MAXWELL, Calif. — With the foothills west of here as a backdrop, two congressmen unveiled a bill to build the long-discussed Sites Reservoir to improve Northern California’s water storage capacity by 1.9 million acre-feet.
U.S. Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., told reporters during a news conference here March 19 that the devastation of the drought has highlighted the need for additional water storage.
Their legislation, the Sacramento Valley Water Storage and Restoration Act, would authorize a feasibility study and construction of the reservoir that local and state water planners have long envisioned in the foothills west of town.
It would also enable a non-federal sponsor to develop the project, according to a news release.
“Sites Reservoir would dramatically expand our water reserves and create jobs in the process,” Garamendi, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, said in prepared remarks. “We must heed the warning of the book of Genesis — stock up during the years of plenty so that you can get by in the years of need.”
The bill joins other competing legislation in Congress to address California’s water needs as a historic drought lingers. The GOP-led House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would ease environmental restrictions on pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to send water south, where some 500,000 acres of cropland is expected to be idle this summer.
Last month, California’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation offering $300 million in aid and directing federal agencies to be as flexible as the law allows in facilitating water transfers.
LaMalfa is hopeful the bipartisan nature of the Sites bill will enable it to pass the House quickly and make it attractive to Senate leaders and President Barack Obama, said his spokesman, Kevin Eastman.
“This will be the only bipartisan California water bill in Congress right now,” Eastman told the Capital Press. “We feel pretty good that it’s an achievable goal.”
While storage capacity may seem like a moot issue in a year of historically low water levels, the California Farm Bureau Federation has maintained that some of the pain felt by farmers experiencing water shutoffs this year could have been averted with more storage.
Advocates for additional storage have long had their eye on the would-be Sites Reservoir, whose construction could cost as much as $3.2 billion depending on conveyance options, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
The reservoir, which would primarily inundate grassland now used for cattle grazing, would enhance water reliability for agriculture and other uses while helping Delta water quality by adding flexibility to the state’s water management system, the DWR explains in a worksheet on the project.
Eastman said the reservoir offers some environmental benefits, such as making sure there’s more water available in the Sacramento River for fall-run salmon and providing water for wildlife refuges and rice fields.
“We don’t feel it’s going to encounter some of the roadblocks that other projects have in front of them,” Eastman said.
The Garamendi-LaMalfa bill has won praise from representatives from the Northern California Water Association, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and the Sites Joint Powers Authority, a group of local water agencies and counties that joined forces in 2010 to advocate for the project.
Rep. John Garamendi: http://garamendi.house.gov
Rep. Doug LaMalfa: http://lamalfa.house.gov
Sites Reservoir FAQs: http://www.water.ca.gov/storage/docs/NODOS%20Project%20Docs/Sites_FAQ.pdf