By Velena Jones

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – It’s an idea that could save billions of gallons of water and produce renewable energy – while saving money all at the same time. Researchers at UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz think they have a solution to the state’s biggest needs.

Everyone is dependent on water and energy, and in California, residents have struggled with both.

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UC Santa Cruz researcher Brandi McKuin learned that covering 4,000 miles of California canals with solar panels would prevent loss of water from evaporation and create even more energy by cooling the panels to increase power.

“We are also looking at doing that without disturbing ecosystems,” she said.

Evading evaporation could save an estimated 64 billion gallons of water, according to McKuin.

“That would be enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland, provide the residential water needs of over 2 million people,” she said.

The solar panels would create 13 gigawatts of power every year – that’s 1/6 of what we make today. Canal systems in India are already using the model. If implemented, California would be the first in the nation.

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“With smart solar development and incorporating battery storage, we can make both power and water more resilient to climate change and its impacts,” McKuin said.

Jay Lund, an environmental engineering professor at UC Davis, said the concept has value but could run into problems long-term.

“Putting solar panels on canals makes it hard to get to it for maintenance and for emergencies,” Lund said.

While the cost is still being evaluated, Jordan Harris, founder of Solar AquaGrid, is working with partners to develop a pilot project to see if it could become a reality.

“We are completely dependent on water and energy to maintain,” he said. Years of drought, climate change, fires, increase demand. We have to take bold steps.”

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The idea comes as California is calling for 50% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. The state Department of Water Resources told CBS13 they are reviewing the study and are committed to exploring opportunities in renewable energy and improving the aqueduct.

Velena Jones