Hydro Loss

Pine Flat Dam is shown in flood release mode in 2011. This year, the hydroelectric power plant is expected to produce 20 percent of its normal output. (The Reedley Exponent)

HANFORD — Recent focus on groundwater overdraft amid punishing drought has spurred yet another spin-off discussion: Will power companies run out of electricity in the hot summer months?

The issue goes beyond the possibility that your air conditioner or swamp cooler might shut off. It extends to growers who are dependent on electric well pumps to keep their crops alive. With so little available water, there’s little margin for error.

The fear for Lemoore farmer Craig Pedersen and others is that the reduction in hydroelectric power from low reservoirs around the state will remove an important part of the utilities’ power generation portfolio at a time when it’s needed the most.

With electric pumps working 24/7 to pull water up from deep underground, rolling “brownouts” or something similar could deprive thirsty plants of water at a critical stage in their development.

“The demand is going to be quite large,” said Pedersen. “Any interruption in power service tends to have pretty large impacts.”

So will there be “rolling brown-outs,” as some Kings County water-watchers are predicting? Not likely, according to Brian Thoburn, a spokesman for Southern California Edison.

“We expect to meet the demand this summer,” he said. “That means keeping reliability in place and meeting the demand under normal circumstances.”

Thoburn’s take is backed up by data on the California Energy Commission website. Utilities have developed multiple sources of renewable energy such as solar, wind, etc. to add to the mix. As a result, hydroelectric power plants are providing a smaller and smaller percentage of total power use.

In 2012, only 7.5 percent of California’s power consumption came from hydro. From 2000-2010, the percentage ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent.

There’s an additional factor that makes it more likely the state will avoid the kind of power shortages that occurred in the summer of 2006, when some human residents and thousands of livestock animals died from a sweltering heat wave. According to an article in National Geographic magazine, in the wake of the 2006 “heat storm,” regulations were adopted requiring utilities to develop a power reserve 15 percent greater than their forecasted demand.

Thoburn said that Edison counts agricultural water wells as “shadow demand” in wet years, when less pumping occurs. According to him, the system is built to handle the surges that occur in drought periods.

“[Engineers] expect this year to obviously be a heavy demand,” Thoburn said. “This gets calculated into our forecast.”

It’s just that this year the state is so extraordinarily dry, it’s making local water gurus question everything.

One thing triggering all the skepticism is unusual actions taken by state water officials after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. The State Water Quality Control Board has issued orders cutting back normal flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River to the delta. For periods of time, the board has limited pumping out of the delta to 1,500 cubic feet per second. The idea is to hold back more water in reservoirs to meet fishery, health and safety needs through summer and into fall, when more precipitation could take some of the pressure off.

For a time, it seemed as if absolutely no water would be pumped out of the delta for agriculture, even to senior water rights holders on the San Joaquin River whose claims date as far back as 1871, before the water infrastructure even existed. After a backlash, state officials relented but warned that the easing could be short-lived if the state doesn’t get more rain.

“There’s weird stuff going on in this water business,” said Don Mills, Kings County Water Commission member.

Federal and state water project operators have already forecast a zero percent allocation for Kings County’s agricultural water contractors. It was the first no-water allocation in State Water Project history.

That means growers are furiously pumping groundwater even as they hope and pray for more rain and snow.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when there will be this demand on the system,” said Pedersen. “We’re kind of in uncharted waters here.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.

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