Episode 30: How California can secure a more stable Water Future

For all of the high-tech advancements California is famous for, one part of the state’s infrastructure – providing enough water for its environment, cities and farms – is lacking. It has been more than four decades since the last major water storage facility was built in the Golden State, and our total population has nearly doubled since that time.

Jeff Mount
Jeff Mount

Proposed for the west side of the Sacramento Valley, Sites Reservoir provides an opportunity to dramatically boost water storage capability, which would help safeguard the state during drought, like what we are currently enduring.

Sites would provide up to 1.5 million acre-feet of additional water storage, with a dedicated supply of water for environmental uses,  including a significant amount of water for our state’s wildlife refuges, particularly in dry years, to support the ducks, geese and other wildlife who greatly rely on our system of refuges to survive and thrive.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) is not taking a position on Sites. They do have an interesting concept to help the environment, should the project be completed – an environmental water budget.

“This approach to water for the environment would have really big advantages,” said PPIC Senior Fellow Jeff Mount. “Right now, the way we manage everything, it’s all set on minimum in-stream flow and water quality standards. It’s kind of like a hydrologic flatline- it doesn’t change enough.  We’re suggesting that the most efficient and effective use of water has to have some flexibility in that use – especially if you want to mete it up with investments in physical habitat.  That’s why we’re promoting an ecosystem water budget managed by a trustee of some kind –a restoration administrator like on the San Joaquin River. This is probably the best way to go. It’s nimble. It sets the environment as a partner, working with the people who are managing the operations of storage all the time. And there’s certainty. The key bottom line is the flexibility this would bring.”

Valerie Pryor
Valerie Pryor

Sites would also provide more water for urban needs, something very appealing to many, including General Manager Valerie Pryor of Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves the East Bay Area.

“Our community places a lot of value on increasing water storage and especially the Sites Reservoir,” Pryor remarked. “Our board and community are excited about this prospect. Seventy percent of our water comes from the State Water Project, and that supply is increasingly less reliable. Also, we are not all the way to build out, so we do expect to add population over the next 30 years, so we need additional water supply – both to make up for decreasing reliability and also for growth. The Sites Reservoir really helps with that equation.”

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown

This enthusiastic support, plus increased momentum from favorable state and federal reviews of the project, are welcome developments for those trying to get this reservoir built – including the top person tasked for this job. “I am 100 percent confident that Sites Reservoir will be built,” remarked Jerry Brown, General Manager of the Sites Project Authority. “It must be built. The thing that we are striving for, and I believe is a need in order to proceed, is that we must do this together.”

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Episode Transcript

Kai Tawa: We had a really good start to the water year with that atmospheric river event in late October. A lot of the valley got somewhere between 4 to 8 inches of rain. Quite historic, really.

Jim Morris: Meteorologist Kai Tawa of Western Weather Group in Chico commenting on the positive start of the water year, building hope that the drought might be broken.

Kai Tawa: From there our luck really continued going into December with some more atmospheric river storms with things looking good.

Jim Morris: Unfortunately, 2022 has been underwhelming for rain and snow.

Kai Tawa: We know it was certainly one of the driest January’s recorded throughout northern California, and now we’re going into February here. The medium to long-range models are pretty confident that we’re going to remain quite dry.

Jim Morris: Today, we take a look at California’s water shortage and how long-term planning can help the state survive and thrive.

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California rice podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. Proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for the past 32 years to help tell their stories. As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, this year has started with little rain and snow fueling concerns that once winter is all over we may be in another dry year. That would be painful for our environment, cities, and farms. It’s been more than 40 years since the last major water storage facility has been built in our state and our population nearly doubled over that time. Many are eyeing Sites Reservoir as a big part of a more stable water future. Proposed for the west of the Sacramento Valley in Colusa and Glenn counties, Sites would provide a major boost to the amount of water that can be stored during wet years to help during the dry ones. Jerry Brown is general manager of the Sites project authority, and Jerry, it would be good to get caught up on how the project is proceeding. I understand there’s important news from the California Water Commission, so can you tell us a little bit about some of the latest developments with the Sites project.

Jerry Brown: Just last month, the state made a feasibility determination for the project, which they went through a very extensive review process of several elements of the project and came to the determination that the project continues to be feasible and investible from the state’s perspective under the Prop 1 storage program. That compliments the earlier decision by the federal government for a similar feasibility determination, and between those two that represents anywhere from 30 to 40% of the project. Beyond those investors, there’s the local agencies, and they are going through a process right now to evaluate their continued participation in the project, and we’re getting really good and positive responses from the local agencies. Collectively we’re looking really strong as far as where we are, and the funding levels to proceed with the project, and have a lot of momentum to move forward with some great work in the coming years.

Jim Morris: Those who are unfamiliar with Sites, this would be an off stream reservoir fed by excess water from rainstorms. Is that right?

Jerry Brown: That’s right, Jim. Sites is not your old dam. It is a reservoir that is set off the Sacramento River, but does receive water diverted out of the river, but only taken during the highest flow periods in the river, pretty much the very wet times like 2017, 2019 would be the timeframes, that would store the water in the reservoir during those periods until we need it in the drier times when we would release it back into the river for meeting demands of our participants or directly serving demands within the area of the reservoir. It’s really an insurance policy for those drier times which we’re seeing more often and more severely. It’s something that we need in order to prepare ourselves for our future.

Jim Morris: Past years, we’ve certainly seen, we’ve had tremendous amounts of rainfall and we haven’t been fully able to capture all of it. Is it feasible to think if we have an incredibly wet year, that Sites can fill rather rapidly?

Jerry Brown: If you look at averages and the analysis that we’ve done, we’re expecting that we could fill the reservoir in anywhere from five to seven years. But from my experience in my prior life as the general manager of Contra Costa, we were able to fill Los Vaqueros on first spill in one year, and we had originally anticipated a five to seven year fill period as well. That’s a question that a lot of people ask me is how long is it going to take to fill, and it couldn’t be anywhere from one year to, on average, five to seven years.

Jim Morris: The environment is talked about a lot in California and for good reason, it’s vital, of course. The diminished salmon runs come up a lot, and at the rice commission, we’re working with UC Davis on a pilot project raising salmon and rice fields. There’s also promising work where fish food is being produced in rice fields and then returned to the river to help salmon. Jerry, what would Sites do to help this area?

Jerry Brown: There’s two aspects to Sites that I think need to be understood. First, the state is an investor in the project, and as such, they are receiving benefits for the environment. There will be a dedicated storage space and amount of water that is provided for the state to manage for the benefit of the environment, including the salmon, and including the delta smell, for example, is another species that could be helped with the project. What they will be able to do is storing this water in the wet years for use in the dry years. In these dry times like we’ve been seeing and the effects that we’re seeing on the salmon, this water could help the salmon survive these periods, so that’s number one. Number two, being where we are on the Sacramento River and where we are located relative to Shasta and Orville and Folsom Lake, there are opportunities to coordinate the site’s operations in a manner that could provide for greater cold water in those reservoirs. Cold water can, especially in the dryer years, can enhance our ability to help the salmon survive in the river.

Jim Morris: Yeah, keeping that water temperature at a certain level is critical for the survival of the salmon. Projects like this take time. What is a realistic timeframe to get Sites completed?

Jerry Brown: Our current working estimate of our schedule is that we will be operational and complete by 2030, so within this decade, the project will be built.

Jim Morris: To help that process, I think it sounds like good news that you have now an engineering and construction manager starting soon as well. Can you comment on that?

Jerry Brown: A very important component of our upcoming work is to advance the engineering to a level that will give us more confidence in the cost estimate for the project. That’s something the investors really need in order to proceed. With that ramp up of work, we need some additional oversight and some additional capabilities, and so we’ve hired a gentleman by the name of JP Robinette, who has actually worked on the project for a couple years and has a lot of experience and great capabilities to help us advance this part of the work. One of the other aspects of JP’s background is that he grew up in an area in southern Oregon similar to where we’re trying to build the project, so he has a real sense of the local community’s needs and will be able to bring that to the project.

Jim Morris: I could speak with you a hundred times, and I have to ask you this every time out. Sites is a very polarizing topic for many people. Some people love it and they understand the value of it, other people are negative and they feel it would never get done. What level of confidence do you have, Jerry, that Sites is going to be built?

Jerry Brown: I am 100% confident that Sites Reservoir will be built. It must be built. The thing that we are striving for, and I believe is a need in order to proceed, is that we must do this together. There is, as you said, polarizing effects from surface storage project of this nature, but I think we’ve reached a point in our development of the project where we’ve been able to address many of the areas of concern that people have had. We’ve reached a point where we are at a spot where it makes sense. We can do this safely and protective of the species and all of the other concerns and considerations that go into building something like this, but we must do this and we must do it together.

Jim Morris: Speaking of that, can you comment a little bit about the level of support that you’re seeing locally, broader terms as well? We have very different sections of water in California environment, urban, agriculture. What level of support are you seeing for the project?

Jerry Brown: Probably the one area that stands out most for me is the local support. We would not be able to do this project without that support. We’re seeing that in other big projects across the state where local support just doesn’t exist, and there’s a lot of difficulty moving forward. It’s because of that local support that we’re able to move forward, recognizing that our board is made up of the local community leaders. That is important to everyone on the project, not just the folks that are in this area, but other folks that are to be served by the project that are located outside of this area. I think that aspect of it makes it unique and also makes it possible.

Jim Morris: An important part of the water supply equation is meeting urban needs. Climate change and several other factors have put pressure on that supply. Valerie Prior is general manager of Zone 7 Water Agency, and Valerie, can you tell me a little bit about your agency, the region you cover, and who you serve?

Valerie Prior: We are largely a water supply wholesaler, and we serve the East Bay area. We serve the cities of Dublin, Livermore, Pleasanton and portions of San Ramon. We are a state water project contractor, and we deliver state water project water through four retail agencies. Those agencies are the ones that serve water to homes and businesses. In zone seven, we actually also serve 10 to 15% of our water supply directly to agriculture. Those water supplies go to largely to the Livermore valley wine growing region, which is an important economic center for our community. Our local water supplies include some local groundwater, some local runoff, and then the retailers provide recycled water as well. I’d also like to mention that we are the groundwater sustainability agency for the region, and we recharge a groundwater basin with that state water project water that I mentioned, and we’ve been sustainably managing the basin for several decades now.

Jim Morris: You have a lot of different clientele, a lot of different ways to get the water. As we’re in another dry period unfortunately, there are short-term ways to make that water go farther, conservation, innovation included, but still long-term answers needed in California. How much value do you put on increasing water storage specifically with the Sites Reservoir?

Valerie Prior: Our community places a lot of value on increasing water storage and especially the Sites Reservoir about which our board and our community’s very excited. I mentioned that 70% of our water comes from the state water project and that water supply is increasingly less reliable. Also, we are not all the way to build out, so we do expect to add population over the next 30 years, and so we need additional water supply both to make for decreasing reliability and also for growth. The Sites Reservoir really helps us with that part of the equation. It compliments the state water project, so our thought process is in wet years we take state water project water, and in wet years we could store water in Sites Reservoir. Then in dry years, we’d be calling on the storage and the Sites Reservoir to meet our community’s needs.

Jim Morris: Sites Reservoir is proposed for a very agricultural area and the Sacramento valley, but just to be clear, this project would help urban areas as well.

Valerie Prior: Very much. We are an urban area, and we’re very interested in this project. One of the many things that’s very exciting about the Sites Reservoir is that it meets environmental needs, agricultural needs, and urban needs. It’s very nice to be participating in a project where all those needs come together to work on the project.

Jim Morris: Any in-depth discussion of water in California would benefit from covering the environmental side of things. Jeff Mount is senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. He’s an emeritus professor of earth and planetary sciences. I also understand you’re a geomorphologist. Never heard that before. Can you tell me what that is Jeff?

Jeff Mount: It’s the people who study the surface of the earth and the processes that shape it.

Jim Morris: Very good. I learned something already, so that’s awesome. You also were founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, and that has been critical for the rice commission and rice growers and a lot of interesting environmental work. I’d like to start by asking you about that. What are your thoughts about rice farming in California? How it’s changed, how birds and now salmon are being aided by those rice fields.

Jeff Mount: Yeah, this is one of the classic examples of multi benefit uses. Twenty years ago rice was vilified as this big water hog, and then we started to discover it was extremely important for wildlife, the Pacific flyway being the classic example. Then in these last 10, 15 years, we really have caught on to the value of those rice fields as food production factories for salmon. This is actually pretty exciting. I don’t know of another crop that you can point to that has anything quite like that.

Jim Morris: One of the major priorities in the state is making sure the environment is protected. I believe your institute is reviewing a concept that may help and may involve the site’s project. Can you explain what that might look like?

Jeff Mount: For some years now we’ve been saying the problem is we treat the environment like a constraint all the time, rather than a priority or better yet a partner. What we’re proposing is we think about the environment as a partner in managing water. One of the ideas we’ve been promoting is the notion of setting aside a block of water for the environment that can be managed, kind of like a water right. Flexibly it can be managed that way. The advantage such an approach is it’s great for the people on the other end who are looking for certainty, how much waters go into the environment, and it’s a guarantee that the environment will get a certain amount of water. Now, the novel idea is how to do it with reservoirs. An environmental water budget in a reservoir, that’s a set aside of water that can be flexibly managed for the environment.

Jeff Mount: If the Sites project is built, it is my understanding there’s a proposal to do just such a thing, to set aside a portion of that storage for the environment. This has really big advantages. Right now, the way we manage everything, it’s all set on minimum instream flow and water quality standards. It’s like what you’d call a hydrologic flat line. It doesn’t change enough, yet the biota that evolved here all depended on a lot of variability. We’re suggesting that the most efficient and effective use of water has to have some flexibility in that use, especially if you want to mate it up with investments in physical habitat. That’s why we’re promoting this idea of an ecosystem water budget managed by a trustee of some kind, a restoration administrator like on the San Joaquin River, is probably the best way to go because it’s nimble.

Jeff Mount: It sets the environment as a partner, that is the environment’s in there working with the people who are managing the operations of storage all the time, and there’s certainty, and a key bottom line, I can’t stress this enough, is flexibility. Hey, a storm is coming next week. Maybe we should hold onto our environmental water, and when the storm comes, we should let some of it go to move salmon farther down the system, or put salmon out onto the flood plain, for example, or, hey, the spring, we really need a little extra flow, a little boost in the river this spring so that water that we’ve stored, that belongs to the environment, can be released to help push the salmon out to sea, or we need a pulse flow to help bring cues for salmon to come up.

Jeff Mount: Those are examples. The problem is the way we do it now it’s just, you got to let out this set amount of water and have this quality all the time. The argument would be give some flexibility so we can be adaptive and responsive and nimble just like somebody who has a water right or somebody who owns water.

Jim Morris: When you look at water, it’s incredibly contentious in California. We never seem to have enough. How important is it to have divergent interest coming together for a common goal?

Jeff Mount: At PPIC, we have been crystal clear on this for seven years now. Almost every year we say the same thing. Litigation is not the solution. It’s expensive. It takes forever, decades to resolve. Meanwhile, nothing gets done for the environment. There’s no benefit for the environment. The real progress comes through negotiated solutions. We call them comprehensive solutions. People call them voluntary agreements, whatever you want to call it. But when you have multiple people at the table, multiple interests at the table, so that they’re interests are represented, and they’re people of goodwill and good faith who are willing to give something up to get something. That something that they get is durable instead of every five years you’re back in court trying to deal with these things. We strongly advocate for people negotiating solutions to water problems rather than the usual approach, which is litigation.

Jim Morris: It seems like that there is a little more cooperation in this region than perhaps some other areas of the state. What are your thoughts about that?

Jeff Mount: At PPIC we’ve been saying for sometimes perhaps the most environmentally progressive groups in the farm community are in the Sacramento Valley. It helps that you have lots more water in the Sacramento Valley, one can’t ignore that, and you have crops in the Sacramento Valley, which are ideal for working with the environment. I mean, in particular, the fall wet up for the Pacific flyway and the ability to start thinking about using these agricultural fields for raising fish and restoring that most essential element of access to the flood plain. What’s been particular is that I don’t know how to put it. I’ll put it simply, people are a little more friendly to these ideas in the Sacramento Valley than they are in other places and that’s great. That’s the first step, by the way, to getting toward those negotiated solutions where people of goodwill are willing to give up something in order to get to where they want to be.

Jeff Mount: I’ve just been impressed over the years, the evolution in the Sacramento Valley and the willingness of landowners to be involved. The fact of the matter is let’s be direct on this. Most farmers are stewards of the land, and so they consider themselves stewards of the environment also. For some reason, they seem more stewardish in the Sacramento Valley, and I have no explanation for that, but they just are.

Jim Morris: That will wrap up this episode, although we will, of course, have updates as the year progresses about the water outlook and impacts to our region and state. Thank you to Kai Tawa, Jerry Brown, Valerie Prior, and Jeff Mount for their time and expertise. You can go to podcast.calrice.org to find out more and listen to other episodes and subscribe. Thanks for listening.