Drought ravages California’s waters ahead of hot summer | Business news



ADAM BEAM, Associated Press

OROVILLE, California (AP) – Each year, Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the country’s crops, maintain endangered salmon under its massive earthen dam, and bolster the northern region’s tourism economy. California a county that seemingly needs to rebuild every year after relentless wildfires.

But now the mighty lake – the pivot in the aqueduct and reservoir system in the arid western United States that makes California possible – is shrinking at an astonishing rate amid severe drought, and state officials predict it will hit an all-time low this summer.

Although California experiences frequent droughts, this year is much hotter and drier than others, with water evaporating faster from water bodies and thinner mountain ranges. Nevada the snow cover that feeds them. More than 1,500 reservoirs in the state are 50% lower than they should be at this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the UC Davis Watershed Research Center.

On Memorial Day weekend, dozens of houseboats stood on cinder blocks near Lake Oroville because there was not enough water for them. Blackened trees grew along the steep, withered banks of the reservoir.

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In nearby Lake Folsom, usually noisy boat docks lay on land, their buoys warning ghost boats of slowing down. Vacationers took the dusty banks of the river further north, near Lake Shasta.

But the impact of dwindling waterways extends beyond luxury yachts and weekend fishing trips. To spawn, salmon need cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs. The Gulf of San Francisco needs fresh water from reservoirs to keep out salt water, which is harmful to freshwater fish. Farmers need water to irrigate crops. Businesses need full tanks for people to come and play and spend.

And everyone needs water to run the hydroelectric power plants that supply most of the state’s energy.

If Lake Oroville falls below 640 feet (195 meters) – which could be by the end of August – government officials will shutdown the large power plant for only the second time due to low water levels, causing power grid congestion during peak demand. the hottest part of summer.

In Butte County, Northern California, low water levels trigger another emotion: fear. In 2018, the county was hit by the deadliest bushfire in the United States in a century, killing 85 people. Last year, another 16 people died in the fire.

Walking along the Bidwell Canyon Trail last week, 63-year-old Lisa Larson should have had a good view of the lake. Instead, she saw dried grass and trees.

“It makes me feel like our planet is literally drying up,” she said. “It makes me feel a little alarmed because the drier it gets, the more fires we have.”

Drought is a part of life in California, where the Mediterranean climate means that summers are always dry and winters are not always wet. State reservoirs act as a savings account, storing water during wet years to help the state survive dry years.

Last year was the third driest year on record in terms of rainfall. On Memorial Day weekend, temperatures in much of California hit three-digit numbers earlier than expected. Government officials were surprised earlier this year when some 500,000 acre feet (61,674 hectares) of water that they expected to enter the reservoirs never showed up. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply up to two households in one year.

“During the previous drought, it took (the reservoirs) three years to reach as low as in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.

The lake has a record low level of 646 feet (197 meters), but the Department of Water Resources predicts it will sink below that level sometime in August or September. If that happens, the state will have to close boat ramps for the first time due to low water levels, according to Aaron Wright, chief of public safety for North Butts County in California state parks. The only boat access to the lake is an old dirt road built during the construction of the dam in the late 1960s.

“We have a reservoir there that cannot be used. Now what? said Eric Smith, Oroville City Councilor and president of its Chamber of Commerce.

Water levels in Lake Mendocino – a reservoir along the Russian river in Northern California – are so low that state officials last week cut water for 930 farmers, businesses and other young rights holders.

“If we do not immediately cut water withdrawals, there is a real risk of emptying Lake Mendocino by the end of this year,” said Eric Ekdahl, deputy director of the Water Rights Division of the State Council for Water Resources.

Low water levels in California will severely limit the amount of electricity the state can generate from hydropower plants. When Lake Oroville fills up, the Edward Hyatt power plant and others nearby can generate up to 900 megawatts of electricity, said Behzad Soltanzadeh, chief of utilities in the Department of Water Resources. One megawatt is enough to power 800 to 1000 homes.

This leaves some local officials worried about power outages, especially after the state ran out of power last summer during a heat wave that triggered California’s first intermittent power outages in 20 years. But energy officials say they are better prepared this summer, with an additional 3,500 megawatts of power ahead of the hot summer months.

Low levels challenge travel officials. Bruce Spangler, president of the board of directors of Explore Butte County, grew up in Oroville and has fond memories of fishing with his grandfather and how to launch and operate a boat before he learned to drive. But this summer, his organization needs to be careful about marketing the lake given the expectations of visitors, he said.

“We have to make sure we don’t promise what cannot be,” he said.

The low level of the lake has not yet stopped the arrival of tourists. With coronavirus restrictions lifted across the state, Wright – a Northern California state parks official – said that most parks in his area have double attendance than usual at this time of year.

“People are trying to recreate and use objects, especially since (because) they know they will lose them here in a few months,” he said.

Associated Press writer Brian Melli from Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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