California’s Drought Could Worsen Climate Change

Image: © Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

California’s record-breaking drought is not just a result of climate change — it’s also making climate change worse. According to a new study, population growth and energy-sapping water projects have driven up emissions and slowed down decarbonization campaigns. As it gets more and more difficult for Californians to rely on reservoirs and aquifers, the state must turn to new technologies like desalination and water recycling that are much more energy-intensive. 


Why this Matters: Water transportation and treatment is responsible for 20% of California’s electricity use, along with one-third of non-power plant natural gas consumption, and 88 billion gallons of diesel. The State Water Project — which transports water from Northern California across the state — is California’s largest consumer of electricity.


Reforming water efficiency would have the biggest effect on the state’s emissions. Without making these changes, urban water demand would increase by 24%, annual water-related electricity use would increase 21%, and natural gas consumption would increase by 25%.


“If you think about water and energy together, then some of the decisions we make will be different,” Peter Gleick, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, told The Hill. “Given the climate crisis, it’s important we make smarter decisions about both water and energy.”


Troubled Waters

The study’s authors suggest more energy-efficient ways of preparing water for everyday use, like installing higher efficiency groundwater pumps and providing financial incentives for suppliers to implement less energy-intensive systems. They also recommended standardizing data reporting, tracking energy use, and creating a more organized system of communication between water and energy agencies.


Most importantly, they suggested water heater electrification, because natural gas water heating is the most energy-intensive end use of water in the state. If the state were to rely on water recycling and desalination, agencies should consider larger-scale reforms like decarbonizing the grid and implementing more aggressive conservation policies. 


These measures could reduce water-related electricity usage by 19%, natural gas by 16%, and emissions by 41%. 


“When we save water, we also save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. Julia Szinai, lead author of the report and a researcher at the Pacific Institute, said in a press release. “The importance of water conservation measures in meeting California’s climate targets should not be underestimated, especially as drought and water scarcity become more intense with climate change.”

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