Coalition of groups submits protest against water rights application for Sites Reservoir

By Dan Bacher | 

SACRAMENTO, CA – Friends of the River (FOR) and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), along with a coalition of tribes and environmental organizations, on August 31 submitted a protest against the water rights application and petitions of the Sites Project Authority for the proposed Sites Reservoir.

FOR and CSPA said this protest is part of a legally required process to ensure public concerns are addressed when granting water rights in California. 

The coalition includes the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, AquAlliance, California Water Impact Network, Cal Wild, Fly Fishers of Davis, Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk, Northern California Council of Fly Fishers International, Restore the Delta, Save California Salmon, Sierra Club California, and Water Climate Trust.  

The Sites Reservoir Project, an offstream water storage facility being promoted by the California Department of Water Resources under the Gavin Newsom administration, would be located on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, approximately 10 miles west of Maxwell in Glenn and Colusa Counties.

The Sites Project Authority, created In August 2010 when seven regional entities, including several local water agencies and counties executed the Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement, claims on their website that “Sites Reservoir would capture and store stormwater flows from the Sacramento River – after all other water rights and regulatory requirements are met – for release in dry and critical years for environmental use and for California communities, farms, and businesses when it is so desperately needed.”   

“When operated in coordination with other Northern California reservoirs such as Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom, which function as the backbone to both the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, Sites Reservoir will greatly increase flexibility, reliability and resiliency of statewide water supplies in drier periods,” the Authority contends.

However, the groups filing the protest strongly disagree with the contention that the project would “greatly increase flexibility, reliability and resiliency of statewide water supplies in drier periods.”

The protest filed by the groups argues that Sites ”would have adverse environmental impacts, would not best conserve the public trust, would not best conserve the public interest,” and “would be in conflict with a general or coordinated plan or with water quality objectives established pursuant to law. (Wat. Code, § 10504.)”

The protest also says “they are contrary to law, including, but not limited to, Water Code Sections 10505 and 10505.5” 

Water Code Section 10505 provides that water rights applications and permits “shall not authorize the use of any water outside of the county of origin which is necessary for the development of the county.” 

Representatives of FOR and CSPA commented on the filing of their protest — and pointed out the many reasons why the project must not be built.

“Friends of the River stands firmly in opposition to granting the water rights to build the $4.8 billion Sites Reservoir,” said Jann Dorman, Executive Director of Friends of the River, in a statement. “The water needed to achieve the purported project benefits is simply not available without causing even greater harm to the environment, vulnerable communities, and the public. The Sacramento River and Bay Delta are already over-allocated and in environmental collapse.”

“The required heavy rain events will likely be increasingly unpredictable, of short duration when they do occur, and take place within the overall context of hotter, drier, longer periods of drought. We use more water than we have, and the oft-proposed solutions, like Sites, sacrifice more of the river flows to quench a thirst that far outpaces capacity. At some point, we must accept that conservation is now cheaper and more equitable than more dams. While some wealthy water users will benefit from Sites Reservoir, the people of California will not,” she continued.

“The truth is that Sites will add very little to California’s water portfolio overall, or to the vulnerable communities who can’t afford expensive Sites water, and its harm to the Sacramento River, Delta ecosystems, and communities that rely on them will be irreversible and ongoing,” Dorman stated. 

Chris Shutes, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, echoed Dormann’s assessment, stating that “building new reservoirs will never solve the problem of giving away too much water.”

“Sites would join a system of reservoirs whose drains are too big for their spigots. The supposed environmental benefits rely on promises of responsible management by the people who give away too much water in the first place. The pay-to-play model is inequitable and unjust. Sites Reservoir is a bad deal for California: for its fish and wildlife, for its rivers, for its people,” Shutes argued.

The protest lays out a “plethora of evidence” for the environmental harm that Sites Reservoir will cause, as well as the ways in which Sites Reservoir will not produce nearly as much water as advocates for the project hope it will, according to the groups. Read the full protest HERE.

According to the protest, “Sites Reservoir’s negative environmental impact is the result of impaired timing, temperature and volume of flows in the Sacramento River and Delta, increased concentration of toxic metals, the formation of harmful algae blooms, and the immense greenhouse gas emissions Sites will create.”

“Meanwhile, Sites Reservoir is expected to only be responsible for 0.657% of the state’s water if constructed,” according to the groups. “That expensive water will go to those few who can afford it. These wealthy investors to the Sites Project will be able to resell their water at inflated prices in times of drought and shortage, using the profits to mitigate the high cost of investment. FOR believes the construction of Sites Reservoir, a proposal that will cost billions in taxpayer dollars, is purely a boondoggle for the wealthy water users who will benefit.”

This protest comes just after the release of a major scientific study done in conjunction with Patagonia, the apparel company, and Tell The Dam Truth that identifies how the construction of Sites Reservoir will contribute as much methane into the environment as 80,000 gas-powered vehicles per day, covered by the Daily Kos last week:

Friends of the River “believes the state can deliver more water to water-stricken communities at a lower cost through more investments in water conservation and recycling, better agricultural water management and efficiency, and improved agricultural land use diversification.” 

You can read more about Friends of the River’s position on Sites Reservoir and alternatives to it HERE

The Newsom Administration is forging ahead with Sites Reservoir project at the same time that it is moving forward with the controversial Delta Tunnel and the Big Ag-backed voluntary agreements at a time when the current Delta water exports and  river flow regime has driven California salmon populations, Delta smelt and other fish populations to the edge of extinction. 

Salmon fishing on the ocean and California rivers is closed this year, due to the abysmal state and federal management of Central Valley reservoirs and rivers during a drought, according to independent scientists, anglers, Tribal leaders and environmental justice advocates. Federal and state fishery managers closed the ocean and river fisheries based on the forecasted low abundance of Sacramento River and Klamath-Trinity River fall-run Chinook salmon on the ocean this year.

Who’s on the Sites Authority’s Board of Directors? Here you go:

Board of Directors
Fritz Durst, Reclamation District 108, Chair
Jeff Sutton, Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, Vice Chair
Gray Allen, Placer County Water Agency/City of Roseville
Gary Evans, Colusa County Supervisor
Joe Marsh, Colusa County Water District
Thomas Arnold, Glenn County Supervisor
Logan Dennis, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District
Kerry Schmitz, City of Sacramento/Sacramento County Water Agency
Doug Parker, Westside Water District
Don Bader, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – Cost Share Partner (non-voting)
Rob Cooke, California Department of Water Resources – Ex-Officio Member (non-voting)

Associate Member 
Greg Johnson, Western Canal Water District

Who are Friends of the River and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance?

For more than a half-century, Friends of the River (FOR) has been at the forefront of California’s environmentalist movement for a sustainable water future. FOR is dedicated to protecting and restoring California's rivers, streams, and watersheds, while advocating for sustainable water management and water solutions that protect the environment. 

Healthy rivers are a critical component of a sustainable water future in California and FOR rejects the notion that the state must choose between healthy river ecosystems and having enough water. With the state’s water crisis approaching a breaking point, FOR is in its toughest fight yet as it works to stop the Sites Reservoir boondoggle while offering more practical and sustainable alternatives to protect and restore California’s rivers.

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) has been an advocate for fish, habitat, and water quality for 40 years. A leader in efforts to improve fisheries and fishing opportunities, CSPA is also one of California’s major water policy organizations, with decades of consistent and effective advocacy before the State Water Board and regional water quality control boards.

Read the full protest HERE

For more information on Friends of the River, visit

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