Palm Springs

Megadroughts: Our Future

Usually Seattle has cloudy skies and constant drizzle between mid October and late June and, to be honest, I was not looking forward to leaving Southern California for this weather. This winter, however, has been so mild. We’ve had as few as none and no more than four rainy days a week, which in comparison to just last year is nothing. The sun is shining now and it reached nearly 70 degrees just a couple of days ago. We're supposed to be smack dab in the middle of our very long rainy season! Clearly, the climate is changing. Not only are we Seattleites not getting a whole lot of rain or snowfall, but Californians have also received so little that there is approximately one year of water left. ONE year. That’s it.

A NASA water scientist calculated that all reservoir water, groundwater and backup supply water for the state of California will only last through the next year. Last winter, there
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was a drastic decrease in rain and snowfall and this year, there has been even less.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough urgency surrounding this issue. There have been a few local water restriction efforts set up throughout the state, but the golf courses in Palm Springs continue to be lush and green and not enough Los Angeles residents are participating in the Cash for Grass Rebate Program to alter their lawns. There hasn’t been a huge drive to create or enforce a statewide water conservation campaign.

To top it off, NASA predicts “megadroughts” to take over the Southwest and Great Plains starting sometime during the second half of this century. Each megadrought can last between 10 years and a few decades. So if you notice that our current water crisis is making it harder for Californians to live, farm, raise cattle, etc., just wait. This year, areas all over the state have had increased problems with water theft, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are fallowing an increased number of plots and reservoirs are at record lows. I hate being a Debbie Downer, but this is our future. 

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Most Californians, instead of creating a strategy to deal with this situation, just stare at the sky, hoping for a few drops of rain. Hoping won’t cut it at this point. The public needs to be involved in and prepared to substantially reduce water consumption and dependency, even more so than they have. Laws need to be implemented that will combat these issues with groundwater sustainability plans, enforced water use limitations and efficient technology innovations. Think we can do it? I do. But we need to act. The longer we wait, the less likely change and improvements will not only happen but be effective.

Update: Governor Brown and California lawmakers develop strategies for drought mitigation. And as of April 1st, water restrictions have been imposed, calling for 25% reduction on California's supply agencies. That's what I call progress!

The winds of change power renewable energy growth in California

I drove through Tehachapi a few weeks ago as dawn was breaking. Snow flurries fluttered as I watched the sun rise over the thousands of turbines that line the hills along Highway 58, and I hearkened back to the 1980s when I was a newspaper reporter in Palm Springs.

The wind energy industry was one of my beats. The blustery pass along Interstate 10 was just beginning to sprout turbines, and I found them fascinating. Today, that pass near Palm Springs is one of the top three wind-energy sites in the state - along with Tehachapi in Kern County and Altamont Pass in Alameda County.

Wind energy accounts for about 5% of California's total electricity needs. Capacity has nearly doubled since 2002, with more than 900 megawatts installed in 2011 alone - more than in any other state. Most of those installations were near Tehachapi, according to the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA).

All that wind will help California reach - and possibly exceed - its goal of 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. This story, which focuses on solar power, quotes an advisor to Gov. Brown saying the state could double that 33 percent mark.

(As a side note, the same article notes that Kern County also is becoming a leading solar center, thanks to large utility-scale projects proposed in the high deserts not far from Tehachapi.)

All this renewable power leads to other questions, like, how will it all be transmitted? The keeper of the grid has some thoughts about that here.

Whether the wind continues to blow at the back of the wind-energy industry in California remains to be seen. Projects in Kern, Solano, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties are expected to add 1,200 megawatts of power and create 1,000 construction jobs in 2012, but 2013 could see a slowdown if Congress fails to extend a tax credit that is before the Senate, says Nancy Rader, executive director of CalWEA.

"We need Congress to extend the wind energy production tax credit very soon to keep up that momentum," Rader said recently.

Nationally, things started slowing in 2010, when the number of new wind power fell 49% from 2009. "Clearly, the financial crisis crippled the U.S. economy and, along with it, the wind industry," PIKE Research says in a fourth-quarter 2011 report.

The United States is the second-largest wind market in the world. As a region, North America was third in the number of installations in 2009, and is expected to fall further behind Asia Pacific and Europe, PIKE reports.

Despite that, PIKE forecasts that about $145 billion worth of turbines will be installed offshore and onshore in North America by 2017. Moreover, wind energy has reached grid parity in some parts of the U.S. market – a trend that will continue.

Video from U.S. Department of Energy

Could "Occupy Clean Energy" Be Next?

I was a cop reporter in Palm Springs for a period in the mid-1980s. The community was a spring break mecca for college students and, as luck would have it, I decided one spring day to make a last run through town.

It was about 4 p.m. when I came upon a park in north Palm Springs filled with students. They were just milling around, but electricity filled the air. I just knew something was about to happen.

I called my boss at the newspaper and told him I was going to hang out for awhile. "Something is about to pop," I said.

Boy, did it. The riot started when a motorcyclist with a case of beer strapped on the back rode past the park. The beer was hijacked and the rumble was on. Hundreds of students trampled through downtown as cops in riot gear and firing tear gas tried to stop them. The crowd finally dispersed several hours later, and I had the lead story the next day.

I mention this because I'm feeling the same tingle that I did that April day so many years ago. I sense that something big is about to pop with clean energy and energy efficiency. (And I wouldn't be surprised if young people are involved; they are demanding progress on the energy front.)

Out-of-touch Legislators may not realize yet, but the undercurrent is strong. Big Business, the military, local governments, schools and average citizens are waking up and recognizing that creating cleaner and cheaper energy is good for the environment, and is smart economically.

We've written about Walmart and other businesses discovering green is good - especially when it comes to energy efficiency. A relatively minor investment can yield huge results when it comes to conserving energy at houses, businesses, government facilities and hotels.

Clean-energy followers are getting restless. We see with Occupy Wall Street what can happen when the restless are moved to action. Will Occupy Clean Energy be next?

Photo of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway