When it comes to attacking anything that will make so much as a scratch in the earth, California’s environmentalists never run out of arguments, and their litigators never run out of money.
So it goes with the proposed Sites Reservoir, which is enduring a withering new bombardment from environmentalists in the wake of Governor Newsom’s recently announced Water Supply Strategy in which the governor endorsed the Sites Project and even had the temerity to suggest environmentalist obstruction is stopping as many good projects as bad ones.
As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week, and dutifully highlighted in Maven’s Notebook, “California’s largest reservoir in nearly 50 years may be derailed by water shortages.” Apparently there isn’t enough water flowing down the Sacramento River to fill the 1.5 million acre foot reservoir. But that entirely depends on who you ask.
Shown below, courtesy of the US Dept. of Geological Survey, is flow data for the Sacramento River, upstream at Colusa, which is near to where the planned diversions into the Sites Reservoir will be made. The data is expressed in “CFS,” which stands for cubic feet per second.
What is immediately evident from this chart is how it vividly depicts the volume of surplus water that hit Northern California even during what has been described as the driest winter in decades. If during the on-and-off wet months from October 1 to April 30 just 20 percent of the Sacramento River’s flow had been diverted into the Sites Reservoir, nearly 550,000 acre feet could have been stored, more than a third of its capacity. And since the pumps in one of the original designs for the Sites Reservoir had a capacity of 5,900 CFS, which is equivalent to 11,700 acre feet per day, during the peak runoff events from October through December, at least another 100,000 acre feet might have been stored.
Put another way, if one-fifth of the Sacramento River’s flow upstream at Colusa had been diverted, and only during the seven mostly dry months from October 2021 through April 2022, the massive 1.5 million acre foot Sites Reservoir could have been filled nearly half way to capacity. In just one season, during a drought.
And why not? Drawing 1.0 million acre feet or more from the Sacramento River to fill the Sites Reservoir during wet years, and over a half-million acre feet even in dry years, would not significantly reduce the flow of fresh water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Sacramento River at Colusa is upstream from the Feather River, which adds its powerful flow 40 miles further south, as well as the American River, which joins the Sacramento River another 20 miles south. Other major tributaries that join the Sacramento River south of Colusa include the Butte River and the Yuba River. In addition, flowing into the Delta from the South is the San Joaquin River with its many tributaries.
An authoritative 2017 study by the Public Policy Research Institute describes so-called “uncaptured water,” which is the surplus runoff, often causing flooding, that occurs every time an atmospheric river hits the state. Quoting from the study, “benefits provided by uncaptured water are above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water.” The study goes on to claim that uncaptured water flows through California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta “averaged 11.3 million acre-feet [per year] over the 1980–2016 period.”
When the average “uncaptured” water flowing through the Delta, “above and beyond those required by regulations for system and ecosystem water,” is 11.3 million acre-feet per year, suggesting there won’t be enough water to fill the Sites Reservoir is an argument resting on thin foundations.
Environmentalists can’t have it both ways. Either we’re going to have massive atmospheric storms that will require massive systems to capture storm runoff, or we’re going to enter a period of chronic droughts where there isn’t enough water no matter what we do. Even the New York Times, just last month, in an article entitled “Why the ‘Big One’ Could Be Something Other Than an Earthquake,” admonished Californians to prepare for a “monthlong superstorm” of rainfall. What better way to prepare than to build off-stream reservoirs? If anything, Sites is too small.
In the February 2021 document “Sites Reservoir Project – Preliminary Project Description,” the introductory section describes how back in 1995 the CALFED Bay-Delta Program “identified 52 potential surface storage locations and retained 12 reservoir locations statewide for further study.” All twelve were off-stream reservoirs. They then narrowed the candidates to four: “Red Bank (Dippingvat and Schoenfield Reservoirs), Newville Reservoir, Colusa Reservoir, and Sites Reservoir.” Sites was chosen as the most feasible project. But why isn’t this study being dusted off and revisited? What about these other potential locations for more surface storage?
Governor Newsom, when he introduced his California Water Supply Strategy on August 11, also said this: “We did some analysis of those big flows that came in November and December of last year, and if we had the conveyance and the tools to capture that storm water, it’s the equivalent of those seven projects that I just noted that take decades to build in terms of stored capacity… Mother Nature is still bountiful, but she’s not operating like she did 50 years ago, heck, she’s not operating the way she did 10 years ago, and we have to reconcile that. We had a vision in the 50s and 60s to do just that, and we want to reinvigorate that capacity in California.”
“Reinvigorating that capacity,” governor, means you are going to have to start firing some of the people staffing the commissions and agencies that have been complicit in the environmentalist assault that has stopped every major water project in its tracks for the last 50 years.
If you want to be taken seriously in California, so the conventional wisdom goes, you have to play nice with environmentalists. To survive in polite company, to retain professional credibility, one must ignore the sad fact that much of environmentalism today has morphed into a nihilistic, anti-human, extremist movement. But to ensure that California’s dazzling civilization, 40 million strong, survives and thrives into the next century, maybe it’s time to stop being quite so nice with environmentalists. At the very least, begin to challenge the notion that every scientific argument must invariably tilt in favor of their agenda. Scientific assessments of infinitely complex aquatic ecosystems are rarely beyond scientific debate.
To restore a more humanitarian and progressive balance to California politics, it’s time to tell our state’s all-powerful environmentalist lobby that they cannot always get their way.