By ADAM BEAM, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Amid a severe drought, California regulators on Wednesday brought forward what could be the state’s first major new water storage project in years, despite warnings it would speed up the extinction of an endangered species of salmon while disrupting the cultural traditions of some indigenous tribes.
The plan is to build a new lake in northern California that, when full, could hold enough water to supply 3 million homes for a year. Supporters need around $ 4 billion to build it. Wednesday’s vote by the California Water Commission means the lake – named Reservoir Sites – is eligible for about $ 800 million in taxpayer dollars, or about 20% of the project’s price.
The vote is a milestone for the reservoir, one of seven water storage projects now eligible to receive public funds from a bond approved by voters in 2014. But environmental groups have complained that it was too early for regulators to say the project was feasible, especially since it failed to complete the multiple environmental reviews required by federal and state laws.
They argue the project would draw even more water from the state’s rivers, which are already so depleted that hatcheries must truck fish downstream to give them a chance to survive.
“Simply put, we need to stop authorizing projects and funding projects that make this situation worse,” said Barry Nelson, policy consultant with the Golden State Salmon Association.
But the climate change-fueled drought in the western United States is so severe that many of California’s 1,500 reservoirs are at historic lows. Things are going so badly that earlier this month state officials told water agencies they would not be getting water from the reservoirs until the New Year.
“The Sites Reservoir project is not going to solve all of our problems,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Reservoir Authority, who is not related to the former California governor of the same name. “If we do absolutely nothing, I can assure you that things will get worse. “
California reservoirs are a crucial source of drinking water for the state’s nearly 40 million people, help maintain the flows needed in rivers for fish, and irrigate California’s strong agricultural industry which produces a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
Severe droughts have strained the state’s supply and renewed calls for more ways to capture and store water from the state’s major rivers and streams instead of letting it flow into the state. ‘ocean.
But just because California is building a new reservoir doesn’t mean the state will have enough water to fill it. Most of the large reservoirs are connected to rivers and depend on gravity to fill them with water from melting snow in the mountains. The sites reservoir would not be connected to any river. Instead, the project is to pump water from the nearby Sacramento River.
The idea is to only take water from the river when it has a surplus to give, such as during big storms like the one that set a single-day rain record in Sacramento in October. But some tribal groups say it doesn’t make sense because all the water in rivers has an important purpose.
“The rivers barely survive. They can barely survive as he is, ”said Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe, who depend on salmon for their food and ceremonial needs. “I hope you take into consideration the enormous damage this will be to the salmon and the natives.”
California Water Commission chairperson Teresa Alvarado stressed that Wednesday’s vote was not a final decision to fund the project. And Brown, executive director of the Sites Authority, noted that the project had changed several times based on public feedback.
“I think our history shows that we are listening,” he said. “We are open to comments from others and we will take that into consideration and carefully review what is on offer to make sure what we ultimately decide is something that is good for all of California.”