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California Sites Reservoir Meets Adversary In Court

Various environmental and conservation groups filed a legal challenge against Gov. Newsom’s Sites Reservoir project early this year. Sites Reservoir, intended for a location roughly 80 miles north of Sacramento, has been experiencing heated contention for years. The reservoir is marked to divert the Sacramento River for water storage, and details have been released throughout 2023, including multiple dams and tunnels. After a thorough analysis of the plan, groups Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network and Save California Salmon brought the project to court.

The Sacramento River starts at Mount Shasta and runs through the Sacramento Valley, covering roughly 385 miles. A sprawling fresh water river, it supports riparian forest, grasslands, oxbow lakes, gravel bars, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Besides supporting diverse ecosystems, Californian farmers and suburban residents alike use the inexpensive water source. The Sacramento River is clearly a valuable resource, and many parties–fishing enthusiasts, career fisherpeople, farmers, nature lovers, and tribal communities– have a heartfelt and economic investment in the river’s health.

Stone Corral Creek, Sacramento Valley 2023 by Julie A. Hotz for CalMatters

Anticipating California’s next drought, Gov. Newsom hopes to have the necessary infrastructure to supply Californians with as much stored water as possible. In the government report, the reservoir is said to hold enough water for 3 million households’ yearly usage. This, the report claims, will safeguard the region from climate change, weather extremes, and general water scarcity. The region’s large farm industry would be able to work through the droughts anticipated with climate change, keeping the California economy afloat. The Sites Reservoir project is one of Gov. Newsom’s new infrastructure projects and is scheduled to be built with the use of state, local, and federal infrastructure funds. In accordance with Newsom’s package of infrastructure bills, this $4.4 billion dollar project is projected to provide 400,000 jobs with no new cost to taxpayers.

The challenge filed against building the reservoir stresses that it would be more harmful than beneficial and highlights issues such as habitat decline, particularly for salmon, as well as the impact of carbon dioxide emissions during construction.The report found greenhouse gas emissions to be the biggest threat to regional health, ​​estimating an annual off-gas equivalent to 80,000 gasoline-powered cars each year. The challenge recognizes the intentions of building the Sites Reservoir, but warns against the awe of lofty promises. The reservoir will only increase the state’s water storage capacity by about 3.5% while significantly harming the ecosystems and communities which rely on it.

Diagram of Carbon Gas Emissions published by Friends Of The River' Site Reservoir Project Emission Report

The clearest sign of river health over time would be Chinook salmon quantity. Acting as the canary in the coalmine, salmon are a keystone species to oceans and rivers. As a keystone species, their decline would result in overpopulation of small forage fish and the decline of predators like orcas, sea lions, and inland birds of prey. They famously support ocean predator diets, but their upstream breeding habits are directly influenced by river temperature, cleanliness, and human disturbance. Without healthy conditions the salmon will die on the upstream journey or their eggs will die in incubation. This species acts as a vital measurement of river ecosystem health.

In recent years, the Sacramento River has faced a steady decline of Chinook salmon despite infrastructure aid like salmon ladders. Recreational fishers reported 2022 to be the worst season in memory, many opting out of the hobby to lessen their impact on fish population. Local experts point to drought, climate change, and river diversions as the primary cause of low salmon return. Lower water levels, as a result of these effects, exacerbate water temperature, harming salmon and every other animal. According to a CDFW report issued on December 31 (2021), only 2.6 percent of juvenile winter salmon that year survived in the warm water conditions on the Sacramento River. Experts are confident more water and a few seasons of limited fishing should allow the ecosystem to bounce back.

Agricultural California, photo by Water Education Foundation

The long term cost of the Sites Reservoir far outweighs the gain, the legal challenge concludes. In a best-case-scenario, the low water levels could harm Chinook salmon’s breeding potential and put their habitats and salmon economy in critical condition. In a worse-case-scenario, the stagnant water created by the reservoir has the potential to become toxic due to temperature increases and infrastructure decay. This concern, expressed by the challenge, reflects lessons learned from California’s Kesterson Reservoir, disbanded and abandoned after toxic water became not only unusable but dangerous enough to permanently mutate animals who made contact.

Given the extensive research conducted, the legal challenge against Gov. Newsom’s Sites Reservoir holds water. For a full analysis of the challenge and the reservoir’s impact as found by the challenge, Friends of the River Emission Report is an excellent resource.

For those feeling passionate against the Sites Reservoir, has a petition against the reservoir published by Save California Salmon! from late 2023.


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