In a media briefing Monday morning on the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir project, a privately-owned reservoir proposed to be built on private land in Del Puerto Canyon, officials emphasized the agricultural, environmental and economic benefits to the area.
They also said that the proposed water storage basin would not be suitable for on-the-water recreational activities, due to both steep terrain and anticipated fluctuations in the water level, although Del Puerto Water District General Manager Anthea Hansen said officials have become aware of birdwatching activities occurring on the property.
“There is a lot of informal birdwatching, using the canyon area to observe and enjoy the nature that’s up there. We’re working through those issues, and identifying what actually is up there, and what folks are doing.” The area is all private property, she said, but “a fair amount of birding recreation” is currently occurring.
The project is spearheaded by the Del Puerto Water District, which provides water to 45,000 acres of farmland adjacent to the Delta-Mendota Canal; and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority, which consists of the Central California Irrigation District, San Luis Canal Company, Firebaugh Canal Water District and the Columbia Canal Company, which collectively serve 240,000 acres of farmland east of I-5 and west of the San Joaquin River, from near Patterson in the North to Mendota in the south.
The reservoir, if built, will span 800 acres, will have a 200-foot high earthen dam and three smaller dams, and will store up to 85,000 acre-feet of water. The fact sheet indicates the reservoir would yield 55,000 to 60,000 acre-feet of water per year. The project would come at a cost of $400 to $500 million, Hansen said during the briefing, and will be paid for by the agricultural and environmental users of the stored water. Options for financing the project will be evaluated as planning progresses further, she added. The organizers currently are seeking supplemental state and federal funding.
Hansen said the project is necessary to protect the area’s ability to produce food. Although the cost of the project would ultimately be borne by those who use the water, Hansen later in the meeting compared the project to the government-built infrastructure projects of 1940s and 1950s.
The idea is not new, according to Woodard & Curran Senior Water Resources Engineer Lyndel Melton, who said that the possibility of a reservoir in the Del Puerto Canyon was mentioned in at least one government agency memo some 20 years ago.
Hansen said the project would satisfy “a whole suite of objectives,” including allowing the water districts involved to manage water supplies more effectively, as well as provide a more stable water supply. A more predictable water supply helps farmers in making planting decisions, as well as obtaining crop financing early in the year, she said.
Flood control is another anticipated benefit, Hansen said. The creeks on the West Side are “flashy,” she said, and sometimes flood. The project could have flood control benefits for the City of Patterson.
San Joaquin River Water Authority Executive Director Chris White said that the project would benefit local public water agencies, including the communities of Mendota, Firebaugh, Dos Palos, Los Banos, Gustine, Newman, Grayson, Westley and as far north as Vernalis. All are part of the same Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP), he said. “Their water well-being is tied to our water well-being.”
The project could also supply water for wildlife refuges in wet years, White said.
More predictable water supply would bring more stability to jobs and the economy in small west side communities, many of which are disadvantaged, project organizers said.
The project got a boost in May, when Representative Josh Harder (CA-10) named it in a regional water projects bill. A project must be named in a piece of federal legislation, Hansen explained, in order to receive federal funding.
While there has been concern about Native American sites in the area, the Native American Heritage Commission “has determined that there are no sacred sites identified in the project area, although it is acknowledged that archeological features do exist” in the canyon, per the fact sheet. Additional studies will be undertaken, and project organizers will continue tribal outreach efforts.
As is always required for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the project’s potential impacts on wildlife, particularly birds, will be evaluated, and mitigation measures will be taken to avoid and minimize significant impacts. Construction will be avoided during nesting seasons.
Water will be released to mimic current creek conditions, to protect fish spawning habitat in the San Joaquin River.
The draft EIR is anticipated to be released in December, which will trigger a 45-day public comment period. Assuming the EIR is completed by mid-2020, design work and land acquisition are expected to be completed in 2022. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2022, and take six years to complete.