State Water Planners Complain that Feds Are Ignoring Climate Change

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When it comes to assessing future water resources in California, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is downright Shakespearean in its insistence that past is prologue, much to the consternation of state planners.

Geoff Rabone, a project manager for Yuba County Water Agency, told KQED reporter Molly Samuel that his agency is working on 44 separate reports related to its FERC license extension application for the giant New Bullards Bar Dam northeast of Sacramento.

But none of the reports have anything to do with climate change, a variable Rabone thinks could have the most critical effect on the Sierra Nevada snow runoff that passes through the dam, providing electricity and water to the state. FERC does not require information on the possible effects of climate change and, in fact, has rejected suggestions that it be included in the lengthy, detailed application process.

Instead, the agency relies on historic weather and water records to set flow requirements and identify issues, rather than projections based on changing climate. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming, and that includes the Sierra Nevada Mountains and its ample snowpack, even if they don’t know just what the effect will be.    

California has more than 300 hydropower projects—producing water and around 14% of the state’s electricity—that are regulated by FERC, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC). The life span of a license is between 30 and 50 years, and about half of them are coming up for relicensing before 2020.

The commission, noting that FERC isn’t considering climate change because “there is a lack of scientific information and tools for the needed analyses,” has nonetheless forged ahead with a pilot project to study its effect on the New Bullards Bar Dam and the Yuba River it feeds.

“This project will provide an example of the tools and methods that the FERC could use in its hydropower relicensing process,” a CEC project factsheet stated in July 2012. “This study will use climate scenarios developed for the California Energy Commission to investigate alternative management scenarios that regulators may consider.”

Then again, they may not.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Climate Threat to Dams Overlooked by Regulators (by Molly Samuel, KQED)

Water and Energy Sector Vulnerability to Climate Warming in the Sierra Nevada (by David E. Rheinheimer, Scott T. Ligare and Joshua H. Viers, California Energy Commission’s California Climate Change Center)

Considering Climate Change in Hydropower Relicensing (California Energy Commission) (pdf)

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