Potentially the biggest climate impact on life in California


Hydropower With a Shrinking Snowpack

And why that could show up in your electric bill

We’ve mapped all of California’s hydropower dams as part of our series on “Water and Power.”

PCWA's Ralston Powerhouse on the Rubicon River in Placer County. California typically gets about 15% of its electricity from hydro facilities inside the state..

While much is uncertain about California’s warming climate, there is little doubt that it’s already changing the fundamentals of how most of us get our water. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the Sierra snowpack could be reduced by half as soon as a decade from now.

And that has some far-reaching implications that could even show up on your electric bill.

“When you hear people talk about a depleted snowpack, it’s because of warmer temperatures and the snow just cannot stay in the hills,” says Robert Shibatani, a hydrologist and consultant to numerous government agencies. He says the “hydrograph” for California — the “usual” pattern of precipitation and runoff — is already changing. “There’s no question about it,” he told me in a recent interview. “That’s not an if. It’s not even a when, because I can tell you the when. It’s happening now.” Continue reading

The Water That Fuels California’s Power Grid

How many gallons to run that microwave?

A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.

We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.

But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.

The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.

How Power Needs Water

You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.

“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.

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19%: The Great Water-Power Wake-Up Call

Ever wonder how much juice it takes to move water?

Explore the Water and Power series and hear Dan’s story on KQED’s The California Report.

When you open that faucet, it’s more than water that’s flowing.

A few years back, number crunchers at the California Energy Commission tried to add up how much electrical power (and other forms of energy) goes into using water in California. The bottom line number they came up with: 19%. That is, nearly a fifth of all the power generated in California — as well as huge quantities of natural gas and diesel fuel consumed in the state — goes into water-related uses. You might call that report, entitled California’s Water-Energy Relationship, as The Great Wake-Up Call. The idea that so much power could go into this one vital activity—moving and treating and using water—is both stunning and captivating. And it has spurred both state agencies and water and power utilities into action.

A look at how water and power flow together.

The California Public Utilities Commission, responsible for overseeing the activities of the state’s big investor-owned electric utilities on one hand and numerous small water providers on the other, responded to the 19% number by authorizing a series of pilot projects to assess how to cut the amount of power used in connection with water. Since the CPUC is supposed to make sure that utility investments are cost-effective and don’t burden ratepayers with excessive charges, the focus of most of the pilots was on areas where utilities could get the most bang for the buck. Mostly, that turns out to be water conservation. Continue reading

A Little Lake Reveals Clues About Past Megadroughts

Scientists stumbled on Fallen Leaf Lake and the ancient trees under its surface

Scientists found important climate clues hidden away under Fallen Leaf Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe.

Graham Kent wasn’t researching megadroughts when he and a team of scientists began studying Fallen Leaf Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe. They were mapping faults. The little lake is a good place to study West Tahoe Fault, which cuts right through it.

“Little did we know it was a natural lab for droughts, as well,” Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab at University of Nevada, Reno, told me over the phone. “So what started out as a seismic hazard endeavor became both a seismic hazard and climate study.”

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Three Delta Disasters that Could Disrupt California’s Water Supply

Storms, quakes and creeping saltwater intrusion could all spell trouble at the tap

California Conservation Corps workers repairing a levee in the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The levees are a vital defense for farmland and communities but are vulnerable to sea level rise and quakes.

In the conclusion of her three part series, “California’s Deadlocked Delta,” KQED science reporter Lauren Sommer explores how climate change will affect the San Francisco Bay-Delta’s already foundering ecosystems and further complicate management of this critical hub of California’s water supply.

For those who know little about the massive estuary an hour east of downtown San Francisco, the Delta is the meeting place of two of the state’s largest river systems, the Sacramento and San Joaquin. Flowing down from Sierra snowfields and lakes, the two rivers converge in this 1600-square-mile tangle of tidal marshes, sloughs and canals. Continue reading

A Visual Deep Dive into California’s Delta

Ambitious mapping & data effort accompanies KQED multimedia series

"Deadlocked Delta" is a multilayered look at where much of California's water comes from.

If, like most Californians, you’re a bit fuzzy on why the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta matters to you, take a tour through the impressive new online resource from KQED’s science unit, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.

“California’s Deadlocked Delta” is more than a data trove for water geeks, it’s a visually pleasing deep dive into the single most important piece of California’s persistent water puzzle. It provides some eye-opening glimpses of how this critical intersection for the state’s freshwater supply has changed over generations. Continue reading

After Dry ‘Rainy Season,’ California Faces High Wildfire Risks

Exceptionally dry conditions this winter have heightened the risk of summer wildfires

By Alyson Kenward

Dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.

In California, May typically marks the beginning of a warm and dry summer season. This year, however, things are different. Not only has it been warm and dry for the past couple weeks; it’s been warm and dry for months. So dry, in fact, that officials are warning the risk of wildfires across much of the state is going to be much worse than usual, for several months to come.

According to their most recent outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts that large parts of southern and central California, along with forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, are likely to see more wildfires than normal, particularly later this summer.

“A big chunk of the state is looking at above-average wildfire risk,” said Rob Krohn, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forestry Service’s Predictive Services Branch in Riverside. According to Krohn, the exceptionally dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.
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What is the Delta, and Why Should You Care?

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: ground zero for fights over water, fish and farms

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a key to the water supply for 25 million Caliornians.

California’s Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet, is the heart of the state’s complex water infrastructure. Where water from the north gets funneled to the south, wetlands have been turned into farmland, and native fish are in decline. Millions of Californians use water from the Delta, but in a poll conducted earlier this year, 78% of respondents didn’t know anything about it.

KQED’s Lauren Sommer is producing a series about the Delta, beginning today with a story introducing the architecture of the Delta, the battles being fought there and possible solutions–all made more complicated by climate change.

And to help get you started, here’s a video.

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Controversial SF Bay Development Plan Dead in the Water — For Now

Saltworks, in Redwood City, would have built thousands of homes in salt ponds on the Bay

Salt ponds in Redwood City where the new Saltworks development is proposed.

The low-lying land along the Bay in Redwood City has been the center of a climate controversy: should the salt ponds that have been producing salt for Cargill for decades be turned into housing, or back into wetlands? Supporters of the development point out that Silicon Valley needs more housing. Supporters of the wetlands respond, birds need a place to land, too — plus, the wetlands will provide a much-needed buffer as the sea level rises.

Now, the fight is on hold: DMB Associates, the developer that is working with Cargill on a plan to turn nearly 1,500 acres of salt ponds into Saltworks, has officially withdrawn its application from the City Council of Redwood City. That’s after an ad hoc subcommittee of the council recommended that the application be denied at this coming Monday’s meeting.
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NOAA’s Margaret Davidson: Watching the Coasts, Preparing for Change

Tonight: The latest in our series of TV interviews with climate change thought leaders

As head of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center, Margaret Davidson has her eye firmly on the future of the country’s coasts, and the threats imposed from rising seas and more extreme weather. Davidson is based in South Carolina, but is a close watcher of California, where coast and climate may be on a collision course.

Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller spoke with Davidson about sea level rise and the California coast. Their conversation will air this evening on This Week in Northern California, on KQED Public Television 9.

Here’s a clip that’s not included the TV broadcast.

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