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California's largest reservoir project in 50 years moves forward after judge rules against environmental groups – Chico Enterprise-Record

A drone shot of the landscape near Unincorporated Sites, Calif., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. At 13 miles long, it would flood part of the area shown. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

SITES — Plans to build California's largest reservoir in 50 years have taken a crucial step forward after a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by opposing environmental groups.

The $4.5 billion project, known as Sites Reservoir, is planned for the rolling pastures west of the town of Maxwell, about 70 miles northwest of Sacramento.

The proposed sites would be California's eighth-largest reservoir, a 13-mile-long, remote lake that supplies water to 500,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley and 24 million people, including residents of Santa Clara County, parts of the East Bay and Los Angeles.

Late Friday night, a Yolo County judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the River and other groups that filed suit in December, arguing that the project's environmental impact report was inadequate and needed to be revised.

Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority, shows the proposed location of the reservoir on a map at the authority's office in Maxwell, Calif., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority, shows the proposed location of the reservoir on a map at the authority's office in Maxwell, Calif., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

The project is supported by President Biden, Governor Gavin Newsom, farm organizations, unions and about 20 water utilities, including the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose, the Zone 7 Water Agency in Livermore and the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, all of which are partners and would receive water from the project.

“California needs more water storage and we have no time to waste,” Newsom said Tuesday. “Projects like Sites Reservoir will capture rain and snow melt water and provide clean drinking water to millions of homes.”

The reservoir would store water diverted from the Sacramento River in wet years to be made available to cities and farms across the state in dry years.

Once completed, Sites would be the largest new reservoir in California since 1979, when the federal government opened New Melones Lake in the Sierra Foothills between Sonora and Angels Camp.

The Sierra Club, Friends of the River and other environmental groups oppose the plan, saying the sites would divert too much water from the Sacramento River, harming endangered salmon, steelhead trout and smelt and depriving the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of freshwater.

“We are disappointed with the court's decision,” said John Buse, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland. “This project has great momentum. But you have to weigh that against the fact that it is expensive, has limited benefits and significant environmental costs.”

Last July, Newsom signed a law designed to accelerate construction of hydro, solar, wind and transportation projects.

Under the new law, lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) must be decided on such projects within 270 days. The Sites Reservoir lawsuit was decided within 148 days.

CEQA is one of the state's landmark environmental laws. Signed in 1970 by former Gov. Ronald Reagan, it requires developers to evaluate the impacts of their projects on air pollution, water pollution, wildlife, traffic, noise and other factors. Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown have acknowledged that the law has had unintended consequences, delaying projects important to the state and its economy for years.

The environmental groups that sued the Sites Project Authority – a group of local government officials in the Sacramento Valley proposing the new reservoir – had until Friday to decide whether to appeal.

looking ahead

The financing of the project is almost completely secured.

Before the ruling, the Biden administration approved an additional $67 million for the project, bringing total congressional and government funding to $519 million. The project also received a $2.2 billion loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a $450 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $875 million in state funds from Proposition 1, a water bond approved by California voters in 2014. Much of the remaining money and loan repayments would come from water plants across the state that buy the water.

Unless the environmentalists' lawsuit is revived by a higher court, the project's final hurdle will be to obtain water rights from the State Water Resources Control Board, which is appointed by Newsom. Hearings are scheduled to begin in July and last through next April, said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority.

Brown, who is not related to the former governor, said Wednesday that the project is scheduled to break ground in 2026 and be completed by 2032.

“We need to build it so we're ready for the future,” said Brown, the former general manager of the Contra Costa Water District. “This court ruling shows that California can still build big water projects and do it in an environmentally responsible way, which we need to do because climate change is affecting our water system, which is not prepared for what's coming.”

If the reservoir had already been built, it would have filled to the brim over the past two winters, Brown said. It would have a capacity of 1.5 million acre-feet – enough to serve 7.5 million people a year. In response to environmental concerns, Brown added that the project would have diverted, on average, only 6% of the water that flowed through the Delta from January to April.

During severe winter storms, up to 90 percent of the water flowing through the Delta ends up in the ocean because the state and federal pumps in Tracy do not have the capacity to handle more water.

Anna Harden

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