Are California Politicians Scamming Us?

California has recently suffered record-breaking drought years, followed by a destructive flood season. Conditions such as this have a long history of inspiring a public outcry for more water-related infrastructure. Politicians and special-interest groups cash in on public concerns by sneaking in self-serving projects that don’t undergo the typical scrutiny they might have in an otherwise typical year.

Sites Reservoir is one such project. This off-stream surface water storage facility has been in the planning phase for 30 years, but has been boosted to the forefront of water management goals now that California citizens voted yes to Prop I, which allocated $7.5 billion in water infrastructure spending.

Local politicians and water resource managers would lead you to believe that building Sites Reservoir will solve California’s water woes. But, I contend this is not the case, and water consumers have an alternative goal for pushing for coastal reservoir development. The Northern California Water Association says you need Sites Reservoir (emphasis theirs). The Department of Water Resources promises groundwater recharge, increased hydro-power, and up to 500,000 acre-feet of water stored.

“All this water going out to the ocean through the Delta, and potentially, we could store this and save it for a rainy day.” — Sacramento democratic assemblyman, Kevin McCarthy

Sites won’t increase storage

First, these assertions are contingent on the premise that there is spare water in California just waiting to be stored for summer. Yet, it’s been estimated that groundwater overdraft averages from 500,00 acre-feet a year to as much as 1.5 million acre-feet a year. That’s as much or more than Sites project directors promise in surface storage. California’s groundwater storage is more than 10 times surface water storage!

Sites suggests it will be a source of groundwater recharge, yet an environmental impact assessment has still not been completed (after 30 years!) and there is no evidence offered that the Sites location can function as a recharge zone.

The hydro-power myth…

Conveniently omitted from the hydro-power promise is the fact that Sites needs that power just to function. Water will be arduously diverted 14 miles from the Sacramento River watershed and pumped uphill to be stored in the reservoir. All the hydro-power created is, in fact, needed to get all that water into the reservoir in the first place!

If all these promises are empty, than why push for the development of Sites Reservoir?

Alternative motives?

To understand why there might be more to this project than meets the eye, we have to look at the original California Water Project plans. Before the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was around to protect Northern California’s coastal rivers, the plan was to dam them and send the water south to Los Angeles and neighboring counties. Just north of Sites, CA is the little hamlet of Paskenta, the former location of the California Department of Water Resources reservoir plans. The original plan had dammed coastal rivers, such as the Eel River, store excess diverted surface water in the Paskenta Reservoir. Could Sites Reservoir be just a revisioning of the original water project? If so, what are the long term plans for the water stored there?

Are the Delta tunnels the missing link?

If you haven’t heard about the drama surrounding Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnel debacle, you’ve lucked out. In a nutshell, the plan is to put tunnels running north to south under the Delta to transport Northern California water south without mucking it up with the brackish, saline Delta water. Jerry Brown promises that no additional water will be shipped south than is currently allowed. The problem is, the tunnels are too big! Environmentalists want to know why Jerry wants such big tunnels if he doesn’t plan to ship that much water south. Two pipes, each four stories tall, would ship diverted water south, but where is all this excess water coming from?

Back to that pesky Water Project

Did I mention that the original water project included damming coastal rivers and sending the water south? Yes, if you think I’m suggesting that the long-term plan is to again dam the Eel and other coastal rivers, store water in reservoirs along the coast, such as Sites Reservoir, and ship the water south through two way-too-big tunnels built under the Delta, than you are right! That is exactly what I am suggesting.

As climate change puts pressure on California’s current water distribution system, political grabs like this are going to become more common. Don’t let a few bad years let you lose sight of the long-term.

“The reservoir will remove water from the Sacramento River, drown 14,000 acres that now contain important plant and wildlife complexes and then be operated in a way that releases warm water back into the river, effectively cooking salmon and other species.” — Kathryn Phillips, Sacramento Director of Sierra Club CA