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California's drought and shifting politics appear to be boosting the odds for approval of the first major reservoir in the state in more than a decade, although myriad hurdles remain at the federal, state and local levels.

At issue is the proposed "Sites" reservoir just east of Lake County and the Mendocino National Forest, not far from the Central Valley town of Maxwell. The huge lake — five times bigger than Lake Sonoma — would not dam a regional watershed or fishery. Instead, it would hold water diverted from the Sacramento River.

Elected officials and environmentalists — unhappily — say the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is likely to approve bipartisan legislation that would give a go-ahead to the estimated $3 billion project. Its fate in the Democratic-led U.S. Senate, however, is uncertain.

Two House members with traditional partisan differences — Democrat John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Republican Doug La Malfa of Richvale, south of Chico — jointly authored legislation introduced last week to study the feasibility of the Sites reservoir and, if it is deemed feasible, to go ahead with the project.

"I think we have a reasonable shot at getting it through (Congress) and getting the president to sign it," Garamendi said. "One: The cost will be spread over several different entities — the feds, the CVP (Central Valley Project), the State Water Project, the irrigation districts; there are multiple beneficiaries. Two: The drought has focused (public) attention in California on this issue, and the attention of Congress."

La Malfa agrees. "Finally, we see the window opening to strike right now," he said. "The issue has a lot of attention from Californians at this time. The bill has bipartisan support, even bicameral support," a reference to potential support in the Senate.

For many years, environmentalists and other critics of dams and reservoirs have held the upper hand. Much of the debate has focused on tearing out dams and eliminating reservoirs — not creating new ones — as a process of restoring waterways and wildlife. But Ron Stork of Friends of the River is aware of the shifting alliances. He acknowledges that House approval of the Sites reservoir is likely.

"And in the Senate, (Dianne) Feinstein is captured by the notion of the desperate need for more (water) storage and she chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds it," Stork said.

So, the drought, recent actions in the House and comments from Feinstein suggest an opportunity for reservoir advocates, at least on the federal level. The last major reservoir to be built in California was Diamond Valley near Hemet, which can store 800,000 acre-feet of water and is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Sites would hold 1.9 million acre-feet, making it the seventh largest in the state.

Feinstein told the Association of California Water Agencies recently that "we must build more storage to prepare for the next drought which is sure to come," adding that "what we need to keep the (Sites) study moving forward is for the state to provide its share of funding."

A potential source for that state funding could be voter-approved bonds, which means the political fight over Sites also may play out in Sacramento as well as in Congress.

The bill from Garamendi and La Malfa is one of numerous proposals floated by federal lawmakers to address the drought, both through new storage and other measures. Republicans already have pushed through legislation in the House that would authorize construction of other major reservoir projects.

Those include raising the dam at Shasta Lake to store more water in California's largest reservoir and creating a new reservoir in the Sierra Nevada along the upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno.

Sites has been studied at the state level and was included among several projects identified for funding in the twice-delayed, $11.14 billion water bond now set for the November ballot in California. That bond, crafted during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, is expected to be replaced this year with a smaller-scale proposal in the $5billion to $6billion range, perhaps larger. A half-dozen bond proposals are circulating in the Capitol, ranging from $5.1 billion to $9.3 billion, and several have emerged from committees, including an $8 billion proposal on Tuesday in the Senate.

Leading among the scaled-down state alternative measures is a $6.8 billion proposal by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, whose district includes part of Sonoma County.

The bill, which specifically provides just over $1 billion for storage, requires that the public's interests be served and that those who benefit most from the project — such as farmers and water districts — carry the bulk of the financial load. Specific projects also would require approval of the California Water Commission.

"Sites Reservoir is one of the storage projects identified in my SB 848 as eligible for funding for the public benefits that the project may provide, while the majority of the funding would come from the projects' beneficiaries, consistent with the Governor's policy," Wolk wrote in an email.

An aide to Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she has not taken a position on the Sites proposal, while other area lawmakers — Assemblymembers Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, and Mariko Yamada, D-Davis — declined immediate comment.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who is up for re-election this year, has not taken a position on Sites or on the November water bond. As written, the current $11.14 billion bond measure includes about $3billion for storage, plus another $800 million that could be used for the project, pending voter approval and a go-ahead from the California Water Commission.

To replace the November bond with a different proposal would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and the governor's signature. A smaller bond measure likely would set aside less money for the Sites project.

Some environmentalists are nervous about the drought legislation in Congress and see the House as the biggest problem.

"The House has voted already to weaken environmental protections in California," said Ann Notthoff, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In the face of trying to politicize the drought, I don't put anything past the House."

"Everyone is concerned about the drought and everyone wants to put California in the best position to deal with water shortages, but more storage doesn't create more water," she said.

In February, the House approved and sent to the Senate a plan by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, to curtail efforts to restore the San Joaquin River in order to move more water to Central Valley farmers. The Valadao bill, which is unlikely to emerge from the Senate, included planning for Sites and other projects but no prospect for funding. The proposal, backed by California's entire GOP congressional delegation, is opposed by the Obama administration and Brown.

Days after the Valadao bill was approved, California's U.S. senators, Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, introduced their own bill, a $300 million drought-aid package that, among other things, gives federal authorities more leeway in pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They also said their plan does not suspend species-protection laws, a key concern of environmentalists.

Another drought-driven measure was introduced by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

The Garamendi/LaMalfa bill seeks to push the federal money through upon approval of the feasibility study, which is unusual, according to Stork, the Friends of the River official. "It (the bill) breaks all of the rules for water projects, which are not supposed to be pre-authorized by Congress," he said, and that pre-authorization provision may not survive in the Senate, "which has different rules."

"The real battle will be whether the money shows up and who the real beneficiaries are," he said.