Simple logic tells us that as climate change alters precipitation patterns, California must increase its ability to capture and store water.
Even if the overall amount of precipitation remains unchanged, we will receive more of it as rain and less as snow, which means that the Sierra’s natural snowpack reservoir will diminish as a source of water.
We can prepare for this decline by creating more storage, either in new reservoirs or by replenishing underground aquifers. However, despite the urgency of the situation – underscored by the current drought – California politicians have been unenthusiastic about doing what needs to be done.
Local and regional water authorities have been more diligent. The recent construction of more storage capacity in Southern California is one of the reasons it is less affected by the current drought than Northern California.
With a delay, the increase in storage is on the political agenda. Last week, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency invited sponsors of the Sites Reservoir project, which has been on the back burner for decades, to apply for a $2.2 billion loan that would cover about 40% of the estimated cost. of the project.
In addition to money from state water bonds and commitments from potential project users – primarily Southern California water agencies – Sites is now able to put together a financial package to make it a reality.
“We’ve definitely turned the corner and we’ve got a good tailwind at our back,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the venues project authority. Brown is not related to former Gov. Jerry Brown, whose Colusa County retirement home is not far from Sites.
This will not happen immediately, despite the urgency of the situation. Simply putting the loan package together and getting approved can take years and there are other hurdles to jump through. Nevertheless, the strong possibility of a federal loan is a huge step forward.
If this were to become a reality, the reservoir would be built on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, west of Maxwell. It would have a capacity of up to 1.8 million acre-feet of water, about half the size of the state’s Lake Oroville, but unlike Oroville, it would not block a large river.
The sites would be an off-stream reservoir, similar to – and slightly smaller than – the San Luis Reservoir in Pacheco Pass west of Los Banos. During periods of heavy rainfall and runoff, water from the Sacramento River would be pumped into the sites and then released back into the river as needed for agriculture, residential use, or to maintain fish flow.
As an off-stream reservoir, Sites escapes at least some of the traditional opposition to big water projects from environmental groups, but there are criticisms that it could be used to divert water. water during periods of low rainfall.
“It’s just a different way of thinking about it,” project manager Brown told The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of fear and distrust out there and we have to operate in a way that, you know, secures trust and responds to fears.”
The good news about sites needs to be put into perspective. This is just one of many steps California must take to protect its vital water supply from the potential ravages of climate change.
It’s entirely possible that climate change will not only alter the precipitation mix – more rain and less snow – but reduce the overall volume of water that falls on California, making more storage even more crucial while forcing us to rethink the whole model of water use.
Nothing is more critical to California’s future.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories from Dan Walters, go to calmmatters.org/commentary.