This tranquil ranching valley lies 15 miles west of the Sacramento River. A one-lane bridge spans a dried-up creek at the valley entrance. But when Jeff Sutton stands there, he imagines water, lots of it.
Never mind the talk of flooding the Antelope Valley north of Sacramento and turning it into a reservoir is older than Sutton. The time has finally come, he said. “It’s the right project at the right place.”
Drought, climate change and environmental curbs on water deliveries are fueling campaigns for more water storage in California. Sites Reservoir — as it would be called after the tiny settlement it would wipe off the map — is one of a few resurgent proposals challenging the notion that the era of big dam building is over.
Central Valley growers especially are pushing dam projects as their salvation, despite multibillion-dollar costs and studies showing that the new reservoirs would do little to boost the state’s overall water supplies.
Sutton, 43, is general manager of the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, a group of Sacramento Valley water districts that contract with the federal Central Valley Project for irrigation supplies. The drought cut their deliveries to zero over the past two years. Growers had to pump more groundwater and purchase expensive supplies from districts with senior water rights to keep their nut trees, olive groves and vineyards alive.
Sites, backers argue, would help the state get through inevitable dry times by building water reserves during wet periods. When the Sacramento River is running high in the winter, flows would be diverted into two existing irrigation canals and a 13 1 / 2 mile pipeline system extending to the Antelope Valley.
“It’s not your grandfather’s reservoir,” said Sutton, an attorney and descendant of a pioneering family that played a role in state politics and early water development in the Sacramento Valley.
Long and narrow, Antelope Valley is tucked into the foothills of the Coast Range, a throwback to old California. Scattered herds of black cattle munch on grass the color of light brown sugar and meadowlarks whistle from fence posts. Dry-farmed fields of grain and hay and an occasional cluster of ranch buildings are scattered across the rolling valley floor.
A series of 11 earthen, embankment dams, the tallest 300 feet, would rise in the notches and gaps of the cradling hills. The settlement of Sites, founded in 1886 by German-born John Sites, would lie under a couple of hundred feet of water. Once a thriving village serving nearby quarries that were the source of sandstone for grand San Francisco buildings, much of the community was destroyed in a 1965 wildfire. Today fewer than two dozen people live there.
The reservoir and associated facilities would claim 18,000 acres. The project would have to buy out about 50 landowners, not all of whom want to sell, said Jim Watson, head of the Sites Project Authority, which was formed by local counties and irrigation districts to advance the project and obtain funding.
Watson’s group estimates the cost at $3 billion to $4 billion. The latest federal estimate is $6.3 billion.
The Sites authority intends to apply for state funding under Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond that set aside $2.7 billion for reservoir and groundwater storage projects. But even if Sites wins a some of that money, the bond language caps state funding at 50 percent of a project’s cost and limits the state portion to underwriting the public benefits of storage, such as flood control, ecosystem improvements and recreation.
And a congressional drought-relief bill that included $600 million in funding authorization for Western water storage projects went nowhere this year.
“Some of us Californians are still dreaming of that model where big government will come forward and pay for these projects,” said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “It has to become clear that’s not the model moving forward … . So put your money where your mouth is.”
Watson’s group is looking for ways to cut Sites’ cost, and is also trying to get support from districts that would help pay for the project in return for water supplies, which would cost growers at least 12 times what they pay for subsidized deliveries from the Central Valley Project.
“If you would have asked our folks before the drought, I don’t think they would have been interested in $600-an-acre-foot water,” Sutter said. “The drought has changed that.”
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, compares building more water storage to buying a bigger refrigerator. Unless you have more to put in it, it doesn’t do much good.
If Sites and the other proposed reservoirs were in operation now, Lund said, they would be depleted in the fourth year of drought. California already has 1,400 reservoirs capable of holding more than half the state’s average annual runoff, he said.
“Some new storage might be worthwhile in some places,” Lund said. “But is it worth the investment from the people of California and ratepayers and everybody else … . relative to the other investments they could make? It’s a hard argument to make.”