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Support builds for huge reservoir near Lake County

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."

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