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California Drought Raises Tensions As Water Scarcity Drives Unprecedented Measures


California’s unrelenting drought is straining the state’s resources and inflaming tensions in the legislature, as crucial drought relief policies and action are delayed by competing priorities like the pandemic, homelessness, and wildfires.

Those concurrent emergencies “can’t be an excuse anymore,” said state Senator Dave Cortese (D), who added that California must make drought relief “the highest priority.”

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“These fights have to happen because we have no choice,” said Cortese. “To sit on our hands is going to result in a multiplicity of disasters and catastrophic consequences,” making it impractical to delay in hopes that the drought will end.

The three-year drought, which scientists have attributed to climate change, is linked to a longer 22-year megadrought and the region’s driest period in more than a millennium. It is worsening problems like wildfires and displaced populations, writes the Washington Post.

The megadrought is also pushing communities to make difficult environmental choices that scientists didn’t expect for decades. In Southern California, dwindling water resources are forcing conservation measures that include unprecedented limits to “non-essential” water use, or any water used for reasons other than public health, marking the most severe cutbacks ever enacted in the state and affecting about six million people, writes the Post.

“We didn’t expect these results,” said Sasan Saadat, a senior policy expert for Earthjustice. “They’re the result of the procrastination of our failures from before,” but “things will get much worse if we continue to procrastinate.” 

The drought may also end up contributing to the root of the problem—climate change—as waning hydropower output compels the state to rely more on fossil fuels to keep the lights on for residents.

Analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the extended drought could nearly halve California’s hydropower generation from 15% to 8% in a “drought case” scenario. In that event, the state would have to increase its natural gas-fired generation to compensate, leading to a 6% rise in its energy sector’s carbon dioxide emissions, writes Utility Dive.

These conditions arise as the state is shifting to a clean energy grid, with natural gas units being retired and solar capacity expanding. But California currently has a lower total share of dispatchable resources than it had seven years ago, the EIA study found.

California’s energy scarcity could be mitigated to an extent by importing energy from neighbouring states. Plus, the Western Energy Imbalance Market (WEIM)—a system that finds low-cost energy to serve real-time demand across the west—could moderate the drought’s impact by offering broader load and resource diversity. But WEIM power imports might not be available in a heat wave that encompassed the U.S.’s entire western region, reports Utility Dive.

Although California has added a lot of solar and wind in the last few years and the gas fleet will operate less, Jan Smutny-Jones, CEO of the Independent Energy Producers Association, said the state will need to keep gas power on hand “for periods of time [like] we’re experiencing right now, where we could have a long drought.”