It looks like rain is coming.
But don’t get your hopes up.
California is in big trouble. Real big trouble.
And it is not simply from the fact that water availability for urban and farm use is precariously low in many parts of the state.
There are two other byproducts of reservoirs being at historical lows and the Sierra snowpack being at just 12 percent of normal at the start of February. One is the lack of hydroelectric power. The other is the curtailment of water-based recreation.
PG&E is the nation’s largest private sector operator of hydroelectric plants. Its series of 174 dams throughout northern and central California are the linchpin for the generation of 3,986 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 4 million homes or enough to meet the domestic electricity needs of roughly 10 million people a year.
It goes without saying there won’t be a lot of falling water this year going through penstocks to turbines that in turn spin generators to create electricity.
PG&E’s energy portfolio is overwhelmingly hydroelectric. They also have one nuclear power plant and several natural gas power plants. The utility’s combined energy portfolio consisting of both owned and purchased sources of electricity is composed of 11 percent major hydroelectric plants and 19 percent of “other sources.” In the latter category are small hydroelectric plants as well as solar, wind power, geothermal and biomass. The fuel for biomass plants includes the burning of almond shells that are trucked from the Manteca-Ripon area to the Crows Landing plant along Interstate 5 south of Patterson.
Most power from hydroelectric plants is sold in long-term contracts to various providers. It is normally the most sought after power and commands a higher price per kilowatt because it is eligible in many cases for renewable energy credits. It is also used to meet peak power needs such as when everyone flips on their air conditioning in late afternoons in the summer. South San Joaquin Irrigation District currently sells its share of Tri-Dam Project power in such a manner to maximize return. That is how the SSJID plans to enter into long-term, low-cost power deals to secure electricity from other sources such as natural gas fired plants to provide cheaper retail power in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.
PG&E keeps most of its hydro power for use within its own system. That is usually a good thing but when you don’t have a lot of water it causes problems. PG&E and other utilities won’t simply be able to go to the Western Power Grid and buy additional hydroelectric power to replace what it is losing to the effects of the drought. That’s because most of the hydro plants are in the western United States, which is also under multiple-year drought conditions.
Couple that with the second biggest single power source in California being shut down permanently – the San Onofre nuclear power plant – and the prospect of brownouts re-emerging this summer is very real. San Onofre generated 2,150 megawatts while Diablo Canyon’s nuclear power plant generates 2,160 megawatts.
PG&E’s series of manmade reservoirs are also a major provider of recreation, ranging from water sports and fishing to camping. The prospect of PG&E closing many of those offerings or limiting activities is very real given the water shortage.
At the same time, the SSJID would be foolish not to close Woodward Reservoir 16 miles northeast of Manteca for recreational use this year. That’s because Woodward is an off-line storage reservoir. And unlike massive reservoirs in the higher elevations, the soil beneath the reservoir lends itself to higher seepage rates. And because it is a shallow reservoir given the geographic profile of the gently rolling hills where it is located, it has a significantly larger surface per acre of water stored than places like New Melones. As a result, it has a higher evaporation rate.
SSJID measurements of water between the diversion point on the Stanislaus River at Goodwin Dam and the outlet at Woodward Reservoir shows some 38,525 acre feet of water are lost in an average year. While some of that may be due to inaccuracies in water measurements and other issues, water engineers believe the losses at Woodward can be reduced by 9,000 acre feet if it is operated at minimum levels.
That’s almost enough water to cover a full irrigation run for every farm the SSJID serves in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.
By operating Woodward at a lower level, the district runs the risk of not being able to deliver water should something happen on the main canal. Such an event is rare but it does occur. The last rock slide happened in 2012 after the irrigation season ended. That gave crews plenty of time to remove debris and repair the canal before water was needed.
And while SSJID has been aggressively lining canals and deploying state-of-the-art conservation technology on farms and for its delivery system to significantly reduce water use and loss, they are still being forced to squeeze as much water as they can out of the proverbial turnip.
Given the aggressive water stewardship of SSJID, the fact we have 16 million more Californians since the last major drought ended in 1977 and evidence pointing to dry patterns as a normal weather trend, this state needs to become permanent misers when it comes to water in order to survive and thrive.
If someone doubts that, tell them to go jump in a lake. With a little luck they might actually land in water.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 249-3519.