Building Sites Reservoir Will Never Pencil Out or Produce Much Water

Article by Stephen GreenJanuary 2, 2016

StephenGreen- SacBeeThe Sacramento Bee editorial promoting construction of Sites reservoir noted that it would cost $3 billion to $4 billion (“State needs to invest in Sites reservoir; Editorials, Dec. 27).

Proposals to build Sites have been put forth since the 1940s, and none have gotten past a drawing board. No study has ever shown that the project makes economic sense. Even Don Hodel, President Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, said the Sites project would never pencil out.

Sites reservoir would add a little more than 1 percent to the state’s storage capacity. And since it would be a pump-storage reservoir, with water diverted from the Sacramento River, there would be no water to pump during periods of extended drought such as the one we are in now.

There are better alternatives for increasing California’s water supply. An economic analysis by EcoNorthwest concluded that retiring and curbing water rights for 300,000 acres of contaminated land farmed in the San Joaquin Valley would cost approximately $1 billion.

That is a reasonable price to pay to stop the poisoning of California’s environment. In addition, retiring the land would free up to 455,000 acre-feet of water annually. That is a vast amount of water. The city of Los Angeles, in comparison, uses an average of 587,000 acre-feet per year.

Farmers whose lands are retired deserve compensation. And while $1 billion is a substantial sum, it compares favorably when the cost of other projects for managing California’s water supply are considered.

Many growers are producing unsustainable crops on those contaminated lands. Their fields and orchards release drainage contaminated with selenium, salts and other wastes that impact wetlands, poison fish and wildlife and their habitats. Drainage also has caused salinization of bottom-land soils and aquifers.

The disastrous consequences of industrial-scale cultivation of contaminated lands became obvious in 1983, when thousands of migratory waterfowl, including ducks and geese, were deformed or killed outright at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge due to deliveries of toxic drain water from corporate farms.

That huge environmental scandal was exposed by Felix Smith, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at the time, who now serves on the Board of the Save the American River Association.

Federal and state officials have been aware of the drainage problems for decades and have done little to prevent the continuing harm to the public-trust resources.