Big new California tank on track for $2.2 billion federal loan

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FILE - A barbed wire fence lines a ranch in Sites, Calif., Friday, July 23, 2021. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, March 17, 2022, signaled plans to loan nearly $2.2 billion to the sites project authority to cover approximately half the cost of constructing the reservoir which would be used to store water during wet years for use during droughts.  (AP Photo/Adam Beam, File)

FILE – A barbed wire fence lines a ranch in Sites, Calif., Friday, July 23, 2021. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, March 17, 2022, signaled plans to loan nearly $2.2 billion to the sites project authority to cover approximately half the cost of constructing the reservoir which would be used to store water during wet years for use during droughts. (AP Photo/Adam Beam, File)

PA

A long-delayed plan to build a giant reservoir in northern California to help weather the notorious western US droughts received a huge financial boost on Thursday when the federal government signaled plans to lending the project nearly $2.2 billion, about half the design cost. , plan it and build it.

The proposal would flood what remains of the town of Sites, a small community with only a handful of residents nestled in a valley in the Coast Range Mountains in rural Colusa County. The idea has been around since the 1950s, but there has never been enough money or political will to take it forward.

But now, a mega-drought caused by climate change that researchers say is the worst in 1,200 years, has renewed interest in the project, and efforts to move the project forward are moving fast. He is also in line to secure about $875 million from a voter-approved bond, plus another $450 million loan from the US Department of Agriculture.

And the massive loan announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency essentially pre-approved the project and brought it closer to full funding for the project for the first time. Final approval of the $2.2 billion will take up to two years for the federal government and project officials to negotiate terms and sign documents.

“We’ve definitely turned the corner and we’ve got a good tailwind at our back,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the venues project authority which oversees and promotes the project. He is not related to the former California governor of the same name.

The project still has to go through some regulatory processes before construction, including an environmental review in which the project faces fierce resistance. Unlike most reservoirs, the Sites project will not be connected to a river or stream so water will naturally flow into the lake. Instead, operators will have to pump water from the nearby Sacramento River.

Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the project would take too much water from the river, which would harm endangered salmon. Additionally, they say water from the Sites project will be more expensive for customers due to high pumping costs.

“It’s disappointing that the EPA appears to be prioritizing taxpayer subsidies for this environmentally destructive dam over projects to ensure safe drinking water and wastewater services,” said Doug Obegi, senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It takes a lot of water to run California, which has nearly 40 million people. The state has a robust agricultural industry that provides most of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables and a diverse – but fragile – ecosystem that is home to endangered salmon species.

It almost never rains in the state, with almost all precipitation occurring during the winter and early spring months. California has an extensive reservoir system that captures and stores rainwater and snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The reservoirs then release water throughout the year for drinking, agricultural and environmental purposes while providing recreation for local residents and tourists.

But the drought has emptied those reservoirs to alarming levels, forcing state and federal authorities to release far less water. This has been bad for the environment and has forced farmers to fallow thousands of acres of crops.

When it rains in California, it rains a lot. So-called “atmospheric rivers” that suck moisture from the Pacific Ocean can dump huge amounts of rain on the state in short periods. According to project officials, the sites reservoir would capture this additional water when it becomes available.

The reservoir would hold enough water to supply around 3 million homes for a year, although much of the water would be for agricultural purposes. It is said to be almost twice as large as the most recent reservoir built in California, but still much smaller than some of the state’s best-known lakes like Shasta and Oroville.

Project officials say much of the water from the reservoir would be released for environmental purposes, including increasing flows in the state’s major rivers and streams.

But Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the water would likely be too warm to benefit fish. Additionally, he said the project would take water from the Sacramento River during both wet and dry seasons.

“It’s the classic example of a project where political science supports the project but biological science doesn’t,” Obegi said.

Brown, executive director of Sites Reservoir, said the project would be a “smarter tool” to “ensure better management of our water”.

He acknowledged that the reservoir would take the water out of the river, but said the reservoir would put it back. Additionally, he said the EPA loan could reduce the cost of water by about 10% for customers.

“It’s just a different way of thinking about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear and mistrust and we have to operate in a way that, you know, secures trust and responds to fears.”

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