California officials last Friday sounded the first early warnings of a severe drought gripping the state if unusually warm, dry weather conditions continue and threaten to curtail electric hydropower supplies next spring and summer.

At the start of the new year, California's Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird reported record low snowpack measurements and the probable need this year for stepped up water conservation.

This, along with the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), will put added pressure on natural gas power generation.

Natural gas has emerged as part of the ongoing regulatory debates about SONGS' closure (see Daily GPI, Dec. 23, 2013). The key question is how much additional gas-fired generation the state will need to make up for the 2,200 MW nuclear plant. State energy officials wrestling with that problem, may as also have to factor in the potential for another bone-dry year.

California overall completed one of its driest calendar years on record, said Laird, adding that in the Los Angeles area 2013 was the driest year ever recorded, and the first one having less than 4 inches of precipitation for the entire 12 months.

Even though the normally rainy winter season has just begun, Gov. Jerry Brown already has convened a drought task force, which is now meeting regularly to monitor the dry conditions and determine "the most appropriate action" going forward, said Laird while acknowledging there is still the chance Mother Nature will provide some relief.

"[The New Year] snowpack measurement was an abysmal 20% of normal," said Laird, which could also mean an extreme shortage of hydroelectric power generation and the need to greatly increase the use of natural gas-fired power generation and various statewide energy efficiency programs.

"This is a clear call for all of us to cut back on the amounts of water we use watering lawns and landscaping; we have to keep our showers short, and run our washing machines and dishwashers only when we have a full load."