A new report, Clean Energy Opportunities in California’s Water Sector, offers what could be a partial solution to California’s water problems. The authors, Juliet Christian-Smith and Laura Wisland from the Union of Concerned scientists, primarily focus on the 20 percent of California’s electricity that is consumed by the water sector. They point out that most water and wastewater utilities own assets (land, reservoirs, ponds etc) that could be used to produce renewable energy.
The California drought is increasing the state’s carbon emissions. There isn’t as much water available for hydroelectricity and production has been halved. California’s 19 proposed desalination plants will produce water, but they also need around 2,800 GWh per year. As the groundwater tables have fallen, water agencies have had to pump water from greater depths. Every one of these examples calls for more electricity, which primarily is based on fossil fuels. This “both causes increased carbon emissions and exposes customers to price volatility.”
One of the alternative examples the report holds up is Sonoma County Water Agency, which is now “carbon free” because of its extensive use of solar and hydro electricity.
“That means that no fossil fuels are burned in order to provide water services (including capturing, cleaning, and delivering drinking water to taps along with treating wastewater). This achievement is a powerful proof of concept, showing how the water sector can be a part of the state’s ambitious climate efforts,” explained Christian-Smith.
Although these are viable solutions, they unfortunately will not solve California’s main problem. A recent article in the ECOreport revealed there is no snowpack on much of the Sierra Nevada. The Truckee River, which brings life to most of California’s Great Basin, is almost empty. Governor Jerry Brown confirmed this on April 1 stating: “We are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow.” He announced that communities must reduce their water consumption by 25%. There is no record of the state’s snowpack ever being lower. A senior water scientist, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, announced the state may run out of water in a year.
Some question why he waited so long to impose restrictions. A few ask why the state’s agribusinesses is exempt from the cuts.
“While urban water conservation measures are desperately needed, Governor Brown is not calling for shared sacrifice,” said RTD Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. “What he is enacting is sacrifice by 98 percent of Californians, and the sacrifice of the most magnificent estuary on the west coast of the Americas, for the top 1 percent of water and land barons on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.”
According to Restore the Delta, an outreach organization, there is not enough water to supply the state’s massive agribusiness sector and the inhabitants of an area that stretches from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay.
These are not the issues Clean Energy Opportunities in California’s Water Sector addresses. The authors suggest there “may not be a one-size-fits-all solution.” They offer viable solutions for water and wastewater utilities, but much more may be needed to prevent an environmental disaster in California.
Lead image: Wastewater treatment plan in Oakland. The amount of electricity used by water and wastewater utilities accounts for about half of the total electricity of the water sector, or around 10 percent of California’s electricity. Photo: Google, SIO, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO via the Union of Concerned Scientists USA