Thirsty valley east of Lake County could become massive reservoir

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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.

Maxwell rancher Joe Carrancho, who tends 4,000 acres of rice, said the reservoir would bring water, electricity, flood control, jobs, taxes and higher land values to the area.

“It’s a bonanza of advantages where the disadvantages are few,” he said, sitting at a table in the Maxwell Inn, the town’s social center.

Carrancho, wearing a straw Stetson hat and a patch with the name Joe on his work shirt, said he envisions development — “something like Clear Lake” — with homes, boating facilities and a “nice golf course” ringing the lake, which would have oak groves around its southern perimeter.

“It opens up a multitude of opportunities,” he said.

A quarter-century ago, Maxwell had a hotel and motel, three grocery stores, a railroad station, two banks, a doctor’s office and two welding shops, now all gone, Carrancho said.

Marion Mathis, whose 9,000-acre ranch abuts the foothills west of Maxwell, can attest to the difference irrigation makes. When she and her husband, Glenn, moved there in 1967, they dry-farmed barley and wheat along with raising cattle. The Tehama-Colusa Canal, which came through in the 1970s, “changed everything,” Marion Mathis said.

On 1,400 irrigated acres, the ranch now grows almonds, walnuts and alfalfa as well as vegetables — in good years. Now, in their second straight season with no allotment of Central Valley Project water, Mathis has seen the cost of water shoot from about $100 per acre-foot for CVP water to about $500 for water purchased on the open market.

“We’re just trying to keep our (walnut and almond) trees alive,” she said, forgoing any other crops.

Sites Reservoir would give the region a more dependable water source, and Mathis said she’s more optimistic than ever that it will get built. “People want it, they know it’s important, but they say, ‘I hope it happens before I die,’ ” she said, sitting in the living room of her spacious ranch house with a swimming pool on the back deck. “They have a right to feel that way.”

The assumption that Sacramento Valley farmers will get water from Sites may be mistaken, said Steven Evans, a consultant to Friends of the River, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the return of flows to rivers impacted by dams. The benefits of Sites have been oversold by the Department of Water Resources, he said, noting that the same water released from the reservoir to improve Sacramento Delta water quality cannot also be transported to farmlands in the San Joaquin Valley.

Financial bidders for water from Sites could include giants like the Westlands Water District, which provides water to 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties, and the Metropolitan Water District, a regional wholesaler that procures water for 19 million Southern Californians, Evans said.

There’s no guarantee, he said, that there will be much Sites water left “for the little farmers of Colusa County.”

Sacramento Valley landowners have made commitments for 85,000 acre-feet of water and may take as much as 120,000 acre-feet, accounting for one-third to more than half of the reservoir’s available water, leaving the remainder for investors from south of the Delta, according to a news report.

A Water Resources report asserts that benefits from Sites “would occur from Trinity to San Diego counties … as well as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” While the specific uses may be uncertain, the reservoir would provide an additional 400,000 to 500,000 acre-feet of stored water, taking the pressure off storage behind the Shasta Dam, Sites backers say.

Maxwell-Sites Road eventually curves to the north, passing through a narrow canyon into Antelope Valley, where a weather-beaten wooden sign at the edge of an overgrown lot reads “Sites Town Square — John Sites Founder 1887.”

Mary Wells, who bought her home from his grandson, also named John Sites, in 1974, said the 14-mile-long valley is home to 15 families. The rolling valley, with some hills that would form islands in Sites Reservoir, is primarily range land, with limited hay cultivation — and not a drop of irrigated water.

Most of the valley’s cattle are moved north in the summer; Wells’ herd is in southern Oregon until winter rains turn the dry vegetation to fodder.

“It’s like night and day,” she said, between the sparse valley and the wealth of irrigated agriculture just beyond the hills, where her daughter has walnut and almond orchards along with rice and hay fields.

Wells, whose great-great-grandfather founded the town of Williams in the 1870s, said she is willing to see her 500 acres in Antelope Valley flooded to ensure her descendants a future in farming. “What better thing can we do for them?” she said.

The Department of Water Resources pinpointed Antelope Valley as a dam site in 1957, and has since spent about $50 million on studies, said Bettner, the irrigation district manager. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has chipped in $13 million worth of studies, but there is still no complete environmental assessment nor feasibility study, he said.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said the Sites project seemed to be in limbo between the state and federal agencies, so he and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, collaborated on a bill to expedite the feasibility study, a prerequisite for funding.

Their bill hasn’t gone anywhere, but Garamendi said that progress is being made as a number of local agencies, including Colusa and Glenn counties and two irrigation districts, have formed the Sites Joint Powers Authority to take over as sponsor of the reservoir project.

“We’ve got to get to a deliverable project,” said Bettner, whose irrigation district is a JPA member.

In addition to a feasibility study, the authority has to put together a financing plan for the project, which will cost $3.6 billion to $4.1 billion, and get in line for a portion of the $2.7 billion portion of state water bonds earmarked for storage.

There’s competition from other projects, including expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, as well as criticism that surface storage is what Evans, the consultant, called a “19th-century solution” to water woes. California reservoirs lose 2 million acre-feet of water a year to evaporation, he said.

The environmental impacts of the Sites Reservoir are difficult to assess because the project has not yet been clearly defined, Evans said.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an independent research group, said that Sites would “provide a little bit of benefit to a small number of people for a whole lot of money.”

California needs to impound more water, and the “smartest storage now looks like it’s groundwater storage,” he said. The state also needs to expand use of treated wastewater, which currently amounts to 600,000 acre-feet a year, Gleick said.

Tripling that amount is possible and would provide “far more water than any new reservoir could provide at far lower cost,” he said.

Acknowledging the drought emergency condition, Gleick said, “We want to be careful not to do the wrong thing because we feel we have to do something.”

Gov. Jerry Brown is not taking a position on Sites nor any other storage project, leaving the decisions on water bond funding to the California Water Commission, said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. The commission expects to begin awarding bond funds in 2017, she said.

Carrancho, the rice grower, complained that Sites has been talked about for decades and at countless meetings with “thousands being spent on coffee and doughnuts and nothing on cement.”

The project’s chances now likely depend on the weather as much as the political winds, he said.

“It’s a certainty if we have another two years of drought,” Carrancho said. But if rain comes again, “everybody will forget about it and go home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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