Column: There’s a bright side to all the California storms — more clean power and groundwater

Drought-busting storms this season have given California priceless opportunities on two ecological fronts.

We’re practically drowning in water already, and the heavy runoff of record Sierra snow hasn’t even begun.

First, we’ll have previously unimagined volumes of water to generate clean hydroelectric power. That means burning less dirty fossil fuel and less likelihood of power blackouts.

Hydro has been a basically overlooked benefit of our three-month drenching.

Second, we can now earnestly pursue the ambitious task of refilling our depleted underground reservoirs, the sinking aquifers that have been irresponsibly overpumped for decades, mostly by farmers.

But it’s not as easy as it might seem. Water doesn’t easily percolate everywhere. Sometimes it just evaporates unused, as is likely in the huge, newly reborn Tulare Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

These storms have wreaked havoc in many regions — bursting levees, flooding crops, inundating residential neighborhoods and washing out roadways.

But they’ve been a godsend — at least for this year — in the fight against climate change and our attempt to increase production of clean energy, weaning us off global-warming natural gas in generating electricity.

And there’ll be lots more water to replenish aquifers, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, where hundreds of wells have gone dry and the land has dramatically sunk, cracking pipes and canals.

We have undreamed-of water riches this spring after a three-year drought. It’s now up to governments and utilities to take advantage of it.

As of Tuesday, the statewide snowpack was an astounding 241% of normal for the date. For the northern Sierra, it was double normal. For the southern Sierra, it was triple.

Reservoirs were rapidly filling. Shasta was at 84% of capacity, Oroville 83% and San Luis 99% after being perilously low in the fall. There’ll be a tight squeeze to make room for the warm-weather runoffs when the snow melts.

For most big dams, hydroelectric generation will be an unexpected bonus. But hydro is not a top priority for federal and state water projects. Reservoirs are built at great cost — mainly to water users — for snowmelt storage and flood control.

There’s usually an opportune confluence, however, of the needs for crop irrigation and hydro generation in summer when farms thirst for water and the electrical grid is strained by air conditioners running full blast. Hefty water releases from dams can serve both purposes, especially when the sun sets and solar electricity fades.

Hydro at large government dams could generate as much as 20% of California’s electricity this year. Plus, utility companies such as Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric operate smaller dams specifically for generating hydro.

In 2020, large hydro produced 14% of California’s electricity, according to the California Energy Commission. Nuclear power accounted for 11%. All clean energy, including solar and wind, generated 59%. The rest came from greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, mainly natural gas.

Hydro’s share of California’s electricity has been as low as 6%, in 2015.

“We’ll have a better carbon footprint this year. It’ll help meet our climate goals. We’ll be able to burn less polluting natural gas,” says Lindsay Buckley, spokesperson for the energy commission.

“And there also will be better reliability of electrical power. It’s a big deal.”

Presumably there will be fewer power outages during high demand for electricity. That will be the utilities’ responsibility.

Concerning groundwater, politicians and water officials have been yakking about recharging the drained aquifers for decades. And we haven’t seen much progress.

OK, we’ve had a drought. But that’s over. It’s time to see what’s really possible.

The truth is California was the last Western state to regulate groundwater. It finally did in 2014. But then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature delayed full implementation until the 2040s.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently tried to expedite recharging by cutting red tape for farmers and local agencies desiring to divert runoff onto flooded fields and let it sink into the ground.

But some soil is good for that — such as in the San Joaquin Valley’s Chowchilla Basin — and some is bad, says Andrew Ayres, an energy and water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Among the worst is the sprawling Tulare Lake. It disappeared long ago when dams and levies were built. The lake dried up and became rich farmland. Now Tulare Lake has reemerged and flooded crops.

Don’t expect it to be a boon for the aquifer, Ayres says.

“Tulare Basin has a lot of clay,” he explains. “That water is going to sit around for a long time and evaporate. The soil is not conducive for recharging the aquifer.”

Flooded rice fields aren’t good for recharging either, he says.

But thankfully they are great for migrating waterfowl.

One reader emailed and said that to speed up recharging, the state should just pump the runoff down the hundreds of abandoned San Joaquin Valley water wells.

But that’s impractical, says Paul Gosselin, who’s in charge of groundwater management for the state Department of Water Resources.

First, abandoned wells are sealed, he says. Second, lots of valley water is contaminated by fertilizer and it would require a massive cleanup. All that’s expensive.

There’s a filtering process for water that naturally seeps into the ground, Gosselin says.

The state has pitched in around $100 million the last two years for recharge projects, he reports.

There’s talk in the Legislature of placing a water bond proposal — maybe $4 billion to $5 billion — on the 2024 ballot.

Don’t bother unless it includes serious money for restocking groundwater basins, by far our largest natural reservoirs.