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Rancher: Turn sights away from Sites
Bob Alvernaz stands at the highest point on his ranch after hauling feed to his cattle. His work finished for the day, the 82-year-old cattle rancher removes a lumbar belt back brace from under his leather suspenders and surveys the valley below him.
Alvernaz purchased land in this valley in 1960 and has been running cattle here since. The man has a stoic air about him, but his attachment to the land is unmistakable as he points out his property lines, marked by natural features that he knows like the back of his hand.
"Boy, it sure looks like hell right now," Alvernaz says. He's right. The hills and the valley alike are a dull and lifeless brown. It's bone dry, much like the rest of the state. The drought has been hard on him and the cattle industry as a whole. The entire agricultural sector in the North State is facing tough times if the rain does not come soon. It has people talking about solutions. One that has received a significant amount of attention lately has been to increase surface water storage space — namely, by moving forward with Sites Reservoir.
"I'm definitely against it," Alvernaz says with a chuckle.
If it were to go in?
"We'd be going out of the cattle business. That's for sure."
Despite — or perhaps because of — his feelings toward the project, Alvernaz's knowledge of the valley includes what it would look like if it were under 1.8 million acre-feet of water.
He points almost directly to the west.
"You see that where that canyon goes back into the hills there? That's where Golden Gate Dam would go."
He turns to the south.
"It would go all the way to Ladybug. You see where that last clear space is in the distance? That's her ranch. You see that single peak over there? That was Pete Dunlap's property. That would be what they would call Dunlap Island."
What about the high point he is standing on?
"This here would be part of a 'recreation peninsula.'"
And the old town square of Sites?
"Sites will be damn near 300 feet under water."
Of course, Alvernaz has been here before, on this very hill, under similar circumstances.
"A reporter from San Francisco and an (Associated Press) photographer came up here a few years back. I brought them up here, too," he says.
The year was 2009, and at the time it was one of the driest years on record. Sites Dam then, as it is now, was a long way off from being built. Then, as now, Alvernaz didn't see the sense in building the reservoir here. He doesn't necessarily refute that California needs more surface water storage capacity. He just sees expanding Shasta's capacity, or building Auburn Dam, as better options.
"It's all a narrow canyon, and the (Forresthill) bridge is already built above the valley," he said, adding the area has no grazing value.
Sure, there's bias there. He is running cattle on land that could potentially be hundreds of feet under water in the future. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that livestock have grazed the valleys and the hills near Sites since the area was first populated in the mid-1800s. It was, and continues to be, the lifeblood of the area.
At 82, Alvernaz is remains passionate about continuing that way of life in Sites. But he doesn't imagine the day will come when he himself has to fight to keep his land.
"Hell," he says bluntly, "I'm not going to be alive to see it."
Even so, Alvernaz does have two sons in farming, one of whom is partnered with him in the cattle industry. He has three grandsons that are a part of his cattle operation as well. And even after he is gone, Alveraz says that he would like to see his family continue to run cattle there.
"I think a lot of people in Colusa County think this is the greatest thing in the world. I keep telling them you're mistaken," Alvernaz says, "They're not making new ground. They're just taking it away."