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Sites Reservoir proponents make their case

Issue Date: June 14, 2017
By Christine Souza
Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District General Manager Thad Bettner stands on property near Maxwell at the location of the proposed Sites Reservoir, a large, offstream water storage project that would provide an annual yield of 500,000 acre-feet of water. GCID is one of 30 signatories to the Sites Project Authority, which is applying for funding available through the Proposition 1 water bond.
Photo/Christine Souza
Aerial view of the proposed Sites Reservoir.
Photo/John Hannon
Colusa County farmers Jamie Traynham and her mother, Sites landowner Mary Wells, right, support the Sites project.
Photo/Christine Souza

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part Ag Alert® series about large-scale water storage projects applying to the California Water Commission for funding from the Proposition 1 water bond.

In the middle of a severe drought in November 2014, California voters approved Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond that set aside $2.7 billion for the public benefits of new water storage projects. Now, project proponents have less than two months to finalize applications for bond funds, which can be used for attributes such as ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control, emergency response and recreation.

Among the projects competing for bond funding is the proposed Sites Reservoir, an offstream storage project that has been studied for close to 40 years. To be located west of Maxwell in Colusa and Glenn counties, Sites would provide a storage capacity of 1.8 million acre-feet of water and an annual yield of 500,000 acre-feet—additional surface water for cities, farms and the environment that proponents say would also help relieve pressure on groundwater. It carries an estimated construction cost of $4.4 billion.

Project proponents say Sites Reservoir offers a number of advantages.

"Sites Reservoir is well placed to provide significant benefits both to the Sacramento Valley in terms of our agriculture economy, as well as provide public benefits to the fisheries such as to the Sacramento River for our four runs of salmon and water for wildlife and birds in the Pacific Flyway," said Thad Bettner, general manager for the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District.

GCID is one of 30 signatories to the Sites Project Authority, created in 2010. Signatories agreed to invest in Sites in exchange for a share of the project's 500,000 acre-foot annual yield. The joint-powers authority would own and operate the project in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources.

Building Sites, which could take more than a decade to complete, involves the design and construction of dams to wall off a small valley where water would be stored. Water to fill the reservoir would come from the Sacramento River and existing facilities. Getting water to the new reservoir would also require about 10 miles of pipeline connecting two canals and the Sacramento River with the facility.

Building Sites would displace people living and farming in Sites Valley. Fifth-generation farmer and rancher Mary Wells, who purchased the Sites Ranch property from John Sites in the early 1970s, called the potential construction of the reservoir "a very bittersweet experience." But she said the reservoir represents "the hope in the future to continue on our farming legacy."

"The family is diversified out in the valley, growing rice, almonds and walnuts, and we are very dependent upon a reliable supply of water," said Wells, a director of the Maxwell Irrigation District who has 30-plus-years' experience working for irrigation districts and serving on water agency boards. "In 2014 and '15, (with Sites) there would have been water to get us through. It's another pool of water, and the location is very advantageous to capture excess flows and put them back in the system when needed."

Wells' daughter Jamie Traynham, a diversified farmer from Maxwell and a director of Westside Water District, said, "Every childhood memory I have is there. It is going to be very sad the day that it gets flooded and my childhood history is under water."

But with two grown children interested in working in the family business, Traynham said, "If I want my son and my daughter to be able to continue to farm and ranch, we really have no choice but to do something about the water situation."

Traynham said flooding that struck the region this year underlines the need for additional water storage.

"When the water is going down the river and out to sea, why not store it?" she said. "Let's store it—capture the runoff that naturally comes in this valley and use it at a better time when it can benefit everybody."

James Wieking of DWR, a former Sites project manager, said the amount of water that could have been diverted to storage this year totaled more than 2 million acre-feet, noting that 1.81 million acre-feet is the full capacity of Sites Reservoir.

"Even during the drought in 2015, we found that we (would have been) able to divert quite a bit of water, not quite as much as we are estimating would be the yield of the project, but a little bit less," Wieking said. "The big benefit of Sites is that water would, at least to some degree, be held over during dry periods."

Because it would be located downstream of Shasta Reservoir, Wieking said Sites has the "ability to perform in a coordinated manner with the existing reservoirs, which opens up lots of options in terms of flexibility. Flexibility would be a great asset for the state to have right now."

Colusa County farmer Blake Vann, another Westside Water District director, described Sites as a true water storage project because it would not be built on a waterway.

"Sites would be able to provide water for farmers here in the area for when we don't have a water allocation during the droughts and also for fish flows and other needs," Vann said.

Jim Watson, general manager for the Sites Project Authority, said, "If we are serious about improving the reliability of the state's aging water system, while simultaneously working to improve the ecologic health of the delta and Sacramento River, Sites Reservoir can, on an annualized basis, provide our fish and wildlife managers with over 250,000 acre-feet of water they can put to use in the quantities and times it would provide the most value, while also providing 250,000 acre-feet of additional water for families, farms and businesses in a manner that can help preserve our aquifers."

The California Water Commission will decide how to allocate Proposition 1 funds for the public benefits of storage projects. It is expected to evaluate and approve proposals later this year and in early 2018.

For more information about Sites Reservoir, see

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Online extra: Questions and answers about Sites Reservoir

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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