SACRAMENTO (CN) – More than three years after voters dedicated $2.7 billion toward bolstering California’s water supply, state regulators appear ready to crack open the coffers and jump-start proposed new dam projects.
The state agency tasked with vetting the competing water projects announced Friday that many proposals, including two new massive dam projects, should be eligible for the earmarked funds.
The announcement was a welcomed surprise for farming districts and water suppliers after the California Water Commission in February initially gave each of the 11 projects failing cost-benefit grades.
After months of discussion with the disappointed project managers, water commission staff is recommending that commissioners approve allocating $2.6 billion to eight projects during a vote scheduled the first week of May.
A commission yes vote could breathe life into Sites, a $5 billion project that would add 1.8 million acre-feet of storage in Northern California, and Temperance Flat Dam which would be the second-tallest dam in California at 665 feet high with an estimated $2.6 billion price tag.
The staff is recommending over $900 million be divvied to Sites and $171 million to Temperance Flat, which would be located in the Central Valley. Local water agencies, cities and other project backers would have to come up with the remaining funds.
Republican Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, whose district encompasses the proposed site of Temperance Flat, scoffed at the staff recommendation.
“Here we go again! The California Water Commission is ignoring the needs of Californians,” Bigelow said in a written statement. “The project deserves to receive full funding. Instead, we are jeopardizing the fate of the project while seeing 53 billion gallons of water wasted as it is flushed out to the ocean, leaving Valley residents in the dust.”
Funding and building Sites or Temperance Flat would be a major accomplishment for project backers, as each of California’s top 10-largest reservoirs were built before 1980.
Aside from funding, the dam projects will face certain hurdles from environmental groups.
The Natural Resources Defense Council calls Temperance Flat a “boondoggle” that would have disastrous effects on salmon restoration efforts in the San Joaquin River. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations says Sites would damage struggling salmon and other protected species by diverting Sacramento River flows and calls the project a “nonstarter.”
The commission is deciding how to spend up to $2.7 billion appropriated from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion measure passed by voters in 2014 during the height of the state’s historic drought. Proposition 1, which did not earmark funding for any specific project, requires the commission to grade applications on overall public benefit, relative environmental value, resiliency and implementation risk.
Lawmakers and backers of the 11 proposals have accused the regulator of sitting on the funds over the last few years, stalling progress on water infrastructure projects.
Commissioners, appointed by the governor, have pushed back on the stingy accusations.
“Believe me, this commission is anxious to get the money out the door and get projects funded,” commission chair Armando Quintero said in February.
Other projects tentatively approved for state funding include over $900 million for two San Francisco Bay Area reservoir enlargement projects, $244 million for a Sacramento County groundwater bank and $105 million to a groundwater project in Kern County.
A final decision on the allocations is expected in July.
“The Sites project offers the state an opportunity to manage a significant amount of water to benefit wildlife and native fish in the Sacramento watershed,” said Sites Project chairman Fritz Durst. “We greatly appreciate the work done by staff to evaluate all of the [applicants], and look forward to continuing to make our case with the commission in May.”