Reclamation officials talk dams, Klamath
Basin, hydropower, drought
What's up with water in the West? Q&A with
western water officials
by Sierra Dawn McLain, Capital Press 3/4/22
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the
federal agency that oversees water resource management in 17
Western states — has big projects planned in both its
Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region and its California-Great
To get a bird’s-eye view, Capital
Press reporter Sierra Dawn McClain talked with officials
from the two regions about plans surrounding dams,
hydropower, drought and the Klamath Basin. The text has been
edited for length and clarity.
Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region
Columbia River Basin, Idaho, Washington and parts of
Montana, Oregon and Wyoming
For a preview on upcoming projects in
the Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region, the Capital Press
interviewed Michael Coffey, the region’s public affairs
Capital Press: What specific projects does Reclamation have
planned for the region to increase water storage capacity in
the near future?
Coffey: I’ll call out two in Idaho first.
One is the Anderson Ranch Dam Raise in
the Boise River Basin. We’re collaborating with Idaho Water
Resources Board on that project. We’re looking at raising
the dam for an additional 29,000 acre-feet of new water
storage. That’s huge for farmers.
Then there’s the Eastern Snake Plain
Aquifer Recharge. We’ve been working with the Idaho
Department of Water Resources on that. To date since 2015,
we’ve recharged about 1.8 million acre-feet of water into
the aquifer, and we’ll continue each year to improve those
In Washington, we’ve got something
called the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. The purpose is to
address water resources and ecosystem improvement. Under the
integrated plan, we’ve got a few storage projects coming up.
We’ve got the Kachess Drought Relief
Pumping Plant in initial development. They’re proposing to
access 200,000 acre-feet of inactive storage for use in
We’re also looking at performing
hydrologic modeling at Wymer Dam in the Yakima Basin. And
we’re exploring enlargement of the Bumping Reservoir, Upper
Yakima System Storage and North Fork Cowiche Creek.
CP: Do you have timelines yet?
Coffey: They’re all at different phases. For
Kachess, we’re looking to put out a notice of intent for an
Environmental Impact Statement sometime in 2022.
CP: You didn’t mention Oregon. Does Oregon have storage
projects on the horizon?
Coffey: No, there’s not really anything to my
knowledge that we’re doing in Oregon.
CP: Why? Is there anything holding Reclamation back from
doing big storage projects in Oregon?
Coffey: You know, that’s kind of a tough question.
Each state has its own dynamics. I would say there are
probably things that are happening outside of Reclamation.
It doesn’t have to do with irrigation districts not being
engaged, because they’re very engaged.
I think what sometimes happens is
dollars can be a challenge. There’s a cost share that the
state or district has to come up with. We don’t fund 100% of
a storage project. So, it could be something as simple as
coming up with the money. But I can’t speak for the state of
CP: What’s the plan for fixing dams in disrepair in the
Coffey: We have a Safety of Dams program that’s a
model worldwide. I’ll call out three specific projects we’re
working on right now.
One is in Oregon: Scoggins Dam in the
Tualatin Basin. We’re looking to reduce seismic risk at that
dam. Clean Water Services (a water resources management
utility) is our partner, and the infrastructure law (that
Congress passed in 2021) could potentially help us, because
it includes about $500 million for our Reclamation-wide
Safety of Dams program.
The second one is Kachess (Reservoir).
That dam was built in 1912. Over the years, voids have
formed along the outlet works because of erosion from
seepage. We’re looking to reduce risk of failure.
The third one is Conconully Dam in
northcentral Washington. The dam is a major storage
component for irrigation of the Okanogan Project. That’s
another dam with issues — built in 1910. In the event of an
earthquake, you could see high risk to that dam.
CP: What’s the timeline on these?
Coffey: We’ve still got a ways to go on Scoggins
On Kachess, we’re at the final design
stage, and by 2024 we’ll be in construction. So that one’s a
little further along.
CP: Is Reclamation expanding hydropower in the
Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region?
Coffey: There are big maintenance projects and
small expansion projects planned.
Reclamation works with the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration on
The big project the agencies work
together on is the Columbia Basin Project.
In Washington, we in cooperation with
the other two agencies are doing an overhaul of the Grand
Coulee Dam powerplant. Grand Coulee is the crown jewel of
Reclamation. You’re looking at the capacity to provide power
to 2 million households in eight states and Canada. The
overhaul won’t expand power generation. It will just
maintain it. Think about a car. Like, the light just came on
in my car that says, hey, it’s time for an oil change.
That’s what the overhaul is. It’s about ensuring reliability
for the next 30 years.
That’s versus a smaller set of
projects that are about expansion. They’re called LOPP, or
“lease of power privilege,” projects. It works like this:
Let’s say a non-federal entity wants to build a pump-storage
project for electric power generation at a Reclamation
facility. They need to propose that to Reclamation and to
the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If it fits
Reclamation’s purposes, they may be able to do some power
We have three active LOPP projects
right now: the Cat Creek Energy Generation Facility at
Anderson Ranch Reservoir in Idaho, the Banks Lake Pumped
Storage Project at Banks Lake in Washington, and the
Halverson Canyon Pumped Storage Project at Lake Roosevelt in
CP: Scientists in some states, like Idaho, are studying
“cloud seeding” and other weather modification schemes that
attempt to change how much rain falls. Are these unrealistic
pipe dreams, or is Reclamation on board with considering
Coffey: We’ve been actively engaged in cloud
seeding work for decades, but legal and efficacy concerns
effectively ended those efforts.
Recent research efforts such as the SNOWIE project in Idaho
have shown that advanced monitoring and modeling can be used
to better understand and support the use of cloud seeding.
We’re continuing to monitor the state
of the science, and we’re currently supporting a research
investigation on the potential of cloud seeding to enhance
precipitation in the East River Basin of Colorado.
Great Basin Region
California’s Central Valley, most of Nevada, Klamath Basin
To preview upcoming projects in the
California Great Basin Region, the Capital Press interviewed
Ernest Conant, the region’s director.
What’s the game plan for the
Klamath Basin? I’m looking for specific ideas or plans that
are under consideration to alleviate the crisis there.
you know, (2021) was a terrible year for the Klamath Basin.
It was the first year since the project was put in place in
1907 that we delivered no project water. So, I’m not happy
to have been the regional director that delivered no water
to the Klamath Project.
We don’t have any specific plans right
now. We’re looking at a lot of different options to take a
more strategic long-term approach. It’s just a very
difficult situation because we have all these competing
interests over endangered species, the interests of various
tribes and farmers.
CP: That’s still pretty broad. Can you be more specific
about the “different options” you’re looking at?
Conant: I can’t be much more specific at this
point. There may be opportunities because of the bipartisan
infrastructure law to do some projects in the Klamath.
That’s one of the focuses.
CP: So, you expect the infrastructure funding will help with
some Klamath projects?
Conant: Yeah. The bipartisan infrastructure law has
$162 million that goes to projects in the Klamath Basin the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be handling. There are a
number of things that could be done to improve the fishery,
for example, thereby taking off some pressure.
CP: Could federal funds also invest in Klamath Basin
infrastructure, such as better piping?
Conant: Yeah. I think those are all possibilities.
There’s a process being set up for people to apply for the
bipartisan infrastructure money, so different districts in
Klamath could apply for conservation or infrastructure
grants like you’re referring to.
I’m sorry I can’t give you more
specifics about grand plans. There is no grand plan at this
CP: Let’s shift topics. What specific projects does the
California Great Basin Region have planned to expand water
storage in the near future?
Conant: I’ll highlight four projects that we’ve
prepared feasibility reports for and advanced to Congress,
which makes them eligible for certain types of funding.
First of all, there’s the Sites
Reservoir Project, located in the San Joaquin Valley. That
project is a plan for 1.5 million acre-feet of storage
capacity. There’s no dam there now; this would be a
brand-new dam where water would be diverted off the
Sacramento River (and) put into storage.
Then there’s the Los Vaqueros
(Reservoir) expansion in northeastern California. The
reservoir is owned by Contra Costa Water District, one of
our contractors. They’ve expanded the reservoir once and now
they’re expanding it again, adding 160,000 acre-feet to the
We’re also doing a project at B.F.
Sisk Dam in Merced County. With our partner San Luis &
Delta-Mendota Water Authority, we’re looking at adding
another 130,000 acre-feet.
The last one is another potential new
reservoir — the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir — that would be
in the Coast Range foothills west of Patterson. It’s planned
for 82,000 acre-feet.
There’s also a lot of interest in
We’ve got to be able to capture water
in wet years and store it for dry years. It’s absolutely
essential to have sustainable agriculture.
CP: What’s the timeline on these projects?
Conant: On Los Vaqueros, I anticipate various
stages of it are going to start in the next couple (of)
The objective is to have Sites
completed by the end of the next decade.
Congress is very keen on Sisk; $60
million has been allocated for planning and development.
Del Puerto is not quite as far along
as the other three.
CP: Do you foresee any major conflicts surrounding these
Conant: Dam projects always have controversy.
There’s some concern from
environmental groups and tribes about the proposed Sites
Reservoir. But it also receives a lot of support. I envision
it’ll ultimately get built.
I fully expect Los Vaqueros’ expansion
is going to move forward. I don’t even think I’ve heard of
any opposition on that one.
CP: Are there any big upcoming repair projects for aging
Conant: The main one is Sisk. We’re doing an
approximately $1 billion safety-of-dams project there
because of faults discovered.
I see the dam program as a
three-legged stool. First, we gotta fix what we have.
Secondly, we need new capacity. And the third thing we’ve
got to have is regulatory certainty.
CP: What do you mean by regulatory certainty?
Conant: Under the Reclamation Act, the federal
government must follow the water appropriations of the
particular states. So, for instance, for the Central Valley
Project, we have permits from the state that dictate how
much water we can store in a reservoir (and) how much water
we have to release. With the proposed new Sites Dam, we’ll
need permits from the state to divert water from the
Somehow the state of California and
our public agency water districts have to come together to
have a better approach and more certainty as to what
regulatory requirements are going to be.
CP: Does the region have any big hydropower expansion plans?
Conant: We’re maintaining and upgrading plants.
We’re not really contemplating any new power plants.
CP: With money on the way via the infrastructure package, do
you have any advice for farmers or districts that want to
get in on the action?
Conant: Most of these are competitive programs.
People throughout the West are going to be competing for
infrastructure money, so you’ve got to hire your engineers
and economists and so on to put these applications together
and develop meaningful plans.
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