The Grapes of Wrath, Pt. II

It is not at all uncommon for those of us whose families have deep roots in the American Midwest to make vague reference to our “kin in California”, and though some of that migration is undoubtedly reflective of “Manifest Destiny” and other 19th Century sociopolitical attitudes regarding the conquering of the western United States, many of our families took toward California for another singular reason: The Dust Bowl.

For those unfamiliar, the Dust Bowl refers both to a geographic region and a period in American history spanning roughly 10 years in which a prolonged drought, the advent of mechanized farming and more than 100,000,000 acres of over-cultivated land manifested themselves as catastrophic dirt storms and severe economic depression.

Estimates vary significantly, but historians agree that at minimum, several hundreds of thousands moved west from the Plains states — that is, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and portions of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and New Mexico — between 1930 and 1940, and that many who migrated to California never returned.

It is thus with a rather grim sort of irony that many of us still in America’s breadbasket, whose families fled toward the Pacific 80 years ago to avoid droughts in this region, are watching the current drought situation in California and other parts west unfold. And while the region’s record-breaking dry spell is by no means new news, an op-ed piece in last week’s Los Angeles Times brings the immediacy of the situation into much sharper focus.

The column, written by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior water scientist and University of California-Irvine professor Jay Famiglietti, reveals a startling reality in its headline alone: “California has about one year of water left“.

According to Famiglietti, “January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895”, with groundwater and snowpack both at all-time lows.

Data from NASA satellites shows the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins — each home to a number of hydroelectric facilities — was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014.

Meanwhile, water levels have dropped more than 12 million acre-feet per year statewide in California since 2011, with about two-thirds of those losses stemming from agricultural pumping of groundwater in the Central Valley region necessitated by surface water allocations being cut by more than 80%.

“We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too,” Famiglietti writes.

And though the news is — for the nation’s most populous state with nearly 40 million residents — disturbing to say the least, the problem is accentuated by the fact that California has no existing contingency plan for extended drought situations. Instead, Famiglietti says, the state is left to “staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

The conditions are such that some of the state’s water districts are already considering mandatory rationing, while Famgilietti also suggests that a “task force of thought leaders” begins laying the “groundwork for long-term water management strategies.”

And, in somewhat of a throwback to the creation of the federal Soil Erosion Service and other legislative actions resulting from the Dust Bowl, California Gov. Edmund Brown enacted a three-bill package known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in September 2014 that will require local agencies to establish plans for the water in their area. The legislation states that agencies must submit their plans by 2017 and adopt them by 2022, with the ultimate goal of attaining sustainability two decades following.

The problem, however, is that “it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working,” Famgilietti writes, and that “by then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain.”

I suppose then that my question — this being a publication dedicated to the hydropower industry, after all — is what can hydro possibly do to weather the drought, or is hydro, like the region’s agricultural sector, as Famgilietti states, quickly facing a proverbial creek without a paddle?

As the U.S. Energy Information Administration said just last week, hydroelectric generation in California alone dropped 8,000 GWh through 2014, with other surrounding states also suffering significant impacts.

It would seem then in my very layman’s thoughts that run-of-river projects become entirely irrelevant — much like they have in similarly drought-plagued Brazil — while reservoir-based plants are likewise susceptible given the sparse availability of surface water.

It then seems like the time might be ripe for pumped-storage to make significant strides given the fact that such systems… well… “store” water, but if there is no water available to store, what then is the purpose?

Perhaps then the Pacific Ocean itself presents the greatest hope for West Coast hydropower, but with large-scale marine and hydrokinetic installations still years from commercial viability, that option too seems unrealistic. And even though pumped-storage projects in other countries have begun relying on ocean-fed reservoirs, that solution still does not answer what are much broader issues than energy production.

It is without question a pivotal (if not precarious) time for hydro in the west, and in somewhat cruel coincidence, the current impacts are being felt hardest at many of the projects spawned as a direct result of the Dust Bowl eight decades ago and the Works Progress Administration created thereafter.

So what then can the hydropower sector do to survive now? Does the industry reverse course, strap Granny Clampett’s rocking chair to the top of the family Oldsmobile and head back east? Or, like those of us Okies whose families remained in the Midwest through the Dust Bowl, does it continue scratching dirt with the hope that happier days will indeed be here again?

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for

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