‘Solar canals’ point to possible water, power solutions for desert Southwest – NewsNation Now

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — An innovative plan to cover a California canal with solar panels could lead to “future larger scale implementation,” potentially conserving more water in the desert Southwest.

A $15 million allocation will study floating solar arrays on the Delta-Mendota Canal, a 117-mile waterway in Central California. The project will involve the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the University of California-Merced in a private-public-academic partnership.

The pilot program to make solar canals a reality is called Project Nexus.

Two smaller projects in Utah and Oregon also received funding. The Utah project would study using solar panels as a “roof” to cover open canals.

None of the projects involve canals that carry water from the Colorado River Basin, but it’s clear that if the research shows solar canals are a viable, they would solve more than one problem.

“We included SoCal canals in the analysis in our published paper, but have not had discussions with the canal operators,” Roger Bales, professor of environmental engineering at UC-Merced, told 8 News Now on Friday.

“There’s good potential there and I hope there’s an opportunity to engage with them in the future. I think our private sector partner on Project Nexus (solar aquagrid) may have met with them in earlier years,” he said.

In California, “The pilot intends to deploy potentially up to three floating solar technologies to assess the viability, costs, and benefits of floating solar over canal technologies on large conveyance facilities like the Delta-Mendota Canal,” according to a Thursday news release from the Biden administration when the funding was announced. “The initiative will also validate floating photovoltaics design for moving water, identify and address issues related to maintaining a canal with panels on it, explore the power generation potential, and develop methods to quantify impacts on water quality.”

Renderings of the Delta-Mendota project (circles at left) and Project Nexus (right).

Brandi McKuin, co-author of a UC-Merced study investigating the value of solar canals in California, said there’s big potential for saving water.

“We estimated that placing solar panels over the 4,000 miles of California’s open canals could save upward of 63 billion gallons of water annually,” McKuin said. That’s enough water for the needs of 2 million people.

A YouTube video summarizes some of the study’s findings. “Adding solar to existing water infrastructure could be a win-win,” the University of Californa video says.

The video also references challenges that loom in putting solar projects on land where construction might conflict with desert tortoise habitat.

Evaporation is a major cause of water loss as the Colorado River flows to Lake Powell, through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, and on to Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu. When water is diverted to canals — the Central Arizona Project, the California Aqueduct and the All American Canal — evaporation is an even bigger problem.

In a recent proposal forwarded by Nevada, Arizona and California indicates 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water is lost each year to evaporation and seepage. That’s about 8 times more water than Southern Nevada uses from the river each year. One acre-foot — 325,851 gallons — is enough to supply two to three households for a year.

Until recently, water lost to evaporation and seepage wasn’t addressed in agreements about how much each state got from the river. But it has become a point of contention in recent years as Lake Mead dropped to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s, and now it is discussed more openly.

FILE - Water from the Colorado River diverted through the Central Arizona Project fills an irrigation canal, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Maricopa, Ariz. A Native American tribe in Arizona has reached a deal with the U.S. government not to use some of its Colorado River water rights in return for $150 million and funding for a pipeline project. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
FILE – Water from the Colorado River diverted through the Central Arizona Project fills an irrigation canal, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Maricopa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

The projects in California, Oregon and Utah will evaluate the efficiency of the designs and measure how much electricity can be generated.

In Oregon, $2.55 million is going to the construction of floating solar panels on the Main Canal of the Deschutes Project.

Utah’s $1.5 million project will put solar panels over the Layton Canal Project in a 5-year evaluation of the feasibility of designs. “The project expects to increase water quality by reducing algal blooms along the canal, produce renewable energy to offset pump station use or sell back to the utility, and significantly reduce water loss to evaporation,” according to a project description.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks Thursday as funding is announced for “solar canals” projects.

Funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act, which makes available $25 million for the design, study and implementation of projects to cover Reclamation-related water conveyance facilities with solar panels.

“As with so much of our work, Reclamation could not achieve our mission without the valuable engagement of our partners,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said.

“We look forward to working collaboratively on this novel idea to conserve water and generate renewable energy with funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. These projects will help inform similar projects to better understand their impacts and make that information publicly available so that we can all understand the scale and corresponding benefits they provide,” Touton said.

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