would capture water in high flow conditions, saving it for use later during drier years. By doing so, Sites Reservoir will significantly improve the State’s existing water management system, increase drought resiliency by adding new water storage and restore much needed flexibility in the entire State’s water grid.
Sites Reservoir will also add to or provide new critical environmental benefits that are needed by fish, birds and other sensitive species and their essential habitats to withstand drier year conditions. A significant portion of the Sites Reservoir Project’s annual water supply will be dedicated to environment uses to help improve conditions for the endangered Delta smelt; help preserve the cold-water pool in Shasta Lake later into the summer months to support salmon development, spawning, and rearing; and improve Pacific Flyway habitat for migratory birds and other native species. There are many possibilities for using this environmental water, and the Authority is in active discussions with the State of California on how best to flexibly manage this water and ensure it is used for measurable environmental benefits.
With the continued onset of climate change less snow and more rain will fall in the State, this will result in the cold water stored in existing major reservoirs being reduced, making it more difficult to manage water temperatures of water released for salmon and other species that need this coldwater to survive. During drier periods, the operation of Sites Reservoir will allow larger reservoirs like Shasta to conserve more cold water later into the summer months for the benefit of fisheries by releasing water stored in Sites Reservoir instead of Shasta; saving Shasta’s cold water until it is badly needed by salmon in late summer.
To further ensure Sites Reservoir makes sense for Californians, last year the Sites Project Authority conducted a rigorous Value Planning effort to review the project’s proposed operations and facilities to develop a project that is “right sized” for participants while still providing water supply reliability and enhancing the environment. The result is a reservoir with a smaller footprint, 1.5 MAF vs. 1.8 MAF, that costs $2 billion less than the original proposal, reduces impacts to the environment and identifies new opportunities to benefit key natural resources, while providing a vast amount of flexibility to manage the project for the greatest overall benefit to the State.
The input received from non-governmental organizations, project participants, local stakeholders, the general public, local Tribes and natural resource agencies was critical to improving the project, and the Authority will continue to solicit feedback from all stakeholders as the revised environmental documents are released in summer 2021. There aren’t many proposed water storage projects that make such a notable, positive impact on the environment. Sites Reservoir is one such project and has been favorably referenced in the State’s 2020 Water Resilience Plan. With broad statewide support, we are committed to working closely and collaborating with interested stakeholders to advance this very important and necessary project.