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The right water project for a changing California just got put on the fast track | Opinion

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom utilized the state’s new infrastructure streamlining bill to accelerate the building of Sites Reservoir. This is great news for all Californians, particularly farmers who provide a safe, healthy, reliable food supply. Sites Reservoir is a critical element in California’s struggle to maintain a reliable water supply in the face of climate change.

Current media reports have been telling us to expect a wet El Niño weather pattern this winter, but whether or not that occurs, everyone who lives in the state knows that dry years will return. No matter the forecast, we must prepare for future droughts by capturing water during wet years, like 2023, and saving it for inevitable dry ones on the horizon. We need facilities to store water, especially in wet years, and we must do so in ways that deliver water to people in cities and towns, farmers who grow our food and the environment.

Opinion

The development of Sites Reservoir presents an opportunity to alleviate some of these challenges by capturing and storing excess winter runoff that would otherwise be lost to the ocean. With a storage capacity of up to 1.5 million acre-feet, Sites Reservoir, in western Colusa and Glenn counties, offers a substantial boost to California’s water infrastructure, ensuring a more resilient water supply system.

Since 1982, California has experienced five periods with very wet conditions, similar to this year. On average, those wet years delivered 6 million acre-feet more water than the annual average for the past 40 years. Meanwhile, California has fallen short in preparing for the droughts we know are going to happen. In 2023, if Sites Reservoir had been constructed, it could have saved 700,000 acre-feet more water for the future, the amount it takes to supply 1.4 million families for a year.

Many projects like this have been on the books and are often years away from completion. Sites, for example, has been in process for more than 30 years.

The benefits of Sites Reservoir extend far beyond its capacity to store water. This project will provide flexibility for agricultural water supplies, offering more dependable water supplies essential for sustaining crop production and maintaining the livelihoods of farmers and farm workers. By reducing reliance on groundwater pumping, Sites will contribute to the restoration and preservation of vital groundwater basins, safeguarding our state’s precious water resources for generations to come.

Sites also provides many environmental benefits: It will enable increased flows in rivers and streams during dry spells, benefiting aquatic ecosystems and endangered species and improving water quality in the Delta for other water users. The project’s commitment to implementing innovative water management strategies, such as water exchanges and conjunctive use, further demonstrates its alignment with California’s goals of conservation and environmental stewardship.

There is broad support for Sites, but it’s still almost 10 years away from entering service. Sites Reservoir is eligible for approximately $875 million in Prop 1 funding, which was passed by voters in 2014, and it is slated to receive the largest share among the eight successful applicants. It’s important to understand that the governor’s action does nothing to short-cut the environmental review process. It simply shortens the time for litigation.

Much must be done to finalize permitting and build the project, but it’s critical Sites moves forward without further delay, allowing it to be online in 2032.

California will likely experience more drought and flood cycles in the interim, missing water storage opportunities. Only by completing Sites will all the work finally pay off after decades of hope. Newsom’s action is an important step in that direction.

Mike Wade is the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition and can be reached at mwade@farmwater.org .