Talk of cyber-attacks is ominous and peculiarly timely. Whoever has U.S. in their crosshairs is probably keenly aware of the western mega drought, which could threaten water supplies and hydropower systems. Taking down electrical infrastructure would amplify the difficulties of managing the situation.
Precipitation is less than half of normal across the West, and as little as a third of normal in parts of Nevada, Arizona and California — including major cities like Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Conditions are especially dire in California, where 41 of 58 counties are under a drought state of emergency.
As water sources dry up, farmers are culling western herds, stripping trees of fruit and forgoing planting crops this year. Food prices are already at Arab Spring levels.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack is essentially nonexistent, having been low all winter and now disappearing two months early.
In California, which frequently experiences drought conditions and massive wildfires, state reservoirs are 50% lower than they should be at this time of year, an Associated Press report says. This could trigger hydroelectric power plants to shut down during the worst part of wildfire season. In northern California, Lake Shasta is 41% full, Lark Orville 36% and Folsom Lake 35%.
The American West is grappling with the most severe drought in the recorded history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of June 10, 88.5% of the west was in moderate to exceptional drought.
California and Nevada are now 100 percent in drought after two years of exceptionally dry conditions. Reservoir levels in both states are dismally low, intensifying the concern for wildfire season, which runs between May and October.
Drought is a contributor to other perfect storm conditions, such as an increase in wildfires, which were seen across the region in 2020.
In early 2020, we asked this question: Were Australia’s wildfires started by discordian eco-terrorists?
Could anarcho-tyrants do this in the dry west over the next several months?
Extreme heat even in normal conditions can also impact the nation’s electrical system, potentially leaving tens of millions of people without air conditioning and other essential services. Higher air temperatures are anticipated in the summer months. Those higher temperatures can simultaneously increase people’s demand for electricity for cooling (air conditioning).
“Rolling blackouts occur when a state’s ability to generate electricity dips so low that operators have no choice but to curtail electricity service for customers in order to maintain the balance between supply and demand,” according to NC State University.
Blackouts that result from or result in power stations tripping, which is particularly difficult to recover from quickly. Outages may last from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the nature of the blackout and the configuration of the electrical network.
Much of the U.S. electric grid legacy was built in the 1950s and ’60s. Protective relays and fuses are used to automatically detect overloads and to disconnect circuits at risk of damage.
Restoring power after a wide-area outage can be difficult, as power stations need to be brought back online. Normally, this is done with the help of power from the rest of the grid.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing in October 2018 to examine “black start,” the process of restoring electricity after a system-wide power loss. Threats to the electrical grid include cyberattacks, solar storms and severe weather, among other things.
Indeed, heat forecasts in the west for the coming week (June 14-16) are absolutely brutal over several days — and officially it is still late spring. No human being can endure this for long without air conditioning, which will be utilized in spades.
This will also cook and evaporate surface water levels all across the inter-mountain region.
Temperatures West of the Sierra Nevada mountains are expected to reach 110 F by the end of week in some parts of drought-burdened northern California.
This a 22-year drought, the driest period in 115 years of record-keeping by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The promise of Colorado River water spawned a vast network of reservoirs and canals, carrying it hundreds of miles through the desert and eventually reaching millions of homes. Yet, since the water was divided up, the Colorado River has been shrinking. Average flows have been drier, compounded by a drought beginning in 2000.
Even upstream at the Utah-Colorado state border on the edge of the drought region, the Colorado River’s flows are about a third of average.
With little water flowing, in the water level in Lake Mead has fallen around 140 feet. As of Saturday, June 12, the lake surface fell to 1,071.29 feet above sea level, dipping below the previous record low set on July 1, 2016. The angle of descent is alarming. Lake Mead is at just 36% of its capacity. Lake Powell, located upstream, is only 34% full. So far, Hoover Dam’s hydropower output has dropped by nearly 25%.
Most likely, the Bureau of Reclamation will soon declare Lake Mead is experiencing Extreme Shortage conditions for the first time ever, which would mean cutting off water supplies to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, spokesperson Patti Aaron said.
Arizona could have its supply cut by 320,000 acre-feet. That is a year’s supply for nearly 1 million households, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Eighty-five thousand acre-feet out of Lake Mead drops the water elevation by a foot, or 275,000 households.
The Colorado River system provides water to 40 million people in seven states. It irrigates up to 5.5 million acres. It supports about $1.5 trillion in economic activity.
Meanwhile, water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic are higher than normal, which acts as fuel for stronger hurricanes.