California shuts down main hydroelectric plant amid extreme drought

In this aerial photo houseboats sit in low water on Lake Oroville as California’s drought emergency worsens, July 25, 2021 in Oroville, California.

Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — California shut down a major hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville as water levels fell near the minimum necessary to generate power, state water officials said.

It’s the first time the state has shut down the Hyatt Power Plant due to depleted water levels since the plant went into operation in 1967.

The loss of power could fuel even more rolling blackouts this summer as the state grapples with a historic drought and record-breaking heat waves.

Officials said the record-low water levels at Lake Oroville, a man-made water reserve in Northern California, are a result of the drought exacerbated by climate change.

Though California consistently experiences drought, climate change fueled high temperatures and dry soil that significantly reduced water runoff into the reservoirs this spring, resulting in the lowest levels ever recorded at Lake Oroville, officials said Thursday.

“This is just one of many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought,” Karla Nemeth, director of the state’s water resources department, said in a statement.

Nemeth said the department anticipated the shutdown and planned for a loss of water and grid management. Officials have warned that the plant can no longer generate power if water levels fall below 640 feet above sea level.

Dry land is visible, at a section that is normally under water, on the banks of Lake Oroville, which is the second largest reservoir in California and according to daily reports of the state’s Department of Water Resources is near 35% capacity near Oroville, California, June 16, 2021.

Aude Guerrucci | Reuters

Water elevations at Lake Oroville are forecast to reach as low as 620 feet above sea level by the end of October. Nemeth said the state’s water agency is working to “preserve as much water in storage as possible.”

Though the plant is no longer generating power, officials said they will release some water from the dam to the Feather River to maintain river temperature requirements.

Gov. Gavin Newsom asked California residents in July to curb household water consumption by 15% to preserve water supply. Grid operators have also urged residents to limit electricity use to avoid blackouts as wildfires scorch the state, including the Dixie Fire, which has been burning for more than three weeks and decimated the gold rush town of Greenville.

“Falling reservoir levels are another example of why it is so critical that all Californians conserve water,” Nemeth said.

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