Politics & Government

Citing California drought, Garamendi and LaMalfa push Sites Reservoir bill

In a rare moment of unity for two ideological antagonists, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, on Wednesday unveiled legislation to build a new large-scale reservoir in Northern California.

“There’s a world of hurt in these fields and in the orchards around us because we failed in the past to prepare for the inevitable drought,” Garamendi said, gesturing to fields bordered by the slow-flowing Glenn-Colusa canal.

That Garamendi and LaMalfa – who often cast opposing votes in Congress – found common ground underscores how important the issue of water storage has become for both Republicans and Democrats as California enters a third dry year. If the state is to endure prolonged droughts, proponents of the approach say, it must build more capacity to trap precipitation in wetter years.

The Sites reservoir (technically known as the North of the Delta Offstream Storage project) would be capable of holding up to 1.9 million acre-feet of water, yielding 470,000 to 640,000 acre-feet of water for various uses. LaMalfa and Garamendi’s bill would accelerate a feasibility study years in the making and automatically authorize the project once the U.S. Department of the Interior reviews the study.

Proponents said more storage would benefit a multitude of users that depend on healthy freshwater flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: farmers, urban dwellers and endangered Delta fish. California would have another place to store surplus water in wet years – water that could then be used to ease the strain in drought years.

“The more storage we have anywhere in California helps all of us,” LaMalfa said, “whether we’re talking for agriculture, we’re talking urban use, health and safety or for environmental needs.”

The dam would cost an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion to build, and the bill does not guarantee federal funds. LaMalfa said that would ease its passage by reassuring critics wary of earmarks, and he predicted that other funding sources would surface.

“We have private sector funding that is waiting to happen if we give them the confidence in this project,” LaMalfa said. “The goodness of this project sells itself.”

The Sites reservoir sits on a short list of storage projects that California’s elected officials are trying to push forward, goaded by a prolonged drought that ranks among the state’s worst. Other projects in active bills before Congress include efforts to raise Shasta Dam, enlarge the San Luis Reservoir and construct a dam on the Upper San Joaquin River, popularly referred to as Temperance Flat.

In a recent speech to the Association of California Water Agencies, Sen. Dianne Feinstein mentioned all four of the projects before Congress. “The lesson is clear: we must build more storage to prepare for the next drought, which is sure to come,” Feinstein said.

Hours after Garamendi and LaMalfa spoke, members of the House Natural Resources Committee converged on Fresno for a hearing on the drought. Among the attendees was Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who has legislation that would roll back Endangered Species Act protections limiting water deliveries and authorize new storage projects. It cleared the GOP-led House and is pending in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The calls for more surface water storage haven’t been confined to Congress. The halls of the state Capitol in Sacramento hum with talk of placing a water bond on the 2014 ballot, with seven separate proposals on tap to replace a politically unpopular $11.1 billion measure currently scheduled to go before voters in November. Money from that bond would be eligible to go toward Sites and other large-scale projects identified by the state.

“The state bond act would be another major piece” of paying for the Sites reservoir, LaMalfa said.

All of the alternate bond measures include some amount of money for storage. One authored by Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, is aimed predominantly at the Sites reservoir and the Temperance Flat projects, offering $4.8 billion for those two dams. Logue is challenging Garamendi this year, seeking to unseat the Democrat in the recently redrawn 3rd Congressional District.

Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, recently convened a news conference to announce he would add another billion dollars for storage into his measure. A separate proposal by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, would spend money exclusively on storage projects: $2.3 billion for the Sites reservoir, $2.5 billion for Temperance Flat and $300 million to enlarge the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, with an expected amendment adding $1.1 billion to raise Shasta Dam.

A key fault line running through the bond debate is the question of continuous appropriation, or whether the Legislature would need to approve each release of bond money. Advocates of continuous appropriation say it is the only way to ensure large projects get built. Otherwise, they say, efforts to build would get bogged down in legislative squabbles, spooking banks from lending to potential investors.

“If you leave it up to the Legislature every year to decide how much and if we’re going to appropriate for storage, the water districts, the water agencies will never get financing in order to build these projects,” said Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, whose $9.25 billion measure would keep the money flowing.

On the other side are skeptics of large-scale storage, including environmental groups that see continuous appropriation as a green light for unfettered building. They have a sympathetic ear in Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who is carrying a $6.8 billion bond.

“It’s critically important that, if the voters are being asked to spend billions of dollars over a period of time, that in fact you really need to have some oversight of that money,” Wolk said. She questioned the viability of projects like the Sites reservoir or Temperance Flat, adding that “I think tying up billions of dollars for 10, 15 years is a mistake.”

Because Sites would be an off-stream project, meaning it would not require damming a major river, some environmental groups seem to prefer the idea to other surface storage proposals. But environmentalists still question how the water would be managed, worry about inundating thousands of acres of habitat and wonder whether the payoff justifies a multibillion-dollar investment.

“The other big consideration for many folks in the environmental community is this idea that we live in an era of limited budgets, and when you look at the water supply cost-vs.-yield for these projects, they just don’t pencil out,” said Doug Obegi, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A few miles down the road from where Garamendi and LaMalfa spoke Wednesday lies Sites Valley, a bucolic stretch of green cupped by rolling hills and dotted by the occasional cow.

Should the Sites reservoir be built, 14,000 acres would be submerged, the small scattering of people who live on the land displaced and compensated. The debate about the dam has unfolded for years around residents of this rural Colusa County landscape.

“They’re kind of going, do it or don’t do it – make a decision,” said Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “If you’re going to do it, buy us out. Or leave us alone.”

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