Thirsty valley east of Lake County could become massive reservoir
MAXWELL - Cattle rancher Mary Wells lives in a remote valley of summer-gold grass where eagles wheel in the sky, wild pigs roam the surrounding hills and rattlesnakes slither over a parched 14,000-acre domain that looks almost untouched by humans.
Songbirds in the walnut and locust trees around her home for the past 41 years - a single-story wood-frame house - seem loud in the stillness of the Antelope Valley, tucked in the foothills west of Interstate 5 in Colusa County.
It pains her to consider the prospect her home might someday lie 350 feet below the surface of a $4 billion reservoir that would be built by damming all the outlets in the valley and pumping in water from the nearby Sacramento River.
“I’m not happy about it,” Wells said, seated on her shaded patio, her suntanned face reflecting years of work on an open range. “The flowers are doing good. I have a new fence.”
But as a fifth-generation rancher, Wells said her own family’s future - and that of California agriculture - depends on water. “I wish it was here last year,” she said. “Because I look at generation six and seven and say if I’m going to give them a legacy, we’ve got to have more (water) storage.”
Wells, a former irrigation district manager, is resolutely in favor of Sites Reservoir, a water project conceived by the state Department of Water Resources more than 50 years ago and now, its backers hope, a candidate for some of the $7.5 billion in state water bonds approved by voters in November.
Sites is at the forefront of the statewide debate, picked up by the national media, on whether California - where more than 1,400 dams store water that massive aqueducts move from the normally water-rich north to the populous south - is ready to pour more concrete into that system, a product largely of the 1950s and ’60s.
The four-year drought, exacerbated by the skimpiest Sierra snowpack in history, and the voters’ 67 percent approval of the water bond measure give dam backers reason for optimism. But they are up against critics who say that multibillion-dollar surface storage projects cost too much money for too little benefit. Such critics say newer alternatives, such as recharging groundwater supplies and recycling wastewater, are better ways to stretch an inherently limited supply.
On Interstate 5, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, exit 586 is Maxwell-Sites Road, which runs straight west into downtown Maxwell, a forlorn four-block stretch of buildings about equally vacant and occupied.
“The gateway to Sites Reservoir,” said Nadine Bailey, chief operations officer of the Family Water Alliance, a grassroots coalition committed to water issues, the paramount concern in a thriving farm belt.
Maxwell lies in the table-flat Colusa County, where 20 percent of the land is covered with emerald green rice fields, filled with 5 inches of water during the growing season of a $285 million rice crop that locals like to say “feeds the world.”
Almond trees yield another $285 million, planted on one-third as much acreage as rice, with the two commodities accounting for more than half of Colusa’s nearly $1 billion annual agricultural output.
Inside the Water Alliance office in an old bank building are maps and materials for the Sites Reservoir, which would lie in the foothills 9 miles west of town. Sometimes referred to as Sites Dam, the project consists of two major dams - Sites and Golden Gate, both about 300 feet high - and nine smaller saddle dams. Together, they would impound up to 1.8 million acre-feet of water within the hills ringing Antelope Valley.
“A natural bathtub,” said Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “You really can’t ask for a better location.”
During high-flow periods, Sacramento River water would be diverted to Sites via two existing canals and a pipeline that would be part of the project. The days of building new dams blocking rivers, with a host of environmental impacts, are likely over, Sites backers say.
Had Sites been operational last winter, with just two major storms, it could have snared 300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of river water that instead flowed to the ocean, Bettner said. An acre-foot is about enough water to fill a football field a foot deep, or supply a household with 893 gallons a day for a year.
Sites Reservoir would be five times the size of Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg, the major source of water for 660,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties, and 40 percent as large as Lake Shasta, which holds up to 4.6 million acre-feet of water behind Shasta Dam, the Goliath of state dams built on the Sacramento River near Redding in 1945. Shasta and Northern California’s three other major reservoirs - Trinity, Oroville and Folsom - are now between 40 and 54 percent full.