Drought could force energy price hikes

05:50 PM PST on Friday, March 11, 2005

Associated Press & staff reports
King 5 News

SEATTLE - Enjoy the bright sunny days while you can. You could pay for it next fall.

Energy companies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, may be forced to raise rates if the rain and snow stays away.

BPA, which supplies electricity to 131 local utilities in the Northwest, dropped rates by 7.1% last October.

Until recently, BPA thought it could avoid pushing rates back up because of the drought.

"We're less hopeful with each passing day," said BPA's Mike Hanson.

Just how drought impacts energy rates is complicated.

Utilities produce less power because less water flows through hydroelectric dams. So, utilities that normally have extra power to sell on the open market, have less to sell.

Prices are higher because of the drought, but it may not be enough to make up the difference.

BPA says it will have a better idea of the drought's impact in April when a new water flow forecast comes out.

Many local utilities are sensitive to BPA rates.

The Snohomish County Public Utilities District, for instance, receives about 80% of it's energy from BPA.

Neil Neroutsos tells KING5.com if BPA enacts a drought surcharge, the PUD might be forced to pass part of the cost on to ratepayers.

However, Seattle Public Utilities is still confident it can hold the line on prices.

Gregoire calls for water conservation

Washington Governor Gregoire declared an emergency Thursday and ordered agencies to start taking steps to deal with a dry summer and water shortage.

She said residents should start conserving water.

Gregoire directed her Emergency Drought Committee to gear up an emergency command center, track and coordinate responses by state agencies and make sure state resources reach where they are needed.

She ordered the National Guard to prepare for combatting wildfires this summer and requested the Legislature to boost drought-related appropriations by an additional $8.2 million.

"While water shortages won't affect all areas of the state in precisely the same way, it seems very likely that all areas of our state will experience at least some level of drought this year," Gregoire said in remarks prepared for a late morning news conference in Yakima. "We need to start taking action now, and all of us need to be part of the solution."

The Crystal Mountain ski area was mostly bare at the end of January, the typical height of the ski season.
As the Pacific Northwest girds for the worst drought in 28 years, precipitation is at or near record lows across the state, and mountain snow pack averages are running 26 percent of normal.

Many rivers are at or near record lows for this time of year.

The water shortage hurts farmers, hydroelectric power production, fish production, irrigation, and other sectors of the region's agribusiness economy -- and has people worried about an unusually bad fire season.

The drought is plaguing Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Meteorologists blame a weak El Nino, which brought unusually mild weather to the region in January, February and, now, March.

Gregoire's emergency declaration authorizes the state Department of Ecology to issue emergency water permits and temporary transfers of water rights, and releases funding from the state's Drought Emergency Account.

Ecology Director Jay Manning said his agency will focus on helping farmers, communities and streams get the water they need.

"Unfortunately, I cannot promise that everyone will get all the water they want," Manning said. "In some cases, we will be able to provide only enough water for people to get by. We will manage available water supplies the best we can, but we can't replace what nature doesn't give us."

The state departments of agriculture, health, and fish and wildlife will work with his agency to identify problems. Manning said the state Conservation Commission will work with local conservation districts and individual farmers on best practices for conservation and irrigation.

The Employment Security Department will focus on getting jobless benefits to those who are thrown out of work, and the state Department of Natural Resources will work with the guard to coordinate forest firefighting.

Using lessons learned in the 2001 drought, many farmers, hatcheries and communities aren't caught flat-footed, Manning said in a statement the governor's office released. Examples: Some areas are using treated waste water for landscape irrigation, replenishing wetlands and washing equipment. Farmers have replaced open ditches with pipes, and irrigators are getting more efficient, he said.

"There are a lot of ways people can reduce their water use to protect our streams and to keep the farms and businesses that power our state's economic engine running," Gregoire said. "We can manage this challenge if we all contribute to the solution."

The governor noted that Yakima Valley irrigators are feeling the greatest pinch right now, but that water users all around the state are dusting off their drought plans.

"Some communities have invested in systems to reuse and conserve water, and they'll survive this drought better than communities that haven't done as much," she said.

"Throughout this spring and summer, citizens need to pay close attention to what their local water providers are saying about water supplies in their area, and follow the instructions they are given.

"For most areas, every drop of water we save now is water that will be available later when we may really need it."

Water suppliers worried

Two of Western Washington's biggest drinking water suppliers have started taking steps to save water and store what little they have.

Officials in Seattle and Tacoma sound increasingly worried as dry weather persists and snow levels fall to a fraction of their usual levels.

"We're definitely extremely concerned at this point. We are managing the system as best as we can," said Guillemette Regan, regional water policy manager for Seattle Public Utilities. He heads up a task force created late last month to prepare for possible shortages.

Brush fires in Central Washington

East of the Cascades, a dozen early brush fires in Chelan and Douglas counties have prompted fire officials to ponder shortening the open burning season by a month -- starting the burn ban May 1 instead of June 1.

"Normally, we got a half a foot of snow on the ground," said Kelly O'Brien, chief of Chelan County Fire District 3. "We're way over a month of where we usually are, and the fire danger is increasing."

In Spokane, Avista Corp. said Thursday it expected low spring runoff to reduce its hydroelectricity output to 80 percent of normal for the calendar year. The company, which serves 330,000 customers in Washington and Idaho, said it would make up for the power shortage with a natural gas-powered generating plant.

Oregon has water problems, too

Officials say Mid-Willamette Valley reservoirs will more than likely not fill this year.

That will be the topic at four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public information meetings planned nightly from March 28 through March 31. They will be in Oakridge, Sweet Home, Detroit and Eugene, respectively.

Officials say even a wet spring might bring too little rain too late.

Precipitation through most of February was about 28 percent of average.

Officials say this means they need to carefully balance what little water they can store with the needs of fish and downstream users along the Willamette River.

Federal reclamation officials say dry conditions in the Klamath Basin have triggered letters implementing the Klamath Basin drought management plan.

The letters call for meetings between the Bureau of Reclamation and districts and individual irrigators to determine allocation in case of a drought.

Dave Sabo, area manager for the Klamath Basin Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, says because of low moisture and runoff levels the bureau needs to begin now to plan water deliveries.

Sabo says soil moisture levels measured by the Oregon Department of Water Resources has shown a decline over four years.

He says Upper Klamath Lake got lower-than-usual inflows during the fall and winter despite optimistic predictions.



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