The California Water Commission – the entity responsible for awarding $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 funds to water storage projects in a few months – didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with officials pushing for Sites Reservoir, primarily on the benefits to salmon the project would provide.

When final public benefit ratio scores came out earlier this month, the commission said Sites, situation on the Colusa and Glenn counties border, was eligible for $1 billion – about $600 million short of what Sites officials requested. 

“We are disappointed. We felt there were salmon benefits and felt it was a good opportunity for the state to buy some of those,” said Fritz Durst, chairman of the Sites Project Authority. “We felt it would be a win-win for water users in the state, but instead, we didn’t get that benefit.”

The main critique Sites officials received from the commission was that they didn’t provide “adequate information” to support claims for public benefits. Durst said one of the problems was with how the process played out.

“Prop. 1 was very defined in terms of the process to evaluate and what would be looked at to allocate dollars,” he said. “One of the shortcomings was that there was a lack of communication between participants and commission staff. So, that led to our disappointment because we really saw a lot of benefits.”

Following the release of the public benefit ratio scores, each project had an opportunity to adjust their funding requests.

“We had an appeal in front of the commission a little over a week ago to lower our request, which is exactly what we did. We lowered it from $1.6 billion to $930 million. The way we saw it, if the state wasn’t going to recognize salmon benefits, why put that cost into our formula,” Durst said.

In other words, the show will still go on, the state just won’t be buying as much water for environmental purposes.

That final score also came with a public benefit ratio, and Sites’ was 0.73 – which means for every dollar invested in the project, the state expected a return to its investment of about $0.75. With the recent adjustment to its request, Sites ratio improved to 1.1.

Durst said Sites provides a “whole new paradigm” for how water is managed and stored for various uses and reasons in the state.

“The commission wouldn’t just be giving money to build a reservoir. Depending on the amount of funding they approve, they would get that much water dedicated to them annually, unlike other reservoirs where the state and feds get water that is left over. This is different, they could use the water however they wanted,” Durst said.

The water commission will take into account four other components when determining how much a proposed project is eligible for: things like relative environmental value, resiliency and implementation risk. The commission’s staff plans on releasing recommendations for those component scores on May 25, and the commission will finalize those findings at its June 27-29 meeting. Then, preliminary award decisions will be made at the commission’s meeting in July.

For now, Sites officials will have to look elsewhere to close the funding gap created by the commission’s shortfall. According to the project’s website, there are 32 different agencies or entities signed on to participate in the project – most of which are water districts or agencies, both in the Sacramento Valley and further south. 

“We still have to work with the water commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, considering the project still has to be permitted,” Durst said. “So, while we are disappointed in the commission’s findings, it’s not going to stop the process.” 

Sites, an offstream reservoir, is estimated to cost $5.1 billion to construct, according to the project application submitted to the water commission. Water would be pumped to the reservoir during winter months and high-water events. The reservoir would have the capacity to hold more than 1 million acre-feet of water.

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