California Megadrought Forces Shutdown of Lake Oroville Hydroelectric Power Plant

ON 08/08/2021 AT 10:17 PM

After reaching record low water levels during accelerating drought throughout 2021, on August 5 the hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville was shut down for the first time in that reservoir’s history.

Lake Oroville in California on August 5, 2021

Lake Oroville, California, in an image shot via Copernicus satellite, on August 5, 2021. The white outlines of the once-full reservoir show precisely how much the water level has dropped since peak capacity years ago. Photo: US Stormwatch, via Twitter

On August 3, Lake Oroville, the second largest water reservoir in the state of California, hit a record low water level of just 643.5 feet above sea level. That represents a drop of 250 feet in the last two years, and the lowest level recorded in the reservoir since September 1977.

On Thursday, faced with possible damage to the hydroelectric power generation facility within Lake Oroville if it were to continue to operate with water levels so low, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced a decision to suspend power operations there for the time being.

The decision was disclosed in a written statement provided by DWR Director Karla Nemeth.

“DWR State Water Project operations managers have taken the Hyatt Powerplant at Lake Oroville offline due to falling lake levels," Nemeth wrote. "This is the first time Hyatt Powerplant has gone offline as a result of low lake levels. However, DWR anticipated this moment, and the state has planned for its loss in both water and grid management."

“This is just one of many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought," Nemeth went on. "California and much of the western part of the United States are experiencing the impacts of accelerated climate change including record-low reservoir levels due to dramatically reduced runoff this spring."

This is bad news both because of the lack of water as well as the reduced power availability the state will have to deal with now that the power plant is offline.

Even as of 2020, the state was already facing problems meeting its water needs due to continued drought conditions even then. The California Energy Commission then noted that the state’s total hydroelectric power output was 44% down from the amount produced in 2019.

Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute and a water resources expert, commented on the shutdown in a tweet on August 6.

"During the worst two-year (1976-77) five-year (2012-16), & six-year (1987-92) droughts on record," wrote Gleick, "Oroville Dam's powerplant never shut down for lack of water."

"It's shut now," he said. "Climate change is worsening California's water crisis."

There is no current projection as to when the Lake Oroville hydroelectric plant will be allowed to resume operations.