Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Jerry Brown: Advancing the Sites Reservoir Project

The proposed 1.5-million-acre-foot Sites Reservoir is intended to capture storm water flows from the Sacramento River for storage and release in dry years for environmental, residential, and agricultural uses. A reservoir of this scale requires serious, long-term planning efforts that encompass funding, design, and permitting. Jerry Brown was recently hired to lead the project team. Since April 2020, he has served as the executive director of the Sites Project Authority, the joint powers authority (JPA) in charge of advancing the project, which is projected to be complete in 2030. In this interview, Mr. Brown tells Municipal Water Leader about the challenges that the authority is facing and overcoming on the way to construction. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Jerry Brown: I am the executive director of the Sites Project Authority. I grew up in Salina, Kansas, and migrated to California for college. I got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at California State University, Northridge. After undergrad, I went to work at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in the power industry. During my time at LADWP, I got a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Southern California. In 1991, I moved to the Bay Area and went to work for the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s wastewater department, known as Special District No. 1. I worked there for approximately 9 years. Then, after completing an MBA at San Jose State University, I went to work for the San Jose Water Company, which is an investor-owned water utility in Silicon Valley. After 2 years there, in 2001, I came to Contra Costa Water District, where I worked in various capacities, including planning, operations, management, and special projects, and in May 2010 became the general manager. I left Contra Costa in December 2019 to start my own firm, Waterology Consulting. During my tenure at Contra Costa, I was heavily involved in the Los Vaqueros expansion project. The opportunity to lead the Sites Project Authority arose, and I started with Sites in April 2020. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is the history and significance of the Sites Reservoir project? 

Jerry Brown: The Sites Reservoir project has a long history, but it wasn’t until 2010, when the Sites Project Authority was formed, that it really got legs and started to develop as a locally led project. The visionary leadership of the agencies that started the JPA got things rolling. Today, because of their foresight, the project is on track to be completed within the next decade. 

Municipal Water Leader: Who are the members of the JPA? 

Jerry Brown: Currently, nine different entities are members. Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID), Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority (TCCA), Colusa County, and Glenn County were among the founding members. The representatives on the authority board represent many of the large agencies and counties in the Sacramento Valley. Our reservoir committee represents 21 water districts throughout the state of California, ranging from the Dunnigan Water District to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It’s a broad cross-section of irrigators, agricultural districts, and municipal water districts throughout the state. I want to emphasize the importance of the local leadership in gaining local support. Without local support, we wouldn’t be able to do this. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the benefits of the project? 

Jerry Brown: It has several types of benefits and addresses a lot of different areas of need. Of course, water supply is one of those areas. The project will significantly improve the state’s water management system, primarily during drier periods, and restore much-needed flexibility and reliability. The project also has important environmental benefits. A significant portion of the reservoir’s annual water supplies are dedicated to environmental uses, such as improving conditions for delta smelt; preserving cold water pools in Shasta and Oroville Reservoirs; supporting salmon development, spawning, and rearing; and improving the Pacific Flyway habitat for migratory birds. Beyond those important benefits, we are also providing flood protection benefits, mainly for the local community of Maxwell and the homes, businesses, and farms in surrounding areas. We’ll be limiting the downstream flood risks of the creeks that currently flow through the valley. Finally, there are economic and recreation benefits. The local economy will be improved by the creation of hundreds of construction-related jobs, and the recreational opportunities associated with the reservoir will contribute to the overall economy of the Sacramento Valley. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is the projected capacity of the reservoir? 

Jerry Brown: 1.5 million acre-feet. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is the status of the project now? 

Jerry Brown: We are addressing some issues related to the affordability, permitability, and buildability of the project. Before I came to the project and because of the innovative work of the board and committee members, we went through a fairly significant process called value planning, in which we reviewed the project’s proposed operations and facilities to create what we call a right-size project for our investors and participants. As with any value-engineering process, we looked at all the different components, facilities, needs, and requirements. We also reviewed all the feedback that we had previously received during the development of the project and identified what our investors could afford. Through that process, we eliminated about $2 billion in project costs. We revised our operation to what we could actually get permitted through the resource agencies while being protective of aquatic species, and then right sized all our facilities around those requirements and constraints. Then we looked at what we could actually build within a reasonable time frame— specifically, over the next decade—because time is money. 

Those changes were substantial. We put out an environmental impact report/environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS) 3 years ago, but we have to do some modifications and refinements to reflect our right sizing. We are on track to put out a revised draft EIR in July 2021. It will cover all the different effects of the project, be responsive to the prior feedback we received, and communicate to the public what’s going on with the project. After that, we will do the preliminary and detailed design work that’s been folded into the construction process, and hopefully complete construction by 2030. 

Municipal Water Leader: Reducing the overall cost by $2 billion is no small feat. What is your estimated total project cost now, and how do you envision that cost being shared? 

Jerry Brown: Right now, the estimated project cost is around $3.3 billion. A few factors play into how it will be shared, but the fundamental principle is that the beneficiary pays. That includes state, federal, and local sources. First, under the proposition 1 water supply investment program, which was voted on in 2014, the California Water Commission conditionally allocated $816 million to the project for environmental benefits. That amount will go toward the $3.3 billion. The Bureau of Reclamation has determined the project to be feasible for a cost share of up to 25 percent, to be paid for with Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funds, and we are working together closely to determine Reclamation’s level of investment. 

The remaining $2.5 billion, under our current assumptions and until a federal level of investment is determined, will be funded by local investors. We currently have 21 different investors across the state. We assume securing a couple of federal loans, like a $449 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has been secured and loans provided through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which we are seeking but have not yet secured. We hope that the $13.7 million of new preconstruction and construction appropriations that were approved as part of the federal omnibus signed into law in December 2020 will bolster federal participation in the project, helping to keep the project on schedule. Aside from those loans, the project will be funded through revenue bonds that the JPA or the individual agencies issue. 

Municipal Water Leader: What challenges remain in the project’s path for completion? 

Jerry Brown: Some of the biggest challenges involve making sure that the project is affordable and can be permitted. We have to make sure that this project remains affordable for all our investors. Our investors range from irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and they have different thresholds for affordability. 

Right now, we’re estimating the unit cost of the water supplies this project would generate on a long-term annual average basis at around $600–$660 an acre-foot. That is on the upper end of the price range Sacramento Valley irrigation agencies can afford. That price is competitive with other supply options for south-of-delta irrigation and water agencies, but the water still needs to get to them through the delta, which requires us to analyze potential losses and other restrictions so that we can provide assurances that they’re going to get what they paid for. Generally, water is in short supply in the drier years when this project is producing, so the movement of this new supply can be beneficial on several fronts. 

Our concerns about permitting relate primarily to the amount of water we can safely divert from the river. This project will take water out of the Sacramento River at two existing fish-screened intakes at Red Bluff and Hamilton City, which divert water to the TCCD’s canal and the GCID’s main canal. We can only take water at these two existing points of diversion when all the other water needs in the Sacramento River and Bay Delta system are met and sufficiently protective measures for aquatic species are observed. Make the conditions too restrictive, and local agencies cannot afford the project. However, if the conditions are not restrictive enough, the species may be harmed. Neither of these conditions are acceptable to the project proponents, and we are working hard to find the sweet spot. We’ve done quite a bit of modeling and fisheries analysis work and believe there are coequal and protective conditions that support moving forward with the project. Our challenge is demonstrating this to all the stakeholders, but it is something we are confident we can accomplish. 

Municipal Water Leader: What should every member of Congress know about the Sites Reservoir project? 

Jerry Brown: Most importantly, they should know that Sites Reservoir represents a unique, 21st-century, multibenefit solution to California’s water reliability challenges. No other statewide project has the kind of local support that we have or can produce the flexibility, reliability, and resiliency for statewide water supply needs that we can. 

This project is badly needed to address climate change. We know that climate change is reducing our snowpack and increasing the frequency and magnitude of floods and dry spells. Collecting and storing flood water off stream for use primarily in drier times helps us manage this extreme weather variability. We’ve run various climate change predictions and find that the project will actually function even better as the climate changes. In California in particular, we need to prepare ourselves for this changing situation. A project like the Sites Reservoir is a critical piece of that future for all of California. 

I’d also like to reiterate the potential for federal involvement. Reclamation is considering participation in the project as well. It has completed a feasibility report, and there has been a secretarial determination that the project merits federal investment up to a 25 percent cost share. Together with Reclamation, we are examining a range of potential federal participation levels in the project, and the early results are looking very promising. The local-led nature of this project envisioned by the WIIN Act is little different from the typical federal project, and Reclamation’s involvement has made the project better. 

More broadly from a western states perspective, California is a major diverter of Colorado River water, and we see that Lake Mead is predicted to hit its low point sooner and sooner each year. As Pat Mulroy, the former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has accurately pointed out, what happens on the Colorado can have an effect in the Bay Delta of Northern California. John F. Kennedy’s comment at the groundbreaking of the San Luis Dam in 1962 still rings true: “Things stand still for all Californians when citizens of one part of the state feel that everything they have is theirs and should not be shared with other citizens of the state.” To continue its prosperity, California needs to find a way to navigate this issue, and the Sites Reservoir can be the gateway to a new approach to 21st century water infrastructure. 

Municipal Water Leader: How has it been to work with Reclamation? 

Jerry Brown: It’s been fantastic. We’ve always stood side by side, and we want to continue to do that. We want to help Reclamation meet its goals and find ways to make a federal investment in the Sites Reservoir as part of its water management portfolio. 

This project has wide bipartisan support, particularly compared to other California water projects. Reclamation has been an outstanding partner in advancing this project. We also have a lot of support from Senator Feinstein and her team. We’re lucky in the Sacramento Valley to have Congressman Garamendi and Congressman LaMalfa working side by side in support of this project. We’re also starting to see support from other members on both sides of the aisle, including Congressman Josh Harder from the Central Valley. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, water fights in California were much more conflict-ridden. Because of its innovative nature and because it has so many statewide benefits, this project has garnered significant support on both sides of the aisle at both the federal and the state levels. 

We were recently included in the governor’s final water resiliency portfolio plan as an example project to advance as part of that process. We have strong support in the state senate and the state assembly from members in this area and throughout the state. When we went through the proposition 1 process and submitted our application, we had a letter of support from more than 40 members of Congress. Getting 40 California members to agree to anything is a feat in itself. 

Jerry Brown is the executive director of the Sites Project Authority. He can be contacted at jbrown@sitesproject.org or (925) 260‑7417.