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Filling this valley with a 14,000-acre lake could be a water windfall and, some fear, a conservation nightmare

The proposed Sites Reservoir in Antelope Valley may become another battleground in California's water wars.

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Most people have never heard of Sites, California. It’s just a tiny dot on maps, little more than an intersection in the road on the remote west side of rural Colusa County in Northern California.

But the surrounding Antelope Valley, where wildflowers bloom and cattle graze on spring grasses, is one of the next battlegrounds in California’s water wars.

Under plans endorsed by state, federal and local officials, the valley would be flooded by the Sites Reservoir, a 14,000-acre lake that would take in water pumped from the Sacramento River and store it for agricultural and municipal use during dry periods.

What happens in the Antelope Valley — and whether the proposed reservoir is built — will have statewide impacts. Proponents say the proposed $3.93 billion reservoir would be another source of water to benefit the environment and provide drinking and agricultural water during the state's persistent droughts.

But conservation groups, as well as federal and state agencies, say the project could further harm water quality in an already environmentally stressed region that is important to threatened and endangered species.

'We need Sites more than ever'

The project has been endorsed by dozens of elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 43 California members of Congress and 27 state legislators. The project authority also lists the endorsement of more than 100 public and private agencies and businesses.

In announcing an Environmental Protection Agency loan to build the reservoir, U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa said in March the reservoir would benefit cities and farms statewide.

“We need Sites more than ever. Our state is facing another historic drought. I’ve been a strong supporter of this project for years; it will provide water for over 24 million Californians and 500,000 acres of farmland. This loan will drastically reduce the costs for consumers and make it more affordable for taxpayers to get the water they need, even in dry years,” LaMalfa said in a statement.

The proposed Sites Reservoir would be about 10 miles west of Maxwell in Colusa County.
The proposed Sites Reservoir would be about 10 miles west of Maxwell in Colusa County. Sites Project Authority

In addition to the prospects of an EPA loan, other state and federal agencies also have agreed to invest in the project. The state has committed about $875 million in bond money toward the project.

The Sites Authority is eligible for up to $2.2 billion in loans from the EPA to help pay for the project.

Congress approved $104 million for Sites and the project is in line for another $450 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the plans for a Sites Reservoir have been on the books since the 1950s, the proposed state and federal grants and loans have given the project greater momentum.

There are 23 agencies investing in the project — including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; the city of Sacramento; and the Irvine Ranch Water District, which supplies water to residents in Orange County.

Investors also include smaller Northern California water agencies, such as the Cortina Water District in Colusa County and the Westside Water District in Williams.

The customers of those agencies will help to pay off the loans on the project, said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority. Brown is not the former California governor. 

The Sites authority notes on its website that the cost of water from the reservoir could be expensive. It used as an example the price of water that would be charged to one participating agency, the Westside Water District.

Dan Ruiz, general manager of the Westside Water District, said the typical price for water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, costs his agency $50 to $75 an acre-foot.

But Sites water could be available when bureau water is in short supply during droughts like the one that has hit California during the past three years, Ruiz said.

When bureau water is unavailable, Westside has to purchase water from other agencies, and that can cost up to $600 an acre-foot, approaching the price of Sites water, Ruiz said.

Additional agencies may participate if there is water available from the project, said Kevin Spesert, a spokesman for the Sites authority, which has a waiting list of agencies throughout the state that have expressed an interest in participating or investing in the project.

While the reservoir will provide drinking and irrigation water to the investing agencies, there also will be environmental benefits from the project, Brown said.

The authority claims the environment and wildlife would reap most of the benefits of the project, because water would be available for wildlife and the environment from the reservoir during dry periods, he said.

“That's one of the things we would like people to understand a little better about the project is that a pretty big chunk is dedicated to environmental purposes,” Brown said. 

The lake could hold up to 1.5 million-acre feet of water, about a third of the volume of a full Lake Shasta.

State and federal agencies raise concerns

But conservation groups say there is a downside to Sites Reservoir, one that would harm the environment and wildlife, including endangered species.

“The water diversions proposed for the project would significantly harm salmon in the Sacramento River and the health of the Bay Delta. It's kind of that simple,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a winter-run Chinook salmon is seen on Friday, March 2, 2018.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a winter-run Chinook salmon is seen on Friday, March 2, 2018. Steve Martarano, AP

Environmental groups are not the only ones that foresee the reservoir potentially harming wildlife and degrading water quality in the Sacramento River and San Joaquin Delta.

More than 52,000 people have signed a petition through opposing Sites Reservoir.

And in comments on a draft environmental impact report on the project, state and federal agencies raised numerous concerns about the effects the reservoir would have on water quality and endangered animals in the Sacramento River and the Delta.

Releases from Sites could increase methylmercury levels in the river and in the Delta, reduce oxygen levels in the water and spur "harmful" algae blooms. The reservoir could also increase water temperatures and pesticide levels in the river and the Delta, according to comments on the environmental reports.

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Regina Chichizola of Save California Salmon
... Poor water quality in the Delta means the water that goes into everyone's drinking water system that gets water out of the Delta is more polluted and could possibly have toxic algae.

State officials caution the public to avoid areas where algae blooms break out, noting their health risks, which can range from rashes and eye irritation to liver failure and nerve damage, according to the state Water Resources Control Board.

More than 100 wildlife species in the Delta have been given "special status" that gives them some form of protection by federal and state agencies, according to the nonprofit Water Education Foundation.

Two of those at-risk species, chinook salmon and the tiny Delta smelt fish, have garnered the most attention.

Salmon need colder, clean water to live and spawn in, but during droughts over the past 10 years nearly all of the young winter-run salmon that hatched in the Sacramento River were killed by water that was too warm.

In comments on the Sites environmental impact report, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said pumping water out of the river could harm wildlife in the river.

“Adverse impacts, caused by the reduction of flow from proposed project diversions, are likely to occur to many aquatic species, not just juvenile chinook salmon, already stressed in the Sacramento River system,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote in comments submitted for the Sites environmental impact report.

Comments on the environmental reports say wildlife is not the only concern from the proposed reservoir. Water from Sites would flow into the Delta, an important hub where drinking water is taken and pumped into canals that snake through the San Joaquin Valley to Southern California, where it is used for irrigation and drinking water. 

“I think it's really important for people to also realize that poor water quality in the Delta means the water that goes into everyone's drinking water system that gets water out of the Delta is more polluted and could possibly have toxic algae,” said Regina Chichizola, with Save California Salmon.

How the reservoir would work

The reservoir would not be created by damming a stream to store water. Instead, water would be diverted from the Sacramento River and into the Tehama Colusa Canal in Red Bluff and the Glenn Colusa Canal near Hamilton City in Glenn County.

The water would travel down the canals to a point near Maxwell and then pumped through pipes to the reservoir. Water from Sites would be sent back through a system of pipes back to irrigation canals and eventually to the Sacramento River.

A dam is proposed along the Sites Maxwell Road where the road crosses Stone Corral Creek, at the eastern edge of the Antelope Valley in Colusa County.

Water for the reservoir would be available only after the amount of water flowing down the river exceeds 10,700 cubic feet per second at a place called Wilkins Slough, a point on the Sacramento River southwest of Yuba City, Brown said.

The authority would be limited to pumping a maximum of 4,000 cfs, as long as the river flow at Wilkins Slough doesn’t drop below 10,700 cfs, Brown said.

Water would not be pumped into the reservoir during dry periods, but during heavy rainstorms like the ones that hit Northern California in December 2021, he said.

“Generally speaking, most of our water that we would be using to fill sites would be coming during a 2017-type year, or 2019-type year when it's super wet,” he said.

The EPA noted that through evaporation, the lake could create higher concentrations of metals such as aluminum, copper and iron in the water. The warmer water could also produce harmful algae blooms, the agency said.

When asked about the federal and state comments on the impacts from the reservoir, Spesert said the authority is evaluating all comments submitted in response to the draft analysis and will address them in a final environmental report, which is expected to be completed next year.

"The authority takes these concerns seriously and is evaluating the information provided in the comments, along with the best available scientific information, as we analyze and respond to the comments and prepare the final EIR/EIS (environmental reports)," he said in an email. "To provide any detailed response on these comments now would be premature."

The EPA said in its comments that the authorities' proposals to ease the impacts on the Sacramento River and the Delta "would not be effective and, in many cases, would conflict with each other,” the EPA said.

The state and federal agencies also criticized the report for not thoroughly analyzing the effects the reservoir would have on wildlife and water quality.

The Klamath River is seen flowing across northern California from atop Cade Mountain in the Klamath National Forest.

How will Sites impact Trinity, Klamath? 

The EPA noted that the environmental review did not look at the effects the reservoir would have on the Klamath and Trinity rivers, two streams also under stress from the ongoing drought.

Water from the Trinity River is exported from the Klamath River watershed to the Sacramento River via the Central Valley Project.

Environmental and tribal groups say they are worried more water could be taken from the Trinity River — an important source of cold water for the Klamath River — for use in Sites Reservoir.

Brown, however, said their concerns are unfounded.

“To that we say, ‘That is not correct.’ We are not taking any water out of the Trinity River system whatsoever,” he said.

The reservoir operations would not result in any changes to how water is managed in the Trinity and Klamath rivers, Spesert said.

There are still members of the Sites family living in the valley where the Sites Reservoir is planned.
There are still members of the Sites family living in the valley where the Sites Reservoir is planned. Damon Arthur/Record Searchlight

Beyond the debate over the environmental effects of the reservoir, there are human issues to consider.

Brown said there are about 20 property owners in the reservoir’s inundation area, and not all of them are willing sellers.

There are still members of the Sites family living in the Antelope Valley, whose property would be flooded by a new reservoir.

Even though the reservoir would get the same name as the town and Phillip Sites’ family, he does not support the project. Colusa County pioneer John Sites moved to the Antelope Valley in the 1850s to raise livestock.

“I don't particularly care for it. My wife doesn’t particularly care for it. But we’re only two people,” said Phillip Sites, who still raises cattle in the valley.

He said no one from the Sites authority had contacted him about purchasing his property.

Brown said he expects work on the reservoir project to begin in 2024, but the California Water Resources Control Board said in its comments on the draft environmental reports that obtaining rights to take water from the Sacramento River could take from at least 18 months to “several years.”

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