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Sacramento bureaucrat mentality: More water storage offers little public benefit
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Ground zero for the war against man — and now fish — in California can be found east of Colusa in narrow Antelope Valley in the foothills of the Coastal Range where Stone Corral Creek and Funk Creek flow.

It is reminiscent to a degree of the valley where San Luis Creek once flowed through to the northeast of Los Banos.

Antelope Valley is where the 1.8-million-acre-foot Sites Reservoir is proposed. That’s enough water to meet the needs of the equivalent of 13.3 million Californians a year. It would be slightly smaller than San Luis Reservoir’s 2-million-acre feet. Both are deemed off-river reservoirs designed to capture excess winter water production from rain and melting snowpack during wet years.

Sites Reservoir would provide some water relief for urban and agricultural users with additional storage. But the beauty of Sites is that it gives an operational pool of some 700,000-acre feet to provide water at critical junctures to aid the endangered Chinook salmon and Delta Smelt. In doing so it takes pressure off already overtaxed reservoirs built primarily to provide water for cities and farm uses.

Storing water off-line from California’s elaborate web of natural rivers wedded with manmade reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts during the winter period when excess water flows into the San Francisco Bay is critical. That’s because it provides cold water storage for release for critical Chinook salmon runs and additional water to prop up higher water flows that environmentalists contend are essential for the survival of Delta smelt even though research suggests the real threat is non-native predator fish such as bass that actually thrive even better in high water flows that in turn creates a bigger threat to the Delta smelt.

Sites Reservoir also does not dam a river nor does it interrupt a fish run.

California voters in 2014 approved a $7.5 billion bond to create more water storage and enhance flood control. Sites Reservoir as well as Temperance Flat near Fresno was deemed the leading candidates to provide the most effective bang for the buck in terms of securing useable water with minimal environmental impacts.

California Water Commission staff in 2018 essentially gave Sites Reservoir a thumbs down by decreeing it was only eligible for $660 million of the $5 billion needed to build it as it scored too low on the criteria they deemed most important in deciding whether it provided sufficient public benefit which excluded providing water in drought years for state residents and farms so people can eat. 

The California Water Commission did somewhat overrule its staff in the summer of 2018 when it conditionally set aside $775 million of the $7.5 billion in available bond funding for Sites Reservoir.

It’s funny how folks up in Sacramento twist environmental laws to meet their personal political agenda whether they are bureaucrats or elected officials.

Case in point — the high-speed rail project and Staples Center in Los Angeles. Former Gov. Jerry Brown and his partners in bending the rules for pet projects in the California Legislature used their power to fast track the environmental review process by suspending steps normally needed. Of course, when they come across a project they don’t like, the environmental review process is untouchable and the holiest of California laws.

Eight years ago, Brown essentially declared a health and safety emergency as the state was in a deep drought. It was lifted in 2018 but within in a year dry conditions returned pushing California back toward the abyss and hopefully the realization that the last 200 years of weather was abnormal given the scientific evidence mega-droughts of 50 years of more are the long-range historic standard in the West.

What was the health and safety emergency to expedite approval of the Staples Center? The fact Los Angeles could have lost an NBA franchise if it wasn't built? As for the high-speed rail the only emergency that existed was time was running out to get work started before Brown left office for a project he had repeatedly referred to as his legacy.

As for the Temperance Flat project that would add 1.2-million-acre feet of water on the San Joaquin River east of Millerton Reservoir, it would stabilize water for agriculture which in turn takes pressure off groundwater use that has caused large swaths of the San Joaquin Valley to drop more than 20 feet since 1926 was determined to have absolutely no public benefit and scored a big zero from the commission staff.

Feeding people, storing water to keep the restored San Joaquin River flowing in late summer and fall, and stopping a large segment of the San Joaquin Valley from sinking further has no public benefit in the eyes of Sacramento bureaucrats.

In fact, all 11 of the water projects submitted for bond funding scored zero or less than one when rated in terms of public benefit.

Think about that for a second. California had just come off its worst drought in modern history and is now in the midst of what is shaping up as even a worst drought. Yet not a single water storage project among 11 rated was deemed to have a significant public benefit in 2018.

Fortunately, Mother Nature didn't have to get Sacramento’s approval before creating Lake Tahoe, Clear Lake or even rivers like the Sacramento and San Joaquin.

Do not misunderstand. Traditional reservoirs are not the most effective or most environmentally friendly way of increasing California’s water supply.

Conservation and underground water storage will have longer lasting impacts and can return benefits sooner given water is not an infinite resource. Water banking in aquifers such as through the Kern County Water Bank eliminates the evaporation factor.

Off-stream storage, however, such as Sites serves as an essential way to regulate the state’s elaborate plumbing in a way it can address fish and environmental issues in such a manner that takes pressure off existing storage for cities and farms.

Operated properly, if Sites had already been in place and operational during the current drought, it could have taken pressure off of Oroville Dam by assuring minimal water flows for fish.

Not only would Lake Oroville be much higher than it is today but its three gigantic power plants wouldn’t go silent sometime in August just when the state need for hydro power is expected to become extremely critical.