The Science of Sustainability

We Are the Desert: Tackling California's Water and Electricity Woes

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Long Valley is a microcosm of California: a sunny desert with a limited basin of water inside it. Photo by Andrew Alden

California is a wonderful state, and we in the Bay Area have the best of it, I think. But almost no place in the state exists in isolation any more. The twin engines of California civilization are electricity and water, and both of these are systems that integrate—or entangle, if you will—all corners of the state. As we approach the limits of our power and water, we will face some wrenching decisions with geological dimensions.

Our electricity today comes mostly from fossil fuels, which will inevitably rise in cost as their sources are depleted. The long-term trend is toward renewable/sustainable energy sources, whether that's geothermal, wind or solar electricity. State law requires this energy sector to double in size in the next eight years. (The California Energy Almanac has the basics.)

Solar electricity is in the limelight these days because growth will be easiest there. The cheapest way to go, for an energy company, is to build solar power plants of the largest possible size on vacant land. That means the desert, and a corresponding network of transmission lines to the rest of the state. But there are good reasons for the rest of us to favor smaller, local projects. Since I focus on geology, I'll cite earthquakes.

Earthquakes demand resilient infrastructure: when the big power networks go down, as they surely will, we will need local backup. Where do we have too much sun? Parking lots. Imagine if every parking lot had a solar power generator on it. Heck, just imagine parking in the shade everywhere. Operating one of these small local generators is no more complicated than managing a small apartment building or a car-repair shop. Our residential roofs get too much sun, too, and the same act of imagination leads to the same conclusion there.

Water is a different problem, because while electricity can be manufactured, water cannot. Geologists have long known, from paleo-environmental studies, that California has had large fluctuations in its climate over just the last thousand years. That means California's "deep present" is chronically in or on the edge of drought. The trend today is toward greater drought, and our demands for water are straining the natural system that means so much to us. In a word, all of California is a desert.

The state and federal government have just launched a proposal for a large pair of water tunnels that will cross the great Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta underground. We need to just get something done, something big, is the message from the governor. Like the solar electric projects, the water project hopes to proceed quickly by going where people don't live.

Both solar electricity and water demand smart leadership, of course, but that in turn demands an engaged, informed citizenry. The desert and the Delta are not far-off things; they're part of our California home. The newspapers and broadcasters will do what they can to inform us, but we will need to do our own extra homework. For solar electricity, Chris Clarke of KCET's ReWire blog keeps a steady focus on developments while speaking up for the desert. For water, Chris Austin brings news from all sides to one place at Aquafornia and researcher John Bass addresses the Delta at Delta National Park as "contested space, space that has multiple, often conflicting interests and these interests' claims to that space." Those are a good start.

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Category: Blog, Energy, Environment, Geology, Water

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.facebook.com/dale.peace.98 Dale Q Peace

    As companies and jobs go to other states, water and electricity woes will fix themselves (a Californian tired of gas prices and taxes that go way beyond the norm).

    • Anonymous

      Hello Dale,
      Out of all the water used by people in California, Agriculture uses 80% of that. All our other people and their businesses who are not related to farming/ranching only use 20%. So, no matter how many businesses/jobs leave CA, it will not have an impact on our water supply & demand – unless of course agricultural businesses leave for "greener pastures"… which is not very likely.
      Building gynormous water tunnels to divert more water from our rivers is also not the answer because our rivers are overdrawn already.
      Ag has to make changes to the crops they grow, plain and simple.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dale.peace.98 Dale Q Peace

    CaptainMike1-

    I also agree with you thoughts.I lived in the Fresno area for years and having come from the mid-west was always distraught to see the water in the valley being wasted on crops that could have been easily grown in other parts of the country where water was not such a big issue. Things like corn, soybeans, etc.

    What upsets me about gas prices (I'll leave CA taxes for another day), is recently I took a business trip to Arizona and found that as soon as I crossed the river gas prices were 50+ cents per gallon cheaper. I also travel nation wide on business and see similar disparities.

    I'm a glass half full kind of guy, but it still gets to me.