Dirty Thirties Okies see another drought effect in California

I live in Oklahoma, and if one harkens back to the Dust Bowl days, it is easy to see correlations from then to what is happening now in California.

In the 1930s, who many recall as the “Dirty Thirties,” improper farming techniques and severe drought led to catastrophic damage of the U.S. and Canadian prairies. Loose soil driven by howling prairie winds became airborne, thus destroying prime farmland.

Historical records tell us many Oklahoma farmers, “Okies,” and their families loaded up their belongings and moved to California. Now, another type of erosion may have an additional negative affect on land, which could impact dams and hydroelectric facilities.

This time rain, causing crazy landslides from arid soil erosion, will send sediment into catchments facilities. Debris, as has been seen in the recent South Carolina flooding, could adversely affect dams.

On Thursday, Oct. 15, heavy rains affected the geology in areas of California that sent waves of mud cascading down hillsides left bone dry from years of drought. The mudslides were so severe in some areas that homes were covered to their rooftops in mud and interstate highways were shut down.

With talk and forecasts of rain from El Nino on the minds of many, could the expected precipitation affect dam safety?

According to Bob Spencer, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works in Southern California, the county is ready for sustained rains. Drought has provided plenty of time to get ready for the rains, unlike the massive Feb. 6, 2010, downpours that wreaked havoc on many facilities in Southern California.

Large quantities of precipitation falling in a short amount of time would cause problems, but sustained rains are not expected to be as problematic, Spencer said.

According to published reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is saying it is too soon to be certain how much blame El Nino can receive for the storm on Oct. 15, because El Nino tends to affect the frequency of storms more than their severity. But, if it is the beginning of a wave of El Nino-linked rainstorms, Californians should start bracing for more flooding and mudslides.

All models surveyed predict El Nino to continue into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2016, and all multi-model averages predict a peak in late fall/early winter. According to NOAA, “The forecaster consensus unanimously favors a strong El Nino, with peak 3-month SST departures in the Nino 3.4 region near or exceeding +2.0 degrees Celsius. Overall, there is an approximately 95% chance that El Nino will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, gradually weakening through spring 2016.”

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Gregory B. Poindexter formerly was an associate editor for HydroWorld.com.

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