Farm Progress

Proposed Sites Reservoir would benefit tree nut growers and the public

The reliability of water supplies is more important that ever before with increased planting of permanent nut crops.

Robyn Rominger, Contributing Writer

April 19, 2018

5 Min Read
Western Colusa County is the site for the proposed Sites Reservoir, an off-stream water storage facility.Jim Morris/Sacramento Valley Water

Tree nut growers say the proposed Sites Reservoir would provide many public benefits, in addition to helping agriculture, by providing a reliable supply of irrigation water. “Public benefits” is the buzzword for getting the reservoir approved by state regulators, who are in the process of funding proposed water-storage projects.

Proponents of the Sites Reservoir, located west of Maxwell in Colusa County, are hoping that the California Water Commission will select it for Proposition 1 funding.The proposed reservoir was addressed at the Northern California Water Association’s recent annual meeting at Chico, attended by producers of tree nuts and other crops.

With increased planting of permanent nut crops in the Sacramento Valley, the reliability of water supplies is more important than ever before, growers say. In drought years, permanent crops cannot be fallowed like rice fields and row crops — they must be irrigated. Sites Reservoir is going to be an important part of making the water supply more reliable for thousands of acres of nut orchards that continue to be planted in the valley.

Yolo County almond grower Tom Butler has an orchard in the Dunnigan Water District, which is part of the Tehama-Colusa Canal System. “Right now, there’s only a 20 percent water supply from this district,” he says. “That’s not going to keep a permanent crop alive. Having the Sites Reservoir will, ideally, alleviate some of the pressure there. It’s an off-stream reservoir that will be dedicated to environmental flows, and when water is present, there will be more water for crops. I hope to see it one day.”

Proposition 1, The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, is a $7.5 billion bond measure that included $2.7 billion for water-storage projects. There are 11 such projects vying for Proposition 1 funding, including the proposed Sites Reservoir that would provide off-stream storage of Sacramento River water. The California Water Commission has until the end of 2021 to allocate the funds.

The selected water-storage projects must provide ecosystem benefits, emergency response, flood control, recreation, and water quality benefits. According to NCWA, the Sites Reservoir would provide many public benefits for Californians, particularly in future dry years. It would, they say, improve the operation of the state water system and provide a net improvement in ecosystem and water quality conditions.

Recently, the water commission announced initial public-benefit scores for the 11 project applicants. The Sites Reservoir project received credit for wildlife refuge improvements, flood control, and recreation. The commission requested more information about the project’s significant environmental benefits for salmon and delta smelt.

“Sites Reservoir is poised to move forward as an important project to help serve multiple beneficial uses in the Sacramento Valley, and provide statewide benefits,” says NCWA Chairman Bryce Lundberg. “It will also provide an environmental block of water that can be used in the Bay Delta and meet other key demands.

“This will directly benefit the water supplies for certain parts of the Sacramento Valley, and indirectly benefit the entire valley by taking pressure off the water rights and supplies. I believe Sites Reservoir will be the key project that our generation will build for the betterment of the North State and all of California.”

In addition to supporting Proposition 1 funding of the reservoir, Lundberg says that NCWA will help advance legislation in the state legislature and in Congress to support water infrastructure financing.

Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Project Authority, provided an update on the reservoir project, noting that most dams in California were built by the government before most environmental regulations were passed. “Today, in terms of the 21st century reservoir, Proposition 1 is really an opportunity to create a new tool.”

Future water storage facilities will be tools that expand flood control, provide renewable energy, create recreation opportunities, and help sustain the environment, he says. In addition, “We’re looking at building, financing, and operating through partnerships.” If project funding is approved, the reservoir is estimated to begin operating by 2030.

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, also spoke at the NCWA conference, and said he supports Proposition 1 state funding for the Sites Reservoir and federal water-infrastructure funding.

The project would add 1.8 million acre feet of water storage to Northern California, he says, that would increase water supplies for cities, agriculture, and the environment, but there has been a series of regulatory delays.

“The Sites project would provide much-needed flexibility to do the obvious: collect more water during wet seasons and keep more of it stored during dry years,” LaMalfa said following a recent congressional subcommittee hearing about the nation’s water and power infrastructure. says. “Many years after the project was initiated, it’s still being subjected to countless delays in the form of feasibility and environmental studies and a complicated regulatory process. “Californians, who’ve already voted 3-1/2 years ago to allocate funding for projects like Sites Reservoir, are wondering how many more years must be wasted before this much-needed infrastructure project is allowed to move forward.”

Regarding federal funding, the U.S. Department of Interior recently recommended providing $33.3 million for water infrastructure projects in accordance with the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which was signed into law in December 2016. The Interior Department recommends the use of these funds to complete the decades-old feasibility study for Sites Reservoir, among other projects.

“At the end of 2016, Congress passed the bipartisan WIIN Act to take a major step towards addressing California’s water supply and storage crisis,” LaMalfa says, noting that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is taking the next step by recommending funding to advance critical water projects in California, including Sites Reservoir.

“It’s nice to finally see an administration that prioritizes water storage and increased flexibility that will benefit both rural and urban areas of California. As much as the state bureaucracy seems allergic to actual progress, our water needs must be addressed in order to secure the long-term future of our state.”

State Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, also attended the NCWA conference and supports the proposed Sites Reservoir. “It’s unreasonable to think that California can conserve its way into the future and still meet the needs of a growing demand for water. We need to build water storage — we need to build Sites Reservoir. I commend the work of Congressman LaMalfa and his federal partners, who are working to ensure that funding for water storage projects in the Golden State remains a priority.”​

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