Nick Wilcox: Some thoughts on Centennial Reservoir project process
As a Nevada Irrigation District director, I have the responsibility to ensure our water supply into the future. Climate change is shrinking the snowpack, our largest reservoir, and NID must adapt and plan for the future.
Increasing the district’s storage capacity in wet years, to carry us over multiple critically dry years, is a key strategy for adapting to climate change and lost snowpack. (The California Department of Water Resources has just reported that based on the first snow survey, snowpack this year is 3 percent of average. Hopefully this will change for the better). To that end, NID has proposed and is studying the possibility of building a new reservoir to capture direct winter runoff. There are many steps to this process.
The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the proposed Centennial Reservoir Project is currently being developed by expert consultants. The EIR documents will provide a detailed project description, outline the purpose and need, study alternatives, and determine the environmental consequences of the proposed project. The EIR is the means by which the NID Board of Directors will make an informed decision about whether to proceed with the project.
Many alternatives to the project have been suggested by the public, such as imposing extreme conservation, canal encasement and greater reliance on groundwater. These, as well as other alternatives, will all be studied and analyzed for the amount of “real” water they produce. If, taken together, the alternatives do not compensate for the lost snowpack, then they are not truly alternatives to the proposed project.
Preparation of the EIR is taking longer than initially anticipated to allow more time for thorough study, fact finding and careful examination of alternatives to the Centennial Project. Our constituents and community expect nothing less. An accurate financial analysis cannot be done before the EIR is complete and the potential environmental mitigation costs established. Only after the EIR is final, and subsequent cost and funding analyses are determined, will the board make a final decision about moving forward with the project.
The draft EIR is expected to be released next fall. The public will have a minimum of 45 days to review and submit written comments on the document. There will also likely be a noticed public hearing in which oral comments can be submitted. NID is required by law to respond to all written and oral comments, which are then incorporated into the final EIR.
After the EIR is complete, NID will have a clearer picture of environmental mitigation costs. The board will then contract for an independent analysis of the cost, including financing costs. Only after these analyses are completed, will the board be able to make an informed decision on the project.
Any claims by opponents regarding the project, including water gained from proposed alternatives, costs, and funding mechanisms are premature and completely speculative at this point. The information is not yet available. As a retired professional scientist, I will make my decision based on all of the facts, detailed analysis, and careful deliberation.
In my own mind, there are four conditions that must be met for the Centennial Project to move forward: 1) the geotechnical analysis must show that the site will be safe, 2) the hydrologic analysis must show that there is available water to fill the reservoir, 3) the project must be financially feasible and 4) the environmental impacts must not be unreasonable or immitigable, and not outweigh the societal benefits of the project.
There are those who categorically oppose all dams. I understand that. I once felt the same way.
But as an NID Director, I must take a broader view, look long-term, and consider the public interest and needs of both the environment and of urban and agricultural water users within the district. I urge the public to stay involved with the process but to also exercise patience. In the end, facts will matter.
Nick Wilcox lives in Penn Valley and has served as NID Division 5 director for nine years. He is a retired environmental scientist from the State Water Resources Control Board.
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