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California’s Drought

By:
Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
Apr 18, 2017  at  at 7:10 AM
Category
Climate Change
Oroville Dam 2017

The past several years featured a never-ending stream of stories about California’s never-ending drought and its supposed roots in climate change. The past few weeks have featured a stream of stories about California’s experience with an “atmospheric river”, which effectively ended the never-ending drought.

Climate models purportedly predicted the never-ending California drought, but not the rains and snows which ended it. Some commentators were critical of California’s failure to increase water storage capacity in the face of rapidly growing population. Other commentators suggested that it made no sense to build additional reservoirs, since there would be no rain and snow available to fill them.

The recent “atmospheric river” event, in the absence of additional reservoir capacity, resulted in the loss of trillions of gallons of water which might have been stored for future use by the state’s residents and by the state’s farmers, ranchers, orchardists and wine grape growers. Those trillions of gallons of water instead flowed unproductively back to the Pacific Ocean.

The “atmospheric river” event also highlighted problems with California’s existing infrastructure, especially the Oroville dam, which was extensively damaged as the reservoir rapidly refilled, followed by massive discharge of water down the dam’s main spillway, damaging the spillway and later the emergency spillway and the downstream channel. More than 185,000 residents of homes downstream of the dam were evacuated as the result of concerns that the dam might fail, inundating their homes.

Reports later revealed that the state had allocated funds from a bond issue for reservoir expansion and maintenance, but that the funds had not been spent on those projects. The state has now requested federal emergency funds to deal with the Oroville dam problem, despite the fact that the state has budgeted and unspent state funds available to make the necessary repairs.

The key issue now is planning for the future water needs of the state’s water consumers. California needs to approximately double its reservoir capacity to match the needs of its growing population, which has roughly doubled since the last reservoir was commissioned. Those construction projects will take years, once construction begins. They might require additional years to obtain the necessary environmental approvals and adjudicate the expected environmental lawsuits and appeals before construction can begin.

California would also be wise to maximize the hydroelectric generating capacity of these new dams, to assist the state in meeting its renewable energy supply goals.

 

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