Power and Water Collide at Lake Oroville

Power and Water Collide at Lake Oroville

Power and water are at odds in California as the extreme, multi-year drought has impacted hydropower production at Lake Oroville.

Power and water are in an epic battle in hydropower-reliant California. The multi-year “mega-drought” has reduced water levels to historic lows in Lake Oroville, the site of the tallest dam in the United States.

State officials announced last week that water levels are so low, they’ve shut down the hydropower plant that supplies up to 400 megawatts or 1 percent of the state’s peak average daily peak usage.

“The loss of the plant doesn’t mean there’s going to be more blackouts, but it raises the risk that there will be,” according to Jim Caldwell, a former assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Caldwell said the loss of the plant’s capacity could have financial effects because the lost power would likely be replaced with electricity that is less efficient and could increase emissions and pollution.

Frequent visitors to this site understand that the nexus between water, energy and food systems assures us that droughts are never simple.

The situation is ironically sad, given that a few years back, in 2017, there was so much rain that Oroville Lake overtopped the spillway and eventually eroded it, causing management officials to send water over the emergency spillway, threatening nearly 200,000 people in the valley below the dam.

The extreme drought has already significantly impacted the other point of the water-energy-food nexus – agriculture. In a dramatic step last week, the California Water Resources Control Board ordered 5,700 water rights holders, many of them farmers and irrigation districts, to stop taking water from major northern California water sources, a move one farm bureau representative referred to as “unprecedented.”

Going forward, the future for western water resources will be difficult to predict, at least until enough precipitation falls to declare the drought over, or at a minimum, lessened.