Zimmerman: Drought and heat stress California’s infrastructure
Valley Water will consider having water enforcers educate residents on conservation, and in some instances issue fines for repeat violators. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    The heat this past weekend was a reminder that California’s weather is changing—and we are in a hot-zone. Parts of California, including San Jose, are actually warming faster than the global average and some parts have already reached the 2 degrees Celsius cutoff cited by scientists as the point of no return.

    California’s infrastructure isn’t ready

    If the summer of 2020 taught us anything, it’s that California’s power grid is unprepared to deal with the consequences of climate change. High winds and temperatures now necessitate public safety power shutoffs, precautionary blackouts to prevent forest fires due to downed power lines. These shutoffs can leave thousands without power for days at a time.

    The energy infrastructure also struggles with high demand. Just this past weekend area residents were warned of potential power outages in case demand outstripped supply due to high temperatures.

    Californians are used to hot weather, but there is regular summer heat and then there is climate change hot. Just this past Friday, San Jose temperatures nearly reached 100 degrees and millions of Californians spent part of the weekend under an excessive heat warning.

    The expected temperatures led Santa Clara County officials to advise vulnerable residents to stay indoors with air conditioning or make their way to available cooling centers. But cooling centers only work for short time periods and for vulnerable residents able to travel. Even healthy adults need to be careful during extreme temperatures, which is difficult for the many essential workers whose jobs require them to be outside.

    Drought conditions also impact the ability of utilities to generate hydroelectric energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association (EIA), prior to the onset of the drought in 2019 about 19% of California’s power was generated by hydroelectric. The EIA estimates that this year hydroelectric will account for just 8% of power generated.

    We have already endured two heat waves this year, one in May and one last weekend, and summer doesn’t officially start until June 20. Without adequate investments in more climate resilient electricity infrastructure, San Jose residents will continue to experience reliably unreliable power.

    Californians aren’t ready

    California is now both hotter and drier. January to March of this year was the driest on record, and currently 95% of the state is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions.

    California is now drier than it has been in the last 1,200 years. It goes without saying that the severity of the current drought, which is part of a larger mega drought that started in 2003, can be attributed to climate change. Park Williams, a climate scientist at UCLA and the author of a study looking at the intensification of the mega drought, noted that “without climate change, this would not even be close to as bad as one of those historical mega droughts.”

    Despite the beginning of this year being the driest on record, Californians have continued to increase their water usage. Water use across the state was up by almost 18% in April compared to 2020.

    For the first time ever, Valley Water has approved enforcement of water restrictions on outdoor water use. Valley Water board member John Varela said in a statement that the county needed to reduce its water consumption by 15%, largely by limiting outdoor watering. Restrictions went into effect on June 1. For those interested, Valley Water offers rebates for swapping out your lawn for a drought-resistant landscape and also have robust conservation programs. You can find water restrictions specific to you here.

    Recent scientific simulations have predicted the current drought has over a 90% chance of lasting through 2023, and has an alarmingly high 75% chance of dragging on until 2030. This means the water issue isn’t going away and will likely only get worse. It is essential that state and local governments, as well as local residents, invest in water conservation education and efforts.

    San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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