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The Great Western Drought Will Affect Us All; Hydropower Threatened

image credit: Bureau of Reclamation
Llewellyn King's picture
Executive Producer White House Media, LLC

Llewellyn King is the creator, executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing nationwide on PBS and public, educational and government...

  • Member since 2018
  • 54 items added with 57,438 views
  • Jun 19, 2021 3:19 pm GMT

The severe drought gripping the Western states looks set to reach into all lives in the nation and into every pocket.

The unbearable heat for those living in the West, with record-high temperatures stretching from Wyoming to the Mexican border and from the Pacific to the Mississippi, will impact the rest of the country as well.

Scientists have classified this monstrous baking as a megadrought. There hasn’t been regular rain or mountain snow in the West for more than 20 years.

To call it a scorcher is to underestimate a catastrophe that has the possibility of reaching near-biblical proportions. This is big and there is no quick fix. None.

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The drought means epic disruptions, merciless rearrangement.

First, of course, there is no water, which means much economic activity may slow or cease. Farmers won’t be able to grow crops or raise livestock. Food prices that are already high from the pandemic’s disruptions will go even higher.

The electricity supply will be strained and may be curtailed because of reduced hydroelectric production. The 13 Western states get more than 22 percent of their electricity from hydropower dams, located mostly in Washington, according to the National Hydropower Association.

In today’s world, farmers depend on electricity to water crops and livestock, milk cows, dry grain, and freeze produce.

The first measurable disruption of the summer will be from breakdowns in the California food supply chain. Prices in supermarkets will reflect the impact of the drought on California, which acts as the nation’s truck farm. If you eat it, it grows in California, but only when there is water for irrigation.

The rivers of the West are running dry. The reserves of water in the great dams on the major rivers, especially the Columbia and the Colorado, which act as the lifelines of much of the West, are way below normal.

Manufactured goods from Western states will be affected if power shortages are extended and widespread. Wildfires will abound and have already started their annual scourge.

In quality-of-life terms, electricity shortages will be particularly brutal for the people living in areas served by the grid in the West, known as the Western Interconnection. Without air conditioning, many people will feel like they have taken up residence in hell. Lives will be lost.

The historical move of Americans from the Northeast to the South and Southwest will be in question, if not reversed.

Droughts aren’t ended because it rains. It takes years of sustained precipitation, ideally falling gently, to restore that which the heat has taken away.

According to those who keep track of these things, the West isn’t the only part of the country suffering drought. Most states are reporting reduced rainfall, including the traditional soggy regions of New England.

No one can predict when the Great Western Drought will break, but political fights breaking out over the distribution of what water remains, followed by litigation, are foreseeable.

Living through drought is a uniquely joyless experience as clear blue skies change from being emblematic of nature’s bounty to being the cruelest of deceptions, the smiling face of betrayal.

Science can come to the rescue, as it did in the record speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed. But usually, it takes a long time, as with fracking which changed energy shortage to energy abundance. That took decades.

Finally, beware of brave talk about desalination. That takes a lot of energy and, if it is to be done at a meaningful scale, a giant new environmental problem results: What to do with millions of tons of salt?

We used to worry about climate change in Africa, an electrical engineer in San Francisco told me, but now we have to worry about it in California. Actually, everywhere.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 19, 2021

In coming years desalination will become critical in California, and force re-evaluation of the shutdown of Diablo Canyon. There's no possible way renewables could get the job done.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 21, 2021

Quite notable for many reasons, but indeed the idea that hydropower-- the renewable without the intermittency problems-- could see these climate-caused interruptions is alarming for those regions that have built up a heavy suite of hydropower resources. A scary example of the spiraling impacts of climate change

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 21, 2021

Lew, You are very right the Mega drought is affecting hydro power and many other things. Climate change is the cause but we have ignored that for too long. 

   I am very interested to see why you didn't mention the huge amount water used by coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants. In Arizona the triple nuclear reactors boil away 60 million gallons of water a day. It is not waste water. COAL uses even more.  Solar PV uses no water and makes no pollution. You also didn't mention conservation and cutting waste. 

     You are right that distillation is a poor solution with many more problems. Saudi Arabia and others have tried it with the salt problem causing them to stop it. 

    So what do you propose as the answer?  

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 22, 2021

Ever considered how solar panels are cleaned? Has to be fairly often in the desert because dust buildup significantly drops output. Need to use some water with few minerals in it.

Air cooled condensers solve the power plant water use issue, but plant output can drop several percent. Gas turbines can use inlet air cooling refrigeration systems instead of evaporative cooling systems, but net output will likely drop some.

The Palo Verde nuclear plant uses waste water from Phoenix.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 23, 2021

I have never cleaned my solar panels. I put them in Jan 2001.

There is no such thing as waste water. A friend worked at the private water company that had to clean that water up to 1 step from drinking water. 1 step away so they can call it waste water. 60 Million a day is a lot. 

Brendan Kelly's picture
Brendan Kelly on Jun 22, 2021

I can't tell how much is hype and how much is real. For sure there is a drought, and for sure it is impacting hydropower.  The Hyatt Power Plant on Lake Oroville is in imminent risk of going offline - but - is the same Lake Oroville that nearly burst because of too much water in 2017 when an atmospheric river ended California's last drought. 

In March 2021 the Bureau of Reclamation published its West-Wide Climate and Hydrology Assessment. The 423 report includes a statutorily mandated 5 year update to the Secure Water Act reporting.  While the impact of hydropower is discussed there are no alarm bells indicating an immediate emergency.

With EnerKnol I can monitor discussions about drought and hydropower across hundreds of agencies and I may be missing it but I'm not seeing an emergency.... yet.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 22, 2021

Fundamental problem is too many people living in a region that is dry with mega droughts occurring from time to time.  The Rio Grande became a mere trickle when I was a kid because so much water was diverted. Ditto for the Colorado river.

Need to move to more tertiary treatment of waste water systems with more recycling of water for potable water.

Better irrigation systems that trickle water down, as opposed to spraying water.

Power plants on the coast can use the ocean with minor impacts. Inland units can use air cooled condensers.

Advanced reverse osmosis systems can provide some potable water for coastal areas. The salt can be mixed with water discharged by waste treatment plants.

Data centers can use closed cycle refrigeration systems with air cooled condensers.

All of these solutions will require more power.

Get rid of the crypto miners.

That brings me to deploying efficient advanced gas turbine power plants, efficient advanced nuclear power plants both relying on air cooled condensers. Judicious use of renewable assets. Advanced coal gasification power plants in inland area near coal resources might help, but the cost may be too high.

In closing, man made climate change is not the issue (assuming it even exists). The fundamental problem is too many people living in dry regions while dismally providing for the necessary water and energy infrastructure because of fear of radical environmentalists.

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