Reservoir levels are decreasing across the West as the drought tightens its hold on the area, and the region's water supply and environment are put under additional stress. Due to a lack of rainy seasons and rising temperatures resulting from climate change, several reservoirs are at or near historic low levels.
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Lake Oroville was at its lowest level since September 1977, measuring 643.5 feet above sea level. The surface water level of Lake Oroville is 900 feet above sea level when it is complete.
Lake Oroville Levels
Low levels at Lake Oroville are causing an increasing number of problems. Molly White, water operations manager for the Department of Water Resources State Water Project, warned in an email last week that the Edward Hyatt Power Plant may be forced to close for the first time in its history owing to low lake elevation due to declining lake levels.
Because the power plant cannot generate power once the lake's surface level falls below approximately 630-640 feet above sea level due to a lack of sufficient water to turn the plant's hydropower turbines, White added that the power plant is likely to lose power generation capabilities in early August due to the expected levels.
The Edward Hyatt Power Plant had its most recent closure in 2015 when the Unit 1 turbine was shut down for renovation, including a stoppage during the spillway incident. However, according to White, the turbine has been entirely recommissioned and is ready for operation.
Hoping for Precipitation
According to White, only precipitation events later this year will determine when lake levels begin to increase.
Local rivers, which rely on a river valve outlet system at the foot of the Oroville Dam to discharge water to meet river temperature standards, are another possible impact. If the Hyatt Power Plant's "hydropower penstocks are unavailable," the river valve outlet system maintains outflows to the Feather River, according to White. Drought circumstances forced the usage of the river valve discharge system during the summer of 2021.
Droughts generally begin with below-average precipitation (and what is typical varies from region to region). If the drought continues, river flows, reservoir levels, and groundwater levels will begin to fall. Warm temperatures also affect winter snowpack to melt more quickly, affecting water availability throughout the year. Excessive heat also increases evaporation from soils and vegetation, resulting in crop failures and raising the danger of catastrophic wildfires.
Summer Heat Waves and Droughts
The Western United States began months-long dry season already suffering from severe drought. Then extreme heat descended on the region, causing reservoirs, soils, and plants to lose even more water to evaporation. Climate change pushes temperatures to greater and more frequent extremes, so expect more of the same in the coming months. In reality, California and the West are bracing for yet another big heat wave this season.
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