By Jay Landers

In late December, a group of environmental organizations filed a legal challenge to the massive $4.5 billion Sites Reservoir project planned for Northern California. The move to halt the delivery of the 1.5 million acre-ft reservoir in the Sacramento Valley represents the first case to be tried under a new legal process designed to expedite challenges to certain infrastructure projects in California.

Project streamlining

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom in July signed into law a slate of bills intended to streamline the development of infrastructure in the Golden State. Among them was SB 149, which created procedures to expedite legal challenges brought forward against certain infrastructure projects under the California Environmental Quality Act.

CEQA requires that California agencies evaluate the potential environmental impacts of projects they aim to carry out or approve. Parties that contest the findings of this evaluation process for a given project may bring legal action, requiring judicial review of the findings of the relevant environmental assessment. SB 149, in essence, aims to expedite this judicial review process in the case of certain infrastructure projects selected, or certified, by California’s governor.

On Nov. 6, Newsom used this new authority for the first time, certifying the Sites Reservoir project as eligible for the expedited judicial review process. The project would amount to the first major reservoir to be constructed in California in decades.

Multiple benefits

“We’re cutting red tape to build more faster,” Newsom said regarding his certification of Sites Reservoir, in a Nov. 6 news release. “These are projects that will address our state’s biggest challenges faster, and the Sites Reservoir is fully representative of that goal — making sure Californians have access to clean drinking water and making sure we’re more resilient against future droughts.”      

Sites Reservoir project map (Image courtesy of Sites Project Authority)
Sites Reservoir project map (Image courtesy of Sites Project Authority)

To be situated 81 mi northwest of Sacramento and 10 mi west of the town of Maxwell in rural Glenn and Colusa counties, Sites Reservoir “would increase water supply throughout California and provide, for the first time, environmental benefits by storing water specifically for the environment to support native wildlife and their habitat during drought periods,” according to a Nov. 17 news release from the Sites Project Authority the organization that will own and operate the reservoir. “The 1.5 million acre-foot, off-stream, water storage project is being advanced to increase California’s water and climate resiliency while also protecting and enhancing the environment,” according to the release.

On Nov. 17, the Sites Project Authority certified the final environmental impact report and environmental impact statement for the project. Following the certification, interested parties had until Dec. 21 to challenge the project under CEQA. Released on Nov. 2, the final EIR/EIS was jointly developed by the Sites Project Authority, which is the lead agency for the project under CEQA, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is the lead federal agency on the project.

The Sites project “would be the second-largest off-stream reservoir in the nation and would increase Northern California’s water storage capacity by up to 15%,” according to a Nov. 2 news release from Reclamation announcing the release of the final EIR/EIS.

Challenges commonplace

For large projects, environmental challenges under CEQA are the norm rather than the exception, says Brian Gray, a senior fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center and a professor emeritus for the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco (formerly known as UC Hastings).

“It's very, very common for there to be lawsuits filed on a variety of grounds,” Gray says. Such grounds “could range from claiming that the decision was arbitrary and capricious or not supported by the evidence in the administrative record to claims such as the agency failed to consider a significant viable alternative to the project or the agency in its environmental review failed to consider mitigation measures that might reduce the adverse effects of the project on the environment,” he says. “These are pretty common claims.”

Along with setting deadlines for state agencies to prepare certain documentation for certified infrastructure projects, SB 149 requires that any legal action challenging the certification of an EIR for such a project “be resolved, to the extent feasible, within 270 days of the filing of the record of proceedings with the court,” according to the law.

Although narrow in scope, the law’s provisions could dramatically expedite the delivery of certified infrastructure projects, says Jerry Brown, P.E., the executive director of the Sites Project Authority. SB 149 reduces “what can sometimes be 3-5 years, maybe even longer of a process to resolve challenges, to nine months,” Brown says.

SB 149’s provisions are needed to help expedite delivery of the Sites Reservoir and other critical California infrastructure projects, says Dave Eggerton, the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Challenges related to CEQA are an “open-ended continuing albatross around some of these really important projects,” Eggerton says. The risk of incurring litigation well after environmental reviews have been completed puts projects “in jeopardy,” he says. “It's very dangerous to our ability to realize climate resilience right now with our water supply.”

Project components

Planned to occupy some 15,000 acres of land, the Sites Reservoir would not dam a major river system or block migratory fish. Instead, the off-stream reservoir would capture flows from the Sacramento River during periods of high flows, after all other water rights and regulatory requirements had been met. “The water gets impounded during the wetter years and during the winter season for use during the drier periods — summertime and drought years,” Brown says.

This arrangement is considered better able to accommodate the changing climatic and hydrological conditions in California. Increasingly, the state is receiving more of its precipitation in the form of rainfall rather than snowfall. As a result, shorter, more intense periods of runoff are becoming more common, while lower snowpack levels in the state’s mountain ranges reduce the volume and change the timing of snowmelt entering California’s streams and rivers.

Two main dams, seven saddle dams, and two saddle dikes will be constructed to impound water in the Sites Reservoir (see project map). Of the main dams, Sites Dam will have a height of 267 ft and a length of 781 ft, while Golden Gate Dam will stand 287 ft high and extend for 2,221 ft. Both structures will be embankment dams having a combination of earth and rockfill embankment zones with a central impervious core, according to the EIR/EIS. The saddle dams, which are subsidiary structures situated along low points of a reservoir’s perimeter, will range in height from 27 to 107 ft and in length from 250 to 3,422 ft.

Water for the Sites Reservoir will be diverted from two existing conveyance facilities used to serve agricultural irrigation demands, the Tehama-Colusa Canal and the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District Main Canal. Conveying water drawn from the Sacramento River, both canals primarily serve their customers during the summer months, Brown says. “Our diversions and our use of those facilities will occur in the winter months, when the high flows occur in the Sacramento River,” he says. “We are only taking water out of the Sacramento River during high-flow events.”

Flows diverted from the Tehama-Colusa Canal will be stored in the existing Funks Reservoir, while water diverted from the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District Main Canal will be stored in a new facility known as the Terminal Regulating Reservoir East. The two reservoirs will “act as forebays for the pump stations” that will be constructed to pump water through a pipeline to the Sites Reservoir, Brown says.

To a great extent, the project will rely extensively on existing facilities to direct water to and from the new reservoir. Of the approximately 180 mi of canals and pipelines that will be involved with the project, “only about 15 mi is new conveyance,” Brown says.

At the reservoir itself, an inlet/outlet facility with a 32 ft diameter tunnel will accept and discharge flows as needed. Upon leaving the reservoir, water will flow by gravity back to the two canals, which will convey the water to receiving entities for use as drinking water or as environmental flows.

Looking ahead

Among the key regulatory approvals it still must obtain, the Sites Project Authority applied to the California State Water Resources Control Board in 2022 for a water right to obtain water from the Sacramento River. The authority expects to obtain the water right by the end of 2024, Brown says.

Project design is underway, with the plan to achieve 30% design by summer 2024, Brown says. “That will lead to an updated cost estimate, which is necessary for the investors to make a decision about committing to the project,” he says. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in early 2026 and last about seven years, he notes.

Challenge under CEQA

Of course, the Sites Project Authority first must contend with the CEQA challenge filed on Dec. 20 by the conservation and environmental justice groups Friends of the River, Center for Biological Diversity, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network, and Save California Salmon.

Among their claims, the groups contend that the EIR/EIS for the Sites Reservoir “fails to consider a reasonable range of alternatives because it only considers a single operational alternative, whereas other operational alternatives could reduce or avoid adverse environmental impacts,” according to their lawsuit.

What is more, the lawsuit argues that EIR/EIS “violates CEQA as it relied on outdated, unreliable, and inaccurate habitat and species distribution information even though it was feasible to provide more accurate information.”

“The Sites Reservoir project will cause much environmental harm, which falls on the public, and a small amount of good, which primarily benefits the project investors,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, in a Dec. 20 news release. “Among other harms, the reservoir will be a major greenhouse gas emitter.”

“Diverting too much water will never solve the problem of giving away too much water,” said Chris Shutes, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, in the Dec. 20 release. “But the only alternatives the Sites environmental report looked at were different ways to divert more water,” Shutes said. “To make a bad idea worse, the Sites report low-balled the required flow in the Sacramento River because a flow that protects fish would make the reservoir too expensive to build.”

“It’s very difficult to justify the expense and environmental costs of big surface storage infrastructure projects, and the Sites Reservoir will cause far more harm than good,” said John Buse, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in the Dec. 20 release. “Water storage undoubtedly provides some benefit, but we should be looking at cheaper alternatives that do more for people, rivers, and fish.”

Meanwhile, Brown, of the Sites Project Authority, maintains that the EIR/EIS for the project is adequate under CEQA. “We did all we could to try to address (the concerns of the petitioners) before making our decision, and we stand by our decision to advance Sites Reservoir and certify the environmental impact report,” Brown says.

“Our analysis was one of the most rigorous and thorough environmental reviews ever conducted in the state, and we will vigorously defend our work through the legal process,” Brown says. “Thanks to Gov. Newsom’s leadership, California now has measures in place to ensure these types of lawsuits are resolved swiftly. This judicial streamlining will minimize the schedule and cost impact of the filing.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online