California has just seen a first for nearly 50 years: plans to begin construction of a new reservoir that, when completed, will add 1.5 million acre-feet to the state’s water storage capacities per year.
On November 6, Governor Gavin Newsom fast-tracked the Sites Reservoir Project. It will be located in Glenn and Colusa counties, in California’s Sacramento River Valley, the northern half of the state’s great Central Valley.
Future beneficiaries include 22 storage partners that represent water delivery agencies, serving over 24.5 million people, and over 500,000 acres of farmland.
Newsom was able to fast-track the project because of a recently passed package of laws “to accelerate critical infrastructure projects across California that will help build our 100% clean electric grid, ensure safe drinking water and boost the state’s water supply, and modernize our transportation system,” as the governor’s website puts it.
“By streamlining permitting, cutting red tape, and allowing state agencies to use new project delivery methods, these new laws will maximize taxpayer dollars and accelerate timelines of projects.”
One measure would require courts to resolve challenges to the project under the California Environmental Quality Act within 270 days, possibly averting years of delays through litigation.
The Sites Reservoir would capture extra water during years of high precipitation (such as the 2022-23 season), then making it available for households, the environment, and an estimated 500,000 acres of agricultural land.
Current plans are to begin construction in 2026, with completion projected for 2032.
Variations in California’s annual rainfall throughout the state can be staggering. A crop report for nearby Glenn County lists annual rainfall over the past century as varying from 6.3 inches in the 1975-76 water year to 41.62 inches in 1996-97.
Output can vary as well. The Colusa 2022 annual report says that the value of the county’s ag production fell by astonishing 47.7 percent from 2021: “Colusa County’s agriculture industry faced devastatingly low crop production for multiple commodities in 2022. Crop production hit unprecedented lows. The drought conditions throughout California led to some of the lowest water allocations ever seen in Colusa County. The allotments of water were so low that many growers were forced to fallow fields while others pulled orchards.”
The report went on to call 2022 “a year of tribulations.”
Although the Sacramento Valley produces an enormous number of farm commodities, fresh fruits and vegetables are not high among them. Nuts dominate the tree crop category, while Glenn County, for example, reported a mere $235,000 in vegetable crop value for 2022, consisting of “farmers market gardens, pumpkins, roadside stands, and strawberries.”
In any event, Newsom’s action responds to a call from many different interests—including agriculture—to enhance the state’s capacity for water storage.