California's Drought at the Nexus

California's drought could bring rising food prices, water shortages and even influence energy markets. The state's governor, Jerry Brown, issued an emergency declaration earlier this month and the drought was a focal point in his state of the state speech, in which he called it a "a stark warning of things to come." The drought will in no doubt highlight the key nexus issues, where food, water and energy issues intersect, that the state will face.

According to the US Drought Monitor, California is experiencing abnormally dry conditions in 98.5 percent of the state with extreme drought impacting over 60 percent in areas that are vital to providing water for its population and farmland. This month, satellite images from NASA are showing a dramatic lack of snow coverage in areas that were covered with snow in the drought conditions of January 2013. And based on records from old tree rings, the state may be facing the worst drought in 500 years.

California is no stranger to water issues. Even during non-drought years, water scarcity is a major issue for the state, the nation's largest user of freshwater. Nearly three-quarters of freshwater withdrawal goes toward irrigation there, which 65 percent of the cropland relies upon. Drought puts major strain on the water-food nexus as farmers are already fallowing some of their land and diverting every drop to permanent crops like tree nuts.

With climate change drawn into the conversation, California's secretary of Department of Food and Agriculture is even questioning about whether the drought is an indication of the "new normal," a truly frightening prospect. After all, "nobody ever says the Sahara is in drought."

To be sure, California isn't on a path to turn into the next Sahara. But there are certain things to expect from extreme drought. Perhaps not as severe as the current drought, the state has had a fair share in the past. On ScienceBlogs, the Pacific Institute's president, Peter Gleick, lays out seven things to presume from an ongoing drought: adoption of new conservation programs, cuts to water allocations, drops in hydropower output, increased pressures on ecosystems, water diversions, increased risk of wildfire and an increased price of water.

Though solar itself cannot get rid of California's drought, it can be one way to relieve some of the drought's stress on the food, water and energy nexus.

The drop in hydropower output could increase volatility in the state's electricity market. Hydropower, a self-evident energy-water nexus issue, is normally a cheap and flexible energy source. Combined, large and small hydro power plants make up nearly 14 percent of in-state power generation in 2012. If hydro's share of available capacity is lowered, which can happen during droughts, California may have to use more expensive fossil fuel energy (to give you a sense of the variability, the in-state power generation from hydro in 2011 was over 21 percent). This could result in increased prices in energy markets and higher bills for consumers. And if the state needs to rely on more fossil fuel to meet its needs, the energy-water nexus could further be strained.

California can, fortunately, continue on its trend to help support solar, a water free technology that works on hot sunny days when the grid can be under the most stress. And California's solar industry is thriving with over 1,600 companies that support over 43,000 jobs. With 3.3 gigawatts installed, there is enough solar installed to power over 700,000 homes.

Though solar itself cannot get rid of the state's drought, it can be one way to relieve some of the drought's stress on the food, water and energy nexus. And while you are here, dear Ecocentric reader, you may as well Meet the Nexus yourself.