No Delta transport (tunnel) without site tank

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) is considering letting California’s largest water users build a 1.5 million acre-foot, or 20-square-mile reservoir that would divert significantly more water from the Sacramento River. . At 13,200 acres, the Sites Reservoir (officially called the Sites Downstream Storage Reservoir Project) would be one of the largest reservoirs in California and include new water diversions from the Sacramento River that could also have a negative impact on the Trinity River. Since the plan includes water storage for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that supplies water from the federal water project to the Westlands Water District, the main diversion of water from the Trinity River, the sites could lead to overexploitation of the Sacramento, Shasta and Trinity reservoirs. The Trinity is the largest tributary of the troubled Klamath River and its coldest source of water.

Sites Reservoir does not currently propose to divert water only during really wet years and extremely wet periods, but instead plans to divert water most years, including an average of nearly 100,000 acres of water diversions during dry and extremely dry years. The sites reservoir now estimates that it will produce about 260,000 acres of water per year on average, with more water in dry years and less in wet years. But that means that in most future droughts, there won’t be much stored water – let alone once biologically credible diversion flows and environmental protections are needed.

Developers now estimate that Sites Reservoir will cost $3.9 billion to build the project, a 30% increase from previous estimates. As a result, site water will likely cost upwards of $700 per acre-foot on average – and this cost estimate does not include additional costs to move water across the delta, to pay to move water to California Aqueduct and/or other canals and water treatment costs for municipal and industrial users. The Delta Tunnel will cost between $16 billion and $40 billion in addition to site costs, in a time of climate change, when the Sierra Nevada has just been predicted to be snow-free in 25 years.

Evans started the tour with a stop in Maxwell, California, where we saw an old building that hadn’t been renovated for earthquakes. Reservoirs can induce seismicity, or earthquakes, as they discovered in Oroville in the 1970s, or with smaller induced earthquakes by Mendocino Reservoir, so buildings like this in Maxwell are at risk of collapse due to its proximity to the reservoir. We pass almond orchards fed by groundwater, which will be kept in production by the reservoir. Some of the districts here will probably also sell the water transfer to water districts further south.

We stopped at the proposed location of the reservoir dam, which also happens to be an important, non-mitigable habitat of federally protected golden eagles. As if Mother Nature herself was listening, we saw a bald eagle and a red-headed vulture hovering in circles above us (don’t worry, we have video)! The dam site sits atop the Great Central Valley fault line, which is less than a mile from the reservoir’s proposed location, and produced a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in 1892 and again in 1983.

The proposed site of Sites Reservoir, which is currently a green valley with a few horse ranches, would be very tall and wide, but relatively shallow, rising to a ridge line outlined by Evans. He tells us about the modeling they use in the environmental review process, which uses averages that do not take into account daily or hourly time steps, which are essential for salmon spawning patterns. California’s climate also likes to get big or go home – we have big droughts and big floods, but not a lot of mild in-betweens, and our wildlife has adapted to those patterns. These models, like most of our hydraulic infrastructure, were built in the wet years of the 1960s and earlier. Evans predicts the sites may be a ‘stranded asset’ – it may rarely be full with these severe droughts and may be ‘dead’ – the water level may be below where pumps and pipes may even l ‘to reach.

Electricity will be generated when the water is released from the reservoir, but it will be needed to pump water into the reservoir. The amount of electricity needed and produced is unpredictable, but sites will likely need more than they can produce. Estimates of the greenhouse gases produced by the electricity needed, combined with the decaying vegetation in the reservoir, will produce as much CO2 as all the commuter cars in the Los Angeles Basin for two days.

Significant diversions of the Sacramento River to replenish reservoir sites could result in substantial impacts to the river’s ecosystem, including: reduced water volumes and water quality due to the inability to evacuate runoff, agricultural and municipal waste, increased temperatures, salinity and algal blooms (HAB). These affect sensitive, riparian and aquatic habitats. The region where the sites would be built is an area that naturally produces selenium and other potential metals and pollutants. There may be abandoned mercury mines within the footprint of the reservoir that could release the mineral into warm waters.

Our last stop was at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge which protects threatened and endangered species in the riverine habitat. When the river is in flood, it deposits seeds and sediment so that areas can revegetate. It erodes banks and deposits sand downstream, creating new habitats. Sometimes erosion causes trees to fall into the water, creating cover for fish. Site diversions could significantly harm stream-dependent riparian habitat, including yellow-billed cuckoos, bank swallows, winter and spring run chinook salmon, rainbow trout and others. The Shasta Dam is already significantly altering diversions and sites could absorb up to 500 cubic feet per second of river flow.

By one estimate, the sites would drown 14,000 acres of grassland, woodland, chaparral, riparian habitats, vernal pools, and wetlands (including 19 acres of rare alkaline wetlands). 23 endangered or threatened species would be at risk and another 56 endangered species could be threatened. There are 4 species of plants that the California Native Plant species deems to be of “scarce distribution” that will be threatened.

To construct the Delta Conveyance aka Delta tunnel or Peripheral Canal, the Metropolitan Water District and the Department of Water Resources must construct site reservoirs as storage. Yet in their formulated proposals they still state that they will only take water in wet years from the San Joaquin Sacramento Delta, but apparently the same does not apply to the Sacramento River. They are all connected. Do you disconnect a lot? To quote John Muir: “When you shoot at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world.”

Every example of water infrastructure projects we heard throughout the day reminded us that at the end of the day, every time we faced drought and the state had to choose between agriculture and the environment when reducing water, the environment loses every time and yet they still claim that their environmental standards work.