Despite Southern California catching its first good rainstorm since last winter this week, the odds of this year being a torrential El Niño weather event have fallen to 58% from 80% early this spring, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. Prolonged drought affects may still cause the water prices to double if the water level behind Hoover Dam falls below 1,000 feet, and the hydroelectric turbines that power the Colorado River Aqueduct stop spinning for the first time since it opened in 1936.
The Hoover Dam was built to generate electricity, manage the Colorado River water supply for cities in the Southwest and to irrigate the region’s farmland. The dam has reliably produced cheap power for 77 years and currently generates 2,080 megawatts (MW) from 17 commercial generators.
Yet that reliability assumes that the dam reservoir retains a minimum of 1,000 feet high retention to allow water to drop down huge pipes and force the generators to spin that fund dam operations. For the first time in history this year, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell in Northern Arizona had to reduce the amount of water released to Lake Mead from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.48 million acre-feet. That has caused the water elevation behind Hoover Dam to drop about 130 feet to 1083.57, the lowest level since the reservoir behind the dam was first being filled in May 1936.
The Scripps Institute of Oceanography is estimating that there still is a 50% chance that Hoover Dam’s water level will drop below 1,000 feet. The dam has only fallen briefly to the current level twice during sustained past droughts. In November 2010 the level touched 1,082 feet, and in April 1956 the level dropped to 1,083 feet. That compares to the highest level of 1,296 feet in 1998.
Hoover Dam’s hydro-electric power drives five giant pumping stations along the Colorado River Aqueduct to convey water from the water to Southern California. The dam’s electricity is sold by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at a wholesale rate of $20 per megawatt-hour. The price is so cheap because federal projects are only allowed to recover operating costs.
Wholesale electric “spot market” sells power at a profit and is priced about twice as high, at $40 and $42.5 per megawatt-hour. California residential customers actually pay almost 1,000 times more at $18.02 per kilowatt-hour. Any fall-off cheap hydro-power will force the Metropolitan Water District to pay spot prices to keep the 1,200,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Aqueduct flowing; enough water for 7.2 million people a year.
The current rainstorm is expected to drop over an inch of rain on Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Fresno, with some locations receiving 4 inches by Wednesday night. The greatest amount of rain will fall on the west- and southwest-facing slopes of the coastal ranges.
With California still parched, the soil will absorb water runoff quickly and little is expected to reach Hoover Dam’s reservoir. If there is not another storm soon, the water level behind the dam could fall and Southern Californians’ water cost will double.
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