Petition against Sites Reservoir reaches 50,000 signatures after a deadly year for winter-run salmon

Chinook salmon parr, approximately 10 cm (4”) long. Location: Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture, UC Davis. | 


By Dan Bacher | 

REDDING, CA - Just before the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released a New Year’s Eve letter revealing that only 2.6 percent of juvenile Chinook salmon had survived lethally warm water conditions on the Sacramento River,  a petition sponsored by Save California Salmon in opposition to the Sites Reservoir reached 50,000 signatures. 

This milestone also came just a week after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Sites Project Authority announced an extension of the public comment period on the proposed 13,200-acre Sites Reservoir project from Jan. 11 to Jan. 28, 2022.  

Sites Reservoir is opposed by California Tribal representatives, environmental justice groups, conservation organizations and fishing groups because the big threat that they say it poses to the imperiled salmon and other fish species and ecosystems of the Trinity and Klamath rivers, the Sacramento River, the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and to Tribal rights and culture. 

“Sites Reservoir’s infrastructure would cross Colusa, Glenn, Tehama and Yolo counties and divert water south from an already severely impacted Delta and Sacramento  River Basin,” according to a press release from Save California Salmon. “The reservoir has been linked to the controversial Delta Tunnel by investors.”   

“We are glad so many people are joining California's fishermen and Tribes in opposing building new reservoirs that would divert even more water from the already overtaxed Sacramento River and Bay Delta," said Mike Conroy, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). "This year was disastrous for California's historic salmon runs.” 

“The National Marine Fisheries Service proclaimed this year was one of the worst years on record for endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. This is not a fish versus farms issue. Our fishing families and dependent communities are suffering and coastal towns are facing increased poverty. Sites Reservoir is an expensive water grab that benefits California's most wasteful water brokers, not average Californians,” he stated.

In a letter to the federal government on December 31, the CDFW revealed that only 2.6 percent of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon below Shasta Dam had survived the long, hot summer, with the rest perishing in warm water conditions. 

That was after the CDFW on July 6 warned, in an update on the status of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, that “it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season” as the cold water pool in Lake Shasta is depleted earlier than modeled because of increased downstream water deliveries during the hot weather: www.dailykos.com/…

The juvenile fish kill this year was particularly tragic, considering that an estimated 9,956 winter run Chinooks returned to the river this year, producing a total of 31,128,320 eggs, according to the CDFW. The potential of a relatively robust run was lost, due to the diversion of water to irrigators in the spring of 2021.

According to the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) and Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS),  the proposed Sites Reservoir project would “have significant and unavoidable effects on water and air quality, vegetation, wetland and wildlife, and adverse impacts on Tribal cultural resources, causing further desecration of Tribal burial and culturally significant sites,” Save California Salmon stated.

Advocates of the Sites project have claimed that it would divert water only during big storms, but the Sites Reservoir environmental documentation shows that this is not the case, according to project opponents.

"The Delta is being further diminished along with its cultural and traditional resources that Tribes have utilized from the Delta for food, medicine, transportation, shelter, clothing, ceremony and traditional lifeways from the beginning of time," stated Malissa Tayaba, the Vice Chair of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, "Additional diversions from the Sacramento River watershed will exaggerate an already damaged and diminishing Delta ecosystem and estuary and our Tribe’s ties to our homelands.” 

Tribal members, North State residents and conservation organizations also say that at 13,200 acres, Sites Reservoir would be one of the largest reservoirs in California and would include new water diversions from the Sacramento River that could adversely impact the Trinity River, the group added.

“Since the plan includes water storage for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that delivers federal water project water to Westlands Water District, the major diverter of Trinity River water, Sites could cause the Sacramento, Shasta and Trinity Reservoirs to be over drafted. The Trinity is the largest tributary to the ailing Klamath River and its coldest water source,” according to the group.

“We have been working to restore flows to help water quality, and to bring salmon back over the dams and back to Native lands  for salmon survival and Tribal people,” explained Pit River Tribal member Morning Star Gali. “California is losing the salmon and our clean water. This is an issue of justice. We already have over 1,000 reservoirs, and more water allocated than exists in California. An environmentally destructive private reservoir being built in an area that is important to Native people is  a step in the wrong direction.” 

Environmental and commercial fishing organizations say that there is “very little extra water” in Northern California rivers, where over five times as much water is allocated than exists (paper water). “Those allocations go mainly to large farms that do not do their part to conserve water during drought,” the group stated.

Not only are endangered salmon, Tribes, drinking water supplies and fishermen threatened by Sites Reservoir, but Delta smelt and other fish species are on the edge of extinction and Sites Reservoir, along with the Delta Tunnel, would make an untenable situation even worse. For the fourth year in a row, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has reported zero Delta smelt at its index stations throughout the Delta in the 2021 Fall Midwater Trawl Survey.

In a December 21st memo, James White, CDFW environmental scientist wrote, “The 2021 abundance index for Delta Smelt was 0 and was tied with 2018 through 2020 for the lowest in FMWT history. This is a continuation of a pattern of low indices that occurred in recent years. No Delta Smelt were collected from any stations during our survey months of September- December. An absence of Delta Smelt catch in the FMWT is consistent among other surveys in the estuary.”  

With last year’s big ecological disasters in mind, water justice advocates are requesting that California focus on reforming its antiquated water rights systems that “place large landowners above Tribes, cities, fishermen and fish rather than build new dams.” 

The change.org petition is available at https://www.change.org/StopSitesReservoir .

Comments on the RDEIR/SDEIS may be submitted via email at EIR-EIS-Comments@SitesProject.org or via mail to Sites Project Authority, P.O. Box 517, Maxwell, CA 95955, or U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2800 Cottage Way, W-2830, Sacramento, CA 95825. Comments must be postmarked or received by 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST) on January 28, 2022. 

Background 

On December 15, the California Water Commission voted to approve the Commission staff’s findings to maintain Sites Reservoir’s Project’s eligibility for $800 million of project subsidies from Proposition 1, despite a multitude of comments by California Tribal representatives and environmental advocates opposing the project because of the devastating impact that they say it would have fish, water, the environment. For more information, go to: www.dailykos.com/…    

On Nov. 12, 2021, Reclamation released a Notice of Availability announcing the public review and comment period for the Sites Reservoir Project Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement and dates of virtual public meetings.

The revised draft EIR/EIS is available at https://www.usbr.gov/mp/nepa/nepa_project_details.php?Project_ID=29024 or https://sitesproject.org/resources/environmental-review/

For questions about the Sites Reservoir project or meetings, contact Vanessa King, Reclamation, at 916-978-5077, vking@usbr.gov or Alicia Forsythe, Sites Project Authority, at 916-880-0676, aforsythe@sitesproject.org.

Learn more about the project at https://www.usbr.gov/mp/nodos/ and https://sitesproject.org/.


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