California drought drove up energy costs
One of the biggest costs of California's recent drought went largely unnoticed, according to a report that estimates state ratepayers paid $1.7 billion to replace lost hydropower with natural gas generation that also pumped millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere.
"Some of the drought's most direct and costly impacts were to air quality and California electricity ratepayers," concludes an analysis of the drought's impacts by the Pacific Institute, a Northern California think tank that focuses on water issues.
In an average year, about 15% of the electricity produced in-state comes from hydropower. Citing data from the California Energy Commission, the authors found that figure dropped to 8%-10% with falling runoff levels during the 2007-09 drought. Utilities made up for the loss by burning more natural gas and buying more power from out of state, driving up production costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions. The authors calculated that the switch to other power sources resulted in an additional 13 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The report echoes other findings that overall, the state's agricultural sector was not severely affected by the drought. Despite claims by Central Valley politicians and some media outlets that irrigation cutbacks tied to environmental regulations and the drought had turned the region into a "dust bowl," gross crop revenue in California was the highest on record in 2007 and remained close behind the following two years.
Farmers pumped more groundwater, planted fewer acres of less-profitable crops such as alfalfa and cotton and purchased water from irrigation districts unaffected by cutbacks.
The dry years coincided with the recession and statewide real estate bust, which were responsible for most of the job losses in the Central Valley, the state's farm belt.
"While unemployment increased within the valley and statewide over the drought period, job losses were concentrated in sectors not related to agriculture," wrote authors Juliet Christian-Smith, Morgan Levy and Peter Gleick. "In fact, the proportion of agricultural jobs has either remained stable or increased in the areas facing the greatest reductions in federal and state water deliveries. This finding directly contradicts claims that water shortages caused agricultural job losses."
Photo: A San Joaquin Valley cotton field abandoned during the 2007-09 drought. Credit: Phil Hawkins / Bloomberg News