Jun 3, 2021 - Energy & Environment

California's nightmare summer

In an aerial view taken on June 1, low water levels are visible at Lake Oroville in California.

In an aerial view taken on June 1, low water levels are visible at Lake Oroville in California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Golden State needs water now, right now.

Why it matters: California reservoir water levels are so low that some hydroelectric power plants may be forced offline during the peak of summer wildfire season, AP reports.

  • The state's massive water storage system is vanishing faster than usual.
  • The state’s reservoirs are 50% lower than normal, according to Jay Lund of the University of California at Davis.
  • More water isn't coming: The mountain snowpack vanished two months ahead of schedule, and California doesn't enjoy rainy summers.

All of this is ahead of the summer heat waves.

The big picture: These drought cycles are tied to climate change and are expected to worsen as population growth drives more water demand in the region, notes Axios' Bryan Walsh.

In the case of Lake Oroville in California, the reduced water levels threaten catastrophic downstream effects, AP notes.

Data: National Integrated Drought Information System; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • Salmon need cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs to spawn, and San Francisco Bay needs fresh water from the reservoirs to keep out the salt water that harms freshwater fish.
  • Farmers need to irrigate fields that are far less productive without water. Some of those fields won't yield a crop without irrigation.
  • And those lakes supply electricity: If Lake Oroville falls below 640 feet, which it could do by late August, state officials would shut down a major power plant for just the second time ever because of low water levels.

The bottom line: The Southwest is drying out, and California's large wildfires could start as soon as this month.

  • Vegetation is at near-record dry levels for this time of year, wildfire expert Craig Clements told Axios' Andrew Freedman.
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