Tag Archive for: Sites Reservoir

Latest Attack on Proposed Sites Reservoir – Not Enough Water

When it comes to attacking anything that will make so much as a scratch in the earth, California’s environmentalists never run out of arguments, and their litigators never run out of money.

So it goes with the proposed Sites Reservoir, which is enduring a withering new bombardment from environmentalists in the wake of Governor Newsom’s recently announced Water Supply Strategy in which the governor endorsed the Sites Project and even had the temerity to suggest environmentalist obstruction is stopping as many good projects as bad ones.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week, and dutifully highlighted in Maven’s Notebook, “California’s largest reservoir in nearly 50 years may be derailed by water shortages.” Apparently there isn’t enough water flowing down the Sacramento River to fill the 1.5 million acre foot reservoir. But that entirely depends on who you ask.

Shown below, courtesy of the US Dept. of Geological Survey, is flow data for the Sacramento River, upstream at Colusa, which is near to where the planned diversions into the Sites Reservoir will be made. The data is expressed in “CFS,” which stands for cubic feet per second.

What is immediately evident from this chart is how it vividly depicts the volume of surplus water that hit Northern California even during what has been described as the driest winter in decades. If during the on-and-off wet months from October 1 to April 30 just 20 percent of the Sacramento River’s flow had been diverted into the Sites Reservoir, nearly 550,000 acre feet could have been stored, more than a third of its capacity. And since the pumps in one of the original designs for the Sites Reservoir had a capacity of 5,900 CFS, which is equivalent to 11,700 acre feet per day, during the peak runoff events from October through December, at least another 100,000 acre feet might have been stored.

Put another way, if one-fifth of the Sacramento River’s flow upstream at Colusa had been diverted, and only during the seven mostly dry months from October 2021 through April 2022, the massive 1.5 million acre foot Sites Reservoir could have been filled nearly half way to capacity. In just one season, during a drought.

And why not? Drawing 1.0 million acre feet or more from the Sacramento River to fill the Sites Reservoir during wet years, and over a half-million acre feet even in dry years, would not significantly reduce the flow of fresh water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Sacramento River at Colusa is upstream from the Feather River, which adds its powerful flow 40 miles further south, as well as the American River, which joins the Sacramento River another 20 miles south. In addition, flowing into the Delta from the South is the San Joaquin River with its many tributaries.

An authoritative 2017 study by the Public Policy Research Institute describes so-called “uncaptured water,” which is the surplus runoff, often causing flooding, that occurs every time an atmospheric river hits the state. Quoting from the study, “benefits provided by uncaptured water are above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water.” The study goes on to claim that uncaptured water flows through California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta “averaged 11.3 million acre-feet [per year] over the 1980–2016 period.”

When the average “uncaptured” water flowing through the Delta, “above and beyond those required by regulations for system and ecosystem water,” is 11.3 million acre-feet per year, suggesting there won’t be enough water to fill the Sites Reservoir is an argument resting on thin foundations.

Environmentalists can’t have it both ways. Either we’re going to have massive atmospheric storms that will require massive systems to capture storm runoff, or we’re going to enter a period of chronic droughts where there isn’t enough water no matter what we do. Even the New York Times, just last month, in an article entitled “Why the ‘Big One’ Could Be Something Other Than an Earthquake,” admonished Californians to prepare for a “monthlong superstorm” of rainfall. What better way to prepare than to build off-stream reservoirs? If anything, Sites is too small.

In the February 2021 document “Sites Reservoir Project – Preliminary Project Description,” the introductory section describes how back in 1995 the CALFED Bay-Delta Program “identified 52 potential surface storage locations and retained 12 reservoir locations statewide for further study.” All twelve were off-stream reservoirs. They then narrowed the candidates to four: “Red Bank (Dippingvat and Schoenfield Reservoirs), Newville Reservoir, Colusa Reservoir, and Sites Reservoir.” Sites was chosen as the most feasible project. But why isn’t this study being dusted off and revisited? What about these other potential locations for more surface storage?

Governor Newsom, when he introduced his California Water Supply Strategy on August 11, also said this: “We did some analysis of those big flows that came in November and December of last year, and if we had the conveyance and the tools to capture that storm water, it’s the equivalent of those seven projects that I just noted that take decades to build in terms of stored capacity… Mother Nature is still bountiful, but she’s not operating like she did 50 years ago, heck, she’s not operating the way she did 10 years ago, and we have to reconcile that. We had a vision in the 50s and 60s to do just that, and we want to reinvigorate that capacity in California.”

“Reinvigorating that capacity,” governor, means you are going to have to start firing some of the people staffing the commissions and agencies that have been complicit in the environmentalist assault that has stopped every major water project in its tracks for the last 50 years.

If you want to be taken seriously in California, so the conventional wisdom goes, you have to play nice with environmentalists. To be welcome in polite company, to retain professional credibility, one must ignore the sad fact that much of environmentalism today has morphed into a nihilistic, anti-human, extremist movement. But to ensure that California’s dazzling civilization, 40 million strong, survives and thrives into the next century, maybe it’s time to stop being quite so nice with environmentalists. At the very least, begin to challenge the notion that every scientific argument must invariably tilt in favor of their agenda. Scientific assessments of infinitely complex aquatic ecosystems are rarely beyond scientific debate.

To restore a more humanitarian and progressive balance to California politics, it’s time to tell our state’s all-powerful environmentalist lobby that they cannot always get their way.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

Dams and Desalination – California Needs Both

When Californians can take showers, without flow restrictors, for as long as they want, and when Californians can have lawns again instead of rocks and cacti in their front yards, water infrastructure in California will once again be adequate.

When California’s farmers can get enough water to grow food, instead of watching their suddenly useless holdings of dead orchards and parched furrows get sold for next to nothing to corporate speculators and subsidized solar farm developers, water infrastructure in California will once again be adequate.

One of the difficulties in forming a coalition powerful enough to stand up to the corporate environmentalist lobby in California is the perception, widely shared among the more activist farming lobby, that desalination is more expensive than dams.

That’s not true. It depends on the desalination, and even more so, it depends on the dam.

As a baseline, consider the cost of desalination in California’s lone large scale operating plant in Carlsbad north of San Diego. The total project costs for this plant, including the related pipes to convey the desalinated water to storage reservoirs, was just over $1.0 billion. At a capacity to produce 56,000 acre feet per year, the construction cost per acre foot of annual capacity comes in just over $17,000.

When it comes to the price of desalinated water, payments on the bond that financed the construction costs form the overwhelming share of the cost per acre foot.

For example, California’s second major desalination project, the proposed plant in Huntington Beach, will have a total project cost of $1.3 billion. Similar to Carlsbad, this plant will produce 50 million gallons of fresh water per day. A 20 year bond paying 7 percent will require annual payments of $122 million. That payment, applied to the hundred cubic foot increments, or CCF, that typically appear on a consumer’s water bill to measure their consumption, comes up to $5.03. By contrast, the cost per CCF for the desalination plant’s operating expenses is only $0.41, and the price per CCF for a desalination plant’s electricity consumption (at $0.10 per kilowatt-hour) is only $1.08. Initial construction costs, comprising 77 percent of the price of desalinated water, are the only reason desalination is considered expensive.

Compare this to the price of water from reservoirs, keeping in mind that paying off the construction costs for the dams are also the biggest variable in determining how much consumers have to pay for that water. With dams, unlike desalination plants, two factors come into play: the storage capacity, and the annual yield. With desalination plants the yield is up to the managers. Run the plant, out comes fresh water. With dams, how much water is released from the reservoir to downstream consumers in any given year depends on rainfall.

For this reason, the average annual yield of the reservoir is the most accurate way to measure its cost effectiveness. And this amount can vary widely. One of California’s biggest proposed new projects is the Sites Reservoir. It would be situated in a valley west of the Sacramento River, north of the Delta. As an off-stream reservoir, it would have water pumped into it when storm runoff is causing flooding. A twin to the already existing San Luis Reservoir, located west of the California Aqueduct south of the Delta, the Sites would have a capacity to store 2.0 million acre feet. But its yield is estimated at 500,000 acre feet per year.

In the case of the Sites Reservoir, this compares favorably to desalination. The Sites project is estimated to cost $5.0 billion, so the construction cost per acre foot of annual capacity comes in at $10,000, better than desalination at $17,000.

On the other hand, the case of the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir is not so clear. The estimated cost for this dam is $2.6 billion and the planned storage capacity is 1.3 million acre feet. So far so good. But while estimates vary, the most optimistic projected average annual yield is around 100,000 acre feet per year. This equates to a construction cost of $26,000 per acre foot of annual capacity, considerably worse than desalination.

Does the fact that desalination yields a better return on construction costs than Temperance Flat mean that the Temperance Flat Reservoir project should be abandoned? Not necessarily. Back in 2017, during record rains, the San Joaquin River flooded, and that water – desperately needed by San Joaquin Valley farmers – could have still been in that reservoir and available for use today. The advantage of big surface storage reservoirs is not their return on capital investment, it’s that they can prevent flooding in wet years, and hold massive quantities of water in reserve for dry years.

Similarly, foes of desalination point to the more cost-effective Sites Reservoir proposal as evidence that desalination is too expensive. But the productivity of desalination is impervious to droughts; the water just keeps coming, year after year, no matter what. And the electricity required to run desalination, while significant, is no greater than the electricity currently used by a series of massive pumping stations necessary to transport water from north to south, over the mountains, and into the Los Angeles Basin – over 2.5 million acre feet per year.

Infrastructure development in California has been paralyzed by litigation and legislation. The result is a self-imposed scarcity of water that can be solved by an all-of-the-above strategy to develop new dams and desalination plants. Civilization requires a footprint, a plain fact that wasn’t lost on previous generations. We’ve learned how to mitigate the worst impact of new infrastructure, but cannot let the ideals of ecological perfection be an excuse to impoverish ourselves.

General obligation bonds to defray the cost to farmers and residents are something the people of California might accept. Then if the rains don’t come for years on end, Californians will still be able to purchase food grown in-state, and enjoy more of the normal amenities of life – a long hot shower. A healthy lawn.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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