Ground-breaking launches $1 billion B.F. Sisk Dam safety modification project

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C805-200-1355 San Luis Unit, Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project, California. Aerial view showing a portion of San Luis Dam with the pump-generator plant in the foreground. The dam is located on San Luis Creek west of Los Banos, California. It is a joint-use facility of the Federal Government and the State of California which stores excess water from the Delta area. J.C. Dahilig, Photo. April 7, 1981.

California Construction News staff writer

A $1-billion upgrade to the B.F. Sisk Dam in California’s Central Valley was launched this month as part of an effort to reduce the impact of severe seismic events on the 55-year-old structure.

The 382-ft-high, 3.5-mile-long compacted earthfill embankment dam is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). The Safety of Dams Modification Project will require adding stability berms, increasing the height of the existing dam and other safety enhancing features.

The project received $100 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is the largest project under the 1978 Safety of Dams Act. When complete it will modernize the dam to reduce risks due to seismic events.

“B.F. Sisk Dam and San Luis Reservoir are representative of Reclamation’s legacy of effective resource management,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

“The work being done here today—funded by the transformative Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—is emblematic of our commitment to modernize water infrastructure. So, it is fitting to break ground here once again and invest in our infrastructure and in the future of California.”

The beginning of construction to retrofit the 3.5-mile-long B.F. Sisk Dam to protect it from future seismic events and for public safety. Construction will include stability berms and other engineered features. The dam impounds San Luis Reservoir, the nation’s largest off stream reservoir, which provides water for farms, wildlife refuges, and Californians served by the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project.

“We are thrilled to celebrate the anniversary of the Bureau of Reclamation today in the same footprint where President John F. Kennedy dedicated San Luis Reservoir sixty years ago,” said Reclamation regional director Ernest Conant.

“President Kennedy stressed the uniqueness of the project in 1962 due to the federal, state, and local partnerships that came together to make the original project happen. These collaborations continue today and enable Reclamation’s California-Great Basin Region to make important strides in water management especially in light of changes brought on by climate change.”

In March 2022, the Department of the Interior announced a $100 million investment in the B.F. Sisk Dam Modification Project as part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding. California Department of Water Resources is a cost share partner in the project. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $500 million for dam safety projects across the country to support the operational capacity of 12 dams that require modification to minimize risk to the public.

“As we face the impacts of climate change during this drought, we applaud this important investment in California’s aging infrastructure to ensure water supply reliability and climate resiliency into the future,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “DWR looks forward to working with Reclamation on Sisk Dam’s modernization efforts to reduce seismic risk and enhance public safety.”

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