SITES, Calif. — In 2014, in the middle of a severe drought that would test California’s complex water storage system like never before, voters told the state to borrow $7.5 billion and use part of it to build projects to stockpile more water.
Seven years later, that drought has come and 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-dozen water storage projects scheduled to receive that money have been built.
The largest project by far is a proposed lake in Northern California, which would be the state’s first new reservoir of significant size in more than 40 years. People have talked about building the Sites Reservoir since the 1950s. But the cost, plus shifting political priorities, stopped it from happening.
Now, a major drought gripping the western United States has put the project back in the spotlight. It’s slated to get $836 million in taxpayer money to help cover it’s $3.9 billion price tag if project officials can meet a deadline by year’s end. The Biden administration recently committed $80 million to the reservoir, the largest appropriation of any water storage scheduled to receive funding next year.
And the project could get some of the $1.15 billion included in an infrastructure bill that has passed the US Senate.
Still, the delay has frustrated some lawmakers, who view it as a wasted opportunity now that the state is preparing to cut of water to thousands of farmers in the Central Valley because of a shortage.
“The longer you don’t build, the more expensive it gets,” said Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, whose rural Northern California district includes farmers.
Storage was once the centerpiece of California’s water management strategy, highlighted by a building bonanza in the mid-20th century of a number of dams and reservoirs. But in the more than 40 years since California last opened a major new reservoir, the politics and policy have shifted toward a more environmental focus that has caused tension between urban and rural legislators and the communities they represent.
The voter-approved bond in 2014 was supposed to jump-start a number of long-delayed storage projects. But some experts say the delays aren’t surprising, given the complexities and environmental hazards that come with building new water projects.
“We have about 1,500 reservoirs in California. If you assume people are smart — which they kind of are most of the time — they will have built reservoirs at the 1,500 best reservoir sites already,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis. “What you have left over is more expensive sites that give you less water.”
California’s Mediterranean climate means it gets most of its rain and snow in the winter and spring, followed by hot, dry summers and falls that see rivers and streams dry up. The largest of California’s reservoirs are operated by the state and federal governments, although neither has built a new one since the 1979 New Melones Lake near Sonora, about 50 miles northwest of Yosemite National Park.
That could change with the Sites Reservoir project, which would flood what’s left of the town of Sites, located in a valley amid California’s coast range mountains.
The town’s roots go back to the 1850s, when John Sites, a German immigrant, settled there. At its peak 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 town slowly dwindled. Fire destroyed many of the buildings, leaving behind about 10 houses on unirrigated land that can only be used for agriculture during the rainy season.