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California Water Commission Awards $2.5 Billion For New Water Storage Projects

The voice of the voters from Proposition 1 in 2014 was heard loud and clear when, on July 24, 2018, the California Water Commission (CWC) approved spending $2.5 billion to fund construction of four new dams and four underground storage projects. The vote of the CWC was unanimous with an 8-0 vote. The CWC’s decision provides significant steps forward for water supply planning and reliability, which is all the more critical with evolving changes and uncertainties in the hydrologic cycle and pending regulatory processes involving water resources, namely the Water Quality Control Plan update and the California WaterFix.


Factual Background

Proposition 1 was brought to the voters in November 2014, which was during a five-year drought, with the drought imposing severe circumstances in many parts of the state. Notably, Proposition 1 is revered as the largest water storage commitment by the state since 1960, which interestingly in 2014 was under Governor Jerry Brown’s watch while the 1960 expenditure for what is known as the State Water Project was under the watch of Governor Pat Brown, the current governor’s father.

The CWC consists of nine members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, serving as a public forum to discuss water issues, advise the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), and take statutory actions regarding water resource management.

In addition to the projects identified below, the CWC also approved funding for four groundwater storage projects. Those projects are $280 million to the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District to treat recycled wastewater and provide it to farmers in Sacramento County; $207 million to the Inland Empire Utilities Agency to store recycled water in a groundwater storage bank in San Bernardino County for use by local cities, businesses and farms; $67 million for the Kern Fan groundwater storage project near Bakersfield; and $95 million for the Willow Springs groundwater bank in Kern County, which would add 500,000 acre-feet of new storage.


The Sites Reservoir

Sites Reservoir (Sites) is also commonly referred to as North of Delta Offstream Storage, or NODOS. This project is planned to be a large, offstream, reservoir located near Maxwell within the Sacramento Valley, approximately 65 miles north of the City of Sacramento. The DWR would operate the reservoir, with its main purpose being to collect and store winter flood flows from the Sacramento River for later use during the drier times of year, and in a subsequent year if precipitation levels are low. Sites’s anticipated capacity is approximately 1.8 million acre-feet. For perspective, Shasta Reservoir is approximately 2 million acre-feet, and Folsom Reservoir is a little less than 1 million acre-feet.

Discussions about Sites started during the 1980s, as Stage II of the State Water Project. Stage I consisted primarily of Oroville Dam and the California Aqueduct. Various political and environmental opponents have hindered the ability for Sites to move forward; however, with the turn of the century and the most recent drought—and inevitably another drought to come—the tides have turned in favor of planning for future droughts, with reservoirs being a key component of such a strategy. Furthering the need for proactive planning is the continuing increase of California’s population.

The Sites project was awarded $816 million by the CWC, though proponents of Sites requested $1.7 billion in funding from Proposition 1. Sites’s total projected cost is estimated at $5.2 billion.

In addition to closing the financing gap between existing funds and the anticipated cost of the project, speculation exists as to the extent of environmental support for the project. To help mitigate adverse environmental impacts and subsequent opposition from environmental groups, Sites is designed to be an “off-stream” reservoir, meaning the reservoir is not located on an existing streambed but instead is supplied by a transmission pipeline or aqueduct. One such example of an existing off-stream reservoir in California is the San Luis Reservoir, which also is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. Off-stream reservoirs are designed to mitigate environmental impacts relative to on-stream reservoirs by not directly affecting fish migration, while also potentially serving as a source of additional cold water that migrating salmonids need for spawning and rearing.


Other Projects

Also among the CWC’s July 24 award are the following projects being undertaken by the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Contra Costa Water District.

Santa Clara Valley Water District was awarded $485 million to construct a new 319-foot tall dam at Pacheco Pass in Santa Clara County’s southern and rural area, which is expected to increase storage capacity from 5,500 acre-feet to 140,000, while also adding cold water pool benefits for fisheries.

Contra Costa Water District’s project was awarded $459 million to increase the existing dam height at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County by 55 feet, which is anticipated to increase the reservoir’s size by approximately 70 percent. This project has garnered support for its Los Vaqueros project from The Nature Conservancy, Audubon California and the Planning and Conservation League.


Conclusion and Implications

These projects are intended to increase water supply reliability for urban water users, farms and fisheries (as well as other habitat, such as birds). As if contributing to the needs of each of these interests is not attractive enough to evaluate viability of moving forward with these complex projects, so, too, is the nimbleness of projects to augment water supplies for water users around the state. In other words, projects, particularly such as Sites would potentially operate to assist with salinity levels and provides water supplies to water users throughout the state, not just within the immediate region. These projects are not without hurdles ahead—the rest of any needed financing for projects must be obtained by January 1, 2022, and some environmental groups might challenge one or more of these projects. With increased swings in precipitation cycles, however, and an ever-increasing population in the state, innovation is necessary. With proper planning, design, construction, and operation, projects like those identified above can help weather the lack of storms in the future.

(Wesley A. Miliband)