Jim Firth: The new water reality
Climate Change is real. This opinion piece is not about whom or what caused it, but rather how we deal with it. I did write an opinion piece last April entitled, “When the Well Runs Dry” that summarized conditions that may lead up to mandatory water rationing. Fortunately, we’re not there — yet.
The following statement was in the April piece: “Western Nevada County doesn’t possess the aquifer storage ability that Truckee and much of the rest of rural California enjoy. The water in western Nevada County comes from rainfall and melting snowpack. We haven’t seen much of either in the last six months or three years.” California’s biggest source of fresh water is in peril. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change shows the Sierra snowpack shrinking substantially in the years to come.
According to the scientists studying snowfall patterns in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Northern Sierra will see much lower snow levels in the coming decades. A study by Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh suggests that over the rest of this century we’ll see a dramatic decline in what’s often called California’s “frozen reservoir.”
In the Lake Tahoe region, climatologist Kelly Redmond, who has been tracking patterns in the Sierra for 25 years at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, says the “freezing level” — the elevation at which temperatures dip to freezing — has hovered at around 10,200 feet, or about 3,000 feet higher than the long-term average. That means less snow stored in the high peaks for use in summer.
This year, 2015, has the lowest snowpack in the Northern Sierra in the last 1,200 years. You read that correctly, based on scientific research by Kevin J. Anchukaitis, a paleoclimatologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who studied the state’s current precipitation levels and drought severity compared with centuries past. The study concluded that, “in terms of cumulative severity drought during the three-year period from 2012-14 “stands out in the context of the last millennium” and over the last 1,200 years, researchers estimated that three-year droughts occurred about 37 times.”
“The lack of precipitation between 2012 and 2014 was not “unprecedented.” There were times near the turn of the 20th century and the early 16th century when there was less rain in a three-year drought period. Higher temperatures, though, may have exacerbated the current drought by as much as 36 percent. Combined with low rainfall, those conditions made this drought California’s worst in more than a millennium. “I0t was a surprise,” Anchukaitis said of the severity finding. “I don’t think we expected to see that at all.”
According to Remleh Scherzinger, general manager of Nevada Irrigation District (NID), Nevada County has succeeded in following the State of California requirement that Nevada County reduce its water distribution by 36 percent. Now, more is being proposed.
The Centennial Reservoir and Power Supply Project facility (previously named the Parker Reservoir site) is proposed in southern Nevada County between Rollins Reservoir and Lake Combie on the Bear River.
The narrow 6-mile stretch of the Bear River was first identified as a future reservoir site in 1926. NID has held this site in reserve for a new water storage and power producing facility. Construction is anticipated to begin as soon as 2021, if all economic and environmental issues are addressed and resolved.
An economic feasibility study will be undertaken to determine if this new reservoir will be cost effective during its operational lifetime. Very preliminary cost estimates indicate that this new facility could cost $200 million. NID intends to pay for the facility from revenue generated by power sales. No “tax” money is being sought, although if the State of California wants to assist with some funding, NID spokesperson Remleh Scherzinger is open to a conversation about the state’s participation.
Nevada County residents will have extensive opportunities to “weigh in” on the proposed new reservoir and power plants. As an environmentally conscious community many residents believe that reservoirs might not be the best (or only) answer to meeting the current and future water needs of our county.
Water conservation measures currently implemented in Nevada County are helping. A “Brown is the new Green” banner is planted in front of the NID headquarters building in Grass Valley. Lawns throughout the county are disappearing, residents are taking fewer showers or baths, and local restaurants only serve water on request. Ranchers and farmers are cutting back their water consumption, and many “specialty” farms have adopted best practices in cultivating their crops. All of these efforts are necessary.
But, we will still need additional water storage to offset the loss of snowmelt.
Jim Firth is chairperson of the Nevada County Democratic Central Committee. His opinions are his own, and not those of any organization.
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