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SITES, Calif. (AP) – In 2014, amid a severe drought that would test California’s complex water storage system like never before, voters asked the state to borrow 7 , $ 5 billion and use part of it to build projects to store more water.

Seven years later, that drought is gone, replaced by an even hotter and drier one that is draining the state’s reservoirs at an alarming rate. But none of the more than half a dozen water storage projects slated to receive that money have been built.

By far the largest project is a proposed lake in northern California, which is said to be the state’s first significant new reservoir in more than 40 years. There has been talk of building the Sites reservoir since the 1950s. But the cost, along with shifting political priorities, has kept it from happening.

Today, a major drought in the western United States has put the project back in the spotlight. It is expected to raise $ 836 million in taxpayer money to help cover its $ 3.9 billion price tag if project officials can meet a deadline by the end of the year. The Biden administration recently committed $ 80 million to the reservoir, the largest allotment of any water storage that is expected to receive funding next year.

And the project could get part of the $ 1.15 billion included in an infrastructure bill that was passed by the US Senate.

Still, the delay has frustrated some lawmakers, who see it as a lost opportunity now that the state is preparing to shut off water to thousands of Central Valley farmers due to a shortage.

“The longer you don’t build, the more it costs,” said Republican State Senator Brian Dahle, whose rural Northern California district includes farmers.

Storage was once the centerpiece of California’s water management strategy, evidenced by a mid-20th-century boon of construction of a number of dams and reservoirs. But in the last 40 years since California last opened a major new reservoir, politics and politics have shifted towards a more environmental orientation that has created tensions between urban and rural lawmakers and communities that ‘they represent.

The bond approved by voters in 2014 was supposed to kick off a number of long-delayed storage projects. But some experts say the delays are not surprising, given the complexities and environmental risks of building new water supply projects.

“We have about 1,500 tanks in California. If you assume people are smart – which they sort of are most of the time – they’ll have built reservoirs at the top 1,500 reservoir sites by now, ”said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. the University of California. Davis: “What you have left are more expensive sites that give you less water.”

California’s Mediterranean climate means it receives most of its rain and snow in the winter and spring, followed by hot, dry summers and falls that see rivers and streams drying up. The largest of California’s reservoirs is operated by the state and federal governments, although none have built a new one since 1979 Lake New Melones near Sonora, about 50 miles northwest of the national park. of Yosemite.

That could change with the Sites Reservoir project, which would flood what remains of the town of Sites, located in a valley amid the mountains of the California Coast Range.

The city’s roots go back to the 1850s, when John Sites, a German immigrant, settled here. During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was known for a sandstone quarry that provided building materials throughout the state, including the iconic Ferry Building in San Francisco.

But when the quarry closed shortly after World War I, the city slowly shrank. The fire destroyed many buildings, leaving behind a dozen houses on non-irrigated land that can only be used for agriculture during the rainy season. Authorities would eventually have to buy these properties from residents to build the reservoir. With only two paths to enter and exit the valley, this is a great place to flood and turn into a massive lake to store water.

But unlike most California reservoirs, the sites wouldn’t be connected to a river or stream. Instead, operators should pump water from the Sacramento River whenever it has more to give. The idea is to take advantage of wet years like 2018, when California received so much rain and snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that the reservoirs were filled beyond capacity.

“We are really redefining the way water is developed in California,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Site Project Authority, which has no connection with the former governor of the same name.

Pumping water is expensive, which, along with concern from environmental groups, is one of the reasons the reservoir has been under discussion for over 60 years but was never built. Many environmental groups argue that the reservoir would do more harm than good, as they say operators would have to withdraw significantly more water than is ecologically safe from the Sacramento River to make the project feasible.

“Basically it’s a dead end dam, a pretty marginal project, otherwise it would have been built years ago,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, an advocacy group. ‘environment.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which has included the sites reservoir in its body of water, sees the reservoir as a way to prepare for a future impacted by climate change. The California Reservoir System is designed to capture water from sleet in the mountains. But climate change could mean less snow and more rain, which the state isn’t as equipped to capture.

“We’re going to start to shift to extremes, (a) dry, deep drought or major flooding,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources. “I think these kinds of projects have some value. “

It will cost $ 3.9 billion to build the sites reservoir, and that’s after project managers cut it down to reduce the price by about $ 1 billion. Most of the money will come from customers who will buy water, the federal government, and bank loans. California taxpayers pledged about $ 836 million to the project from a bond approved by voters in 2014.

But to use this money, project leaders must meet a deadline by the end of the year to show that the idea is feasible.

“I am absolutely confident,” said Brown. “It’s going to be tight, but it’s going to do it.” ___

Follow AP’s full drought coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/droughts.


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