Why are so few talking about the power grid amid extreme winter storms?

California’s current deluge highlights huge vulnerabilities.

 

This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

The relentless parade of atmospheric rivers

Storms wreak havoc and bring drought relief to a parched West.

After years of crippling drought and heat waves, accompanied by megafires, water restrictions and diminished hydropower generation, it’s hard to imagine anyone in California wanting a respite from precipitation. Yet that’s the prevalent mood these days across the Golden State, which for the last month or so has been more gray than gold, saturated by what the National Weather Service called a brutal and “relentless parade of atmospheric rivers.”

Monster storms, each carrying several Mississippi Rivers’ worth of tropical moisture, have slammed the state in such rapid succession that they might as well have been blasted out of a celestial machine gun. They’ve brought much-needed relief to a drought-parched region. But they’ve also wreaked havoc on its inhabitants, killed at least 20 people and reminded us how utterly unprepared much of our infrastructure is in the face of climate change-intensified weather.

9.2
Inches of precipitation at the Echo Peak weather station south of Lake Tahoe in California on Dec. 30, shattering the previous 24-hour record of 5.2 inches.

.32
Percent of California in severe drought on Jan. 10, 2023.  

27
Percent in severe drought a week earlier.

First, the good news: More than five dozen monthly precipitation records were tied or broken across the West, from northern Montana to southern Arizona, during December and early January. Eight of those were all-time records. The Sierraville Ranger Station near the Nevada-California border received a whopping 8.2 inches of moisture in a 24-hour period, mostly in the form of wet, heavy snow that wrecked utility lines and was a backbreaker to shovel.

King Tide at Manzanita Junction, Mill Valley, California, on January 1.

The procession of deluges didn’t stop at the Sierra Nevada, either: Utah’s mountains are buried in about twice as much snow as is normal for this time of year, while skiers at southwest Colorado’s Wolf Creek Ski Area are wallowing in waist-deep powder. Although 86% of the West remains in drought, the classifications mostly have been downgraded from the “severe” and “exceptional” levels that hammered the region a year ago. The river basins that feed the Upper Colorado River and Lake Powell are recording above-average snow, which bodes well for the beleaguered system — assuming current trends continue, that is, which is never a given. Last winter started out strong in the Southwest as far as snowfall goes, only to peter out later on.

But the tempests have also brought crushing sorrow, with nearly a dozen killed, thousands evacuated and scores of unhoused people displaced. Five-year-old Kyle Doan was swept away by floodwaters after the car he was riding in was swamped in San Luis Obispo County. Two-year-old Aeon Tocchini died when high winds toppled a giant redwood onto his family’s trailer home in Sonoma County, while in Sacramento, Rebekah Rhode, an unhoused woman, was killed when a tree fell on her tent. Meanwhile, actor Jeremy Renner is recovering from blunt chest trauma and other severe injuries after the 14,000-pound snowplow he was using to dig out a buried car near his Lake Tahoe home ran over him.

304
Percent of the 1991-2020 median snowpack for the date at the Heavenly Valley SNOTEL station on Jan. 15, the highest level on that date since records began in 1979.

23.8
Inches of water contained in the snowpack at the Mill-D North SNOTEL station east of Salt Lake City, the highest on record for Jan. 15. On this date in 2021, the station recorded only 6.5 inches of moisture.

24 trillion
Gallons of water that fell on California during late December and early January.

Flooding inundated houses and shut down roads, and over-saturated wildfire scars, unable to withstand their own weight, caused debris flows, mudslides and yet more toppled trees. Angelenos waded to their trains or subways through several inches of muddy water in Union Station. A sinkhole in the LA suburb of Chatworth opened up beneath a street, gobbling up two cars and their occupants; all managed to escape with only minor injuries.

But as unrelenting and at times record-breaking as these storms has been, they’re not unprecedented. California’s history is riddled with monster tempests and the resulting floods, including the “Great Flood” of 1862; the 1909 storms that dumped nearly 6 feet of rain on Northern California in one month; the ultra-destructive 1938 Los Angeles Flood, and so on. The swollen San Lorenzo River near Santa Cruz has been the star of many a YouTube video in the last couple of weeks, but it reached similar levels as recently as 2017, as well as back in 1955.

That should scare us. I mean, this will surely go down as one of 2023’s billion-dollar disasters. (Last year, the West made the list for very different reasons — drought and wildfires.) But just imagine the destruction that would come from a climate-change-bolstered version of one of those huge storms of yesteryear. I think it’s safe to say that California’s cities, roads, dams and levees are not prepared for the 1-in-1,000-year megastorm known to weather nerds as an ARkStorm.

You know what else isn’t ready? The Western electricity grid — the mega-machine that keeps modern society running.

In late December and early January, snow, wind and rains battered utility lines and transformers and toppled power poles up and down the West Coast, leading to one outage after another. As many as a half-million folks at the same time have been in the dark. Even Pacific Gas & Electric’s army of 5,000 lineworkers, brought in from across the region to deal with the storms, could not always restore power in the short pauses between deluges, leaving some residents shivering in the dark for a week or more, unable to charge devices or communicate with the outside world, their uncooked food rotting in idle refrigerators.

400,000
Number of households without power at one time in California in early January due to storm damage to grid infrastructure.  

8,000
Number of California households without power during the peak of the September 2022 heat wave.

402
Number of landslides in the state recorded by the California Geological Survey between Dec. 30 and Jan. 15.

The strangest thing about this, perhaps, is that almost no one is freaking out about the power grid’s painfully obvious vulnerability to extreme weather. Contrast it with the handwringing and gnashing of teeth prevalent just a few months ago, when a heat wave merely threatened the possibility of rolling blackouts. Conservative lawmakers and even usually more reasonable folks blamed the “crisis” on the state’s relatively rapid transition away from fossil fuels to what they deemed less reliable renewable energy sources.

In the end, only several thousand people lost power during the September heat event, and that was due as much to miscommunication as to grid strain. Yet the close call — and the potential political ramifications — were scary enough to prompt California lawmakers to fork out $1.4 billion to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant running past its 2025 retirement date and order natural gas plants to stay online to fire up during the next grid crisis. Never mind that burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, which warms the climate, which exacerbates the heat waves and potentially puts the already-raging atmospheric rivers on climatic steroids.

Fast forward just a few months. Now, hundreds of thousands of folks are shivering in the dark for hours or days on end, and the same folks who waxed apocalyptic about the dangers of solar and wind power are mostly silent. Maybe I’m missing something, but I have only seen one story — thank you, LA Times — acknowledging the grid’s lack of resilience during these events and suggesting solutions, such as burying transmission lines or building more microgrids or paying for residential solar and batteries to help tide folks over during storm-caused outages.

In fact, judging from the number of headlines devoted to these things, the biggest threat to the power grid is terrorists, or, well, something like that. And there is reason to worry: On Christmas Day, two men allegedly attacked four different substations in Washington state in an apparent attempt to knock out the power so they could burglarize area businesses. The incidents left about 30,000 households without power. Then, in early January, a Colorado man set his car on fire at a 100 MW solar array near Las Vegas, which powers the MGM casinos on the Strip. But even though it took the plant offline, the slot machines and neon lights kept buzzing. When law enforcement officials caught up with him, the suspect said he did it to send a message supporting clean energy, adding that he thought the arrays were associated with Tesla. If none of that makes sense to you, you’re not alone.

I’m not sure what the lesson is, except that if a well-timed gunshot can take out the lights for 30,000 people, just imagine what a well-timed 24-trillion-gallon deluge can do. Right now, California’s reservoirs are filling back up, replenishing the state’s hydropower capacity. That should help the region get through this summer’s inevitable heat waves without burning more climate-warming natural gas. But it also portends another potential problem: If the reservoirs get too full, the dams’ integrity could be threatened. It was just six years ago, remember, that the Oroville Dam spillway failed, forcing the evacuation of 180,000 people. Yikes.

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

In a new story for Capital & Main, High Country News correspondent Nick Bowlin looks into how Colorado oil and gas companies bolstered their bottom line — and eluded accountability for cleanup — by carving off assets to obscure firms. Now the company that took over the wells is trying to post an inadequate reclamation bond in hopes of complying with the state’s new financial assurance rules. | Capital & Main

Is it possible that the Southwest’s relentless growth is finally running up against the limits of the place, and that developers are finally taking water scarcity seriously? Maybe. That’s the uncertain takeaway from a New York Times story by Keith Schneider on the challenges mega-developers of mega-developments in Arizona and New Mexico are facing. | New York Times 

High Country News’ Caroline Tracey sat down with author Natalie Koch to discuss Koch’s new book, Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arabia and Arizona. It’s an interesting conversation that, yes, does go into the giant Saudi Arabian dairy farms that guzzle up water in southwestern Arizona to grow alfalfa that is shipped overseas. But the Q&A — and Koch’s book — go much deeper than that. Give it a read. | High Country News

 

We want to hear from you!

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 

 

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