MAXWELL — As divisive as California water can be, few things can bring people together quite like the absence of it.
On Wednesday, it was Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, standing together in boots alongside an irrigation canal here, touting bipartisan legislation intended to lay the groundwork for a proposed 1.9 million acre feet reservoir.
“There’s a world of hurt in these fields and in the orchards around us because we failed in the past to prepare for the inevitable drought,” Garamendi said. “We cannot let that happen again.”
LaMalfa and Garamendi’s bill, set to be submitted this week, would direct a feasibility study for the Sites Reservoir, an off-stream Sacramento River water storage project discussed for decades. If deemed feasible, the bill authorizes the project’s construction.
“Where I’m coming from, as a farmer over that way a little ways, the more storage we can have anywhere in California helps all of us,” said LaMalfa, who will be the bill’s lead author and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Whether we’re talking agriculture, we’re talking urban use, health and safety, or environmental needs, the more we have around the easier it is for everybody. It takes the pressure off everyone, the ground water supply, other reservoirs. It gives us flexibility.”
The bill does not include federal funding — a choice the congressmen said would increase the odds of its passage through a Congress wary of earmarks. The project should attract funding on its own merits, said LaMalfa.
Private, state and federal funding were all possibilities for the project, he said.
“We have private sector funding that is waiting to happen if they have confidence in this project,” LaMalfa said.
Garamendi said that most of the preliminary engineering work on the project has been completed and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is reviewing those reports. About six months would be needed to complete the feasibility study, he said.
Preliminary cost estimates peg the project at $2-$3 billion, with the actual figure “probably on the high side” of that estimate, Garamendi said. Work could take three to five years to complete.
An opponent of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin-tunnel plan for the Delta, Garamendi has touted his own blueprint for the state’s water system that prominently features storage.
With Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Garamendi has also submitted bills that would likewise study the feasibility and possibly authorize work to:
* expand capacity of San Luis Reservoir (Merced County) by 130,000 acre feet;
* raise Shasta Dam to add 634,000 acre feet of storage;
* construct Temperance Flat, a dam on the upper San Joaquin River near Auberry that would provide 1.3 million acre feet of storage.
Garamendi also has taken part in discussions over expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Livermore, but no bill on the project has yet been submitted.
He called Sites “the best of all five projects.”
“It’s the biggest; it’s off-stream; it has the least environmental issues; and it provides Northern California farmers, Northern California fish interests — whether it’s salmon or any other fish species — the Delta and, indeed, exporters from the Delta, with an option that doesn’t presently exist,” he said.
“We need to build this reservoir. We need to begin construction soon.”
In Sacramento, a number of possible water bonds are being discussed as a replacement for the $11.1 billion water measure set for November’s ballot. One penned by Garamendi’s 3rd District challenger, Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, includes $4.8 billion for the Sites and Temperance Flats projects.
The congressmen said that the drought has galvanized support for the Sites project, which is being overseen by the Sites Joint Powers Authority, a body that includes representation from the Colusa and Glenn county boards of supervisors and area water districts, including the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.
“Sites has the benefit of being the most widely supported storage proposal of its size, which means it can be built the fastest and it must be,” said Kenneth LaGrande, the JPA’s vice chair and Colusa County farmer. “While additional steps must be taken to address the drought this year, it is vital that we seize this moment of national crisis to secure not only emergency measures but also take the mid- and long-term actions necessary to begin mending a systemically broken system.”
Mark Biddlecomb, Western Region director for Ducks Unlimited, said conservationists are concerned about the millions of migrating birds that make use of the valley’s rice fields. Drought will likely see significantly fewer acres planted.
“Just think of what a game-changer it would be today if we have Sites Reservoir here now, yielding a million acre feet of water,” Biddlecomb said. “How nice would that be?”