Side effect of California's drought? More climate pollution

Side effect of California's drought? More climate pollution

Water rushes out of Folsom Dam in Folsom, California, near Sacramento, on Dec. 16, 2016. The dam produced just 397 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — down from 775 million kilowatt-hours in 2011.

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Droughts are already getting longer and more severe because of human-caused climate change in the American Southwest and around the world. But the drought-climate connection goes both ways: California's prolonged dry spell has also made climate change a little bit worse.

Between 2011 and 2014, during the height of the drought, electricity production from hydropower dropped more than 60% as rivers dried up and reservoir levels fell, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. That low-carbon electricity was replaced largely by natural gas, which generates climate pollution. The result: From 2012 through 2014, the state's electricity sector generated 33% more carbon dioxide annually than it had in 2011, scientists found.

"If you look at just the California drought, the amount of additional (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere is probably not a lot. But droughts happen everywhere, all the time, throughout the world," said Amir AghaKouchak, a UC Irvine engineering professor and co-author of the study. "So we argue that the cumulative effects of these extreme events like droughts and heat waves are significant."

Side effect of California's drought? More climate pollution

The Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal that carries Colorado River water to desert farms, runs through the eastern Coachella Valley on April 15, 2015.

The hard reality, AghaKouchak said, is that urban water savings alone wouldn't have been enough. Agriculture is responsible for about 80 percent of human water use in California.

"Using less domestic water is not necessarily going to change available water for hydro by much," AghaKouchak said. "But if you include other aspects (like farming) and go for more aggressive conservation, then obviously there will be more water available for hydro."

Brown has faced criticism for ordering cities but not farms to reduce their water use, even though many farms still use inefficient flood irrigation. State water managers and agricultural interests say the industry has been getting more efficient and that many farms have been forced to cut back anyway because the state and federal governments are sending them less water.

"The lack of attention to agriculture is a huge problem," Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Desert Sun in 2015. "The number one thing that we have to do is to work with agriculture, and that may mean imposing restrictions on agriculture to become more efficient. Yes, they're making tremendous progress, but much more progress can be made."

Meanwhile, Brown's State Water Resources Control Board ended mandatory water conservation for cities earlier this year, allowing urban water agencies to set their own targets. Using a formula developed by the state, many agencies set targets of zero, including the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency. Since then, water conservation has declined statewide.

Side effect of California's drought? More climate pollution

Folsom Lake, just outside Sacramento, California, was 63 percent full on Dec. 16, 2016. But that was 130 percent of its historical average for that date, following strong rains in the area. Folsom Lake is California's ninth-largest reservoir.

In November, state water managers said they may implement a stricter formula to determine urban cutback targets, as part of a long-term plan to "make conservation a California way of life."

Californians may not face immediate consequences if the state keeps backsliding on water savings. While anything could happen over the next few months, reservoir levels are up across the state after a wet December. Forty-two percent of the state is still suffering from extreme or exceptional drought, but 30% is no longer experiencing drought — up from 3% a year ago.

Gleick, the Pacific Institute scientist, said it looks like California will have an average water year.

"At the moment, that looks like it'll be the end of the drought," he said. "At least temporarily."



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