Weather or Not

I must confess that I’m a bit of a weather nerd. I don’t have cable TV, and thus cannot watch the Weather Channel, but that is a good thing; I’d probably find it hard to switch away! But I have two weather radios, plus half a dozen weather-related apps on my smart phone, and a professional-grade rain gauge in my back yard that, when we get rain, I monitor regularly.

Growing up in Southern California as I did, where the weather really is pretty constant throughout the year, I paid little attention to it. When I went off to college in Flagstaff, Arizona, however, I discovered what real weather was (Flagstaff’s elevation is 7000 feet, which is more than 750 feet higher than Lake Tahoe). Starting with my freshman year, when the winter lows went well below zero and the snow piled as high as the roof of my small car, I quickly learned to pay attention. NAU (Northern Arizona University) had a small meteorology center in one of the science buildings, and as I was in that building a lot I developed a regular routine of passing it by on my way to class and checking out the student forecasts. I quickly learned that foreknowledge of the day’s weather could be critical, and that I should never take the weather for granted.

Ever since college the weather has remained a special fascination for me. So I can attest that, whether or not Redwood City truly is “Climate Best by Government Test,” our weather really is very good. Even when compared to some of our neighboring cities, there is something about our microclimate that seems to make our weather just a teeny bit better.

How you define “best,” however, is a topic worthy of discussion. For the last week or so our weather has been amazing: beautiful, sunny days in the mid 70’s. But it is mid-February, and we are in the middle of an El Niño; it shouldn’t be this nice! The “best” weather for this time of year ideally should include plenty of (not too heavy) rain, with light winds and some multi-day breaks to let the moisture soak into the soil—the kind of weather we were getting through most of January. The forecasters say that we’ll likely return to a pattern of rainy weather sometime next week and continue all the way through March, so there is still hope. And Mike Nicco of ABC channel 7 tweeted that we’ve often seen a dry spell during even the strongest El Niño years, so I’m guess we need to just enjoy the nice weather while we have it. Which is what the Evergreen Pear trees at Sequoia High School (along Brewster Avenue) seem to be doing:

Evergreen pears at Sequoia

I’m a worrier by nature, though, and my thoughts just naturally keep returning to the drought. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who keeps much better records than I, although we are doing much better than last year the peninsula still has yet to receive its normal amount of rainfall for the season (which, for weather measuring, began on October 1). Of course, the amount of rainfall we receive in the Bay Area isn’t of primary importance; what we really need is snowfall in the Sierras and there, at least, we are slightly ahead of normal. Which is good as far as it goes, but all up and down the state we need enough water to recharge the aquifers that we have been tapping in the last few years of drought, and “slightly ahead of normal” isn’t enough to do that.

Since the experts all seem to agree that one year of above-average rainfall is not going to get us out of the drought, it appears that we’ll need to continue our conservation efforts for some time to come. Which, if you are like me, has become second-nature, and thus is no longer a real hardship. In thinking about my behavior, I find it interesting to see how a couple of months of conserving have permanently changed how I think about water, and indeed about other resources as well. I still look at the usage reports the city sends out, taking pleasure when our usage is below 40% of our target for the billing period. And then I rack my brain, generally unsuccessfully, in an effort to figure out how I can save even more.

I’ve written about Redwood City’s recycled water program before (To Fetch a Pail of Water, June 19, 2015). Our recycled water plant seems to be the envy of neighboring Bay Area communities, and has proven to be key in reducing Redwood City’s demand for fresh water. My wife and I were grateful recipients of hundreds of gallons of recycled water last summer; without it we would have had a much tougher time keeping our yard alive while keeping our water use comfortably below our assigned target. That program is seasonal, of course; there is little demand for residential recycled water while there is sufficient rain to keep our yard healthy, so the recycled water fill station isn’t staffed during these rainy months. Thankfully our rain barrels are perfect for keeping things green during these longer sunny breaks between storms. I’m glad I managed to get them installed and connected to my downspouts before the rains hit; the 100 gallons of rainwater my barrels currently contain is 100 gallons of fresh water I won’t have to use in the garden.

At the municipal level recycled water is an excellent first step, but if the drought continues—if we don’t get the several years of above-average rainfall that we need to bring all of our supplies back to full strength—we’re going to have to face facts and find another source for water. Given that one of Redwood City’s greatest assets is its connection to the Bay, it is only natural for thoughts to turn to that essentially infinite supply sitting right there on the east side of 101. Water from the Bay isn’t drinkable, of course, but that is a problem that many countries (including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Australia) have already solved. As has San Diego County, it seems. Their new desalination plant in Carlsbad is anticipated to generate about 7% of the potable water needs for the entire region:

Carlsbad desal construction 2015 januarySmall

The plant, which took 14 years to build and cost a whopping $1 billion (including pipelines and upgrades to existing facilities), is currently in testing. Once it is fully online it should generate about 50 million gallons of drinkable water each and every day. For comparison purposes, Redwood City (plus some parts of San Carlos and Woodside, and nearby unincorporated areas) used between 9 and 10 million gallons of potable water per day according to the BAWSCA Annual Survey for fiscal year 2013-2014. Thus, a desalination plant one-fifth the size of the Carlsbad plant would be able to provide all of our potable water needs. Of course, if such a plant was to be built, it would probably make sense to build a larger one that could serve other communities in the Bay Area as well. And we don’t necessarily need to generate all of our needed water, but if we were to build such a plant, why not shoot for complete independence?

Desalination plants are expensive to build, take a great deal of energy to run, and produce a salty brine that needs to be disposed of—likely, back into the Bay. Overcoming the fiscal and environmental issues would not be at all easy, but given the length of time it takes to build one of these things I would hope that someone is at least starting to think about what it would take to construct such a plant in Redwood City. I for one have given it some thought, and it seems to me that although I would ideally like to see the area returned to wetlands, given the need the Saltworks site might be a perfect location. After all, the former Leslie/Cargill salt operations that operated there did something similar: they took in Bay water and separated it into a salty brine and fresh water. It is just that in that case, the salty brine—which was then transferred to the East Bay where it could be transformed into industrial salt—was the objective; the fresh water was allowed to evaporate. Also, the sun was used as the “power source” for the evaporative process, and while solar panels could conceivably provide some of the needed power, to generate enough power for the entire operation would take a truly enormous photovoltaic panel installation.

We should give it some thought, however. Some scientists are starting to say that our drier conditions may well be our “new normal.” If that’s true, conservation—perhaps to a higher degree than we are currently used to—will continue to be a way of life for us. And we’ll either need to start thinking about new ways to store and manage what rainfall we do get, or we’ll need to turn to the Bay as a source for the water that our region so desperately needs.

I attended the City Council meeting last Monday (February 8th) primarily to observe the Growth Management “study session.” (See the staff report for some good background information on the topic.) But I was also interested in the Peninsula Clean Energy Community Choice Aggregation Program (what a mouthful!) that the Council unanimously approved during the meeting. The intent of the program is to make our power sources more sustainable and increase competition in the market for clean energy. It will give us choice (we can either stay with PG&E or choose from the options provided by the program), and thereby increase competition in the market for clean energy. It is also hoped that the program will make our power sources more sustainable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions community-wide. It is this last point that really piqued my interest, since I do believe that large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will help us gain some measure of control over our changing climate. Although I expect that we’ll all be receiving a lot more information about the program once it goes online, if you don’t want to wait you can start with the City’s Peninsula Clean Energy FAQ. And if that isn’t enough, take a look at the staff report attached to agenda item 9B from the online agenda for Monday’s City Council meeting.

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