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Op-ed submitted by Jeff Harris, Sacramento City Council Member

California’s existing water supply infrastructure is aging and in desperate need of an upgrade. Our demands for water to serve our communities, fuel our economy, and preserve agricultural production and our environment have increased far beyond what our existing water supply system was designed to reliably and sustainably support.

Today, in the face of historic and crushing drought conditions, the strain on our state’s water resources has continued to worsen. Now, more than ever, California needs to protect its water future by advancing a broad portfolio of solutions for a resilient and affordable water supply. Over the past 20 years, communities throughout the state have raised the bar when it comes to water conservation and innovative local water supply projects – like world-class water reuse, groundwater replenishment and implementing new efficiency tools. However, there is more we must do as a state and many unrealized opportunities we can harness in the form of uncaptured flood waters.

In recent years, the California has experienced a series of atmospheric river events. These storms produced powerful runoff in the Sacramento River that overtopped the flood control system, causing tremendous flooding and significant damage throughout Northern California. It is these periods of large rain fall and runoff when we have an opportunity to capture more water. This is where the Sites Reservoir project comes in.

There is no existing infrastructure in place to capture and store excess water flows from the Sacramento River when they happen. Had Sites had been in place during storm events since 2017, many Sacramento Valley flood impacts could have been avoided and the reservoir would have stored nearly one million acre feet of water to help mitigate the impacts of today’s difficult drought situation.

Sites Reservoir will be a multi-benefit, off-stream water storage facility located north of Sacramento in rural Colusa and Glenn counties. The reservoir will serve to capture and store stormwater and flood flows from the Sacramento River after all other water rights and regulatory requirements are met.

With a capacity of approximately 1.5 million acre-feet, Sites can store the excess stormwater without the need to dam any major rivers. Extensive modeling indicated Sites performs best and provides even greater water supply benefits to farms, people and the environment of California, under even the most challenging climate change scenarios.

Flood water is valuable and water storage flexibility is the reason Sites works well for so many varied participants. The water reserved for the environment will be managed by the state through its Proposition 1 investment. The reservoir’s storage flexibility, working in concert with our existing water management systems, could help us respond more rapidly and in an adaptive fashion to changing hydrologic conditions and the changing needs. This becomes a win-win for the environment and statewide water operations.

Environmental benefits will be realized through the optimized coordination of water releases from Northern California’s existing network of reservoirs. Sites Reservoir water supplies can be used first, allowing snowmelt-fed reservoirs like Shasta and Folsom to hold onto cold water supplies for later release when it’s most beneficial for salmon runs and the Delta.

Agriculture will benefit from improved reliability of water supplies during drier years, even allowing for water exchanges when resources are scarcest. A more reliable water supply creates a stronger agricultural economy which creates a ripple of benefits for our rural communities.

The project will also boost the Sacramento Valley’s economy by creating hundreds of jobs during the seven-year construction period. Partnerships with skilled trades and other labor organizations will be utilized to help train and build a local workforce.

The Sites Project team has made considerable progress over the past several years. We achieved critical funding objectives, including an invitation to apply for a $2.2 billion WIFIA loan. This low interest loan will cover half of the project’s cost. This is in addition to $875 million in Proposition 1 funding and a $449 million USDA loan.

Our goal is to begin construction in 2024 and we are closer than ever to final approval on the project. The California Water Commission issued a Feasibility Determination in late 2021, an important regulatory step. And, the Sites Project Authority and our federal partners issued a revised Draft Environmental Impact Report/Statement for public review earlier this year. We are close to finalizing that process. There are additional regulatory and permitting processes underway now, including consideration of the project’s water rights application.

The project is widely supported across the state. Governor Newsom, local counties where the project is located, cities, and irrigation districts throughout the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, Bay Area and Southern California have all expressed their support and had representation in the public process. Collectively, the participants in this project serve water to over 24 million Californians and over 500,000 acres of farmland throughout California.

In the face of crushing drought conditions, the need for Sites is clearer than ever. Our cities, farms and environment will depend on this important water savings account for years to come—let’s build Sites now.

Jeff Harris was elected in November 2014 to represent the Third City Council District in the City of Sacramento. The third district encompasses the East Sacramento, River Park, Sacramento State, the Downtown Railyards, the River District, South Natomas, Gardenland and Northgate neighborhoods. Prior to his election to the City Council, he served 4 years on the City of Sacramento Parks Commission, the final year as Chair of the Commission.

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