Commentary: The Good and Bad of the Storms; But the Long Range Is Not Looking Great

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

I was stunned to wake up on Sunday morning to see how much damage was wrought by the storm—which, while bad in terms of rainfall, didn’t seem like it was about to knock out power, trees, and the internet to huge portions of Davis and region.

And yet my New Year’s treat was no internet at home.  I quickly went down to the office and found a huge tree down across Tim Spencer Alley.  The power was on—but the Vanguard server was down—and within five minutes or so, the power was out at the office.  A forced day off.

Still there is a silver lining to all of this.  The weather analysts are saying that California’s snowpack is near a decade high, though that headline has a huge caveat—while the good news is that it’s the “second-largest snowpack we’ve seen at this time of year in the last two decades,” the bad news is that doesn’t mean as much as you think it should.

For one thing, last year started well and the rains just stopped.

Worse yet, “a Bay Area News Group analysis found that of the seven times in the last 20 years that California started the new year with an above-average snowpack, only twice — 2005 and 2011 — did it finish the snow season in April still above average.”

“It’s just far too early to tell whether or not these storms will have an impact on the drought,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Summit. “We were in this exact same spot last year. We were way above average, and then the faucet shut off in January through March.”

Worse still, Jay Lund, who is in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis, pointed out to the media this week that even a good year will leave a deficit that could take reservoirs years to refill.

“If we had just one year of drought, we’d be OK,” Lund said. “[But] we still haven’t even replenished all the groundwater that was taken out from the previous drought.”

Then there is the really bad news.  The San Jose Mercury News reported, “Regardless of what happens this season, the long-term prospects are dire. As more carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel use, drought conditions are expected to worsen in the coming decades.”

It was a few years ago when scientists thought that, while California might see less snow, it might get similar amounts of precipitation with climate change.

They have since modified the forecast.

The Mercury News noted, “One study published in February found that 2000-2021 was the driest 22-year period in the Western U.S. in at least the last 1,200 years. The study also found approximately 19% of the region’s drought conditions were attributable to human-caused climate change.”

This weekend, Sammy Roth writing in the LA Times had ten takeaways, leading with: “Doom isn’t inevitable.”

He notes that the reversal by Senator Manchin on the climate legislation was a gamechanger: “The bill’s passage was a reminder that as bad as the climate outlook is, we’re not irredeemably doomed. Yes, some temperature increases are locked in due to carbon we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere. But we can still stop the damage from getting a lot worse. The politics of change aren’t hopeless.”

But beneath that rosy headline is a bunch of bad news.

For one thing, he said that “progress isn’t inevitable either.”  He writes, “Long term, clean power prices are likely to keep falling, for the same reasons they’ve declined so dramatically over the last decade — economies of scale, government support and more. But scientists say we need to cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 — just seven years away. And at least for now, those emissions continue to rise. We’re running low on time.”

Further, the “oil industry is far from dead.”

Electric utilities are a mixed bag at best.

On the one hand, “Utility companies can be some of the biggest beneficiaries of climate action, and thus some of its most powerful supporters. The campaign by climate activists to “electrify everything” — including cars, trucks, home heating systems and kitchen stoves — would create loads of business for electric utilities. There’s a reason they went to bat for the Inflation Reduction Act.”

On the other, “But when it comes to clean energy technologies and business models that threaten their monopolies, electric companies often find themselves at odds with climate activists.”

He noted that “aridification is now the West’s main water problem” – “California and other Western states are still mired in drought. But even if we get a few years of normal rain and snow, our water problems won’t be over. And that’s because of aridification. As my colleague Ian James explains, the West is experiencing a long-term drying trend due to global warming. The last two decades have been the driest period in at least 1,200 years.”

In short, climate change itself will make it harder to solve climate change.

There is also growing excitement about hydrogen and nuclear power.

“There’s growing excitement in the energy world for green hydrogen as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, a power source that can do things solar panels, wind turbines and batteries just aren’t good at,” he writes.  But on the down side, “green hydrogen is no sure bet. And some activists worry companies such as SoCalGas will use the fuel as an excuse to slow the transition to electric cars and electric appliances, which they see as more feasible, less dangerous climate solutions.”

There are also land-use conflicts, as “energy companies seek to build thousands of solar, wind and battery facilities across the country, more of those projects are facing public pushback. Whether that pushback comes from small-town residents who don’t want to look at wind turbines, farmers who don’t want to see panels replace agricultural land, or conservationists who don’t want to see wildlife habitat destroyed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build renewable energy infrastructure without first overcoming local opposition.”

He ends on a less bad note: “Not every year will be hell.”

He concludes: “Not every year will be worse than the last. It’s a small blessing, maybe. But let’s take our gratitude where we can get it.”

My unfortunate takeaway, however, is less sanguine.  We haven’t taken this crisis seriously enough.  Part of it is the slow boil phenomenon.  We are in extremely hot water now, but it’s happened slowly enough that the progression has been undetectable and it’s getting to be too late.  Doom may not be inevitable, but, unless we act soon, it will be.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 Comments

  1. Richard_McCann

    Our power was out for 48 hours in central Davis. Widespread outages occurred in Woodland and Stockton despite winds only reaching 35 mph. Given the widespread outages 2 years ago and the 3 “blue sky” multi hour outages we had in 2022 (and none during the September heat storm when 5,000 Davis customers lost power), I’m doubtful that PG&E is ready for what’s coming with climate change.

    PG&E instead is proposing to invest $30 billion to $40 billion in the next 8 years to protect 4% of their customers via undergrounding wires in the foothills which will raise our rates up to 70% by 2030! There’s an alternative cost effective solution that would be 80% to 95% less sitting before the Public Utilities Commission but unlikely to be approved. There’s another opportunity to head off PG&E and send some of that money towards fixing our local grid coming up this summer under a new state law.

    1. Don Shor

      PG&E instead is proposing to invest $30 billion to $40 billion in the next 8 years to protect 4% of their customers via undergrounding wires in the foothills

      I assume the purpose is to protect millions of Californians from the fires caused by downed wires, not to protect “4% of their customers.”

      There’s an alternative cost effective solution that would be 80% to 95% less sitting before the Public Utilities Commission

      I could probably find what you’re referring to, but could you perchance provide a link to this alternative?

      1. Richard_McCann

        Don

        No, it’s only to protect the residents who live in those wildfire risk zones, which is only a small portion of the population that lives in the wildlands-urban interface, not millions–probably only a few hundred thousand (this is a huge subsidy to them). However I misspoke by using “protect”. Rather its to provide reliable service in the most expensive manner feasible–I meant “to protect service delivery.”

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