Sunday, 28 May 2023

California Wants to Cover Its Canals With Solar Panels

Despite our very wet winter, California’s water scarcity woes aren’t finished.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has resisted declaring the drought to be over. Just this week, a proposal from President Biden raised the possibility of new, painful water cuts for California. And the state seems increasingly trapped in a pattern of severe storms followed by extreme drought, without much of a happy medium.

So perhaps it goes without saying that water conservation will continue to be a central issue in the Golden State for years to come.

A new state-funded project in the San Joaquin Valley hopes to find a new way to build drought resilience. The idea is simple: Cover the state’s canals and aqueducts with solar panels to both limit evaporation and generate renewable energy.

“If you drive up and down the state, you see a lot of open canals. And after year after year of drought it seemed an obvious question: How much are we losing to evaporation?” said Jordan Harris, co-founder and chief executive of Solar AquaGrid, a company based in the Bay Area that’s designing and overseeing the initiative. “It’s just common sense in our eyes.”

The California Department of Water Resources is providing $20 million to test the concept in Stanislaus County and to help determine where else along the state’s 4,000 miles of canals — one of the largest water conveyance systems in the world — it would make the most sense to install solar panels. The project is a collaboration between the state, Solar AquaGrid, the Turlock Irrigation District and researchers with the University of California, Merced, who will track and analyze the findings.

“This hasn’t been tried in the U.S. before,” said Roger Bales, an engineering professor at U.C. Merced who specializes in water and climate research. “We want these to eventually be scaled across the western U.S., where we have a lot of irrigated agriculture and open canals.”

California’s efforts got a jump start from a 2021 study published by Bales and his colleagues, who determined that covering the state’s canals with solar panels could reduce evaporation by as much as 90 percent and save 63 billion gallons of water per year — enough to meet the residential water needs of more than two million people.

The team identified other possible upsides: The installations could generate large amounts of energy; reduce algae growth and the need for maintenance by limiting sunlight falling on the water; enhance the functioning of the solar panels by allowing them to stay cool near the water; and improve air quality by creating an energy source that would limit the need for diesel-powered irrigation pumps.

The sheer number of benefits documented in the study eased hesitations about the idea and “kind of changed our thinking,” said Josh Weimer, spokesman for the Turlock Irrigation District, which volunteered its 250 miles of canals in Stanislaus County for the pilot. Another benefit for the district, which is also a power provider, is that it doesn’t need to buy new, costly tracts of land to install solar panels since the canals are already its property.

More on California

The project, expected to break ground this fall, will start out on just two miles of canals in the Central Valley district. I recently visited one of them in the small agricultural town of Ceres, just outside Modesto off Highway 99, where the concrete-banked canal winds through shady orchards and past narrow farm roads frequented by tractors.

The results will very likely be closely watched. Harris told me he had already been contacted by water districts and canal operators around the world — including in Spain, the Philippines and Brazil — that are curious about replicating the design.

“This is a global issue, and potentially a big contributor to a global solution to evaporative losses and renewable energy generation at the same,” Harris said.

The rest of the news

Juul settlement: California and several other states announced a $462 million settlement with Juul Labs over claims that the company aggressively marketed its e-cigarettes to young people.

Feinstein’s seat: Eric Early, a Republican lawyer from Los Angeles, has announced that he’s entering the 2024 contest to replace Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, The Associated Press reports.

Nuclear plant: The environmental group Friends of the Earth has sued to block Pacific Gas & Electric from seeking to extend the federal operating licenses for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, California’s last nuclear power plant, The Associated Press reports.

NPR on Twitter: NPR said that it would suspend all Twitter use after the social network last week designated the broadcaster “U.S. state-affiliated media.”


Disney food: A fascination with the cuisine at Disney parks has spawned fan websites and snagged our critic Tejal Rao, who has a Disney back story of her own.

Pricey trailer park: Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Paradise Cove Mobile Home Park, home to more than 250 trailers and mobile homes, is considered the most expensive trailer park in the country, The Wall Street Journal reports.


Lawsuit backlash: Protesters criticized a decision by the Fresno County board of supervisors to sue the State of California over a law that requires a term widely considered a Native American slur to be removed from geographic features, The Fresno Bee reports.


Restaurant industry: Many who worked in food service in San Francisco have left the industry, or the area, in recent years and don’t plan to return. For the Bay Area food workers who have remained, however, there are better wages and benefits, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Meta morale: Mass layoffs and absentee leadership at Meta, along with concerns that Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, is making a bad bet on the future, have devastated employee morale at the company.

What we’re eating

Caramelized banana pudding.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Nancy Hull, who lives in Colusa. Nancy recommends the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve in Oroville for “wildflowers, lots of poppies and other small yellow and white flowers.” She writes, “It’s still blooming and I think more purple may be coming.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

After a rainy winter, spring has arrived in California. Tell us your favorite part of the season, whether it’s in the form of road trips, festivals, sunny afternoons or wildflower sightings.

Email us at [email protected], and please include your name and the city where you live.

And before you go, some good news

Safari West, a wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa, is celebrating the birth of its first southern white rhino. Officials say the baby boy is healthy and weighs between 80 and 100 pounds, ABC7 reports.

“Such a joy to watch!” Safari West tweeted.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia, Maia Coleman and Bernard Mokam contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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