All about Sites

Politicians pat backs, tout benefits of new North State reservoir project

Assemblyman James Gallagher leads a packed meeting at Manzanita Place focused on the benefits of the Sites Reservoir.

Assemblyman James Gallagher leads a packed meeting at Manzanita Place focused on the benefits of the Sites Reservoir.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Manzanita Place was packed to the brim Tuesday night with local residents passionate about either the future construction of Sites Reservoir, planned near Maxwell, or its demise. They were there attending a meeting called by local representatives and water leaders, whose agenda was clear: Sites rules.

The panel made a compelling case for the Sites project, which has been studied since Eisenhower was in the White House. It calls for the construction of a reservoir that could hold up to 1.8 million acre-feet of water, which would come from winter streams that flow off the Sacramento River. They touted it as a way to “take the target off our water rights” and a solution to environmental issues as well as increased water needs in the North State. In particular, they focused on the drought—“Have we not had previous droughts? I’ve farmed through three of them and this one’s the worst. There will be more,” Sen. Jim Nielsen told the crowd.

“It will make us much more water- resilient in the future,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher.

The meeting, which was standing-room-only, was filled mostly with backers of the reservoir, so for the most part the panel was preaching to the choir. Nielsen and Gallagher were joined by Congressman Doug LaMalfa and three representatives from the water community: David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association; Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District; and Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Reservoir Joint Powers Authority. They took turns complimenting each other and touting the benefits of the project, including keeping water rights in the North State and ensuring the preservation of national wildlife areas and endangered species like salmon.

Nielsen boomed onto the stage with a powerful story about having been in former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, frustrated about water legislation that didn’t end up passing because the other politicians in the room were too concerned about the upcoming election.

“I said, ‘Don’t you understand this is not about now? It’s about our grandchildren.’ You are here because you care about your grandchildren,” he said to applause. “We cannot conserve our way into the future. That alone is not the answer.”

That may well be true, but it didn’t convince a portion of the audience that remained skeptical of the reservoir plan. After the presentation, which included maps and data provided by the water experts, they opened it up for questions. Some opponents focused on evaporation rates—it’s been suggested that up to 30 percent of the initial fill amount will evaporate due to high temperatures and shallow waters—while others zoned in on current and future groundwater levels, cost and environmental repercussions.

“The exploitation of groundwater by the Glenn-Colusa water district was almost denied at the meeting,” said Jim Brobeck, of nonprofit water advocacy group AquAlliance. “We think that’s really important. Sites is at least 10 years in the future. This is going on now.”

Brobeck was referring to the current ongoing environmental review of adding five wells—the district holds five already—and the regular practice of selling water to other districts farther south.

He also mentioned a lack of adequate review of the Sites project, including what minerals might be present that could leech into the water once a reservoir is built.

“They kept mentioning that Sites has been reviewed for 50 years. Well, why hasn’t it been built? Because it’s not feasible,” he said. “They want the public to support it a year before the public even has all the information about what it entails. People were supporting it last night but they didn’t even know what they were talking about.”