When the heavens don’t open

Commentary, Energy, Graham Lane

In the midst of a multi-year drought, California could use a few feet and more of that high drift of snow that now blocks your view as you approach an intersection. With a population of 38 million and a huge agricultural industry requiring massive amounts of water every year, the cycles of nature bring painful realization too slowly into the conscientiousness of the populace and its political leaders.

Manitoba also experiences wide weather fluctuations. Some years bring floods, other years too little water. Climatologists say we should expect increased weather variability in the future, bringing both years of higher than normal temperatures and precipitation and others of too much cold and too little water. We need to act now to prepare for the next drought.

My wife and I spend a few months each year in Palm Springs, where the sun shines warmly at least 350 days each year. The rain clouds are stopped by the mountains that ring the Coachella Valley. Rainy days are few and far between. With the southwestern drought now into its third year, changes aimed at reducing water usage are increasingly being discussed. Unfortunately, while the discussions are wide-ranging the changes have, at least so far, been far too modest.

Our condo development is cutting back on grass in favour of rocks and sand, and is installing better in-ground sprinkler heads. Still, none of the units in our development have water meters, so much for affecting consumption through higher water bills. The summer and fall of 2013 brought wildfires and mudslides perilously close to Palm Springs, one fire came within a mile of our condo, the mudslide that followed went straight through the golf course beside our development. Mudslides occur after fires destroy the trees that hold soil in place.

Palm Springs was once the playground of the Hollywood elite, and has hosted every American president back to Eisenhower. Now, while celebrities still come, their numbers are “drowned” out by the tens of thousands of snowbirds who descend upon the Coachella Valley each year. Ninety years ago, the members of an aboriginal tribe were the predominant residents. While they are still here, there are almost 400,000 others putting pressure on what was once an abundance of water.

The cities of the valley host hundreds of golf courses and every hotel and condo development offers multiple swimming pools. The infrastructure of the water supply is largely paid for by state and federal grants, most of the rest by municipal property taxes. So far, consumers, residential and commercial, only pay for the treatment and distribution of water.

An aquifer provides much of the valley’s water, the subject of a recent court challenge by the Indian tribe which claims ownership — if the tribe wins, water wars of the financial kind will explode. The rest of the valley’s water comes from the Colorado River, which is used by a number of upriver states. So much water is taken from the river that it doesn’t make it to the ocean anymore.

With the United States and Canada reliant on California’s abundant produce industry, it is not only the farmers who want to keep the desert blooming. Now, with the industry at risk from the drought, the pressure is on California legislators.

The Republicans want desalinization plants, such as you find in Israel, another parched land. The Democrats fret over the risk desalinization poses for plankton, and seek better water storage and aqueducts. There is too little talk about increasing water efficiency and driving up the bills to better represent the true cost of the water supply. But, these discussions will come.

Manitoba’s last drought occurred from late 2002 to the spring of 2004, cutting hydro-electric generation about 40 per cent. Hydro bought out export commitments, ran its coal and single-cycle gas plants and imported power to meet its power needs. The utility lost $436 million and PUB upped rates by 9.5 per cent to allow Hydro to recover.

We are overdue for another drought. And, in our history there have been droughts much worse than 2002-2004. Between 1928 and 1942, Manitoba experienced 12 years of drought. Can you imagine the implications for our economy, let alone our monopoly utility and its ratepayers if a long drought reoccurred? Hydro has shut down its coal plant and its single-cycle gas turbines are uneconomic. As for importing power, most of it would be expensive and comes from coal-fired generation.

We, just like California, need to get ahead of the next drought. Unlike California, which does these things already, we need to implement much more aggressive energy efficiency measures. As well, we need diversity of supply. Betting on hydro-electric power alone simply makes no sense.