Pacific Gas & Electric Company and the California Department of Water Resources recently completed snow surveys in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The conclusion: below-average water content, despite healthy snowfall precipitation in March. However, due to state reservoirs being well-stocked from the previous water year, California homes, farms, and businesses will likely get through the summer without the dreaded “d” word (drought) surfacing in conversations. Prudent conservation is and will always be needed to protect our water supply.
Despite the below-average water content in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, today’s news is full of flood warnings due to warm spring storms that originate in the Pacific and deliver rain below the elevations of most Sierra peaks. The annual phenomenon of warm rains striking a water-rich Sierra snowpack has, in the past, created the not-so-perfect storm, or one that would induce widespread flooding like that which occurred in 1986 and 1997. While there is a flood risk associated with rain-induced snow melt from seemingly all too frequent Pacific storms, or atmospheric rivers striking our mountains at times most vulnerable for accelerating runoff, hydroelectric power operators along the western Sierra slope can benefit from the bounty of renewable power generated by this snowmelt. It will provide firm, reliable baseload generation and backup support for abundant solar and wind capacity. Nature is giving us a gift, and we need to be smart enough to know how to accept it and use it wisely.
The ability to control, contain, and convey variable runoff flows remains a challenge in California and throughout the West. Ensuring that our reservoirs and dams are up to task after years of drought has put new priorities into play on water infrastructure. We have made solid progress in several areas such as flood control, groundwater recharge, wastewater recycling, while taking advantage of synergies for renewed habitat and recreation enhancement. Recent developments in hydropower include control systems optimized for demand response, in-conduit hydropower generators, pumped storage for absorbing excess solar/wind generation, and fish passage improvements at dams, which have contributed to improved operation and capacity utilization while minimizing environmental impact.
Despite these continued efforts, there is still significant work to be done to optimize dam safety, particularly in response to increased severity of spring storms. Along with improving dam safety, there is opportunity to consider adding hydroelectric generation capabilities to dams without existing generators, and while assessing dam safety, to consider making improvements for re-operation in response to the abundance of wind and solar energy resources which have recently become available.
Recognizing how we can proactively use nature’s gift to improve and support water infrastructure is better than playing defense each year. If you are facing or contemplating how to manage the opportunities and challenges associated with this topic, Advisian is available to help.Advisian is the independent consulting arm of the WorleyParsons Group, providing true end-to-end offerings for clients, with approximately 2,700 consultants across 19 countries. Our Folsom, California Hydropower/Watershed Services team stands ready to assist clients with strategy, management, and technical consulting expertise with deep domain knowledge, backed by real-world experience.