California Energy needs and Air Quality hurt by Drought

By Emma Bailey

editor's note: Chronicles of the Hydraulic Brotherhood is now accepting articles from anyone with something important to say about California Water issues.

On November 8, 2014, Lake Oroville, the second largest man-made lake in California, plunged to a record low: 26 percent of capacity. Boaters were forced to rappel from dock parking lots to their listing motorboats far below. Just 46 more feet lost and the lake would be rendered impotent, unable to produce power. If all the remaining water in the similarly starved reservoirs of Lake Shasta, Trinity Lake, and Folsom Lake was to be poured into Oroville Lake, it would still only be 80 percent full.

Prior to 2011, California drew 18 percent of its in-state electricity generation from 287 hydropower plants, from impoundments, run-of river and pumped storage facilities. A small fraction of its hydropower was (and is) imported from the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest's Hoover Dam. This energy source (learn more here) would have been a great alternative to traditional sources, such as coal or natural gas.

At first, 2011 represented hope. The drought that had been plaguing the Golden State since 2008 migrated eastward. But the rains came slowly, and in 2013, Mother Nature abandoned California completely. An upper level ridge of high pressure, nicknamed "Triple R," shielded the state from wet northern and offshore storms. During the following two winters, winter precipitation was among its lowest in 100 years. By 2013, in-state hydropower had dropped by one-third. Natural gas took its place.

The supplanting of hydropower with natural gas has cost Californians $1.4 billion in extra energy expenses, but that's not the only cost. Natural gas, composed mostly of methane, is often extracted in conjunction with drilling oil wells. Although natural gas is often touted as a clean fossil fuel, its adoption has triggered an eight percent jump in California carbon dioxide emissions and other atmospheric pollutants between 2011 and 2014. (Cite)

Indirectly, the adoption of natural gas may also have increased pollution by subsidizing out-of-state coal-powered electricity generation imported by California to plug up its energy gap. Today, almost two-thirds of the state's in-house energy comes from natural gas.

In a cruel irony, natural gas production generates carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is a major component of climate change via the greenhouse gas effect, which is the culprit blamed for the extensive California droughts of the last quarter-century. A decrease in precipitation lowers the soil water table, allowing sunlight to further heat the ground. This promotes wildfire conditions, dries up reservoirs, and creates further high-pressure systems like the dreaded Triple R.

The government of California was determined to end the cycle. On January 17, 2014, Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr. declared a statewide drought emergency and signed a $1 billion emergency package. This funded critical water infrastructure projects and mandated a series of water reductions, as named in Executive Order B-29-15 and subsequent Executive Orders. The government hopes to save 10 billion gallons in the first year alone.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) enforces many of the mandates. Ornamental grass between public street medians, for instance, is a thing of the past. In early April of this year, the CEC demanded that all toilets, urinals, and faucets sold in the state use water-efficient technology. Urinals cannot use more than one pint per flush, far less than the usual one-gallon standard. The CEC has also instituted a rebate program encouraging homeowners to replace of old appliances with water-efficient ones, like ENERGY STAR-certified washing machines.

Local municipalities have enacted further restrictions. In Cambria, residents cannot irrigate their lawns or wash their cars with potable water. Local restaurants have dubiously resorted to disposable cups. But most of the influential changes will come from outdoor water use reduction. Californians expend 40 to 70 percent of their water on lawns, gardens, pools and so forth. They insist on lush zoysia grass lawns where nature once dictated there would be none.

Farmers, on the other hand, are not being asked to do anything different, even though agriculture contributes only 2 percent of California’s GDP but uses 80 percent of stored river water statewide. Huge amounts of water statewide are now being used to grow almonds in the San Joaquin Delta. Almonds are water-intensive and must be watered in the winter have been pledged to almond growers in the San Joaquin Valley. Planting all these almond trees has increased this water demand because it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce one individual almond.

December storms restored part of Lake Oroville's precious liquid. If only the atmosphere could be so easily replenished.


Emma Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger based in Chicago, IL. A Midwest transplant from the state of California, she typically writes on the science and environmental issues that are closest to her heart. Her interests include kayaking, watching horror movies, and finding perfectly ripe avocados. You can find her on Twitter @emma_bailey90