Drought Drains Dams–and Electric Power

Posted on by Mark Nykanen

Hydroelectric dams across the American West are seeing significant—sometimes precipitous—drops in energy production. This is particularly acute, of course, in California, but it’s also true in Arizona, where I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Arizona is well into its second decade of what some experts are calling a mega-drought.   Wasting water in Arizona has long been a statewide sport. Lush lawns, pools, fountains, and the emphasis on constant growth in a desert is still abundantly evident, as I found when I was back there on a book tour a number of years ago.

My family moved there when I was on the cusp of fifteen. Our backyard bordered a vast cotton field, which is one of the thirstiest crops this side of rice. A little farther east farmers grew hay with irrigated water. Hay is another particularly water-sucking crop.

Canals were common. In high school we used them to water ski, although my lack of skill almost left me fully scabbed and would have made road rash from biffing on a road bike seem like a scratch. I mostly drove the car to tow the real skiers.

We lived in air conditioned homes and cars and went to air conditioned schools. Air conditioning had been all but canonized, to judge by the prominent role given to it in high school civics classes. “The miracle in the desert.” We also heard a lot of crap like that in the media of that era. It was a Chamber of Commerce mentality that championed growth and turned from any consideration of conservation. Developers were permitted to build on the cheapest land available, which was in ever more outlying areas. Then the taxpayers poinied up for the improvements to roads and other infrastructure necessary to make the newly formed suburbs viable.

I’m sure I needn’t note what happened to commute times or that filthy inversion layers soon descended with painful regularity on the Valley of the Sun during summer. Meantime, the humidity index inched upward as more water evaporated into the hot dingy skies.

So this morning when I read the Washington Post I was pleasantly surprised to see much needed attention to the declines in power generation from dams that supply so much of the West’s power. After all, we’ve been reading reports of water levels dropping. That reduces the force of the water moving through those huge turbines, which makes them less efficient, which means less electricity. Yadda yadda yadda.

Hoover Dam, which squats on the Arizona-Nevada border, now produces 25 percent less power than it did in 2000. But the near future scenario is much scarier. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography predicted in 2008 that Lake Mead, which powers Hoover Dam, has a 50 percent chance of going dry by 2021 “given current trends.” Those “current trends” have grown only worse.

The situation in California is measurably more dire: 287 hydroelectric dams have dropped their cumulative production by 60 percent in just the past four years.   So in addition to turning to wind and solar, power companies are also using more coal and natural gas to keep those TVs and toasters humming—and the air conditioners running—which, of course, means more greenhouse gases for the atmosphere, which means more warming. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Some hydroelectric dams have already shut down in the Golden State, a hue mostly attributable to the color of the parched lawns in poor and middle class neighborhoods. The wealthy redoubts are still looking as green as their cash reserves. The New York Times has that story:


And here’s the link to the Washington Post for a fine summing up of the dismal dam situation:


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