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January 5, 2018 – 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.

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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.

3 replies on “Op-Ed | Nick Wilcox: The Centennial Reservoir Project – thoughts and process”

  1. If facts matter as much as Mr. Wilcox says, let’s consider the first one he included in this op-ed: “snowpack this year is 3 percent of average.” This number is based on a single snow survey point at Phillips.

    A more accurate snapshot of the statewide snow pack is provided by the Department of Water Resources’ digital readings. On January 3, the same day the Phillips survey was conducted, DWR stated that “Statewide, the snowpack’s SWE [snow water equivalent] is 2.6 inches, or 24 percent of the Jan. 3 average.”

    While well below average, it is far too early to jump to conclusions on this year’s precipitation. I encourage Mr. Wilcox to “exercise patience” in waiting to see what this water year will bring, rather than using outliers in the data to make a political point. Misleading statements like this are why so many of citizens of Nevada and Placer counties are skeptical of NID as a whole and the Centennial Dam in particular.

    source: http://www.water.ca.gov/news/newsreleases/2018/010318snow_survey.pdf

  2. If Mr. Wilcox took his “four conditions” seriously, he would be looking at the already available cost estimates for the Centennial project. He should see that putting NID RATEPAYERS responsible for a $500 million to possibly $1 billion project is breaching his fiduciary responsibility to the NID ratepayers. Such a large amount of deficit spending could bankrupt the NID district. I have yet to see any of the NID pro-Centennial personnel address this MOST IMPORTANT issue among the many other issues.

  3. “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 purpose and need is clearly stated, but then it goes off the rails, “To that end, NID has proposed and is studying the possibility of building a new reservoir to capture direct winter runoff.”
    What kind of dead end thinking is that? This kind of short-sighted, last century, antiquated use of old technology and old paradymes captures the mindset and lack of imagination currently inflicting the NID Board. Let’s try it again…
    …To that end NID has proposed a thorough landscape level environmental analysis to determine the most cost effective, environmentally sustainable, and forward looking methodology for future water management integrated with enhanced community lifestyles and living ecosystem support. A diverse array of alternatives offering sustainable water quality, retention of irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage features, reversing prior environmental degradation, and connectivity to local and regional landscape water system ecology will be studied… There, that is better.
    Director Wilcox goes on to discuss the Environmental Impact Report, saying that it is being developed by experts, will provide a detailed project description, outline the purpose and need, study alternatives, and determine the environmental consequences of the proposed Project. Wait, why would you have a detailed project description before outlining the purpose and need? You would do this if you have already decided to build a dam and are looking for a way to justify it. You would do this if you have already decided to build a dam and name it “Centennial” to celebrate the 100th birthday of NID, a legacy for the Board.
    The Director finally mentions that there are alternatives to the “Project”. He mentions “extreme” conservation. Conservation programs are a normal and standard practice among water agencies. Only NID considers it “extreme” to conserve water. The Director also mentions canal encasement and greater reliance on groundwater. The bias is again evident in the framing of these ideas. Director Wilcox himself has stated that canal leakage accounts for 10-25% of the water needed for future plans. Analysis of canal leakage is integral to a well functioning water agency.
    The misleading statement about “greater reliance on groundwater” again is a misrepresentation of the real answer to modern day water storage. California recently passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/sgm/. As a result of this law NID has joined the West Placer Groundwater Sustainability Agency. http://westplacergroundwater.com/
    A worthy “Project” and subject of Environmental Analysis would be a conjunctive use project where a water agency can store water underground in a water bank and pump it out later when it is needed. The North American Sub basin is an aquifer located partially under Lincoln where conditions exist for winter surface runoff to be stored underground. This water would be available to the one area of the NID district where growth is anticipated. The capacity of this groundwater bank is forty times greater than the anticipated storage for the proposed reservoir. For some reason NID is not even willing to look seriously at this option. Why?
    “The EIR is the means by which the NID Board of Directors will make an informed decision about whether to proceed with the Project.” So the binary question is project or not? The NID Board is asking the wrong question. The EIR should answer which projects best meet the purpose and need. That would require each alternative to receive the same amount of interest and analysis. Again the bias is clear.

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