March 21: Skiers ride a chairlift over dry ground at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, Olympic Valley, CA
Photo: Max Whittaker, Getty, via San Francisco Gate, March 28
The cascade effect -- one situation generating others that intensify the effects of drought to create a vicious cycle -- is on display in the following two reports. But in the third report, we see how the cascade effect can lead to a positive cycle.
March 28, San Francisco Chronicle:
Armies of tiny bark beetles are ravaging drought-weakened pine trees throughout California in a fast spreading epidemic that biologists fear could soon turn catastrophic.The rest of the report is behind a subscription wall but from the caption for the accompanying photograph, "A resident of Truckee tends a small permitted burn to clear pine cones, dead branches and pine needles to protect his property before before fire season begins," it looks as if the best defense against the beetles is very limited during fire season, which is now more or less year 'round in parts of California that are bone dry.
Fewer trees, less moisture in the air. Drought effects intensified, leading to more bark beetle infestations, leading to.....
March 28, San Francisco Gate (my apology to reporter Peter Fimrite for chopping up his story so much):
The abominable snowpack in the Sierra Nevada reached an unprecedented low this week, dipping below the historic lows in 1977 and 2014 for the driest winter in 65 years of record-keeping.
Electronic surveys show the water content of the snow throughout the Sierra is a shocking 8 percent of the historical average for this time of year, by far the driest it has been since 1950, the year record-keeping began, because of the lack of rain and snowfall and the exceedingly high temperatures.
The state has been publishing statewide snowpack measurements in the Sierra since 1950, but there are several places where measurements go back as far as 1926.
The measurements are important because snow makes up 60 percent of the water that is captured in California's reservoirs when it melts in the spring and 30 percent of the state's overall water supply during a normal year.
Curiously, California's biggest reservoirs have managed to hold steady despite the dismal snowpack. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, has 74 percent of what it normally holds at this time of year. Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir and the most important source for the State Water Project, is carrying 67 percent of what it normally holds at this time of year.
Shasta and Oroville carry 80 percent of the state's reservoir supply. The water is used to irrigate 8 million acres of farmland and quench the thirst of close to 30 million people.
The problem, experts say, is that the reservoirs will not be getting much additional supply from snowmelt, a crucial source in California’s dry Mediterranean summer climate.
Meanwhile, the reservoirs that serve farming communities are wretchedly low. Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River is only 32 percent of normal, and Exchequer, or McClure Dam, on the Merced River stands at only 16 percent of normal. Some of the smaller reservoirs are in real danger of going completely dry this summer.
Meteorologists see nothing on the horizon that could pull the state out of its increasingly frightful drought.
An undated NBC News report filed by Anna Schecter (Snow-Starved Sierra Spell Trouble for Drought-Stricken California) adds these interesting facts:
NASA is using cutting-edge technology — an airborne snow observatory equipped with lasers — to measure the snow depth.
Tom Painter, the lead investigator for the observatory, says NASA's equipment doesn't just gauge how much snow is up there. A spectrometer also looks for "reflectivity" — how much sunlight it absorbs.
"The reason we need to know that is that the absorption of sunlight is what controls the timing of the snow melt," Painter said.
"The timing of that and knowing how much is going to come out is absolutely critical to the operation of those reservoirs — to meeting the water users' needs and also making sure that you can capture the water you need to generate electricity."Yes. Hydropowered Electricity. Which brings me to a March 27 report, updated March 28. from California's Sacramento Bee, filed by Dale Kasler (California’s hydro power dries up as drought worsens; utility customers paying more).
By the way the photo accompanying the report is spectacular. It was taken by a photographer for the newspaper, Paul Kitagaki, Jr. Talk about one picture worth a thousand words. It never fails to impress me how much great talent there is in local hard news reporting and photography. On to the report:
The drought is drying up California’s once-plentiful supply of cheap hydroelectricity, and utility customers are paying for it.
SMUD said it expects to raise rates slightly, starting with April’s bills, to compensate for the use of more expensive energy alternatives. Roseville’s city-owned utility has imposed a 2 percent “hydroelectric surcharge” on ratepayers since last July. PG&E consumers have been shouldering a 1.5 percent rate increase for more than a year to cover the cost of replacing inexpensive hydro.
While there’s little fear of blackouts this summer, the scarcity of water has slowed the state’s far-flung network of hydro turbines practically to a crawl. Hydroelectric production in California plunged 60 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Estimates for 2015 aren’t available yet.
That’s forcing utility companies to rely more heavily on power from natural gas-fired plants, solar farms and other sources, all of which are pricier than hydro.
Despite the water shortage, the state should be able to endure the summer with enough electricity to go around. In a preliminary forecast, the California Independent System Operator believes supplies “will be sufficient, even in the worst case scenario,” said spokesman Steven Greenlee. The ISO runs the state’s transmission grid.
Nonetheless, the drought is forcing utility managers and others to take a hard look at the network of reservoirs and dams that has become such a big part of the power picture.
California has traditionally been one of the leading hydro-producing states, trailing only Washington and Oregon. In a typical year, hydro is responsible for 15 percent of California’s electricity supply.
Last year, that sank to just 8 percent, according to federal data. That’s robbed the state of millions of megawatt hours from one of the least-expensive energy sources around.
But the biggest surprise for me in the report is that there are sliver linings to the cutback in hydropower:
[Robert B. Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission] and Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said many utilities are looking to non-carbon alternatives such as solar and wind power to offset the decline in hydro power.
“You’re seeing a really big growth in wind and solar,” Weisenmiller said.
Solar power generation in California nearly tripled last year, a growth rate that was enough to offset 83 percent of the loss in hydroelectricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. California got 5 percent of its power from solar last year and 7 percent from wind. State law requires utilities to generate one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by December 2020.
The good news is that alternatives to hydro, including renewables and gas-fired generation, have fallen in price in recent years. But they’re still more expensive than hydro.There's much more to Dale Kasler's highly informative report; the entire report is well worth the read. But I want to zero in on the passages I just quoted. It almost looks to me as if the state got in the habit of using water to make electricity even when it was feasible to switch to water-saving alternatives. And now adversity is finally giving a big leg up to technologies that will allow California to transfer oceans of water to other sectors where it's desperately needed.
And I'd assume that with more usage, the price for the alternatives will come down. Also, the report mentions that Roseville residents aren't complaining about the "hydropower surcharge," which amounts to less than $2 a month. They might start complaining if the "green" technologies replace relatively cheap carbon alternatives.
But while I'm saying this as an onlooker, sometimes it takes a hard push to move forward. Isn't it so?